Open offices foster collaboration and innovation. Freedom from the cube! Right? There are advantages, but being exposed to so much stimulation can, at times, be stressful: Everyone knows your business, it can get as clamorous as Madison Square Garden, and you have no idea how to focus. (Full disclosure: Businessweek HQ is a cubicle-free zone.)
The point of an open office was never to relax—and the worst part is, stress is a real and growing addiction, says Heidi Hanna, a fellow with the American Institute of Stress and author of the new, best-selling book The Sharp Solution: A Brain-Based Approach for Optimal Performance. Stress releases satisfying chemicals like endorphins, and taking a break from being busy can have similar symptoms to withdrawal such as fatigue, irritability, headaches, and even disorientation.
We asked Hanna for a few tips on how to stay cool in an open office. Um, for a friend.
Problem: Your neighbors overhear your calls with your podiatrist (and other personal matters).
Solution: Chunk personal projects, like making phone calls, into a block of time where you can hit them back to back, Hanna suggests. Reserve a conference room. Talking about toenail fungus at your desk is just poor manners anyway.
Problem: No breaks. You feel like you constantly have to be productive. Everyone is watching you.
Solution: First, get a grip. Then, get over yourself. The truth is that everyone’s too busy with their own to-do list to focus on what you’re up to. Remind yourself that in order to be most productive you have to have some downtime—what Hanna calls “strategic recovery.”
Problem: Some offices provide no private place to unwind—and no one makes friends with someone who cries at their desk.
Solution: Put on headphones and listen to calming ocean sounds as you imagine yourself far, far away. Your brain still benefits from the visualization and will even fire neural connections as if you really were on vacation. “Of course you might start crying again when you realize you’re still at work, but the temporary escape will at least boost feel-good endorphins that will lift your spirit and help you get back on track,” she says.
Problem: You’re tired, and sadly it’s not from partying last night. Everyone’s noise, phone calls, and screens actually exhaust your brain.
Solution: Eliminate as many sources of noise as possible (turn off e-mail, turn off the phone … lock your co-workers in a closet). The brain is more drawn to experiences like noises, sights, and sounds that are unexpected, Hanna says, so when feeling distracted put on headphones with some calming music or white noise that has consistency for a more relaxing soundtrack.
Problem: You actually like being stressed out. It’s associated with the brain’s reward system, so it’s addictive. The constant buzz of an open floor plan feeds this cycle.
Solution: Dude, get a better addiction. Relaxation can feel like detox if you’re not used to it, causing you to snap right back into stress mode because it’s more comfortable, Hanna says. But nonstop stress decreases productivity and can even kill brain cells. Plan some recovery time. Manage your energy strategically by taking breaks.