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Find privacy and peace of mind even when you’re surrounded by chatty coworkers

It's just like an office…felt hood by Mottowasabi

Open Office: A Survival Guide

Studies denouncing the open office plan are plenty, but chances are you’re still stuck in one – 70% of offices have open working spaces, according to the International Facility Management Association. Here at Uncubed, we’re not against open spaces, but we are in favor of being productive at work.

“Done correctly, ‘open office’ is only one part of a complete workplace, and it can function well when it is balanced with the spaces people need for quiet, focus, privacy, etc,” Peter Clarke, an engineer with Altanova, a company that helps create sustainable and efficient workplaces, told us.

“Unfortunately, delivering the whole package requires thought and money, and this is where it usually falls short with a variety of negative outcomes,” he said. In a survey of Fortune 400 tech companies, Altanova found noise to be the biggest issue employees face in open office spaces. “This causes distraction, and people feel a lack of privacy,” he said. “Dealing with confidential issues becomes hard. Heads down and focus work becomes hard. Some people simply hate it.”

Collaborate to End Disruptions
Although you’re never going to stop your boss from popping by for an impromptu talk, you might be able to change the chatty ways of your coworkers and team members. Share calendars to indicate quiet times and socializing times and devise a universal “I’m not available” sign. Maybe it’s placing a certain desk toy out or putting on headphones.

Head Off the Problem
Speaking of headphones, even if you’re a habitual earbud user, you’ll want to switch to something more encompassing to cancel out distracting sounds efficiently (and visually indicate you’re not open for a quick convo). Invest in cushioned headphones that surround the ear and block out sound. Depending on how bad the situation is at work, you could spend around $300 on noise-canceling headphones like Bose QuietComfort 25 or a bit over $100 on Audio-Technica ATH-M50x, a favorite of audio pros.

For a more high-tech solution, get on the waiting list for Doppler’s Here Active Listening System. They fit in your ear, but rather than offering sound or music, the system allows users to enhance, augment, or filter out what they hear in real life.

Sounds Like Rain
Use those fancy new headphones to stream soothing background noise and drown out the office’s loud talker/eater/typer. Plug into Simply Noise for the classic static of a white noise machine. A Soft Murmur allows you to calibrate volumes of nature sounds–rain, thunder, waves, wind, and fire–for just the right outdoor vibe. Just looking for a simple rainstorm? Rainy Mood is for you. Do you always work better in coffee shops? Ask to work remotely, or bring the coffee shop to you with Coffitivity. Choose from coffee shop sounds like University Undertones, which delivers “the scholarly sounds of a campus café.” Work best in cafe while it’s raining? There’s a site for that too–the aptly named Rainy Cafe.

Sound Absorbing Furniture
If your employer is interested in adding a few fixtures to your open office to decrease noise and distractions, there are plenty of modular options that don’t require construction. Finland-based design group Mottowasabi created felt hoods that surround your head on three sides and offer privacy and absorb sound. The line of hoods, called Tomoko, can be placed on your desks. Freestanding hoods can be positioned over your head while you’re at a chair or on the phone. For further concealment, Swedish furniture designers Glimakra have created cubbies that mute sound and can be moved to create more defined desk space, yes, like a cubicle.

If your employer doesn’t pony up for more furniture, look for alternative spaces for a quiet moment of thought, like infrequently-used meeting rooms or a corner with couch. “The emerging rule of thumb suggests that a 50:50 ratio of what Steelcase (a design company) calls “I” space to “we” space is needed,” said Clarke. Steelcase makes a cocoon-like desk surrounded on three-sides by privacy screens.

“If you’re going to shrink people’s immediate, assigned workspace and pile them on top of each other you need to provide approximately the same amount of space in the form of small and large private meeting rooms, phone booths, formal and informal collaborative spaces, cafes etc.,” he said.

“A variety of alternative spaces and the appearance of choice is very important. Humans seem to like choices,” he said.


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