Employee Well-Being

Trick or Retreat: An Introvert’s Guide to Surviving the Horrors of Open Offices

introvert working alone in an open office

It’s almost Halloween! (Or it was when we published this.)

But one introvert to another, the nightmares of working in an open plan office haunt us every workday of the year – 

The rattly sounds of people’s keyboards, the unnerving eyeballs watching our backs and screens, and mysterious sounds of distractions floating over to our desks from everywhere… 

But the days go on.

Because unfortunately, the open office layout will remain your company’s favorite design for a little while longer. It’s cheap, efficient, and does inspire an acceptable level of productivity and collaboration (from the extroverts, probably). 

But how can we be productive when most of our energy goes into trying to deal with the feeling of being out in the open, withdraw from social interactions, and block out all the distracting stimuli. It’s the 21st century, and yet it feels like most businesses are stuck in this weird anti-progress office design where we’re not welcome. 


How to Get Work Done in an Open Office as an Introvert

Take heart, because until that glorious day when hybrid office space plans are adopted in America, here are some quick tricks to surviving as an introvert in the open office so you can make it through your day easier and get some good work done.


1. Find your zone

Walk around the office for a minute and locate a spot you’d like to go to when you need an escape. Maybe it’s the corner seat in the cafeteria, or the plush chair in the lounge. Find a place away from your workstation, your colleagues, and your boss, where you can get some quiet and personal space.

This is where you’re going to come to when the open office discomfort gets unbearable. You can come here once in a while for short breaks, or bring your laptop here to get things done away from people.

When you do this, make sure you look for a backup too, in case somebody else (read: a fellow introvert) claims your favorite spot before you do.


2. Create an oasis

Surround yourself with things that bring you comfort at your desk. This way, you create a personal oasis for yourself in the middle of all that socialization. 

Your oasis can include anything that makes you happy! Think new, colorful stationery, a pot of flowers or succulents, photos of your family, photos of your dog, your raddest coffee mug, your coolest action figures, and so on. 

You can also set a beautiful, calming, wallpaper and screensaver, and install a plugin that shows gorgeous photos every time you open a new tab. Choose an image that’s sensory (that you can almost hear, smell, or feel) and takes you away from the busyness around you. Like this woody, rainy, Earthy one:

This is also a great tip for people who prefer a clear desk or don’t want their belongings on display for the open office. Having said that, we think it’s a good idea to start small, own your desk, and make it more you.


3. Get good headphones

Lots of websites recommend this. Because it works. You can listen to music that calms you – whether it’s smooth autumn bossa nova, or Mozart, or death metal. 

But you don’t have to listen to music. Just wearing a great pair of headphones can dull the aural distractions and conversations around you while telling your colleagues that you’re busy and focused. Ear plugs are cheaper but headphones give a better closed-off feeling. 

A lot of introverts swear by listening to white noise or ambient sounds. You can listen to the sounds of rain and thunder to complement your wallpaper, or sounds of a coffee shop plus fireplace, or anything that makes you feel calm. 

You can also listen to focus-boosting video game music, movie soundtracks or movie ambient sounds that take you to another universe (where, say, wizards, superheroes, or consulting detectives exist). Combine any of the above with the pomodoro technique, and you’ll suddenly find work enjoyable.


4. Create a ‘distraction routine’

Distractions in an open office are inevitable. If you have trouble finding focus, plan a simple 3-step routine that helps you let go of the distraction and return to work. 

It takes the average person 23 minutes to return to a task after a distraction but with a routine in place, you might be able to shorten that to a minute or two. 

A common one that introverts love is a simple breathing technique:

  • Step 1: Become aware that you’ve been distracted. 
  • Step 2: Turn your attention to your breathing. Count 3 breaths, mindfully.
  • Step 3: Return to your work.

This works really well, because focusing on your breath also calms you down in an open office through biofeedback. But feel free to create another one that works for you. 

Over time, a distraction routine becomes an incredibly useful habit by working automatically and effortlessly every time you lose focus, and makes you so much more mindful and productive.


5. Book a meeting room

Get away from the buzz by spending time in a temporary private office, AKA a small meeting room. 

We’ve found that even a half an hour spent alone here, separated from the rest of the world by actual walls, can help you be super comfortable and seriously productive. 

We’ve also found that sometimes you might share this space with one or two other introverts aching to get away too (relatable, much?). As long as everybody’s there to focus on work, this shouldn’t be a problem at all. 


6. Ask your boss to install privacy pods

If people aren’t allowing you to use meeting spaces, (or you don’t really want to book one), ask your manager if they can install privacy screens for your desks, or privacy pods for the office.

