The Complete Introvert’s Guide to Surviving an Open-plan Office

10 tips to help introverts get work done in small spaces surrounded by lots of people

Paul Gallagher
Aug 27, 2019 · 9 min read

I grew up thinking the ideal office was somewhere like the den on The Brady Bunch — a place where I would be able to create, think, lounge, maybe drink a Martini after dinner, and enjoy some undisturbed “me time” while planning the family holiday to Hawaii in my spare time.

Alas, in 2019 our “home offices” look more like a crowded shelf that’s time-sharing as an ironing board.

As for “workplaces”, the rise of open-plan spaces now dominate the landscape in ways that can be quite daunting for people like me: Introverts.

Now I know there are benefits to working collaboratively alongside one another, and it does breed a sense of camaraderie and teamwork. It’s also a lot easier for organizations to save lean resources on more open spaces than confining everyone to private offices.

I totally get it…

But just how do introverts survive in such environments in ways that don’t hamper their creativity, productivity and sanity?

Here are my 10 tips for coping with an open-plan office:

1. Give yourself a break — you’re not a failure for finding the environment difficult

The first thing you should do is not think you’re crazy and that’s it’s all your fault when the office seems too loud and too busy for you to focus on your work.

Being an introvert can feel a bit lonesome at times, and it’s tempting to want to go with the flow rather than let somebody know it’s not the best environment for you to work in.

The types of environments many organizations operate in are descendants of the “Action Office” first envisioned by the Herman Miller Research Corporation. Robert Propst had been concerned with an inheritance of “office forms created for a way of life substantially dead and gone.” (“The office, a facility based on change”, 1968). Some argue we can blame medieval monks for our current office orthodoxy!

Whatever the origin, it’s not a form that suits all types of people.

Susan Cain argues the open-plan space is a place where “interruptions” and “mistakes” are more common:

“Studies show that open-plan offices make workers hostile, insecure and distracted. They’re also more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, stress, the flu and exhaustion. And people whose work is interrupted make 50 percent more mistakes and take twice as long to finish it.” (Susan Cain, “The Rise of the New Groupthink”, The New York Times, 2012)

None of this is to say we are going to change our environments just by complaining about them.

What is not helpful is to think you are to blame when you find an environment doesn’t match your preferred working space.

Sure, make whatever adjustments you can (ie. the rest of the list following should help), but don’t beat yourself up just because you are YOU! Introverts have value and are just as productive as anyone else, so celebrate your strengths and what you bring to the team and organisation you work for.

So go easy on yourself. It’s okay to be introverted or even “ambiverted” and struggle to operate as effectively in a more crowded, busy and loud workplace.

2. Let someone know what environment works best for you, preferably your manager

A good manager will probably have already asked you what environment works best for you, and respected any simple changes that may require.

That does not mean you should expect everybody to start shunning you because you need “me time” to work in.

For example, being towards the edges of the office desk line can be a good place, or closer to the window than people is always helpful. If it’s not your boss who you talk with, just mention it to co-workers that you sometimes need a break from the desk, or that you like to go for walks to re-energise.

Talking about it rather than hiding the fact is a good initial step. It also helps reinforce that you have nothing to apologise for.

3. Book a private room to have some alone time

In every workplace I’ve been in, I’ve valued some time away from the desk, and especially the office itself. That can be in the form of booking a room within the building, or even spending a day at a library to focus, especially on a series of tasks when you’re nearing deadlines.

Ellen Morgan argues booking a work office and spending time there can feel like having a private space for the time you need.

“Coworkers will assume that a scheduled meeting room demands privacy, and you will be able to work without being chatted up, touched, or otherwise harassed for the duration. It’s like having a proper office for a while, only it’s an office where nobody will knock on the door, and you can turn off your phone.” (Ellen Morgan, “5 Ways to Love Your Open-Plan Office”, Quiet Revolution)

Libraries are my favourite places to work (eg. Library at the Dock in Melbourne, Australia), even though they’re filled with plenty of people these days and look a bit like a modern office in many cases with shared tables and comfy chairs. What makes them ideal for introverts is the anonymity of space and presence. And with a good wifi and a view of some sky, they’re probably a big improvement on your office anyway!

The best feature of libraries and civic spaces to work in is that they exist to accommodate a range of learning environments, and are becoming more flexible than ever.

4. Use breaks to re-energise

No matter how busy, loud or hectic your office is, everybody deserves some time to themselves. If that’s almost impossible, use your break or lunch time to go for a walk, or even find a nice place to sit and do something other than your current work assignments.

I’ve always admired people who read a book at lunch, or even use the time to call a close family member or friend and chat while eating lunch. Some people just head out and go for a walk or run during their breaks as a way to re-energise, and have a break from working in a busy space.

