Workplace Trends

Workforce Trends

Cube Life: Dealing With Disruption

By Greg Simpson on February 10, 2014

Working in open cubicles can often be a challenge. Without privacy, you may find yourself an unwitting participant in co-workers’ loud conversations or trapped by an unwelcome visitor who wants to engage in extended personal conversations. Of course, there’s also the background din of office equipment and music.

Many organizations are beginning to realize that an open office environment may not be conducive to jobs that require a high degree of concentration. A recent article in The New Yorker, The Open-Office Trap, supports this viewpoint. Several studies cited in the article arrive at the same conclusion: an open office environment—designed to encourage collaboration and communication—actually reduces an employee’s attention span, cognitive performance, creativity and productivity. It’s also shown to increase stress levels which, in turn, negatively impacts employee health.

While casual conversations with co-workers can often unlock great ideas and set the foundation for future collaboration, what can you do if co-worker interruptions have become detrimental to your performance? Here are a few tips for minimizing distractions in an open office:

  • Use a direct approach. Get comfortable setting boundaries and learn to tactfully remove yourself from conversations. You want to avoid being unfriendly, so establish your own time limit for social conversations. When you reach that, simply explain you are going to get back to work.
  • Control what you can. Arrange your workstation so you’re not making eye contact with every co-worker walking by your desk. Co-workers are less likely to pop in for a personal chat if they can’t establish eye contact.
  • Use nonverbal cues. Continue to glance at your work or check your watch. Don’t encourage the conversation by asking questions or nodding in agreement. You can avoid awkwardness by offering to catch up at a more convenient time.
  • Find some quiet. If all else fails and you’re having difficulty concentrating on a project, ask your manager if you can use a conference room for a few hours. .

Disengaging from a workplace conversation is a balancing act that weighs your reputation for approachability and responsiveness against obstacles to your performance. A few key strategies —laced with tact—could offer a solution to your open-office challenge.

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