These pods (or phone booths, even) are great for focused alone time. 

Despite the open office design, your bosses want you to be productive. Let them know about how often you get distracted and that installing private workspaces are a great investment for all introverts (about 33-50% of the people) in the office. 

And if your boss thinks they’re too expensive or a hassle to procure, direct them to BureauOne, an office furniture rental company that provides privacy pods for rent on flexible rental plans.


7. Set a ‘DND’ signal

Create a little something that lets your colleagues know you’re busy and shouldn’t be interrupted (lest they experience your justified raging wrath… or polite annoyance). Some Do Not Disturb signals that work are:

  • Wearing headphones.
  • Hanging your coat next to you.
  • Using an availability indicator.
  • A sticky note that requests your colleagues to not disturb you.
  • Setting your status to ‘away’, ‘invisible’, or ‘offline’ in collaboration applications.

Make sure you also close your inbox and set your phone to priority calls only. And say ‘No’ if someone prods you for attention. (It takes practice, but is so worth it.)

Unfortunately, these aren’t guaranteed to protect you from that one person who’ll need a minor task completed on “priority” by “EOD” or “ASAP”. And there’s little that can stop people from unintentionally distracting you visually. This is where you use that distraction routine you created. Just breathe, buddy.


8. Form an alliance

Visiting a colleague at their desk across the open office, hosting a meeting, calling somebody new, or even having lunch in the cafeteria can be exhausting for introverts. 

But know that between a third and a half of the people around you are introverts too, going through what you are. It really helps just to find them, and form a friendly alliance for support and comfort during public, social, or any other extroverted activities.

You can work together in silence in your focus zones, chat during breaks, meet up for lunch, and stick together at office parties. Despite what extroverts think, we’re not opposed to socializing, we just do so on our own terms.


9. Shift your schedule

Another great way to thrive in an open office is by turning your 9-to-5 to a 7-to-3, or something similar so you can work at a time when there are fewer people in the office. We prefer earlier shifts because we tend to be more productive in the mornings. (Mondays excluded.)

The benefits of an earlier shift are incredible:

  • You’re likely to be way more productive in the morning.
  • You avoid rush hour traffic both ways.
  • You get more daylight time to yourself after work. (Perfect for hobbies.)
  • You can spend more time with your kids. Or dog. Or favorite streaming service.
  • You can work out and cook a real dinner.
  • You can get a full night’s sleep.
  • You can procrastinate a task to complete the next morning before your boss comes in.

And by having 2 whole hours of off-the-charts productivity, you can get tasks completed before everybody else. There’s nothing like it, as long as you make sure your boss knows you were here at 7 and are justified to leave at 3. 

Don’t want to spend time totally alone in the office? You can get a few close friends from your alliance to come in at this time too. 


10. Get more WFH time

This is the 2020s now, and we no longer have to be tied to our desks because of bulky, heavy monitors and CPUs and other strange jurassic phenomena.

We have smartphones, tablets, and laptops now. Work devices that we can use anywhere we feel comfortable. It’s this portability that allows us to get things done at the workstation, meeting rooms, lounges, etc. So it’s no stretch to imagine how productive you could be at home too. Or even at your favorite coffee shop with a comfortable ottoman, a white noise-like buzz, and a coffee at arm’s reach. 

Request your boss for more work-from-home time and show them how much more productive this makes you by delivering amazing results. 


Conclusion: Relax and focus on your strengths

Forget what people said about “you need to collaborate, work with a team, and network more”. If you believe you’re productive when you work independently, make sure your bosses know that and see how both of you can find a win-win solution. 

Finally, here are some ways to use your strengths in the open workplace:

If you have an opinion, share it. As introverts we tend to think before speaking and as a result, people listen. It’s our advantage over those who talk without saying anything. 

If you’ve been unwillingly dragged into a brainstorming session, take a notebook with you to write your ideas down so you can either offer them in writing later, or prepare your thoughts before you suggest them. We’d recommend trying the second one out because that feeling, with your heart racing after someone heard (and liked) your idea, is really quite something.

If you have a meeting to give, rehearse your presentation out loud over and over until it’s automatic and you know your material well enough to answer questions. 

As introverts, our strengths lie in listening, reading, analyzing, preparing, and even overthinking, making us detail-oriented. Make introversion the reason for your success in the open office workplace.

Did our tricks help you get by in the open office environment? Or do you have other secrets you can swear by? Let us know in the comments. This is a totally safe introvert zone, folks!

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