After a private office, working in a cubicle may require ground rules.
Q: I used to sit in an office, but my team recently moved to cubicles and a more open floor plan. I’m having trouble staying focused. For example, one of my neighbors has a lot of personal conversations that I can’t help but overhear. In fairness, I’m probably also annoying to others. What can I do to adjust? —Dan, 46, business analyst
A: Look for practical solutions while you also collectively explore some ground rules.
It’s a big adjustment, moving from a private workspace to more hustle and bustle. Odds are that you worked in a similar environment earlier in your career, so you probably have some past coping strategies to tap into.
One of the obvious solutions is to obtain some comfortable and effective noise-canceling headphones. A white-noise machine can also help. This will mask the annoyance of chatty neighbors. But sometimes artificially induced silence isn’t enough.
For example, what if you need to have a phone call and there’s a lot of noise? This may be a topic for setting a group ground rule. See if you can gain agreement that anyone can ask for quiet when there’s a call to be made. This needs to be reasonable, of course, as many people may be on the phone at the same time, and quiet, business-focused background conversations shouldn’t be an issue.
Consider other potential pain points to address as a group. Common annoyances can relate to perfume or cosmetic fragrances, food smells at people’s desks (think sardines), or failure to respect people’s privacy in their workspace.
If you decide that a team meeting would be helpful, consult with your boss to be sure that he or she agrees. Be clear on what you’d like to accomplish and set a positive tone.
Then take a step back. Is this really just a minor glitch between two of you? If so, maybe you’re best served by having a one-on-one chat with your co-worker. Make it casual, and make it about you, not her. Try something like, “It’s hard for me to focus sometimes …” as a lead in. Then ask her if she has ideas.
Think of more structural solutions, too. For some people, being in the middle of the action is great, and for others, it’s a trial. Look around to see if there is a different seating location that may be suitable. Again, it’s not about others; it’s about you and your unique needs.
Sometimes a break is all you need. Many offices have telephone rooms or other small work spaces. Even working from the cafeteria can give some respite. Or explore whether you can regularly schedule work-from-home days, especially if you have a task that requires extra concentration.
Finally, keep the positives of your new setting in mind. For example, being in the middle of things facilitates sharing information, especially informally. Think about how much less informed you’d be if you weren’t hearing the office chat. It also fosters relationship-building, creating a day-to-day intimacy that can really help when work is difficult.
Submit questions to Liz Reyer at email@example.com.