IF YOU HAVEN’T already made it to the corner office, it’s probably too late. Workstation walls of any height are becoming relics as businesses from corporate giants to small startups embrace open plans in which employees of all statuses sit crammed side-by-side amid a sprawling sea of desks.
Employers tout the virtues of these space-saving layouts, arguing that the hustle, bustle and easy access helps spur collaboration and creativity. According to Tonya Smith-Jackson, chair of the industrial and systems engineering department at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, that’s true for certain offices where co-workers have to build “shared mental models”—say, architects developing condo designs or ad writers brainstorming ways to hype soda.
But given rising real-estate prices, many bosses also have ulterior motives. “If you’re company X, and company Y has reduced their real estate costs to 25 percent of yours, it puts you at a financial disadvantage,” said Barbara Mullenex, a principal at architecture firm Perkins Eastman in Washington, D.C.
The problem is, for many of us, open offices can make it challenging to get anything done; every passing hour brings as many unexpected sights, sounds and smells as a mid-sized circus.
Such chaos makes focusing a feat, said Gloria Mark, a professor in the informatics department at the University of California, Irvine. Her research shows that workers in open offices are interrupted much more frequently than at places where they can find peace behind shut doors.
Some companies have tweaked facilities to create areas for quiet computer work and small enclosures for phone calls and quick meetings. Other offices have installed sound-insulated phone booths where an employee can duck in for a client call or an afternoon chat with a logistics-obsessed spouse or a child’s teacher. (Soon apps like Facebook Spaces will even allow staffers to gather in virtual reality.)
These solutions can help alleviate office tensions, Ms. Mullenex said, but managers resist them, wary of losing sight of teams for too long during the day.
For those trapped in an open office without even these escape routes, there are tools to help you get away from it all. Noise-cancelling headphones can be a godsend, with built-in electronics that generate sound waves to effectively dull or even block ambient noise, from whirring copiers to aimless conversations to your charming deskmate’s apple chomping. If you can’t concentrate while listening to music, websites and apps like A Soft Murmur deliver soothing sounds of nature to your ears only.
White-noise generators are another ally. They pump out randomized background sounds meant to help you relax and stay focused in cacophonous environments. And a variant called “pink noise,” which is powerful in lower frequencies, overlaps with human speech patterns to help muffle distracting conversations, said Ms. Mark.
‘Every passing work hour brings as many unexpected sights, sounds and smells as a mid-sized circus.’
Group messaging tools such as Slack and HipChat can make quick conversations less disruptive. Features like filesharing may even lend online “meetings” more efficiency than face-to-face discussions. A kind of middle-ground between taps on the shoulder and email, which can get lost in overstuffed inboxes, these platforms let people respond at their own pace and without adding voices to the office din.
Notifications might still pop up demandingly on your screen, said Matthew Davis, a lecturer at Leeds University Business School, “but you don’t necessarily have to reply the same way as if somebody stood at your desk, leaning across and asking the same thing.”
Plants can also be your buds in an open office, personalizing your workspace and adding a modicum of privacy. They can soften echoing sounds and boost air quality, pulling dust and pollutants out of stale office air. Plants have been shown to help raise productivity by up to 15%, according to a 2014 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.
People unnerved by coworkers strolling behind them while they edit sensitive documents (or send the occasional personal email) can easily stick privacy filters on their computer screens, limiting visibility to those staring at the screens head-on. Should a filter’s guarantee of relative secrecy lead you down the road of self-sabotage—checking bitcoin prices or refreshing Facebook too often—you can limit the time you waste on particular sites by downloading browser extensions like StayFocusd. “I think people are conditioned to have short attention spans because they experience so many external interruptions,” Ms. Mark said.
Some enterprises set “quiet hours,” which staffers can use for heads-down work. One office, Ms. Mark recalled, had people wear special caps when they didn’t want to be disturbed. Other measures include desktop flags, lights and signs to let coworkers know, with varying degrees of passive aggression, that you’re on a tight deadline.
Meanwhile, portable table dividers from brands like Note Design can also convert shared spaces into something a bit closer to semi-isolated cubicles, for those who pine for the now-romanticized workplaces of “Dilbert.” And hanging desk lamps, like those by DeVorm, double as noise-dampening dividers.
As open offices continue to become the rule, and as empowered higher-ups from lawyers to Fortune 500 executives find themselves reluctantly pushed into bullpens once reserved for assistants, people will naturally update their manners, noted Barbara Pachter, president of Pachter & Associates, a business etiquette and communications firm in Cherry Hill, N.J. “Hopefully over time people will learn to acknowledge that they’re sharing space with others,” she said.
It might be a while—we haven’t really adopted a code of polite cellphone use yet—so, until then, don’t forget Teddy Roosevelt’s important advice: Speak softly and never forget your headphones.
ESCAPE MECHANISMS // Four ways to preserve your sanity
1. Anti-Uproar Headphones Whether you’re at your desk or flying off to a meeting, noise-cancelling headphones block out sounds around you so you can actually hear yourself think. An integrated artificial-intelligence assistant can help you stay organized, and Bluetooth lets you play music or podcasts with no wires needed. www.bose.com, $350
2. Transporting Tea If you want to escape from the mayhem into relative calm without maxing out on caffeine, Be Cool’s soothing mix of herbs, licorice root, apple and peppermint might be your cup of tea. Suitable hot or over ice, it’s available loose or in classic muslin tea bags. www.kusmi.com, $23
3. Friendly Foliage Indoor plants help clean the air and muffle annoying sounds. Spider plants are the quintessential office option, hearty and able to thrive in fluorescent lighting, while succulents bring low-maintenance cheer to a drab desktop. Haworthia attenuata, jet.com, from $11
4. A Kindly Sound GeneratorSwap the sounds of screeching printers and chirping phones for a customized natural soundtrack. Blend together melodies of rain, waves and cracking fire, and then save your favorite mixes. Available online or as an app for Android and iOS. asoftmurmur.com, Upgrades from $2
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