Closing down the open office

Who needs privacy? Who needs peace and quiet?

You do, that’s who.

But I wouldn’t count on getting these needs met any time soon. We live and work in the era of the open office. No walls. No barriers. Nothing between you and your closest co-worker but a steely stare of contempt and an occasional snarl.

If you don’t work in an open office environment now, you can certainly expect to do so in the future. As Caroline Ceniza-Levine explains in her recent Forbes article, “Open office spaces enable companies to fit more staff in less space, so I don’t see these environments disappearing anytime soon.”

Me neither. I know you long ago gave up the dream of having a private office, but a few hours in a noisy, hectic, disorientating open office space and you’ll start missing your cubical.

Unlike me, Ceniza-Levine thinks positive. Rather than bemoan the loss of that cozy cube, her Forbes article teaches you “How To Stay Focused In An Open Office Environment.”

Her No. 1 recommendation is to “use common spaces away from your desk.” She continues, “This could be the lunch area, a different floor, or an empty desk in a department unrelated to yours.”

This is good stuff as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. Instead of taking up residence in a department unrelated to yours, I recommend you stake out a few square feet of personal space in a company unrelated to yours.

It could be the insurance agency on the floor above or the nail salon on the floor below. If your company is the sole occupant in your building, how about setting up shop in one of the food trucks that shows up in the parking lot at lunchtime?

You’ll enjoy working a food truck much more than selling insurance or doing mani-pedis; plus, the intoxicating aroma that comes from spending time in close proximity to deep-fried samosas and falafels will surely keep people far, far away from you when you finally return to the office.

“Hang a Do Not Disturb sign” is another good tip, but in an office without walls, the only place to hang a sign is around your neck. This could work if you wear it 24/7. That way, no one will bother you at work, home or anywhere in between.

“Develop a Do Not Disturb signal” is another recommendation. Putting on a whopping big set of headphones will do the job, as will putting on a deep-sea diver’s suit. Or, you could simply start shouting at the top of your lungs, “Stay away from me! I’m going to yack!”

Nothing says “Do Not Disturb” like a co-worker screaming incoherently and foaming at the mouth. (The danger here is that this kind of nutty behavior might get you promoted.)

“Learn to say No” is good advice but tough to implement. As Ceniza-Levine says, “If you have difficulty declining requests or regularly put other people’s needs above your own, then learning to say No is something you have to practice.”

You certainly don’t want to practice saying no to the co-workers invading your personal space: They might stop inviting you for mid-morning cocktails. Instead, start saying no to your manager. Say no to assignments. Say no to projects. Say no to attending meetings, turning in your expense account or even showing up to work.

Say no enough for long enough and your open office problem will be solved, guaranteed.

You are also encouraged to “set reminders for regular breaks.” Your cellphone will produce a discrete tinkle on the hour, or you could get yourself a whopping big kettledrum and beat it loudly once an hour to announce that you are taking a break.

Drumming is excellent cardio exercise, and if your co-workers complain, tell them to chill or you’ll replace the kettledrum with bagpipes.

“Use your lunch break to change your environment” is the final suggestion. I love it! Yes, you could run personal errands (as is suggested) or go to the park, but what will be much more effective is to go to the airport. Buy a ticket on the next plane to somewhere warm and sunny — Bosnia and Herzegovina is lovely this time of year I’m told — and don’t come back until the company remodels your workspace.

Business is business, of course, and you can’t expect management to build offices or even cubicles, but the least they could do is put in yurts.


Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company, but he finally wised up and opened Bob Goldman Financial Planning in Sausalito, California.


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