Want to thrive in an open-office? Think like a chipmunk

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By now you've undoubtedly heard the 10,000 negative reasons why working in an open-office is pretty much terrible (just kidding, it's probably way higher than 10,000). But let's face it, they aren't going away anytime soon; they're cheaper, they're "collaborative" and they've been lauded for making workers more productive (except that they don't).

In reality, open-offices are the equivalent of the elementary school lunchroom; you're entirely exposed, the clock is always ticking and half the time you're not even sure where to sit. Much like when you were a kid trading your carrot sticks for PB&J's, it's time to get crafty again. We spoke with Sally Augustin, PhD, a practicing environmental psychologist who specializes in person-centered design, to find out how we can make the most of it.

Customize your space

OK, OK, so you may not have much of a space to work with, but you can take smaller measures to make your work area feel a little more like home. Nowhere to put those family photos or that serene Midwestern landscape? Then take advantage of your own real estate; customize your desktop, your mouse pad, the cover of a notebook--anything that you'll be looking at regularly throughout the day (the point is that you're able to see these things).

Here's Sally:

Focus on doing anything you can to make your workspace, and your own little world, as conducive to lower stress levels as you can. If you can personalize your workspace, add some photos of your family or other things that are meaningful to you. When we claim a space in that way, it feels more like our territory, so we can relax a little bit and it communicates information to others that visit us; it smooths social interaction.

Get green, go with the grain, and smell the lemons

Turns out it really is all in the details, as even the smallest changes can make a big difference in your mood. Simple things like adding plants and natural wooden accessories to your space can help keep you calm in the midst of chaos. Sally explained that plants should be green and leafy, as opposed to something less lush like a cactus. Fun fact: What you smell matters too, and lemons have been shown to boost cognitive performance.

Here's Sally:

When people see wood grain (unpainted wood) it can help lower stress levels. So, if you can, have a pencil holder in your work area, or use something where you can see the wood grain. This can help you take control of your physical environment ... Research has shown that cognitive performance improves when smelling lemon, so if you can't do anything else, you could at least get some improvement by sucking on lemon candies.

Be consciously tolerant

Yeah, yeah, the collaboration of the open-office is just marvelous. But that kind of in-your-face design can also be a breeding ground for contempt. Before you assume that your coworkers don't understand personal boundaries, take a moment to remember that you all come from different backgrounds.

Here's Sally:

Be tuned in to the places where your colleagues grew up and don't get freaked out if they violate some of the space rules that you learned as a kid in the US. People from different cultures stand and talk to each other at different distances. If someone comes into your work area and stands a little closer to you than you might expect, don't take their close standing as a sign of aggression. People have differences based on where they grew up. Be consciously tolerant.

Turn off the music

It's so tempting to pop in those earbuds and crank up the music in an attempt to drown out the chatter around us, but this can prove an equally big distraction. Instead, try something more neutral like white noise or calming nature sounds. Just be sure to stay away from the harder stuff, like jungle sounds, as Sally noted that these tend to rev people up (maybe save the howling monkeys for when you've skipped your morning latte).

Here's Sally:

Even music you like can be distracting. If listening to static in your headphones makes you crazy, you could try doing something like finding some nature sounds to play … sounds you might hear in a forest while taking a walk; gentle bird calls, wind rustling in trees. You can't get rid of the people around you, so you're trying to cut the stress that you can to the extent that it's possible. Things will be better if you're listening to nature sounds rather than the conversation of the person sitting right next to you who's talking to their best friend.”

Think like a chipmunk

If the open-office has ever made you feel like you've lost some sort of control over your life, you're in good company. When you're sitting right out there in the open, the primitive part of your brain doesn't like it so much. You're exposed and you might even feel threatened, even though you know darn well that no actual wild animals are about to attack you. It's for this very reason that many of us would rather work from home with zero social interaction, rather than having to spend an entire workday with our backs facing another person.

Here's Sally:

If you can, reorient yourself in the space that's available so that your back is not exposed to passersby. That would help you calm down and perform at a higher level. As primitive animals we don't like somebody walking behind us--it's still the way our minds work ... Animals are like humans, and they don't have a lot of ways to protect themselves other than being smart. Chipmunks feel better when their backs aren't exposed; when they feel control over their own experience. Acknowledge your inner-chipmunk-we're really not that different. We're calmer around things we can relax around. Think about what would make a chipmunk more comfortable in your workspace and try to do that.

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Stacy Warden

Stacy Warden is a contributing editor of the Pluralsight blog and has worked in publishing since the dawn of the iPhone. Currently, Stacy deals in tech and education--a combination that she finds absolutely fascinating. You can find her on Twitter @sterrsi.