How To Find Focus In An Open Workspace – Reader Question

– Posted in: career management, negotiate and close the offer, reader question

open workspaceReader H.M. asks: What are good ways of finding quiet in an open office or in securing a private office in the hiring process or after starting a job?

This is a timely question since many workplaces I’m seeing are moving to an open floorplan – better collaboration and cost efficiency are the two reasons I’m hearing most often for the switch. That said, if you’re used to being able to close your door or having some wall space between you and your neighbor or having quiet moments in the workday, this open workspace movement can be challenging. This question is actually two-fold: 1) how do you find quiet in the open; and 2) how do you secure a private office (if you’d rather not)?

Finding Focus in An Open Workspace

If you’re already in an open workspace, finding quiet boils down to two strategies only: 1) create a Do-No-Disturb signal for your area to minimize disruptions when you’re in the open; or 2) leave the open area for a more private space.

Creating a Do-Not-Disturb Environment

Some employees use headphones to signal that they’d rather not be disturbed. Using your phone headset will give people the impression you’re on the phone. Someone who really needs to reach you can always wave or motion to you to cut in. Or using your ear buds will at least force people to interrupt you, and the extra effort may be enough to keep you undisturbed. If you can listen to music and work at the same time, you have the added benefit of cutting out some of the office noise with sounds of your choosing.

You might also put a sign on your cubicle that reads Do Not Disturb or Working On Deadline – Please Don’t Interrupt. If you use the sign sparingly, people will take it seriously. If you hang it up all the time, well, it’ll blend in with the furniture and will have less of an impact.

Finally, if your interruptions are limited to a few select people, talk to the interrupters directly. Let them know that it’s hard for you to switch back into work mode after being interrupted so could they send you an IM or email before coming over? Assure them that the heads-up will allow you to set up a time when you’re not in the middle of something – this way, they know you’ll get back to them. If the person is a time drainer, make sure you set up a very short amount of time and book meetings or calls before and after so you stick to the schedule.

Leaving the area for a private space

If it’s just impossible to work in the open, leave the area for a private space. Many open workspaces have privacy rooms. Even if you can’t get one of those, moving to a different floor or area outside of your department may be enough of a break. I once consulted in an open workspace, working in HR, and when I needed a quiet place to think, I went to a different floor where engineering and operations sat. No one knew me there, and I could work anonymously and quietly.

The trick to using a private space is actually using the space that’s available. I’ve heard from professionals who lament the open workspace but are too timid or overwhelmed or forgetful to use the privacy areas. No one is going to remind you to take your quiet time. You have to build it into your schedule and empower yourself to take it. Set up appointments in your calendar for when you’ll use the private space, and use reminder alarms to prompt you, so you go to private spaces as a matter of routine.

Negotiating For A Closed, Private Space

If you haven’t yet started in an open workspace and you want to make a closed office or designated private space a part of your job offer, then this becomes a negotiation issue. You would prepare for this request just as you would a salary, promotion, or other ask that you negotiate for. You can use my seven-step process for mastering difficult conversations to ask for private space:

  1. Outline the business case for why you should have a closed office – e.g., you work with confidential material, you hold meetings as part of your day-to-day job;
  2. Look at the market data, such as who else has a closed office and why you should be considered part of that group;
  3. Look at your own personal merits – if the employer really wants you, the closed office might be negotiated as a condition of joining, much like a sign-on bonus;
  4. Know how important this issue is to the company. Is an open workspace seen as part of the culture, or is it relatively new and not rolled out throughout the company? You want to know what level of pushback you will encounter in your request;
  5. Come up with creative solutions. If they can’t give you a dedicated office, can they ensure access to conference rooms? Or negotiate with your soon-to-be manager how you’d like to structure your day – maybe you can even work at home when you need quiet time;
  6. Develop the confidence to push the issue or even walk away if this is a deal-breaker. Depending on how important this issue is, you may want to make it a condition of your offer acceptance. To play that leverage effectively, you need to have the confidence and ability to walk away – e.g., other offers or leads that you can fall back on;
  7. Finally, role play making this request with a trusted mentor or coach. You do not want the actual request to be the first time you’re making it!

Open workspaces are getting more popular so even if this issue doesn’t affect you now, it might sooner than later. Which tactics will you try to find your focus in an open workspace?

And what are your other pressing career questions? This blog was inspired by an actual reader question. Post your questions in the comments or Contact Us page, and look for it in an upcoming blog!

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