How to Survive an Open Plan Office

If you’re used to your office or cubical, moving to an open plan office can be miserable and overwhelming. There are ways to cope, though. It will take some time, diligence and creativity, but you can learn how to survive an open plan office.

open plan office
Photo by Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash

If you find New York City’s Time Square frantic, noisy and distracting (and maybe a little tacky), then you are probably going to struggle in an open plan office.

Click to jump to a specific section:

Protect your money-maker.

Why do companies switch to the open plan office?

Do open plan offices work?

How to survive the open work area.

Protect Your Money-Maker!

A huge part of your well-being is your brain health.

In addition to your current well-being, you have to ensure your future ability to work, create and be happy. Consider a bigger picture than the next big project. Think about bigger projects you could have at subsequent jobs. Or think about your quality of life if/when you retire. You want to take quality care of yourself now to protect your ability to continue functioning at a high level later.

That means taking care of your physical brain.

1. Wear a Helmet.

…when you cycle or anything in which you might bump your head. Protect it from physical damage.

2. Hydrate.

Drink plenty of water to keep it hydrated.

3. Get Plenty Sleep.

Give your glymphatic system plenty of time to keep your brain clean.

4. Feed Your Brain the Right Nutrition.

Give it the fats it needs to create new neural connections. If you want to learn, those pathways need to move the electricity around.

5. Manage Your Stress.

Don’t allow chronic stress to saturate your brain with cortisol residue. The best ways to do that are exercise and meditation. Then sleep.

6. Exercise Your Brain.

Learn new concepts and going deeper into things you already know. Investigate ideas you disagree with.

7. Then there’s the mental part.

Learn to focus your thoughts, so ruminations don’t send you spiraling into panic.

And of course, the physiological stuff affects the mental stuff and the other way around.

We now know that your well-being isn’t management’s responsibility. It’s yours.

That includes mental and physical health. Ideally, management would also do its part to keep you at your highest creative and productive potential. One of their greatest assets is your output.

Why do Companies Switch to the Open Plan Office?

So why do they wear out their best asset in the present at the expense of their future? More importantly, at the expense of our future?

Let’s use…

A Sports Analogy

I bet your favorite team has been in the heat of a good run, maybe a playoff run, only to have a pivotal player suffer an injury.

They can win without him, but the chances aren’t nearly as good. This is the playoffs. One and done. Loser goes home.

The Coach

The coach’s career depends on wins now. The coaches window is short, significant progress in a short time, or it’s back to an assistant if she’s lucky, but probably college sports or maybe even high school. Then she has to teach a history class too, and she didn’t spend all those hours in the gym to fake her way through the Weimar Republic to a bunch of snot-nosed little brats.

A championship means other teams will start calling the coach’s agent offering a better deal.

The coach needs wins now and wants the injured star player playing now. The star player’s health might pop up now and then in the coach’s mind, but winning now is the coach’s responsibility.

Coaches are like middle management.

The Owner

The owner wants a championship too. Nobody fires the owner though, nobody except the owner. The owner also needs to fill stadium seats for the next decade. Sure a championship will definitely sell tickets for a couple years, but the players. People pay to see players play. If your star plays hurt and ends his career, the owner’s going to have a harder time selling out seats during the next few years of what would have otherwise been that star’s career.

The Owner is Stockholders, the board of directors and probably customers.

Team Doctors and Trainers

Their job is to take care of the players, keep them healthy for the long-term, for their own good because they care, but for the good of the franchise because the franchise pays the bills. Doctors and trainers get championship rings too, though, but she took the Hippocratic oath and she has a duty to the patient. The player. The doctor has the player’s long-term health, his ability to support his family and to earn a living for as many years as he can.  And to live a long, healthy, happy life.

Put the injured player on IR. (That’s Injured Reserve for the non-sports fans.)

Team Doctors and Trainers are your doctors and trainers. And me.

The Player

Don’t hate the player. Hate the game.

People pay to see players play.

Players wanna get paid. For a long time. They don’t want to end their careers. But he didn’t work all those hours and days in the gym to watch from the sideline as everyone else plays and wins. The player wants a ring too. It’s always been his dream, and the team needs him. His wife needs him too, though, and she and the kids will want him healthy and active 20 or so years from now.

