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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.

a really ugly diagram

(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"?

EDIT

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.
  • I totally agree with @Joe Strazzere. I left a job with an open office layout, that was otherwise a very good job, after less than a year. All things being equal, I'll never do it again. – Jim G. Jul 14 '13 at 18:10
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    Is asking for a different seating an option? Sounds like you really need a door. – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Jul 15 '13 at 8:44
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    Can you work from home? – enderland Jul 15 '13 at 11:24
  • You have cubicles? You should try the long-open-bench back-to-back desk layout... – Ed Randall Mar 27 '17 at 9:08
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I'll admit, I'm not of the introverted type, but I've managed people who are, and respect their skills at adapting themselves and their environment. Based on watching others, here's some thoughts.

Relocate?

If the pattern is that the resident of B is yelling over your head to D (the far right) alot - and you're not needed in the mix, you might offer the idea that you and D switch places. In a small, informal office, usually engineers changing places isn't so bad. People will usually reorient themselves for better views, so you may find that if B and D are nearby, they not only stop yelling over your head, they stop yelling and just roll over to see each other.

This may only work in some situations - if B & D are a very functional partnership, this is a big win. If the boss has a reason to want to separate the two, or if you really are expected to be part of the conversation, this may be a loosing option... but it's worth a try.

Break the Pattern

Particularly within a team, people get into a high-interrupt pattern. Don't be unhelpful, but find ways to be helpful a time of your choosing. For example, when you have a task that everyone agrees is important, that's going to require some focused time, try this:

1 - ask around - does anyone need anything? Just a heads up that you'll be tuning them out to think out this thing. The conversation should be short and sweet, don't let it eat an hour.

2 - sit down and tune out - now put on the noise killing headphones and eliminate any other distractions. Give yourself and allotted time (an hour or two, an afternoon, etc) to work focused.

3 - Tell the gang you're finished and check in again.

The goal here is to make sure your team is supported but in the way that you can support them.

A similar trick is to almost always respond to "hey, can you...?" with "hang on a sec, I'll be right over". Don't let a pattern continue that you can't work with. You probably only get 5-10 minutes back, but it sets up a context that it is and should be OK to let someone finish a thought before demanding answers.

Be the change

If the yelling over cube walls makes you crazy, be the change, don't succumb. When you have a question, do the behavior you'd like to see - walk over, knock, and ask for help. You might just start a good trend.

Altered work hours?

In a lot of high-interaction environments, it's not unusual for people to seek interruption-free time - check in with the boss, and see if you can stagger your hours a bit - often going off the norm by 2 hours is not crazy. It gives you 6 hours a day of being there for the team and 2 hours of needed quiet time.

Civil Engineering

Not always possible, but the question of why people use the through-the-cube path can sometimes yeild results... People tend to follow a path of least resistance without thinking about it. Things to ponder:

  • Was this a pattern that started when your space was empty? often people get going with a pattern when a given space in tight quarters is empty, and then forget that it's really annoying when a human has returned. Sometimes you can break this pattern with simply making a point of saying a friendly hello - it reminds them that you are aware of their presence, and it would really be nicer not to walk through this space.

  • Is there a reason to be using this exit? For example, if you just so happen to sit near the water cooler, can the water cooler be resituated? Mileage varies, of course - if you sit near the bathroom, for example, it's unlikely that the problem can change.

17

Welcome to what Susan Cain calls "the new groupthink". In "Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking", Susan describes how the open office plan has made it's way into the workplace. According to Susan, managers believe that it's not the single individual who is most able to innovate; instead, innovation comes from crowdsourcing, from the idea that solutions to complex problems will arise from brainstorming sessions that can only be had in groups. In her book, Susan describes how this line of thinking can be problematic for introverts (as well as extroverts) tasked with solving really complex problems that require deep focus and concentration, the type of tasks where one must maintain the state of several variables in one's head at the same time.

Find a quieter workspace, if you have a laptop:

While working on a group project in college, I literally excused myself from the computer lab and told the group I was going to find another lab to work in where I could focus on trying to solve a core problem we were working on. I explained to them that I'm at a point where I need to focus, and I suggested they use chat to talk with me if they have questions. I explained that chat allows us to still communicate but allows me to get to a stopping point before I answer any questions. This let the other 3 members collaborate on areas of the project I wasn't working on, allowed me to go off into "the zone", yet still allowed us to collaborate in a manner that let me get to a stopping point without losing my place.

