Recently, The Guardian posted an article about how employees who work in open offices are more relaxed and have a higher physical activity rate. I truly believe the higher physical activity rate is from running away from the open office plan. Open offices are praised as being the new best practice because of the collaboration and community they allegedly create. The real reason is simply this: open offices cost less. And so more and more companies have gone to it.
My response to the article is simple: this environment is not conducive for most employees. Companies are creating spaces where employees are unable to focus, especially those on the autism spectrum. For many people, not just autistic individuals, open offices are difficult to deal with. This post is meant to provide strategies for the special hardships these environments create for an autistic person. This is magnified by the fact we are trying to interpret social cues and how to interact with coworkers. We have no escape or respite during the day in this type of environment.
Here are seven strategies to help you if you find yourself in an open office space. I myself work in one, and have found the following to be helpful and have become more productive as a result.
1. Request a corner cubicle or end of a row.
Cubicles that are at the end of the row make you feel less claustrophobic because people on all sides do not surround you. These are more protected and secluded. Additionally, you are less likely to be facing the aisle that people use to walk back and forth from the door all day. Try to get a cubicle as far away from a door as possible to reduce foot traffic that is distracting.
2. Ask that people warn you before approaching.
It is OK to ask people to email you instead of coming to your cubicle first. In fact, many people prefer this. You may also ask that people “knock” on the side of your cubicle so as not to startle you. In an open office space, it is easier to process a question or concern if emailed so that you can process it in your own time instead of the overwhelming processing experience of being told orally in a loud environment.
3. Take breaks
Breaks for me help to avoid shutdowns. I make sure I get up from my desk and walk around, even if just to the water fountain. Sometimes, I even go to the bathroom when I don’t have to because I know no one will be in there and I’m craving the solitude. Find small moments to get brief solitude and recharge, whether that’s a break room, going out to the courtyard or parking lot to get some fresh air, or walking the hallway for a moment.
4. Accomplish the bulk of your work in the morning
You know yourself best, but I find that I am most productive in the morning. If your type of work allows, accomplish the bulk of the work for the day before lunch. I get as much work done as I can before the afternoon where I inevitably slow down from the fatigue of the open office environment all day. But if you are efficient, a lot of the work can hopefully be accomplished before that happens. Even if you are not a morning person, it is less stressful to be ahead on your work by the afternoon rather than running behind. This strategy can also help with staying on task for timely deadlines and reducing anxiety. The more you get done in the morning, the less anxious you’ll feel in the afternoon.
5. Have topics ready to discuss with coworkers
It’s extremely difficult to know exactly how much to share with your coworkers. Basically, co-workers want to know you, but not intimately. They want to know about your life…just not too much about it. For example, they may be excited to hear you have a new car or went on a trip. But they will consider relationship problems, medical problems, and other similar details over sharing. It can be hard to draw the line, which adds stress to the day when people in an office you may socialize with surround you. I have found it helpful to come prepared with topics should I need to make small talk. That way, I am not faced with the daunting task of coming up with it on the spot. I can ensure that it is appropriate before I tell someone and also avoid the risk of over sharing because I know exactly what it is I am going to share.
For example, I may pick three topics: something I did that weekend (or plan to do), a story about my pet, and something I tried cooking. These are all very safe. To prevent myself from over sharing I only give snippets of the event instead of the entire detailed story. This allows my other coworkers to chime in with their thoughts and contribute to the conversation. It is hard to know when it is time to let another person have a turn in talking, and it often seems like you are dominating the conversation when in reality it is simply hard to guess when another person wants to speak. Giving small details allows the other’s turn in the conversation to occur more naturally and takes a lot of the guess-work out.
6. Make your space more “homey”
It is important to feel as comfortable as possible in your space, even if it a cubicle in an open office. I have decorated my desk with things that remind me of my space at home. In turn, it makes me slightly more comfortable and I am able to focus because my own things surround me. While I am not suggesting that you bring everything you own into a cubicle (although there is a woman who has her share of houseplants in my office at her desk!), even just a few items can make a difference.
7. Privacy Screens and Noise Cancelling Headphones
Many offices have privacy screens available, and this is an accommodation I would highly recommend asking for. Even non-autistic people in my office have them. It is basically a makeshift “door” for the cubicle. This allows you to close the screen and not see the people passing by. If your cubicles don’t even have privacy barriers and it is completely open concept, you can also request desk screens to at least have some type of separation between your neighbor and yourself.
Noise cancelling headphones also prove helpful in reducing the extreme sensory you experience in an open office. I like the headphones too because it sends a non-verbal cue to neurotypicals that you are busy and do not want to be approached. If I am feeling that I do not want people to ask me a question in that moment or approach my cubicle, putting on the headphones signals that request without me ever having to say a word about it. The privacy screens set to closed will also send the same signal. A caveat to this is I ensure there are times during the workday where I appear more “open” or “approachable” or at the very least, let my coworkers know they can approach me even if my headphones are on. This way I let them see that I care about being a part of the workplace and don’t want to completely ostracize myself from them or not be a team player; I just need these tools to help focus.
Most teams should be understanding about these requests and strategies. For most jobs, none of them should impede the workflow of a day or team. In fact, I see many neurtypical people use them too because at the end of the day, open offices are hard for most people but extraordinarily difficult for us on the autism spectrum. This reality means that supervisors will likely be understanding of your open office struggles. Many teams do no choose the environment, it is simply what the large corporation has mandated. Even the smallest things can help improve the experience of functioning in an open office.
My Question to Readers:
What has helped you most in the workplace and what has been most difficult in transitioning to the workplace?
The greatest irony of the open office space is that it champions itself on being the ultimate inclusive work environment when in reality it is the exact opposite. It is in fact un-inclusive.
Open offices create struggles for most people and exclude those who have sensory problems or disabilities that make focusing more difficult. Eventually, offices will need to reevaluate. Until then, I hope you found these strategies helpful.
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