The player ultimately decides. The player gets counsel and advice–biased advice–from the coach, trainers, doctor and spouse. And Mom.

Hi Mom!

The player has the responsibility. Career. Life. Glory.

You’re the player. I’m the player. Actually, each one of the above characters in our little drama is a player in her respective role. Even the owner isn’t anywhere close to passing responsibility for filling seats on to his son yet.

The shareholders probably don’t know who you are though. I know they don’t know who I am. I only recently blipped on the radar of a few VPs, and it wasn’t for something good. Don’t worry. We ended up buds. Ish.

Let’s Get Back to Your Office

What’s Good for the Company

The company wants to win, so the company will probably do what other companies who are winning do. Things like revoking working from home and stuffing everyone into a big, open plan office area, because forcing everyone into each others’ personal space is the only way to generate serendipity.

It worked at IBM and Yahoo, so it’s gotta work here. All we have to do is get them to bump into one another enough. Sparks will fly. Fire will catch. Serendipity. Innovation. Team Work.

Everything is cool when you’re part of a team.

The Open Plan Office Probably Does Work Sometimes

Some collaboration happens. It’s a little easier to turn around and tap someone on the shoulder than it is waiting for them to stop ignoring your email for an hour. You get what you need sooner unless you’re the person who turns off dings and pings to focus on your work.

It’s probably a little more nuanced than the furniture, lights and “cozy” seating. The companies who succeed at serendipity probably do a little more than fill the sardine can.

It might work though.

That doesn’t mean it’s good for you in the long term.

What’s Good for You

I like the open plan office. I’ve got a great seat with a stand-up workstation from which I can see the whole room. Sometimes I just watch everyone. I’m a people person. I like to watch what they do. I’m uber curious about why they do what they do.

Yes, being lost in work is healthy, perhaps even magical. Flow states don’t just feel transcendental. They benefit the brain, mind, heart, soul and body in many wonderful ways.

Being annoyed with questions and problems is annoying.

You’re the player, though.

You gotta play now, but you gotta think about your career and retirement. Your family and friends will want you around, and you’ll want to get around.

Coaches gotta win games now.

They don’t care if you’re an introvert or if I’m obsessed with expanding my mental and creative powers. Middle managers need to ship something innovative now.

Open plan offices are the rage, trend fad now. They’ll be around for several more years. Like them or not, you’re either stuck in one or soon will be.

If, like me, you enjoy the open plan office, then relish and enjoy it. However, remember that this job is temporary. Even if you don’t want to earn for many more years, you’ll still want to learn and create. You’ll want to enjoy quality time with loved ones. Learn to protect your ability to create.

Do Open Plan Offices Work?

In his INC Magazine article “3 Reasons Open Office Plans Are Better, After All,” ShortStack co-founder Jim Belosic said he put his desk in his company’s open office area, near the front door, next to the kitchen.

His 3 reasons:

  1. You’re in tune to the office vibe.
  2. You’re more approachable.
  3. It improves interoffice communication.

I have nothing against Mr. Beloxic. I admire him in that the crux of his article is that he put himself is in the middle of the open work area. And in his defense, the article is a few years old. However, from the standpoint of an employee, I have issues with each of these reasons.

What About the People?

First, his article’s doesn’t really say how the plans are better for everyone. His three reasons are more about why open offices are better for leaders than for the employees. To his credit, his reasons are why Leaders should also sit in the open work area.

Employees Are Not Open and Honest Around Bosses

The Leader may be in tune with an office vibe, but they don’t know what employees really think. They’ll be in tune with what employees do and say to not get fired, not the true office vibe.

Are Your Offices More Approachable?

I really admire Mr. Belosic for also sitting in a very high traffic section of the open work area. I’d bet that wherever he is, he is quite approachable.

How many leaders sit in the open work area at your place of employment? Does your lead sit next to you? I sit right next to my manager, and his Senior Manager sits a few feet behind us. Both are in the open work area.

But he and one other Senior Manager are the only two in our open work areas. The other Senior Managers and above all have offices. Most of them are very approachable, but the ones who made the decision to go with the open plan office are not in the open work area.

