Many introverts wonder what kind of sadist concocted the open-plan office layout. I used to imagine a middle manager with control issues who gleefully corralled his employees into a single room so he could watch their every move while torturing them with endless loops of the same three mixed CDs he made for a country music jamboree six years earlier. Oh, wait—that guy actually existed, and I worked for him. Let’s try this again.
Open plans might work well for extroverts who thrive on social interaction to get things done, but for introverts, who can be easily overwhelmed by stimuli and who need alone time to recharge and stay focused, this kind of setup can have the opposite effect.
When I first started working in an open-plan environment, I was excited about the work I would be doing. We were already deep into a fundraising campaign for our city’s university, and every announcement of a new building or scholarship was a rush. It didn’t take long, though, for that rush to feel more like a dislocated dread. It was difficult to concentrate and stay on task in the office with all the surrounding noise and movement, and I was often pulled away to consult on other projects outside my main work. Rather than engaging more with my coworkers, I had to withdraw as an act of self-preservation.
Spending eight to ten hours a day in an environment that left me exhausted and scattered began to take its toll. I coped by engaging in deep breathing sessions in back hallways and occasionally crying in a bathroom stall. My stress traveled home with me and kept me up at night. Did you know that clenching your jaw because of stress can eventually crack your molars? I found out that it can! When I finally had to seek out prescription medication to deal with the stress, I knew that something had to give.
Since I couldn’t march in with two-by-fours and drywall to build myself an enclosure, I had to get more creative. Even with the limited amount of control I had over my physical work environment, I could still alter it in ways that worked with, rather than against, my introverted disposition. I focused on the things I could change, no matter how small. Lo and behold, I dug up a few ways that helped me not only cope but also enjoy my work. It’s really possible!
I am lucky enough to live in a smaller prairie city with a lot of green space. During warmer months, I slipped out of the office to a quiet park, where a grotesquely large gopher would hang out with me if I fed him part of my lunch. I called him Gopher after the character with the same name on Love Boat. Those moments were quiet and sweet, and by the time I went back to the office, the morning’s buildup of anxiety had dropped away.
Of course, there may be a gopher out there with a heart condition now. Let’s not dwell.
Another option that can define and shelter your space is a freestanding bookshelf or even potted plants—either larger ones on the floor or smaller ones on your desk, depending on the amount of space you have.
If you find yourself adrift in an open-plan room with no walls to border your space, have a talk with your office manager about being moved to a spot against one wall. It might feel like an awkward conversation to start, but if you let them know that the move will help you concentrate on your work, they might help you out. Having a wall still leaves you fairly out in the open, but at least you won’t be vulnerable on all sides anymore, and that can go a long way in making you feel less under siege by local traffic.
I learned this trick from a woman with whom I sometimes shared work in another office. I dropped by her desk unannounced one day, and she emerged from a space on the other side with a small blanket and a pillow. It turned out that Wednesday afternoons were when everyone in her office was out at meetings, and she took that time to lie down and meditate. She found she was happier and more productive. She called it her “Costanza Hour”, which makes her one of the smartest people I have ever known.
Coworkers will assume that a scheduled meeting room demands privacy, and you will be able to work without being chatted up, touched, or otherwise harassed for the duration. It’s like having a proper office for a while, only it’s an office where nobody will knock on the door, and you can turn off your phone. (I think I need one of these rooms at home now.)
Bottom line: the stress of the open-office plan isn’t inevitable, and you don’t have to be aggressive or stage a protest to overcome it. Pockets of time and space can be effectively carved out to give you space to breathe and, yes, maybe even enjoy your work again. Some of those extroverts in your office might even adopt your brilliant strategies and learn to nurture their own introvert qualities. Who knows? You might end up with a small revolution on your hands.