Q: I work in an open floor plan office and lots of socializing goes on. I find it distracting and have a hard time getting my work done. How can I break away from the office chitchat without looking like I’m no fun?
A: Open floor plan offices naturally lend themselves to more socializing. But you're hardly alone in finding the chatter distracting. A study published last year found that open office layouts had a negative effect on productivity, contributing to “mental workload, poor performance, stress, and fatigue.” Another paper, from 2011, found that sound was one of the main factors affecting workplace productivity, with conversation being among the most annoying of them.
The problem of too-chatty coworkers isn't limited to those in cubicle-ville. No matter what your work environment, you've likely at some point or another been cornered by a colleague—or worse, boss—who jabbers on endlessly about their weekend while you're anxiously running through your gargantuan to-do list in your head.
The key thing to keep in mind: "Most offenses happen because the other person doesn't realize it," says etiquette expert Diane Gottsman, who founded of The Protocol School of Texas.
“Open cubicles require open communication,” she adds. In other words, speak up.
When you need to get something done on deadline, let people know right away when you walk in for the day. Just make it clear you're stepping away for the benefit of the company or a particular task—not because you're trying to avoid your coworkers, says Jacqueline Whitmore, founder of The Protocol School of Palm Beach and etiquetteexpert.com. You might say something like, "I just need a little privacy and some time to concentrate so that I can finish this project on time."
Peppering it with a bit of humor—"I know you miss me, but I've got to get this report done by noon or Julian will have my head" —should help you avoid looking like a grump. You might also make use of the "do no disturb" settings on your instant messenger program, phone and email to underscore your point.
For when the din of other people's chatter becomes overwhelming, have a set of noise-cancelling headphones on hand. The bigger the better, since your "friendly" co-workers may not notice if you're wearing earbuds. Listen to music or simply white noise, whatever will block out the conversation and help you get your work done. Get a phone headset, too, so you can always look like you're on the phone even when you're not.
Have a neighbor whose loud personal phone calls keep disrupting your work? The next time it happens, politely ask your cubemate to quiet down or take the calls elsewhere. It’s more effective to tackle such issues as they arise—with a simple "Can you please keep it down? I'm trying to focus on this work."—rather than letting them keep building.
When all else fails, duck into your office's private meeting rooms for a while to guarantee complete silence. Just make sure to communicate with your team and not simply disappear, which sends the wrong message, Gottsman says.
All this said, try not to seem too anti-social. Socializing facilitates camaraderie—and participating shows you're part of the team. “When there’s a birthday party and everyone runs over, make sure you’re involved,” says Gottsman. “You don’t want to stay seated, hunkering down, and hiding.”