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3 Tips to Succeed in an Open Office as a Highly Sensitive Person

by Cara Haynes
April 25, 2019 | Work

The greasy smell of fries clashes with the sickly sweet pangs of scented lotion. You start breathing through your mouth to stave off the nausea but worry your hushed panting will bother your neighbor. Almost on cue, they slide on their enormous headphones. Phew. You’re safe.

But then the faint sound of guitar shredding drifts from their headphones to your ears like an angry whisper. Something moves in the corner of your eye — someone's bouncing on a yoga ball. Suddenly, the CEO whizzes by on a scooter. The social media manager just did that laugh again. Your boss is talking in hushed tones.

What were you working on again?

The productivity debate

For those who don’t work in an open office, that scenario probably sounded ridiculous. But for highly sensitive people, or HSPs, who work in an open office, it probably sounded a lot like work.

Illustration of employees in an open office. pbs rewire
People who are highly sensitive pay closer attention to everything — including how others are feeling.

The open office fad has swept through companies across the country. Buzzwords like “spontaneous collaboration,” “more face-to-face communication” and “transparency” have lured many into thinking they’re the best thing for office workers.

Even with recent Harvard research suggesting that open office plans essentially do the opposite of making us more productive, they won’t be going anywhere soon. They’re much too affordable, and the pros and cons are always up for debate.

Why it's overwhelming

Many people thrive in open office environments. But for those who are highly sensitive to things going on around them, as well as the emotions of others, open office environments can feel more like a hindrance.

HSPs are people who "react more intensely to experiences than the average person," according to Introvert, Dear. "They process both positive and negative information more deeply, so they can easily become overwhelmed by stimuli like loud noises, crowds and high-pressure situations." They also sense and take on the emotions of others more easily.

Between 15 and 20 percent of people are this way, psychologist Elaine Aron wrote in her book "The Highly Sensitive Person."

Does that sound familiar? You can take this quiz to find out if you're a highly sensitive person.

Here are some open office challenges for an HSP:

  • Noise pollution
  • Emotions on display
  • Constant visual stimulation (screens, clutter, people moving around, etc.)
  • No space to disconnect
  • Unplanned interruptions
  • Distracting conversations
  • No sense of privacy
  • With all this stuff going on around you, it can be exhausting to continually refocus yourself as you strive to enter a deep work state.

“I get migraines and tension headaches several times a week, which are aggravated by stress, noise and the fluorescent lights of the office,” said journalist Celeste Tholen, who identifies as an HSP. “There’s nowhere quiet and dim to hide in my work area."

[ICYMI: Are You Catching Other People's Feelings?]

How to make it work for you

A more inclusive workspace that has space for open collaboration as well as private work is the ideal. But if that’s not an option at your company, here are some ways you can cope with an overstimulating environment on your own terms.

1. Take frequent breaks

Just like taking a moment to catch your breath can help you climb a long staircase, taking a moment to remove yourself from the hubbub can give you the stamina to go back to it.

“I get up and take a walk outside when I can,” said Catherine McNally, a copywriter who works in an open office and identifies as an HSP.

“It helps me build my focus back up, wake up and free up my thought process from all things work-related, which in turn allows me to regenerate my creativity.”

If you’re worried about how taking short breaks will impact your productivity, don’t. You work better when you’re at your best, so taking the time to recalibrate will only improve your work in the long run.

“You need to take self-care breaks,” said Andre Sólo, journalist and cofounder of Highly Sensitive Refuge. “Working in an open office means you're spending the majority of your day in one of the most over-stimulating environments possible. Anything you can do to take short breaks from that environment is a win.”

Here are some simple things you can do to recharge:

  • Head to a local coffee shop for a quick break
  • Eat lunch alone while reading a book
  • Work in a different area of the office
  • Take a walk around the building
  • Get a snack or refill your water bottle

2. Establish expectations that work for you

Chances are you’re not the only one who's feeling the pressure in your open office.

Reaching out to your manager or simply taking the initiative yourself to create etiquette guidelines can go a long way for you and others.

“I try to be considerate and understanding that others are facing the same challenges of the open office space,” Tholen said. “I’ll have conversations with desk neighbors about the best way to communicate with them. For example, I’ll message them asking for their time instead of physically interrupting them or I’ll email them so they can address it on their timeframe.”

You could also ask your manager about working from home on a regular basis.

Even if there are few accommodations your manager can make, it’s good to the lay the groundwork by having the conversation.

“The best thing you can do is to communicate your needs,” Sólo said. “They need to understand that you're not doing this to be quirky; you're doing it so you deliver your best work.”

3. Give yourself emotional distance when you need it

On top of visual and auditory distractions, the hardest distraction for HSPs to shake is all the emotion in the room.

People who are highly sensitive pay closer attention to everything — including how others are feeling.

“If you're stressed or angry, there's a good chance an HSP nearby knows it, even if you thought you were hiding it well,” Sólo said. “Honestly, most HSPs feel like people are ‘screaming’ their emotions and wish there was a way to turn it down.”

Of course, you can’t ask people to stop feeling so much. The best way to cope with it is to do your best to absorb as little of it as you can.

“I’ve had to practice letting go of others’ emotional responses and even removing myself when a desk neighbor’s stress, anger or negativity is affecting my focus,” Tholen said. “I’ll respond with compassion and then take care of myself so I can get my work done.”

Although it’ll never be easy, employing coping strategies can help HSPs thrive in an open office. Once you get your bearings, you can spend more time employing the benefits of being an HSP — creativity, attention to detail, empathy — and less time trying to remember what you were working on.

“It's not that you stop noticing (stimuli),” Sólo said. “It's just that you spend a lot less mental energy on dealing with them."

Cara Haynes
Cara Haynes is an editor and freelance writer who thinks words are probably the most important thing we have. She spends too much time thinking about them, whether that means reading the labels on her shampoo bottles or sending novel-length texts to her husband. When she's not doing word work, she enjoys doing leg work in the mountains with her goldendoodle, Dobby. You can find her wherever there is chocolate-chip cookie dough within walking distance.
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