About three months ago I got a new job and moved from an office where employees had modest private offices all surrounding a shared work bench area to an office with pretty small cubicles with half walls or hallways between them.
(My apologizes for the poor diagram) The walls between each cubicle are are full-height walls with the exception of the the green one between cubicle 'C' and the cubicle directly to its right. The green rectangle represents my desk where I face towards the window. My immediate supervisor has a small private office directly across the hallway from my cubicle, meaning I walk through that little opening between cubicle 'B' and cubicle 'C' into his office in about four paces. All other other desks are in the same location and orientation respective to their cubicle.
I am having a terrible time adjusting to this new office arrangement. I've noticed a couple of things:
- I can overhear pretty much any conversation anyone is having in my immediate two to three cube area. I find anything more than hushed conversation disruptive to my concentration.
- The open plan means people will occasionally use the hallway between the back wall and the cubicles for transit. I don't have it so bad, but poor 'B' often has the door opened into his workspace so someone can "cut through" and skip walking around the row. I also find this disruptive to my concentration.
- The open plan really encourages, "Hey, 'C', what about Server 'Y'?" questions from my co-workers. Constantly. I suppose this is good but again constantly diverting my attention from what I'm working on to my co-workers requests has made it difficult to concentrate.
- The same open plan really facilitates generally "cross-cubicle" conversation, for example 'B' talking to the person in 'D'. I find it disruptive feeling like I'm literally in the middle of their conversation.
- Less frequently but maybe a few times a week, people will stand behind me and lean over the half wall to talk to the person in the cubicle directly to my right. They are close enough that I could probably lean back in my chair and bump them.
I work as a Systems Administrator and consequently I am some what used to being "interrupt driven". I also know that I'm someone, who when concentrating on a particularly difficult problem, a disruption to my train of thought, be it a conversation "next door" or a "Hey, 'C', what about Server 'Y'?" question sets me back a good 15 minutes. Put another way - in University some people can study successfully in the nosiest and busiest cafes, while other people need to study on the quiet floors of library. I fell into the latter category.
Is there anything I can do to adapt myself to this new office environment and culture? When I needed a solid hour or two of time to concentrate on something in my previous position, I simply would just close my door. I can't really replicate that same sort environment at my new job. Wearing headphones does not seem to signal the same sense of, "I'm concentrating right now, please come back later". Wearing my Howard Leigh Ear-Pro would certainly kill the ambient noise but I'm concerned I would be perceived (and rightly so to some extent) as unavailable and anti-social.
- Are there any tools I can leverage to recovery my train of thought quicker from an interruption or disruption?
- How can I adapt myself and my troubleshooting method to this new culture of "availability"?
First I want to respond to some comments about the general working environment - I was pretty frustrated when I asked this question and I think it shows... but it doesn't fairly reflect the positive aspects of my working environment. There are a lot of great things here but the cubicle layout isn't one of them and it's doubly hard for me since I had a private office at my former employer. I'm not quite ready to jump ship, hence why the question is focused on how I can adapt to this new work environment instead of how I can change it to better suit my inclinations. That and I'm concerned that if I can't work in, or don't enjoy working in cubicles then I'll need to seriously consider a different career. These kinds of semi-open cubicle "neighborhoods" seem to be the rule and not the exception. If I can't adjust I should go look for a different career.
There's also some references to introvert/extrovert in the answers. My Meyers-Brigg type is INTJ but only just. I'm about 52% 'I'. I retake the test about once a year and will occasionally test 'E'. My issues aren't so much drive by introversion as they are by my preference for quiet and uninterrupted periods of time where I can try to learn and digest complex new things; I hardly think I'm unusual or unreasonable in the respect.
Things that don' really work in my environment:
- Physical changes to the space - Unfortunately, this isn't really an option, although I think it is the largest contributor to this situation. Our organization is pushing new space standards which include a completely open floorplan (we'd lose the full size walls) and smaller cubicle spaces. Any reconfiguration of the cubicles would mean we would need to comply with the new standards.
- Relocate as required - We're not hot-racking our cubicles so people are pretty attached to their space. I think relocating at-will as functional dynamics required per bethlakshmi suggestion probably won't work.
- Communicate to others that I need uninterrupted time (i.e., put on headphones) - I've been trying this with mild success. Unless I turn my music up to point where it is loud enough to be disruptive to me (and presumably others in my immediate vicinity) the environment is still noisy enough to be disruptive. I've also found that headphones don't really have the intended effect of communicating, "I'm busy, please come back later". When people (both in my team and in the rest of the organization) have a question, they'll generally just knock on my desk or cube wall to get my attention when I'm wearing headphones. There's definitely a culture of availability and of being interrupt driven here (you should see our poor help desk guy) which I'm not going to overturn by simply putting on headphones.
Things that might work:
- Alternative work schedules and working from home one day a week could be a huge boon to me. I know we have the ability to work flex schedules like four 10 hour days which would give me an extra two hours of non-peak hours project time. As I settle in, I'm also going to pursue a "training day" where I work from home and spend uninterrupted time on complex and new stuff that I need to learn (I've found that biggest impact to my productivity in this environment is trying to learn or familiarize myself with new technologies of significant complexity).
- Conference rooms - These are pretty booked up by our executive and management tiers but I really like the idea of me and another employee just taking some laptops closing the door and spending a few hours working through whatever project we're assigned without interruption.
- Being the change - This is also great advice as it is about one of the only things I have control over. I'm hoping that by setting the example of not talking over the cubicle half-walls and by proactively asking team members if they need anything from me before I start "project time" I can break this interrupt-driven availability cycle, not only for me but for other team members as well.