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How introverts can be productive in an open office

These hacks can help anyone stressed about the amount of distraction and communication that comes with returning to an open office.

How introverts can be productive in an open office
[Photo: shironosov/iStock]
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Though open work spaces can make cross-functional communication easier, they can also be a nightmare for professionals who identify as introverts. Because more reserved individuals need more alone time than their extroverted colleagues, constantly being “on display” can cause them to be less productive and effective.

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As some companies begin to bring workers back to the office—at least part-time—it’s important to adapt certain rituals and habits that fuel your personal needs in-office. Here’s how introverts can thrive in an open-office layout:

Draw clear boundaries

One of the inaccurate (and frankly, frustrating) messages an open set-up sends is a 24/7 green light. Because there are no cubicle walls to separate coworkers, many will “pop over” for a “quick question”… and end up staying for half an hour. To combat this, Abhi Lokesh, CEO and co-founder of Fracture, recommends setting clear boundaries with yourself, your calendar and your teams. There are many ways to do this: blocking your calendar, hanging a sign on the back of your chair, or the front of your screen and even dismissing someone who stops by.

Though it may feel uncomfortable at first, the more you abide by these limitations, the more they will be respected. “You won’t be stressed out about constantly having to field impromptu chat requests, and your coworkers will appreciate the effort you’re making to be as clear as possible about when you’re able to collaborate and chat and when you’re not,” says Lokesh.

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Be vocal

As with any relationship, your professional mates can’t read your mind. And when you’re new to a gig, you can’t expect them to understand your preferred working method if you don’t communicate. That’s why certified business coach and author Ivy Slater suggest explaining your introverted tendencies from the get-go.

While you don’t need to come out of the gate and appear combative, you can describe yourself in certain sentiments that relays the message. Slater suggests phrases like “I focus better in quiet environments,” or “I tend to go head’s down during the afternoon to capitalize on my productivity,” or “If I ignore you with my headphones on, it’s not personal. It’s just how I stay on task.”

When you first join a new company, Slater also suggests asking human resources about the best seat in the house for your introverted self. “If there’s a desk away from the main hustle and bustle, this could be a great place for you to be,” she notes.

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Schedule private meetings . . . with yourself

Jason Davis, the CEO of Inspire360, estimates introverts make up 30% of the workforce, forcing many trendy companies to rethink their open-office designs. Or rather, provide rooms where these professionals can seek solace and concentration, away from the water cooler chatter. He recommends scheduling private meetings regularly throughout the week in a small conference room with a door. Someone may kick you out if they need the space for a larger gathering but more often than not, you’ll be able to use the area to your advantage. Though it may not always be possible, Davis also suggests going early to a conference room for a meeting and staying after it’s over, for more personal time.

Block out the noise

Headphones may have once appeared standoffish or disrespectful in a professional environment but now, they’re expected and normalized. But if you’re an introvert, you should definitely pay a little extra for a high quality earbuds, suggests Amanda Augustine, career expert for TopResume. Seek out a noise-cancelling pair and warm up a concentration playlist to help you stay focused.

“Wearing headphones will not only help to block out ambient noise, but it will also deter coworkers from invading your personal space and interrupting your work flow,” she says. “When I really need to concentrate in the office, I listen to classical music or the sound of ocean waves or an air conditioner. You need something that has a calming effect and doesn’t have words.”

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Work out a flexible schedule

This means different things to different people and industries, but flexibility should be a top priority for introverted leaders. Augustine says it’s worthwhile to test out a few scenarios and see what provokes the most concentration and output for you. One idea is to arrive earlier or stay later than most of the office, so you’ll have more hours in quiet and calm. “It also helps to block off these time periods on your calendar so that none of your colleagues try to capitalize on your alone time to sneak in a meeting,” she says.

And, if you’re an introvert, it’s time to make a case to work remotely some of the time. “If you hold a position that can be performed away from the office for at least part of the week, talk to your manager about telecommuting a couple of days a week to start,” Augustine says. “Once your manager recognizes the value you’re still able to provide from your home office, you can propose to work from home more frequently.”

Get creative with your desk decor

Believe it or not, you can create wall separation without walls, if you’re creative. When choosing what will sit on your desk space, Augustine suggests going for height. This helps to avoid making unintentional direct eye contact with others, which could lead to unwanted chit-chats. Think about strategically-placed potted plants, picture frames, or a set of computer monitors. All of these create the visual barrier that many introverts crave.

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Take breaks and walks

Davis says walks are an introverts paradise because it’s a solo activity that’s accessible near most office buildings. “Even if you don’t have a large space around your office, just walking will allow you to get some needed downtime to recharge,” he explains. It’s worthwhile to add these blocks to your calendar, not only so you reserve the time but as a reminder to get up and stretch your legs. In addition to being an outlet for an introvert, walking is beneficial for everyone, since Davis says walks have been shown to increase focus, concentration, and memory.