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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

5 Really Annoying Open-Office Issues (Plus, Solutions for How to Deal With Each One)

The closest thing I’ve ever had to a regular office (read: non-open) was a nifty little cubicle. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was actually quite spacious, and, of course, it was private. I might not have had a door to close, but I had makeshift walls around me, making the distractions few and far between.

My experience with the cubicle no doubt made my transition to the wall-less environment less daunting than peers who’d grown used to occupying a space with physical boundaries, like a door. Like most open-office employees, I’m used to working on a computer mere inches from my colleagues.

The open office, at least a decade in the making now, has its critics. A recent Fast Company article asserts that “Open-plan offices have been found to reduce productivity and impair memory.” Moreover, the article states: “They’ve also been associated with high staff turnover.”

The lack of privacy and noise are obviously problematic. But, because it seems as if the trend’s only growing, if you work in such an environment, there’s only one thing to do: Deal with it. Here are five common issues you encounter and solutions for navigating them so that you can be your most productive self.

1. It’s Loud

This is the most obvious problem and not one that you can do much about, unfortunately. If Tim and Rita two desks down are having a riveting discussion on the latest marketing tools’ impact on traffic, you can’t very well shush them, and you certainly can’t ask your co-worker to take her sales call elsewhere just because you’d like some peace and quiet. What to do then?

Buy Noise-Cancelling Headphones

I discovered these Bose ear buds about six months ago, and I’ve never looked back. Life-changing isn’t an overstatement. With that said, they’re also not cheap, so if you can get your employer to spring for them as a necessary work-related expense, you won’t regret it. (But if you can’t, and want a reason to justify them beyond work, know that they’re awesome for traveling, too.) Even if you’re not someone who likes working with music on, the noise-cancelling feature sans sound works wonders.

And, if this purchase is not an option right now, you can try ear plugs or regular headphones, which are a distant second—but at least they’re inexpensive and helpful for muffling distracting sounds. Or, if you pair regular old headphones with these free ambient noise sites, you’ll be on your way to tuning everyone out.

2. Your Co-Worker’s Personal Call’s Distracting

You can’t very well get frustrated with Tara for taking her fiancé’s call at her desk; where else is she supposed to go in the bustling open space? While one can hope that our colleagues aren’t regularly taking lengthy personal calls from the seat two feet away from us, on occasion it’s bound to happen, and you’ve got to either work through it unfazed or…

Switch Locations

Does your office have additional communal work spaces? Couches and coffee tables for you to put your feet up on? A corner table? Proceed to another area. Many companies understand the need for quiet space, so if your organization has a designated no-talking area, relocating there is a good bet anytime the distractions around your assigned seat threaten to zap all productivity and focus.

As the Fast Company piece points out, “We need the freedom to choose what works for us,” and maybe sometimes that’s interpreted as steering clear of your too-small desk.

And if there isn’t a quiet spot available, use this as a reason to do something less urgent that you’ve been meaning to do—from grabbing lunch, to speaking with a co-worker about an upcoming project, to knocking out a few mindless tasks that’ve been sitting on your desk. By the time you wrap them up, the call will hopefully be over.

3. It’s Freezing

My current office is usually really cold. One day when it was particularly icy, I asked if we could turn the air conditioning down. But because I’m not comfortable asking for my temperature preferences to be accommodated every day, I’ve had to problem-solve in other ways. I’ve made myself at home by bringing in items from home that keep me warm and focused.

Get Cozy

Go home tonight and grab your favorite hoodie, or beanie, or both. Do you have an extra blanket lying around? What about some thick wool socks? A microwavable heating pad? It may sound like overkill, but if the office chill is preventing you from getting anything done, it’s actually just your best recourse. Plus, it’s been suggested that personalizing your workspace can aid in productivity. No need to stop at a desk plant and framed photo then. Bring in whatever’s reasonable to make you comfortable and keep you plugging along.

4. There’s an Unpleasant Smell

Whether it’s a co-worker who missed the memo about appropriate cologne application or a colleague with a penchant for egg salad, the nose-scrunching scents of others can be distracting. But pointing out someone’s body odor isn’t something most of us will be comfortable with, so solution number two may be in order here. If, on the other hand, it’s a passing, unpleasant scent, get up and…

Go for a Walk

There are days when I’m so into my work that I nearly forget how much better I’ll be for the rest of the day if only I take a walk around the block or run out for a coffee. At the very least, a 10-minute stroll will refresh you and allow you to escape during your co-worker’s stinky lunch break.

5. You Want to Be in on the Conversation

Whether your co-workers are talking about the election, their Netflix queues, or a project that you’ll eventually have some part of, it can be hard to stay tuned into what’s in front of you when there are so many interesting conversations taking place around you throughout the day. Do you stop what you’re doing to chime in with your opinion on the big blockbuster your colleagues are talking about, or do you force yourself to drown them out and finish the presentation you started earlier in the day?

Pick and Choose

I’ll admit I have a hard time not jumping into a conversation I feel that I can contribute to; in fact, I’m always impressed when others don’t join in when I’m talking to someone about something which I’m sure they must find intriguing. But, I realized recently, in order to stay relatively on task and feel good about your to-do list, it’s all about picking and choosing when to add your two cents and when to coax your perked-up ears to shut out the distracting chatter around you.

There are a lot of things you can negotiate when you receive a job offer, but, unfortunately, a private office probably isn’t one of them. In a lot of companies, even the CEOs don’t have offices with doors. I’m afraid until some major, damning workplace study linking the open office to employee inability to do good work—any work!—is revealed, many of us have no choice but to find a way to make this setting work for us.

The upside? Learning to work around various distractions is a skill worth possessing, so continue to try out different solutions until you find one that works best for you. Because the more you can navigate distractions, the better you’ll be at your job.

Photo of open office courtesy of alvarez/Getty Images.