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How to Survive in an Open Plan Office

It seems our employers want us to suffer, so we office rats have to take drastic measures. Here are some tangible tips.

by Hannah Ewens; photos by Chris Bethell
22 January 2020, 11:29am

All photos by Chris Bethell

Take it from me, someone who has huddled in a supply closet at work to escape incessant audible and visual distractions: there is nowhere to hide in the open plan office. There will always be a roving meeting stationed around your desk and a woman caterwauling at some inane office banter and a kettle boiling as a half-dozen teaspoons go full orchestral. The moment you find a little haven, the office manager will come and tell you security have seen you on the CCTV blocking the fire escape yet again and your presence there is a “health and safety hazard”. There’s nowhere in the OPO to rest your head, hear only the crackle of your tinnitus and finally: do some work.

You could say I have a more-than-minor stake in this issue. I once wrote a nuanced article titled "Open Plan Offices Should Be Banned Immediately". For five days out of seven, my surroundings become a genuine affront. I quietly believe my aforementioned tinnitus is almost entirely down to the "open fire crackling" playlists I play, roaring into my eardrums in an attempt to concentrate. But if it was down to the average employee, I suspect they'd ditch the company-wide open plan office – at least for people whose segments of solitary work, like mine, sometimes requires minimal collaboration and in-person contact.

In a recent survey of 2,000 UK workers, more than one-third were found to be actively looking for a new job with a more flexible working arrangement. The research, carried out by Know Your Money, also found that a significant 71 percent of workers consider flexible working (in term of hours and location) as important to their job satisfaction. But just half (50 percent) of the people surveyed said they're already able to work remotely when they want to. You see that reflected in the further responses from managers and directors. In data seen by VICE, 59 percent of business decision-makers said they'd seen an increase in employees demanding greater flexibility with hours and location. Even so, 60 percent of business decision-makers hadn't made any changes to flexible working policies in the past year.

Obviously, open plan offices were billed as innovative ways to 'foster an OPEN working environment, breaking down the physical and proverbial WALLS halting COLLABORATION' or whatever. But now, they feel more like a subtle surveillance tool. Employees must be seen by the corporation. The OPO maintains its status for the same reason companies are loathe to attempt a four-day week, despite evidence of its potential to increase employee productivity while lowering stress. But allowing workers the freedom to manage their own lives and workflow is far down a list of priorities in a system that worships being visible at all times, clearly working.

how to survive in a noisy open plan office

But if you have to be in your seat and be seen, you'll need ways to help you concentrate properly on your work: to shut out the distractions of noise and movement and that low-level buzz of anxiety your body creates in response to both stimuli. I brought in items from home and called in freebies from PRs to attempt to create a workable system of my own. Ideally you can take some of these tips for use in your own 9-to-6s.

how to survive in open plan office

Firstly, for the novices among us, your bread and butter: you'll need a pair of noise-cancelling headphones (optional internal foam earplugs for severe cases of office bullshit). Blast some ambient noise as loud as you can through those headphones. My favourite is an eight-hour psychedelic noise mix on YouTube called “852 Hz ➤ Release Unconscious Bad Energy” which doubles as a countdown to home-time.

That’s where I usually stop, but why not get a ridiculous CBD drink and detox tea in place of anything caffeinated? A lavender candle had much promise – but I soon remembered I couldn’t light it in the office without someone dobbing me in. You may or may not be permitted to work beside an open flame; adjust this advice accordingly.

open plan office survival methods

With essentials in place, change up your desk surface. I used a VARIDESK standing desk, that claimed to make me happier, healthier and more productive. This made me feel like a #boss and no doubt would improve the tension collecting in my back from pretending I’m not being assaulted by stimuli – but it didn’t much help with the overall problem, as it only elevated me to a higher plane where I could hear more noise. I needed to be lower, much lower.

open plan office

If there is a stress and anxiety reduction measure to take, you can bet I’ve tried it in this office. I’ve tended to plants of all kinds, and obviously they all die. They aren't enormous fans of the desperate search for strong, natural light synonymous with office life either. But nature would be essential to curating my ideal space and oxidising the air around me. I probably hadn’t thought big enough and so, here, I advise you to repurpose the plants that are dotted around your office to look attractive to important visitors.

open plan office

Position as many of these plants as you can around your desk to make a forest, blocking out the employees sitting to your left or right. If you have to hear them, must you see them? There you can take your brief breaks while doing the Pomodoro Technique® in peace – use Headspace or a stress ball or these N.O.W. tone therapy discs I'm clasping below, built to reduce anxiety in three minutes. Breathe, breathe, breathe before you spin back to your desk and resume the drudgery.

open plan office

Unfortunately work is made up of units of time but not all of those are meditation breaks. When you need to get on with work in a busy environment it’d be nice to have a metaphorical blanket to dampen the frisson of stress. Why not bring a Gravity Blanket into the office?

open plan office

Finally, this was a different working experience altogether. Now, I was cocooned in a way that said ‘home’ and ‘womb’ but unsurprisingly could slip into a more focussed state. However, even being smothered by ten percent of your own body weight won't help with the visual disturbances common in the OPO: the movements of colleagues, the flashes of other people’s screens.

open plan office

Here: a laptop tent for professional photographers. I’d seen them at festivals and our regular VICE photographer, Chris, brought the spirit of the fayre with him by lending me one. I assembled it very simply within seconds and stuck my head inside. Now we were getting somewhere.

open plan office

Finish your perfect set-up by inspiring your fellow colleagues to have a bit more respect for the solitary worker. If we could all come together with a common goal (doing The Work) perhaps we’d get a little closer to achieving something like adequate productivity levels.

open plan office

What is an office without a few passive-aggressive notes after all? Community boards exist to disseminate messages among staff. And what message is more important than ‘let’s do a bit of work’?

open plan office survival tips

All these tips are pointing to one conclusion, of course: that the only way to make the open plan office bearable is to make it as far from an open plan office as possible. To reduce it to the much-maligned cubicle, or better yet an office of my own. There's only one thing you, the worker, can do about this problem and that is to follow these tips and share this article on your public-facing social media channels to shame your employer. It's the best I've got. Now please, be quiet, and leave me to my content creation.

@hannahrosewens / @christopherbethell

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The VICE offices
open plan offices
9 to 5
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