How to Avoid Distractions in an Open Office (Without Yelling "Leave Me Alone!")

There’s a litany of complaints about the open-office environment. Never before has the idea of having a cubicle—let alone a private office—been more attractive. Just last week, a colleague shared an article published on LinkedIn titled, “Your Open Office is Broken. Here’s What to Do About It.”

But that title assumes the average employee has any say in the situation. Sure, they may know it’s a problematic work setting (“broken” as it were), but what can be done? That’s truly the question, isn’t it?

How can you deal with a loud, disruptive room when a corner suite with a door is so far from your reality it’s not even worth fantasizing about? And how can you navigate it so that you both get your work done and don’t come across as the office jerk?

First, based on the hundreds of comments on the article referenced above, you can reasonably assume you’re far from the only one struggling. So your first step in not coming across as standoffish is to understand that many of your co-workers are probably worried about the same thing.

With that knowledge, here’s how you can work well in an open office:

Embrace Headphones or Earplugs

You know this one, I realize, but it’s amazing how many people complain about how noisy their surroundings are and there’s not an earplug or pair of noise-canceling headphones in sight. Not only do headphones indicate to the people around you that you’re not available for impromptu conversation, but if you tune into a playlist that gets you in business-mode, you’ll be doing your work habits a real service.

Not into listening to music while you plug away? Try ambient sound. (We’re such fans that we rounded up eight free options you can try today.) If that doesn’t appeal to you either, earplugs are inexpensive and helpful in muffling sounds. And even though they’re not as obvious to colleagues, if someone tries to engage with you when you’re in the middle of something, simply look up noncommittally and point to your ear. More often than not, they’ll apologize and offer to follow up at a better time.

Change the Time You Eat Lunch

If company culture dictates eating lunch at 1 PM every day, resulting in a mass exodus from the central working area, consider eating at noon or 2 PM and working through everyone else’s lunch break.

Of course, to make sure you’re not getting a reputation for being anti-social, especially if your team is one that eats together frequently, change it up every so often and eat with your co-workers.

Don’t Look Up

Making eye contact with your co-workers ambling about the office is one sure way to get distracted from whatever it is you’re doing. One minute you look up, meet eyes with Bailey, smile and say “hi,” and then the next thing you know, you’re engaged in an animated discussion of where to take your parents for dinner this weekend. That takes you on a tangent of where to go for the best burger and which nearby hike is the best for intermediate climbers.

See what I’m getting at here? If you really and truly want to focus on what’s in front of you, you need to avoid encouraging outside distractions as much as possible. Pick a fixed point on the wall if you must glance away from your screen to collect your thoughts or jot down random thoughts on a notepad. There’ll be a time to chat with colleagues on non-work related stuff, but save it for when you can afford the interruption.

These tips are assuming that you can’t just take over a conference room and that you don’t have the option to work from home on a regular basis, although if you haven’t tried to convince your boss to let you work remotely, these email templates may prove useful.

It’s OK if you’re not crazy about working so closely to your team. So long as you can find the balance you need to be a hard worker and a pleasant co-worker, you don’t need to pretend that it’s up your alley. Instead, do your best to find ways to tolerate it.

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About Richard Moy

Richard Moy
Richard Moy is a Content Marketing Writer at Stack Overflow. He has spent the majority of his career in talent management, including a stint as a full-cycle recruiter and hiring manager. In addition to the career advice he contributes to The Muse, he also writes test prep and higher education marketing content for The Economist. Say hi on Twitter @rich_moy.

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