When your office has an open floor plan.

When I was nineteen I interned at a very large telecom company. The office was ugly, green carpeting and gray cubicles. I was the youngest person by far and nobody talked to me. If there was a space designed to eat lunch they kept it well hidden.

I found it to be a fairly depressing work environment and ended up walking for an hour during my lunch break even if the weather was awful because I really hated the surroundings. I dreamed of shiny gleaming office spaces with giant windows, lunch tables, little hangout areas. All mid century modern furniture everything.

Time has crushed these dreams, unfortunately, because I now realize that an open office floor plan is one of the worst ideas of all time, and that I am trapped in it. This floor plan is the norm for my type of job and my type of industry in every corner of the globe that would find me even remotely hirable. My unspoken design sensibilities have become judge, jury, jailer.

A few years ago I worked with an individual who I will probably never stop thinking of as “context switch guy” because the working conditions of our office made him so crazy as to think it would be appropriate to throw his hand up in a stop sign and say “context switch” whenever someone approached him or tried to talk to him. What he meant to say was, “I’m sorry, but if I talk to you right now I am going to lose my train of thought, and then it will take me a while to get back to where I was before, if I can even get back there today. By interrupting my ‘flow’ you may trash my entire goals for today. Thank you for understanding and have a nice day. Please send me an email and I will get back to you whenever I’m done with my thing.” Had he said that, he probably would have lost his flow anyways, because it takes a lot of words to communicate complex ideas especially at work especially when the end result of that idea is that you are saying “no” to someone. I am assuming that this is exactly what happened, because I now almost think this is a very smart and appropriate, even professional, thing to do in order to ensure you get work done.

Basically, I find working in an open office floor plan tends to result in a work environment that makes it impossible to accomplish difficult tasks in a timely and low stress fashion.

Everyone agrees with me, including science, but nobody likes admitting they were wrong, and cubes are expensive. Plus, nobody is being injured by the bad code I have seen as a result of the floor plan. (We usually fix the bad code before it becomes injurious. This would be a very good slogan for a tech company — Fixing the bad code before it becomes injurious. DM for rates.)

So how do we, the non-office having collective, deal? I have come up with a framework that is easy to enact and built off a rule so golden they called it the golden rule and taught it to every little kid in america: the Golden Rule.

The Golden Rule or law of reciprocity is the principle of treating others as one would wish to be treated oneself. It is a maxim of altruism seen in many human religions and human cultures.

Citation: Wikipedia

I haven’t even started telling you about my framework and you have probably noted the flaw: everyone is different. People want different things! Some people want to just shout randomly across the office whenever and some people want to reorder all the import statements in a dark room with extremely loud droning techno playing. So here’s the secret: you can always ask people their personal preferences, especially when you are doing it in order to be more polite to them.

But let’s get back to basics. Assuming you work with fairly normal individuals, we can probably assume that they:

  • Don’t like being interrupted when they are working on something difficult or time sensitive.
  • Are ready, willing, and able to collaborate with people on their team, but probably not all the time.
  • Have a sense of what they consider their own “personal space”.
  • Can become distracted by loud noises, commotion, visual activity in their peripheral vision, visual activity in their line of sight, some combination of these things, or all of these things.

In a nutshell, people usually have to do actual work independently in order to complete their jobs, and at a certain point they will reach their limit and become distracted or aggravated.

What can we as individuals do to encourage a good balance between collaboration and getting things done at work? I think that a few basic rules can dramatically improve working conditions without a lot of effort on anyone’s part.

Limit loudness in the office.

In general, stick to normal speaking volume in the office. Anything above normal speaking volume is probably a) not appropriate for work anyway (yelling), b) a party or c) the result of a lot of people always talking all over the place so you must raise your voice in order to have a conversation or answer a quick question.

If you’re having a group discussion, it’s probably best to take it away from any individuals working at their desks who are not involved. This could mean booking a conference room, or it could mean just giving them a few feet.

Use the headphone rule.

The headphone is as follows:

If someone is wearing headphones, that means they don’t want to talk to you right now, so leave them alone and send them a message via asynchronous means instead.

The headphone rule can be a little bit tricky because everyone has their own preferred means of async communication at work. Some people don’t “do” email and some people are devoted to the team chat room as the way of communicating everything. Figure out what works best for the people on your team, or heck, establish rules as a team yourself! It is a fun project kick off activity — I promise.

If you have an urgent need to talk to someone wearing headphones, don’t assume that they have noticed you or can hear you through their headphones, and just start talking to the back of their head. Try to find a polite way of getting their attention and give them a minute to finish a sentence, turn off spotify, etc., before you jump in.

It is not safe to assume that people want to be approached or interrupted if they are not wearing headphones, but this is a good place to start.

Don’t touch other people’s stuff.

This annoys almost everyone. Don’t sit on their desk, don’t put your stuff all over their stuff, try not to let your mountain of never-read books topple over onto your neighbor.

Don’t touch their lunch or reach down and take their sandwich and take a bite out of it without asking first.

Don’t touch people either (some people don’t like this).

Limit visual distractions.

It is really fun and hip to fly drones onto your coworkers, prank each other, and in general have a raucous good time, according to basically every careers page I’ve looked at in the last ten years.

I find it unhip, unfun, and uncool to fly drones onto your coworkers, enact nerf gun fights in rows of desks, throw confetti with cool funny slogans at people, etc.

Parties are cool, but they call them parties because they are parties and not “workies” and thus they should not happen during work hours in rows of desks where people are working.

Yes, I am a total drag, but lots of good people are total drags.

Please, stop throwing nuts at me.

Tl;dr

I feel like working any kind of tech or product job involves a certain amount of kool aid drinking, and that’s ok. I have a lot of passion and I’m flexible, malleable, and too old to really give too deep a fuck. I’ve lost enough battles.

Someone should really give me an office soon, because I fear I am frowning a lot with my eyes during work hours and I know that spooks the natives.

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