Dealing With Open Office Angst

Can’t work because your colleagues won’t shut up? This meditative mindset is better than murder.

Q: I work in an open office with many kinds of personalities. When I need to dive deep into focused work my ideal environment is quiet. All too often, our open office gets frantically noisy with loud conversation or yelling (that includes celebrations or simply loud communication). I would like to tell the boisterous folks to “STFU, I’m trying to work,” but I know that is unprofessional. Working remotely is not an option. How do I cope with the tyranny of loud people?

A: Pricey noise-canceling headphones can do wonders, as can custom earplugs – not the crappy foam ones, but the custom ones an audiologist will make for you. But if people are full-blown yelling, that will not be enough. So, I turned to Joe Bright for counsel. Bright leads a weekly vipassana (mindfulness) meditation at Bodhi Tree Meditation Center in Honolulu. He also runs the Kama‘aina Acupuncture clinic, teaches at the Institute of Clinical Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, and paints and does calligraphy. I was hoping his creative and meditative mindset would provide ways you may be able to change your own frame of mind about this boisterous environment.

His first suggestion is to acknowledge we all have different preferences. “We can’t escape our preferences, and often we can’t rely on others to even take note of them,” Bright says. One person’s noisy atmosphere may well be another person’s jovial, delightful place to work.

“But becoming aware that we even have these preferences isn’t something we usually tune in to,” Bright continues. Realizing this allows us to tune into others’ preferences as valid and useful, and we might discover we have more patience for their ways of doing things. To take it a step deeper, he says, “look at the office as a whole entity and reflect on how special it is. We effectively focus on appreciating peoples’ roles and successes, and perhaps reflect on what those save us from having to do.”

Second, see if you can shift focus. “The mind only can focus on one thing at a time,” Bright explains. “Focus on your feet touching the floor. Or focus on your breathing by counting to 10 breaths and repeating for a few minutes. Focusing on your breathing for several minutes even in the midst of all the noise could show us that our focus is our choice. And letting go of the control over the space, even for a few minutes, will have a benefit as well.”

And if all else fails, feng shui that desk. It’s “the good old art of placement,” explains Bright. “We could also look at it as psychology. If our backs are toward the area of the room with high energy it could be very irritating to have outbursts coming from behind us.” Can you relocate your desk slightly to sit toward the edge of the space with a wall or window behind you? Or add plants to create barriers to some degree?

Now I’m picturing you with a potted begonia covering each ear, happily working. If all else fails, talk to your supervisor, who may have solutions so you can do your best work possible.


Q: I’ve been with my company for over 10 years. A new colleague just started at roughly the same level as me. He’s qualified and nice but stepping on my toes. My main beef is he sends emails – always cc’ing our boss – with “helpful” ideas on how I should do things, even though I already do some of them. I’m feeling defensive and snarky and unsure how to respond. Doesn’t he have his own tasks to worry about? How can I deal with this co-worker?

A:It sounds like you think the new guy in the office is like the manipulative Eve in the classic film “All About Eve,” trying to steal the spotlight and perhaps even nudge you out of the picture entirely. Is that possible? Of course. But also very possible is that some of the problem lies with you. What if we have a bit of compassion for Mr. Energetic? After all, Mr. E is new and eager to show he’s worth his salt.

Sarah Kalicki-Nakamura, co-founder of Honolulu-based Think Training (, explains a mental state called “proving.” That’s when you have a belief and look for ways to back it up. “It’s unproductive in terms of conflict,” she says. “We get less open-minded. We start thinking the worst of things. These are automatic thoughts.”

She encourages you to first address what is going on in yourself, and move into a curious mode, a learning mode. Think about why Mr. Energetic may be doing what he is doing. “You might get some insight, or, it might validate your concerns. And you can say to him, ‘When you do this (emailing) behavior, it makes me feel like you are undermining me. Can we collaborate first as peers, and then we can go in together, as opposed to you cc’ing our boss?’ ”

Some of the issue may be about personality, observes Kalicki-Nakamura. There are different communication styles if there’s an outgoing Mr. Energetic and a more quiet, reserved and analytical Ms. Seniority. “Maybe you can capitalize
on this and use him as a partner to balance with,”
she suggests.

It’s also possible Mr. Energetic doesn’t have enough to do yet – aka Empty Desk syndrome, when someone starts a new job – and you can invite him to help you on things to give him something to chew on.

Whatever is causing the grating sensation you feel, there are three magic questions that will help you neutralize emotions and go into a productive mode. “Ask yourself these,” says Kalicki-Nakamura, “and if you’re coaching someone else, you can coach them to ask these.”

  • No. 1. Is this really valid and true? “In the case of Mr. Energetic, think, ‘Is this person really trying to make me look bad? Or get my job?’ ” 
  • No. 2. Could I be overreacting? “And the partner question to that is, ‘Could I be underreacting?’ Sometimes we brush off conflict. Like in a harassment case, people might be saying, ‘Oh, that’s just Tom being Tom.’ ”
  • No. 3. Is there another way to look at this situation, besides my way? “Let’s think about Mr. Energetic and what his perspective could be. Maybe he is super engaged, and you aren’t
    as engaged.”
Categories: The Careerist