Communicate to others when you need time to focus

When I'm working on relatively simple tasks, or tasks that involve using tools I know intimately, I can work and listen to the background noise in the office. I'm still productive. I can answer a quick question without losing my place. Chances are, you also have tasks that aren't too complicated to where you can work and talk at the same time.

However, when trying to troubleshoot more complex issues, this is where this line of thinking fails. When working on things that involve maintaining the state of several systems in my head at the same time, I'll ask people to report bugs by chat or email, I'll put on my headphones, and ignore the world around me. The solution to this problem is to take the lesson I learned from my college group project and apply it to your situation. If you know you have something really complex to do, use chat to let your colleagues know that you'll need X hours of uninterrupted time to work on a complex problem. Ask that they chat you if they need something.

Put on your headphones, even if you don't turn on the music. This will help others see that you're busy and make them less likely to interrupt you.

The key is to communicate. It's harmful, especially as a System Administrator, to create an environment where people have to make an appointment to visit with you, but it's also harmful to your productivity to be interrupted when you're working on something complicated. So by communicating when you need uninterrupted time and when you're working on less complicated things, this will help maintain a healthy balance between your own productivity and being open to helping others. Most people will understand this as long a you're patient with them and understand that sometimes they will need something from you in order to get their job done too.

Just know that you'll still get interrupted -- don't blow up at these people. Just calmly let them know you're in the middle of something and can get back to them in X hours. Eventually, more people will get the hint while not seeing you as a tyrant or a jerk. :)

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    This might be a good way to use meeting rooms outside of meetings. – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Jul 15 '13 at 8:45
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    I'm not an introvert at all (ENTJ), and I know a lot of other developers who aren't either that simply cannot stand an open office layout and the constant interruptions that come with it. This problem isn't exclusive to introverts, just wanted to point that out. – Andrew Bartel Jul 15 '13 at 20:37
  • @AndrewBartel - That's a good point, and no one is really pure extrovert or pure introvert. We all sit somewhere in the middle. Susan focused mainly on introverts because, in her experience, the open office layout has a more profound effect on people who are recharged and re-energized by being alone. – jmort253 Jul 16 '13 at 0:55
  • @jmort253, she actually says in the book that open office plans cause problems for everyone, not just introverts. The open office destroys creativity and focus. – user1602 Dec 5 '13 at 18:04
  • True, @Kyralessa, and I suspect introverts, in general, are much more sensitive to this than extroverts. I've definitely know extroverts who were wise to this fact and would seek solitude to overcome tough problems. – jmort253 Dec 5 '13 at 18:32
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I've found that listening to music on my headphones works wonders. Just make sure that you can hear your desk phone ringing. If someone wants something badly enough from you, they will make the effort of getting up and approaching your desk. I'm a C# developer and I also find that if someone interrupts me in the middle of something technical like encrypting, serializing and persisting something, I have to basically hit Ctrl+z and start the whole process from scratch, or spend hours on StackOverflow trying to debug obscure error messages.

Talk to you line manager. Explain your situation clearly and ask if it's okay for you to wear headphones. You can still be contacted via email, IM or phone, so it's not like you'll be unreachable.

  • A set of really good earplugs might also work in cutting out the noise. I would prefer earplugs, as I have a hard time concentrating with music around. – Paul Hiemstra Jul 15 '13 at 8:24
  • Whatever works for you. Earplugs are just a little more rude than headphones. Mind you, classical or chamber music isn't particularly distracting. – Captain Kenpachi Jul 15 '13 at 9:48
  • One of my co-workers at a previous job liked to use those head-phone style hearing protector (commonly seen on landscapers). Easier on/off than earplugs for most people, and it's very obvious you're trying to get work done. – Michael Kohne Jul 15 '13 at 12:12
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    @PaulHiemstra - you may want to try listening to white noise (www.simiplynoise.com) or pink, brown... – user8365 Jul 26 '13 at 18:08
  • I completely agree. Earplugs work wonders. – Ciprian Jan 11 '16 at 15:15

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