How approachable are the leaders in your company?

How Open Plan Offices Ruin Interoffice Communication in National and Global Companies.

Daily I see co-workers trying to have web conferences with customers colleagues in other cities, states and countries. It is very difficult to hear the person on the other end with all the noise in the room. That noise is also very distracting for the colleague or customer on the other end.

Sure it’s easy to talk to the person next to you or one across the room, but conference calls are more difficult with the extra noise.

The Benefits and Costs of Extra “Face Time”

One benefit to the company of this plan, a benefit I don’t think they expected is the facetime. Employees want to be seen being busy more than their coworkers. They’ll make sure to accept every meeting request. They’ll make sure the bosses see them busily working as when the boss arrives. They’ll try to make sure that bosses see them busily working or collaborating when the boss leaves.

The bosses don’t likely expect the decrease in productivity and quality caused by more work performed by fatigued and unfocused employees trying to look busy instead of producing high-quality work.

It doesn’t really matter to them either. To maintain the products and fix the problems caused by fixing previous problems, the employees simply need to put in more hours. Only in corporate or government offices is more of a problem employed as an attempt to correct itself. Like an addict who gets his fix with more heroin, caffeine or sugar, the employees put in more hours.

The 60-Hour Work Week

I used to work for a company that required 60-hour work weeks. It took me about 20 hours to finish the work so I would ask for more. “I don’t want to overwhelm you yet.” The office was part of the Galleria Mall in Dallas so I would go for walks in the mall where I would see co-workers walking, talking, sitting, chatting, just trying to fill 60 hours. I’d sit for an hour or two at a time in our pod (our group of workstations) talking about politics, music or trains.

It was just Face Time. I enjoyed the company of many of those co-workers, but I enjoyed my family’s company more.

The Man Who Counted Cars

We used to have a VP at my current job who liked people putting in hours. He judged the quality of a day by how many cars were in the parking lot when he arrived and departed from the office.

If this is your boss, then you know a simple and easy way to get on their good side. If you’re a boss and this is you, your customers (and your career) would be better served by measuring a more relevant form of output.

Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. 

How to Survive the Open Work Area

If you don’t like the open work area, find a new job. Your company isn’t switching back anytime soon. It may be more difficult for a few years, but try to get out. In the meantime, do what you need to maintain and improve your cognitive health. You’ll have to do it on your own, in the mornings, evenings or during lunch.

I highly recommend these two books. “Rapt” and “Deep Work.”

They’re both available at my digital library. Before we get into day-to-day survival techniques for the open work area, you should know how important it is to engage in deep, focused work.

The Bugged and The Buggers

One of the worst things about open work areas are the interruptions. Interruptions aren’t just one of the annoyances of open work areas, they are part of an open work area’s purpose. The idea is that the coincidental bumping into one another will spark conversations will generate ideas for new innovations or creative solutions to problems.

Those accidents of creativity are called serendipity.

There is a debate on whether that is the case of if the potential for serendipity is worth the annoyance of constant interruptions.

That debate is not the purpose of this article. This article is about how you get through the day.

Everyone thinks their crisis is the most crucial crisis in the world.

The Bugged

In general, people who hate interruptions more will be more mindful of interrupting others. You probably found this blog because you’re like this.

A great tip is to be mindful of interrupting others, just like these people are. Another great tip is to not bug these people.

Don’t tap them on the shoulder. Don’t call them or ping them with an instant message client.

Email them. They’ll be happier helping you when they can do it on their time instead of at your disposal.

If you need a conversation instead of an email, email them using an <eom> subject. That means the body of the email has no text. You simply send an email that says,

“When you have time, I have a question. <eom>”

“<eom>” means “end of message.”  They may not know it the first time they get one, but it means they don’t have to waste time opening the email to see what it says. They’ll know the next time, though. If they get pop-up alerts, they’ll be interrupted by it, but won’t have to interrupt their flow and waste time opening and reading a message that can wait.

The Buggers

Then there are the ones who enjoy all the interruptions, or they just don’t realize how annoying it is to be interrupted. Even though they may get annoyed when they’re interrupted.

