By Alan Henry
The New York Times
From Our NYT Files: Simple Desk Improvements That Make an Open Office Easier to Bear
Open floor plans and “flexible” office seating are common in today’s modern, meticulously designed workplaces. While designers and managers hope that they’ll improve communication by encouraging people to talk to one another, more than a few studies have pointed out that they may actually do the opposite, and instead are simply designed to be cost-effective. And there is widespread agreement that they make workers miserable. If you’re stuck with an open floor plan, there are a few things you can do to block out the noise, focus and make your work space a bit more inviting every day.
Make Yourself at Home
A few personal effects, like a photo, a desk toy that expresses your personality or a sweater you can wear if it gets too cold (and we all know how chilly it gets in open offices) will make your desk — flexible seating or not — feel like a place you can settle in and get work done. Add a water bottle, hand sanitizer and lotion, and it’ll really feel like home. I like to keep an umbrella and a blazer in my desk storage, depending on the season. Roy Mann, chief executive and co-founder of monday.com, a company that helps teams collaborate better, said he likes to keep a few clocks visible — not just the ones on your laptop or phone. “We do this so that people can measure their time,” Mr. Mann said, “understand how long meetings take, and assess how much time they’re spending on projects.” Similarly, consider a few quality-of-life upgrades for your desk, like a wireless charging pad to keep your phone’s battery topped off during the day. If your phone doesn’t support wireless charging, or even if it does, a powered USB hub keeps everything charged and also gives you a way to plug in additional gadgets. Wirecutter, the New York Times company that reviews products, has suggestions for both USB 3.0 hubs and hubs for newer computers that use USB-C. They also have a great pick for a multi-port USB charging hub that’s small enough to stash on any desk, even a shared one. Just remember to bring a good charging cable. If you don’t have an assigned desk but do have storage like a closet, locker or cabinet, make sure your effects are also portable enough to store. You may even consider bringing a small tote bag, so you can pack up your stuff at the end of the day and grab it when you arrive in the morning.
Add Some Green
A little greenery can create a more relaxing space, and office friendly plants like succulents and air plants are easy to care for. They’ll survive if you have to switch seats, stay home sick for a few days or go on vacation. We have suggestions for plants that are hard to kill and tips to care for indoor plants.
Whatever you do, make sure the plants will thrive in your specific desk environment. Even if the plant you buy doesn’t need a lot of water, it may not do well in fluorescent lighting, far from the windows. Others might be fine without direct light, but a chilly office will stunt their growth. At my last job, I had a set of succulents that were too close to a cold, uninsulated window, so they didn’t grow until I moved them away from it.
Use Headphones to Cancel the Noise
Office designers hoped that open floor plans would encourage workers to collaborate by physically removing the barriers to communication. Instead, headphones became the new walls, because those open plans can get loud, and privacy is at a premium. I’m a headphones-in-the-office enthusiast, and while they can certainly make some office interactions a little awkward, it’s not difficult to overcome, and the trade-off in privacy is more than worth it. Not all headphones are equal, and not all headphones are great for the office. So-called open-back headphones offer more expansive, rich sound, but the open back means everyone around you can hear a little of what you’re listening to. Closed-back headphones, on the other hand, offer a little more isolation, which means sound quality can feel more closed in and tight, but you won’t treat the person next to you to an impromptu concert. You could use the same earbuds you use with your phone; if you need help finding good wireless earbuds, check out Wirecutter’s guide. However, if you want good audio and a clearer way to signal “I’m working,” you need a pair of over-ear, noise canceling headphones. Both Wirecutter and I agree you can’t beat the Bose QuietComfort 35 Series II. They’re comfortable to wear for long periods, offer great audio quality and feature noise cancellation that will block out background noise like chatty co-workers (as long as they’re not the really chatty ones.) They are pricey, so Wirecutter has plenty of other, budget-friendly options as well.
Use Music to Help You Focus
Not everyone likes music while they work, but I find an upbeat, instrumental playlist helps me tune out the rest of the world and focus. You probably have a favorite streaming music service already, or even a killer playlist you listen to when you’re in the zone, but consider trying one of those services’ mood-based stations as well. Spotify and Google Play Music, for example, let you type in a word like “focus” or “work,” and will automatically play songs to encourage you to get things done. If you don’t care for what Spotify or Google serves up, YouTube has user-driven, live-streaming music channels that play specifically “music to work or study to,” like lo-fi, instrumental hip-hop stations and other 24/7 streaming stations playing subdued, instrumental, electronica intended to help you focus. If you’d prefer more control, Pandora is always a good bet because you can prompt the service with an artist or song and let it handle the rest.
Get Away Sometimes
Regardless of your work space, try to get away from it sometimes. Working from home is a great option if it’s available to you. If it’s not, try to find a quiet corner in your office to escape the noise. You might even try camping out in an empty conference room for a few hours, or book it for most of the day to give yourself — and maybe a few of your colleagues — a quiet place to be productive. Mr. Mann endorsed this idea. “Sometimes, you just need a few minutes of privacy or a room to to focus and not be disturbed,” he said. “The smaller rooms are essential to success in an open work space as it gives people an opportunity to work privately or quietly together. An open space also allows for large public areas to be built for gathering and socializing. For an open space to be effective, people also need to have the ability to sit alone or with someone else in private.”