Ah, the open plan office. It's to the 21st century what the cubicle farm was to the 1980s - everywhere. Today's employers are tearing down walls as a business imperative and with them, the barriers to communication and idea flow. Even freelancers are leaving their solitary kitchens and coffee shops. Formal co-working spaces, which offer pay-per-desk access to a community of like-minded individuals, are a mega-trend among the self-employed.
In theory, there's a lot to like about co-working. Getting all your employees under one roof solves the problem of knowledge silos. Rather than having people hole up, you create agile teams where everyone works together, shares ideas and innovates.
But for introverts, who need quiet to achieve a state of mental flow, co-working environments can signal the death of productivity. It's not that introverts don't like people; in fact, they are often excellent team players, bringing calm, reason and thoughtfulness to the collaborative process. But the interaction needs to be on the introvert's own terms with plenty of solitary time in between. Otherwise they might just lose the plot.
Fortunately, open plan working doesn't have to be a deal breaker. Here are some simple tips to help you survive and thrive in an open plan, co-working style environment.
1. Explore the Full Spectrum of Work Times and Spaces
If designed properly, the co-working environment should offer a spectrum of spaces ranging from open, wall-free collaborative spaces to the privacy of an office or reading nook. For introverts, it's worth experimenting with the range of spaces available to achieve the right balance between privacy and collective buzz.
If that is not possible, ask HR whether you can work from home a couple of days a week. Studies suggest that introverts don't do as well on concentration tasks when there are distractions in the background, so use this time to focus on difficult tasks. Alternatively, observe patterns of work and see if you can carve out pockets of time when the office is less busy. For example, you might change your lunch hour so that you can concentrate while others are at lunch, and vice versa.
2. Create a Visual Barrier Around your Workstation
Placing personal items strategically around your work station can provide a visual barrier against distractions. Plants are ideal as they provide an oasis of peace and calm in an otherwise hectic environment. But photos, desk accessories, or even a colorful mug will work just as well. Susan Cain, author of "The Quiet Revolution," recommends hanging a coat on a coat hanger next to your desk providing a privacy screen between yourself and adjacent co-workers.
Adding personal items has the extra advantage of putting you in control of your own environment. Introverts who feel they are in control of their immediate space typically feel a lot less anxiety.
3. Get Your Back Up On the Wall
Introverts may find themselves adrift in an open plan space with no walls to anchor them. If you're feeling lost at sea, see if you can move your desk to a spot against the wall. This should stop traffic coming at you from all sides. Plus, you can turn to face the wall as a signal to others that you're concentrating.
4. Wear Headphones
To avoid audible distractions, invest in a pair of over-the-ears headphones and drown out noise by listening to some ambient music. As well as insulating you from the background chatter, wearing headphones is a cue to your co-workers that you do not wish to be disturbed. Just remember to remove your headphones a few times a day, otherwise your colleagues might think you are avoiding them.
5. Take Plenty of Solitary Breaks
It's no secret that introverts need time alone to recharge. There can be pressure to grab a coffee with colleagues during breaks - resist! If you don't take regular breathers to slip out of the office, read a book or simply bliss out, anxiety can snowball.
6. Book a Meeting With Yourself
Scheduling a meeting room and "forgetting" to invite anyone else along is a terrific way of getting a proper office with four walls and a door for a while. Co-workers are unlikely to interrupt you as they will think that you're busy with clients or on a conference call. Away from the constant motion, you can get your head down, set important goals or simply take the time to meditate and refresh.
The bottom line is, co-working style environments are not always stressful for introverts. It's possible to block out distractions and create some space to breathe. Who knows, you might even find a system of working that plays to your personality and moods.