I don’t know if there’s any evidence that open-space office schemes actually facilitate creativity and collaboration, as they are supposedly designed to do. But they have absolutely sparked an unbelievable boom in people complaining about having their privacy undermined.
I’d bet the productivity lost to time spent teeth-grinding over this issue cancels out whatever serendipitous gains result from being up in one another’s business all the time.
Unfortunately, there’s no easy single-shot remedy. But here’s a three-point plan. It’s not pain-free, but it ought to help restore some sanity if you find yourself in this uncomfortable work situation.
Step One: Headphones
Headphones — ”the new walls” of the open-plan era — are a great start. Even if they don’t always work immediately, they still help lay some “do not disturb” groundwork. When someone talks to you while you are wearing headphones or earbuds, always take a moment (maybe raise a “one second please” finger) to theatrically remove them. This underscores the fact that your visitor is interrupting, and better have something to say.
And as dumb as this might sound, consider how conspicuous your headphones or earbuds are. Interestingly, Apple’s gleaming white and visually distracting AirPods have lately started to transport the don’t-talk-to-me message outside the workplace to everywhere.
The AirPods Barrier,” as Buzzfeed recently called it, is “making life weird for people interacting with those wearing them. Are they listening to me? Are they listening to music? A podcast? Just hanging? It’s tough to know.” Hostile Planet host Bear Grylls bluntly confessed to The Wall Street Journal that this human-repelling property of AirPods is at the heart of his enthusiasm for them: “They changed my life. And I hate to say this, but if I have them on in the airport people are less likely to come chat me up.”
This is all obnoxious and gross, and another step backward for civil discourse and humanity in general.
It is also, in this instance, your goal.
Step Two: Speak Up
As is often the case, the best way to communicate your boundaries is to actually communicate your boundaries.
If people from another department are hanging around your workspace blathering, you can simply say: “Hey y’all, no offence, but I’m trying to focus on something here and the conversation is making it hard for me to concentrate. Can you talk in the conference room [or wherever]?” Say it in a friendly way, with a smile. This isn’t a fight. It’s common courtesy!
The shoulder-tapper is trickier. You can try non-verbal cues: obvious disinterest in whatever the interruption is about, combined with dramatically irritated urgency about getting back to what you were doing. (And maybe throw in a Merkel flinch response to the handsy attention-getting.)
If this person’s neediness is really interfering with your job, you may have to be more direct. It’s totally okay to say, “No offence, but it’s sometimes hard for me to concentrate when the office is noisy. If I have headphones on, can you hold off on anything that’s not work-related until later?”
Again, don’t make it a confrontation. But don’t deny yourself the right to articulate basic ground rules.
Step Three: Be Generous
Now that I’ve harangued you into laying down the law — try to compromise sometimes.
Go ahead and let your colleague show you a funny picture now and then. Tolerate a co-worker’s less-than-stellar account of a weekend adventure. Remove your headphones and devote a minute or two to listening to a fellow human being who, like you, is simply trying to make it through this life in a manner that is personally enjoyable and does as little harm as possible.
We all need to be indulged sometimes. And you don’t want to end up sending the signal that you’re just flat-out antisocial and have no time for anybody else. Give a little.
But just a little. Then cut that mess off and get back to work.