Buddhists keep telling us that suffering comes from ignorance. So what about collaborative suffering, like that which springs from an open office?
Knowing where the layout came from might help (spoiler alert: it's Burolandschaft). But that doesn't change that you're still listening to your neighbor battle his sinus infection or that you keep seeing your boss floss her teeth.
The coping is up to you.
Thankfully, you're not the only one in the cope-boat: Venessa Wong, who writes wittily for Businessweek, talked to the alliterative and elucidating Heidi Hanna, who wrote The Sharp Solution: A Brain-Based Approach for Optimal Performance, which is a very impressive title for a book.
So let's get to the solving.
That's because you don't! It's an open office, after all, sort of like the perpetually surveilled prison—a panopticon!—that English philosopher Jeremy Bentham theorized in the late 18th century. Did Bentham work for a startup? The historical record is inconclusive, but let's go with yes.
If you have personal stuff going on—Wong mentions calls concerning toenail fungus, though there are surely other applications—you can take a few steps to avoid putting your foot in your mouth. You can "Chunk" personal projects like long-form phone calls into a bunch, reserve a conference room, and destroy them in a momentum-fueled productivity fugue state.
Humans need a rhythm of stimulation and non-stimulation to feel human: To get a deeper sense, go read Quiet. But you need no KitKat to give yourself a break; Wong encourages putting on your headphones and listening to some calming music. (She says ocean sounds, I say Chopin.) Also, we can guess that boning up on your mindfulness could help. It works for popes!
"Everyone’s noise, phone calls, and screens actually exhaust your brain," Wong says. Fascinating, right? Psychologists talk about ego depletion, which is a fancy way of saying that you get exhausted from making decisions or processing the things around you—which is why walking through a park is so restorative.
To prevent exhaustion, Wong says, cut away the noise: Turn off your email, turn off your phone, "lock your co-workers in a closet."
The brain can't help but attend to novel things; so if you're going to listen to music to drown out all that work babble, make sure they are tunes you already know. Like John Cusack says in High Fidelity, just put on something you can ignore.
[Image: Flickr user Greg M]