5 tips for staying sane, productive and healthy in an open office

Try to establish some personal space for yourself if you don’t like open offices.

5 tips for staying sane, productive and healthy in an open office

I’ve spent most of my career working in open offices — that’s the norm in newsrooms, where I spent most of my 20s and 30s. In fact, even though I now work from home and in a small private office, I often go out to coffee shops just to get a similar vibe. I thrive in open offices — the background noise actually helps me focus and concentrate.

At the same time, I know that’s not the case for everybody. Ask your friends and co-workers about open offices and you’re bound to hear many of them complain about distractions and lowered productivity. And there is something to that — a survey of more than 42,000 office workers found that people who work in an open office aren’t as efficient as employees who have their own offices.

I’ve found that the effectiveness of an open office often depends on company culture. An already collaborative organization may be more inclined to thrive in an open plan, while a company characterized by withholding information or distrust is likely to see those traits magnified in an open office.

I turned to my longtime colleague and friend Brooke Howell — who might very well be the queen of open office haters — for her favorite tips for staying sane and productive in an open office.

Create privacy however you can

Making sure you have some personal space — even if it’s mostly an illusion — is helpful. “In the most recent open office I worked in, I tried to give myself a little privacy by putting a tall plant and a small shelf on my desk to create a cubicle-like feeling and block off some personal space for myself,” Brooke says. Depending on the layout, you may be able to face outward from the larger group so you are less distracted visually.

Use the meeting spaces

Well-designed open offices often have meeting spaces, including small rooms you can use for personal phone calls. “Use these when you have to discuss something you don’t want everyone to hear,” she says, whether on a call or in person. It will keep the common areas quieter, and you won’t have to worry if others are listening.

If your office doesn’t have meeting spaces, consider making phone calls from a stairwell or outside if the weather is nice. “That’s also good to get your blood flowing and get a break from sitting at your desk.”

Block the noise

Noise cancelling headphones or simple earplugs can help you tune out the bustle. You may find that listening to music is as distracting as the office noise, however, so consider a white-noise app if you need something to block out sounds. Make sure your employer doesn’t have a policy against headphones in the workplace.

Wash your hands

Working in an open office can affect your health. According to a study from the journal Ergonomics, employees who worked in open offices used more short-term sick leave than those who didn’t. Wash your hands and keep your workstation clean: According to the CDC, washing hands can reduce respiratory illnesses such as colds by more than 20% in a community. Use disinfecting wipes on your desk, keyboard and mouse.

Be respectful — but speak up

Open offices require everyone to be mindful of their co-workers. Be respectful with noise levels, perfume, fragrant flowers and strong-smelling food. Cover your mouth when you sneeze and stay home when you’re really sick to avoid passing it along to co-workers.

And if the open office isn’t working for you, speak up, Brooke says. People who are being disruptive may not realize it. If something is bothering you, be prepared to politely ask people to take conversations elsewhere or lower their voices.