10 survival skills for the great wide open office

Sick of your gum-smacking, loud-talking, knee-shaking coworkers? Check out the tips below.

How Slingshot built an open floor plan space that makes employees want to be in the office David Galownia, CEO and President Slingshot (a software development firm based in Louisville, KY), shares lessons from his company's project to design an open floor plan office that increased employee collaboration, productivity, and workplace satisfaction.

Love it or hate it the open office concept remains at some organizations.

I wrote about how to be a good neighbor in an open office environment last year in an effort to help workers trapped in such company-mandated situations to get along better, but even ensuring that everyone is on their best behavior won't alleviate the trials people face via lack of privacy, frequent distractions, and concentration issues.

SEE: Vendor relationship management checklist (Tech Pro Research)

I can attest that these environments can bring out problems people didn't even know they had—in my case, claustrophobia. Work-related conversations from people mere feet away make me feel like I'm in the trash compactor in "Star Wars," reducing my focus and productivity. Wearing headphones can be helpful, but then you miss out on work discussions, which can be of value, too.

Survival tips

With that in mind, here are ten ways to survive the open office space (hopefully) long enough for the management to shift back to semi-private (cubicles) and private (offices) employee workplaces.

1. Work from home/remote location

While fairly obvious, this is also one of the most effective solutions. Leverage work from home capabilities when and where you can, but make sure your productivity is tip-top so that you can justify the effectiveness of your choice.

I, myself, have certain distractions when working from home (namely my cats). So, make sure that you have an environment conducive towards concentration, which is as interruption-free as possible.

SEE: Policy pack: Guidelines for remote workers (Tech Pro Research)

2. Find a conference room

Just because you have to be on-site doesn't mean you're stuck at your workspace. Most organizations have conference rooms you can book for an hour or two each day when you really need to focus.

Generally, these conference rooms have PCs or laptops, which you could utilize to log into your own workstation via Remote Desktop, for instance, so that you have access to your own applications and data.

One tip: Keep this strategy on the down-low, or else you'll find all of the conference rooms booked up.

3. Build a secret lair (if you can)

I'm not going to lie: One of the things I love about working in IT is the special access and privileges it provides so I can administer the breadth of my environment.

If you have to build a Batcave, go for it. The data center, a network lab, a wiring closet—anywhere you can hook up a laptop and do your work is a prime location for you to escape the open office environment. You'll still work on-premises and be available for any issues, just more secluded. You may not even need a laptop if you can log into a server and use SSH or remote desktop to connect to other resources.

Take note, however, that if you have a management team that equates presence with performance you might want to use these first three options sparingly.

4. Take breaks

Sometimes you just have to get away from it all, and the open office concept definitely fits that bill. When the talking and distractions get too loud, a 5-minute walk around the office (or outside) can clear your head.

Try to schedule meetings for the busier parts of the day in your area, as well, so you can exit the scene when it's most chaotic and stressful.

SEE: Special report: How to optimize the smart office (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

5. See if you can relocate

You may not necessarily have to play the hand of cards you've been dealt in the open office game. Some spots are undoubtedly more desirable than others, such as corner workspaces or areas off the beaten path. See if it's possible to relocate to a more optimal location. This may be tough if you work in a team environment since you'll either miss out on group interactions or have to relocate your entire group, but it doesn't hurt to try.

6. Be nonconventional

Just as you don't necessarily have to be stuck where you're assigned to sit, you don't have to accept the current workspace as it is. You can modify it to provide some measure of privacy; use dividers such as bookshelves, for instance, or even cardboard boxes.

Management may not approve of you building a fort per se, but surely some degree of compromise can be made to allow you to focus on being productive, not on being distracted by someone sitting three feet away experiencing jittery knee from too much coffee.

7. Get a privacy screen for your monitor(s)

This is a pretty easy fix for people who don't like having their computer screen(s) exposed for the world to see. It's not just because they're browsing social media sites or watching live sports online, but because they're viewing or working with confidential data, which is aggravating when surrounded by people who shouldn't.

Computer privacy screens can vary in price, but the average one cost about $50 per monitor. Ask management to foot the bill, of course, and explain that it's to protect company data from unauthorized eyes. No organization truly committed to data security could opt against this investment.

SEE: Managing remote workers: A business leader's guide (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

8. Talk to your coworkers

Few people want to run the risk of ticking off their coworkers and neighbors, but some things need to be said in a constructive and forthright fashion. If the people near you exhibit behavior, which makes it difficult for you to do your job effectively, tell them.

The guy who talks too loudly on the phone, the coworker who eats noisily, the gum-chewer who keeps popping bubbles can all be approached diplomatically. It may strain relations temporarily to ask someone to curtail what they perceive as totally normal behavior, but discussing what isn't working well in a shared open office environment is preferable to suffering lack of concentration or even resentment.

9. Keep a log of issues/distractions for management/HR

This is part of the big picture. Recording the issues you have with the open office configuration will help you build a case to argue against it in favor of accommodations more conducive for concentration and privacy.

Rather than just say "people talk too loud" or "everyone walking through all the time is distracting," you need to document concrete details as to what's happening and how it's impacting your work.

This isn't intended to call people out for bad behavior (like two coworkers discussing the Super Bowl for an hour or bringing in some smelly fish for lunch) but to demonstrate how this arrangement makes you less effective or able to process information properly.

10. Talk to your manager

Most open office environments require the managers to participate in the so-called experiment as well. After all, the ostensible goal is to level the playing field and encourage collaboration across the board, including management as well as general personnel.

Discuss the situation with your manager and see if he or she can come up with specific solutions that I haven't covered to help alleviate any negative conditions you're experiencing.

Believe me, managers may hate the configuration themselves and will want to assist with finding proactive solutions for their team.

Also see

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Image: Iakov Filimonov, Getty Images/iStockphoto

By Scott Matteson

Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.