If you’re a Melburnian like me, breaks are great times to crave and enjoy coffee. I’ve often enjoyed finding a nice place with good coffee (first priority) and food where I can rest and regroup during lunchtime breaks.

Whatever you do, go somewhere other than your desk. Being at your desk while having lunch is just an invitation for someone to do a “drive by” and ask you a question. So don’t blame them if they call by and wonder why you scowl at them for not knowing it was your “me time”!

5. Make your space as creative as you can

Most work places, desks or work environments will allow you some level of personal items nearby. Most importantly, they are reminders of your personal world and give you visual links with the people and places you value most.

The positioning of personal reminders help us to stay connected with our inner selves, from where we obtain and cultivate the most sustaining and real meaning.

I’ve always had a photo of my wife as close as possible, and often including our children in the same frame. If it’s not permitted in your workplace, that’s a shame first of all. But you can always have something on the table that reminds you of your personal world, even if it’s not a specific photo frame or ornament. Just having a favourite pen holder that your son made in school, or a paper weight that resembles your beloved greyhound at home can make all the difference.

What’s also helpful is just having creative reminders of things that matter to you most. As a journalist and writer, I’ve quite enjoyed decorating my office spaces with crazy headlines over the years: “Man Bites Dog!” is an old favourite. Again, it may not meet with the office layout orthodoxy but great if you can do it.

6. Try being more flexible with your hours

These days, many workplaces are more understanding with work hours as long as the productivity does not suffer. In most cases, it’s a focus on making sure people receive the same opportunities no matter what their personal circumstances.

For introverts, flexibility can also be an opportunity to try working during hours that are best for you. Siti Naquia Abdul Rahim suggests starting work a little earlier when the environment has less people in it, increasing the opportunity to be productive before the important time of collaboration with a team.

“My work hours are quite flexible, so instead of doing 9 to 5 like most of my colleagues, I start my work around 7 a.m. The perk of being an early bird? I often get to have that first couple of quiet hours in the office or lab to myself until about 9 a.m., when others start pouring in.” (Siti Naquia Abdul Rahim, “When Work Is Like a Battlefield”, Quiet Revolution)

7. Type your thinking rather than staring at the ceiling, inviting an interruption

A great favourite of mine is to use my laptop or work screen to type my thinking.

People around me may think I’m constantly tapping away at a report, but sometimes I’m just trying to put my raw and very draft thoughts somewhere.

The alternative is to look off into the distant fluorescent light. Unfortunately, that approach never works because it usually invites a question from someone nearby thinking I’m available for a long convo.

Photo by Wes Hicks on Unsplash

8. Use public transport to think or work

Although limited by Multiple Sclerosis these days, I once travelled by public transport to work each day, and loved the time to think, and be quite creative.

My office was just 25 minutes away from home by car. Instead, I caught two buses, totalling about 70–80 minutes worth of public commuting.

Colleagues at the office must have thought I was crazy, but I loved it. I had each part of the trip divided into what music or podcast I would listen to.

Often, as I neared work, I would just listen to the sound of rain through my earphones and pray about the day ahead.

Photo by Laura Thonne on Unsplash

9. Use earphones when you need to focus alone

As long as it doesn’t cause your workmates to ostracise you, find times for limited earphone or headphone use. I especially like to do that when I’m alone in a booked office, by myself in a library, or finishing something creative that I’ve told my colleagues I am working on.

Some people like to wear earphones the whole day, and that’s fine, although can stray into a sense of isolation from the team if you don’t keep an eye on it. I prefer times and spaces just for when it’s necessary.

Siti Naquia Abdul Rahim, quoted earlier, also has some excellent and simple advice on using earphones as part of Quiet Revolution Field Notes:

10. Use a laptop — better for looking down, and better for looking away from people’s faces

The hardest part of working in a large open-plan office is often the ergonomics of eye-level screens. In many cases, it puts us in direct line of sight with colleagues’ faces and can prompt lots of distractions.

For introverts, that’s a problem because we’re just not built that way — more needing to focus on the work than on collaboration.

The answer I have found is to opt for laptops where possible, and even prefer a portable device screen over the additional monitors routinely positioned on desks.

Something I like to do is make a laptop or tablet my primary viewing screen and let the larger monitors accommodate information that I don’t need to see all the time. It physically turns your focus down to a screen rather than at the eye-level of potential distraction.

That said, my advice may break a universal ergonomic rule. I’m sorry. With MS, it’s the least of my worries to be looking down these days :)

While on the topic of introversion and quieter people, Susan Cain’s TED Talk is a great resource:

I’m a published author, writer, journalist and editor. I write about life, language, politics, faith, and Multiple Sclerosis (the latter not by choice). If you like what I write, support me directly, see my site, sign up for more words and see what I wrote through Random House.

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