1. Business

Career Q&A: Open office design stymies worker who needs quiet

Q: After an office renovation, all the employees in my department were moved to a new workspace. Previously, we were spread across two floors, working in cubicles with tall sound-absorbing dividers. Now, however, we are crammed side-by-side into a small open area where everyone is constantly staring at everyone else.

As an introvert, I require a certain amount of quiet to concentrate, so this chaotic environment makes it impossible to think. Co-workers keep walking by, phones are constantly ringing, and people converse in loud voices. With all these distractions, there's no way that I can do my best work.

I thought about using some plants for privacy, but we've been told not to put anything on our desks which might block our view of other employees. How can I survive in this place?

A: I believe open office designs are the work of the devil. Managers typically implement this configuration to save money on office fixtures or to promote "teamwork". While the former motive may be valid, removing all privacy is hardly the best way to foster collaboration.

In reality, packing people together in an open space frequently has the opposite effect. Forced interaction increases irritation, distractions interfere with productive discussions, overstimulation creates stress, and many folks have difficulty concentrating.

But since your bosses have recently invested extensive time and effort in creating this bullpen, they aren't likely to change their opinions soon. So for now, you might as well do your best to cope.

Try using earbuds to mask noise with soothing music. Eye contact encourages conversation, so stay focused on your work when people walk by. If someone initiates an unwelcome chat, politely explain that you have deadlines to meet.

Seek out quiet areas where you can go to collect your thoughts. If you need permission to leave your desk, explain how doing so will improve work results. Saying "I need privacy" sounds self-centered, but stating "This report will be done twice as fast if I can use the conference room" puts the emphasis on business issues.

Based on their prohibition of privacy devices, your managers are clearly enamored with the notion of constant interaction. But as the newness wears off, perhaps they will realize that continuous availability is not the same as teamwork.

Use caution before reporting to HR

Q: After I joined this company two months ago, several people told me that one executive regularly smokes in the bathroom. I didn't believe them until I actually saw him coming out of a smoke-filled stall. When I mentioned this to my boss, he suggested that I go to human resources. However, I'm not sure if that's a good idea. What do you think?

A: Although this executive smoker is definitely in the wrong, you are wise to weigh the risk before deciding to turn him in. Approaching HR as a lone crusader is probably not the best move, because there's no guarantee that your identity will remain confidential.

Instead, invite the colleagues who shared this information to join you in a group effort. If they appear reluctant, their longer experience with this company may have taught them that such interventions can be hazardous.