Introvert’s Guide to Surviving the Open Plan Office

Many people – introverts in particular – can find themselves feeling fatigued and drained at the end of the work day. Walking in the door and wanting nothing more than to hide themselves away from the world. With little energy left over for the people they care about most.

One cause of such fatigue can be discounting the impact of an open plan office environment. While quitting your job probably isn’t a viable solution, you can find ways to navigate the situation and help you regain some of that lost energy.

The open plan office was born out of a need to break down work silos and get people working together more effectively. With the rising cost of office space and a constant push to ‘do more with less’, the open plan office format has evolved over time.

Statistics indicate that employees are now occupying less than half the work space previously afforded. There is less space, less partitioning and less privacy.
Ironically, research indicates hidden costs associated with these environments, such as:

  • Reduced productivity
  • Impaired memory
  • High staff turnover
  • Increased stress levels
  • Lower motivation
  • Increase in illness and absenteeism

In spite of these hidden costs, organisations are unlikely to do away with open plan offices any time soon.

While the effects outlined above impact all employees, they will be keenly felt by those that identify as sensitive or introverts. And it’s up to the individual to find a way to peacefully co-exist with this environment in a way that best serves their needs and work style.

My Top Tips for surviving the open plan office as an introvert:

 

Create your own solitude

Introverts are by no means anti-collaboration, but they do need time to work independently and solve problems. With no privacy and constant stimulation, this can be challenging to find in an open plan office environment.

But it’s not necessarily impossible. Look for opportunities to create this for yourself.

Physical solitude. If your office has meeting rooms or dedicated quiet space available, try to make use of this for work that requires focused attention.

Another alternative might be accessing flexible work options if these are available. A regular, or even occasional, day of working from home might be just the space you need to maintain your energy and productivity.

In the absence of these options, try taking yourself out of the workplace for a break. Whether it’s lunch time or the morning coffee break, getting out of the office during the day can also help meet this need for time out – even if it’s just for 10 minutes.

Mental solitude. Where there are limited options for managing your physical environment, consider ways you could remain in the environment while creating quiet space in your mind.

Have you ever noticed how people are reluctant to approach or interrupt someone with headphones in? For tasks that require more focus, try working with headphones. You don’t even need to listen to music if you don’t want to – just the sight of them could be enough to give you some uninterrupted time.

However, if there’s a lot of ambient noise, music may minimise the impact. Try something that supports rather than hinders your concentration though, such as an instrumental track.

Focused breathing and other mindfulness tools could also help you to create a sense of inner calm.

 

Manage distractions

Being interrupted is one of the biggest productivity barriers. For an introvert ‘in the zone’, it can be particularly jarring and frustrating. Interruptions can come from people as well as office tools such as phone, email and instant messaging. While you might be able to create a bubble of solitude that manages the people side, the office tools usually stay with you.

You need to own how much these tools control your work day and give yourself permission to do things differently. It’s completely OK to only check your email a few times a day. There are times when letting calls go through to voicemail is totally acceptable. It’s also OK to turn off instant messaging apps on occasion. And this is particularly true when you’re in the “focused attention zone”.

Apply some judgement and flexibility as well though. If you make yourself unavailable for too long you may miss an important communication so remember to check back in with the tools – as well as your colleagues – at regular intervals. And you might not want to blow off that phone call from the CEO!

 

Honour your most productive time of day

What time of day do you operate at your best? Identify the two or three most productive hours of your day. For introverts that’s probably when you’re best placed to tackle those problems and tasks that require attention and focus. It can also be a great time to create some solitude for yourself.

Maybe that means rescheduling a meeting or blocking that time out in your diary for several days a week. Perhaps you book a meeting room once or twice a week or create mental solitude with your headphones. Where possible, you may even consider flexing your work hours to capitalise on this. For example, early birds might look at an early start, early finish scenario whereas others might prefer a late start, late finish option.

It might not be possible every day but, if you manage to do this most days, you should still feel like you’re winning. And if you use that time wisely, distractions during the rest of the day may start to cause you less stress.

 

Communicate

As introverts, we’re gifted with the capacity to think deeply before we speak, and to consider other people’s perspectives.

 

Asking your colleagues to support you in delivering the team’s goals with a considered, respectful request can be a good way to start meeting some of your more introverted needs.

 

Could you let those sitting closest to you in on some of your preferences? Maybe you don’t like a lot of conversation early in the morning but you’re happy to chat after you’ve settled in and ticked off a few tasks. You might like to let them know when you’ve got an important task to finish and would like to work undisturbed for a couple of hours. You can also let them know that you’ll be available to support them with whatever they need once you’re done.

 

Communicating your own needs may even start to cultivate more understanding, empathy and support within your team and workplace. Your request could start a positive conversation or make someone else more comfortable to speak up and share their own preferences too.

 

These are just a few ways to navigate an open plan office and recover some of that lost and depleted energy. Whether you work with these tips, or come up with your own, reclaiming that energy is an essential act of self-care. One that both you, and the people who matter most to you, will be grateful for.

 

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Gina is a conscious living and business coach. With over 20 years as a business and finance professional, her experience is uniquely complemented by practices in mindfulness and spirituality.
She helps professional women explore what their version of an inspired, purposeful life, business or career looks like and implement practical action strategies to make that a reality.

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  • Loved this post so much Gina and Katherine! Though I still work a few hours a week in an ‘office job’ there’s nothing I love more than spending the rest of my time at the library, in the quiet area, creating my own goodness. Aah, the serenity and productivity! And a big HELLS-YES to the headphones without music. Haha, I’ve definitely done this in the past and it’s been most productive! X

    • Glad you enjoyed the article Che. I’ve been seriously considering the library as another option myself (I can be quite unproductive / distracted when working from home) so I’ll definitely be checking it out after your recommendation 🙂 Headphones (even music-free) are a great tool – anything that creates a bit of a warning sign is good. I heard a great story recently about a senior exec who used a plastic fork as a sign for colleagues – fork down meant “open for business” and fork up meant “fork off”.