People who bug you frequently don’t realize that if there is someone they frequently go to for help that others also probably frequently need to go to that person for help. They think their need is the most important in the world, that theirs is the most crucial crisis.

Go ahead and get up to bug the buggers. Go tap them on the shoulder or knock on their desk. Sitting too much is bad for you. You need to get up anyway, so get up and bug the buggers. Annoy the annoying. Interrupt the interrupters. Be extra friendly about it. Don’t be rude or unpleasant to them. They may enjoy the interruptions. They may lack confidence in their abilities or worth and be thrilled when someone comes to them and lets them know they’re needed.

Or you might just be returning an interruption.


Trips, Baby, Captain Trips!

A day at the office doesn’t need to turn into Stephen King’s The Stand or the movie Contagion. But that’s a lot of people with a lot of germs. It’s a lot of people with immune systems pounded into submission by too much stress, too much junk food, insufficient exercise and probably about zero Vitamin D.

And we’re all in this open area together, many not covering coughs and many not washing their hands. It’s not as disgusting as it sounds, though.

Is it?

Don’t Spread Germs

I’ve never understood the “honor” of never calling in sick. You think you’re showing everyone how dedicated or tough you are, but all you’re doing is getting others sick, costing the company more money in lost productivity and costing your co-workers money and time treating the sickness from the germs you spread by going to work sick.

If you go into the office when you’re contagious, you’re not a hero. You’re an idiot.

Check that. Harsh words from the happiness dude.

Especially now that we’re all in the open plan office together, don’t bring those germs to work. Call in sick or work from home. If your boss or boss’s boss doesn’t allow working from home, then make sure you spend lots of time with them if you come in sick.

Maintain Optimum Health Practices

Someone will eventually want to show how tough they are, or they’ll be so paranoid about not being seen busy and available in the office, and they’ll come to the office sick. It’s also likely some will come to work and legitimately not know they’re contagious.

Remember that your well-being and your health [are not management’s responsibility]. Take good care of yourself.

Do all the things you need to do to stay healthy and keep your immune system strong because all of us and all of our germs are in here together.


Headphones can serve a dual purpose. They can shield you from the noise distractions, and they can signal that you are busy.

When my company went to the open plan office, my manager bought everyone in his team who wanted them noise-canceling headphones. Although I have a pair of Bose QuietComfort 835s, I don’t use them at work. They sure do work well on airplanes or when vacuuming the floors.

Get Solace from the Noise

They will cut out all the noise except what you want to hear, your sweet, sweet music. They won’t help with bad lighting and or other visual distractions, but lots of people use them.

I use these earbuds.

They cost significantly less than most. I enjoy the sound they produce for earbuds, and especially at that price. The cord is long and can tangle, but I like the sound. The don’t cancel out noise, but the sound quality is good enough that I don’t hear many distractions. In fact, it annoys my coworkers on occasion because I can’t hear them when they want my attention.

Admittedly, I am pretty good at tuning out everything when I get into the zone, even in a highly distractive open plan office. I attribute this more to my habits of practicing focus described in other posts than to the earbuds.

Can’t You See I’m Working?!

Not “busy.” Working.

Headphones can also serve as a signal that you are busy. I recommend against wearing them all day as I do. I’m not trying to get promoted or earn brownie points for “looking busy” or “being available.” I have two objectives: 1. enhance my ability to Get into flow states and stay there and 2. Get important work done. I know that [This job is temporary] and that [my well-being is my responsibility.], and I’m nurturing my creativity for the long-term.

It does annoy some that I wear earbuds constantly. I’m okay with their disapproval because I have different goals than they do. Bear in mind that if you wear your headphones all the time, they won’t give the signal that you are busy when you wear them, and you shouldn’t expect anyone to wait until you remove your headphones to interrupt you.


Get out of your cube for lunch. even if you eat in your cube, bet out of the building for 30 to 6- minutes. [show links to benefits]

I go to the gym for lunch, then eat in my cube when I return.

I’m working on a Corporate Survival Course. I wanted to launch it last year. I had a sorta soft launch. Now that I’ve been moved into an open work area, I’ll add ways to help survive open work areas.

Please tell me about your open work area. If you register, don’t use your work email address.

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