Highly Sensitive Refuge
A highly sensitive person feels stressed from his open office.

8 Reasons Open Offices Are EVEN WORSE for Sensitive People

Open offices are terrible. Despite being trendy and “fostering open dialogue,” they actually lower productivity and make people sick and unhappy.

And if you’re sensitive to your environment like me, they’re EVEN WORSE.

I happen to be what’s known as a highly sensitive person (HSP), and unfortunately, I’ve experienced the problems with open offices firsthand. In general, my job has a very flexible work-from-home policy; we only have to come into the office once or twice a week. But our office is a rented area of a coworking space — and, spoiler alert, it was not designed by anyone remotely sensitive. And that can cause some serious problems for employees.

(Wondering what a highly sensitive person is? We’re the 15-20 percent of the population that have particularly sensitive nervous systems — and we process everything around us very deeply.)

Below, I‘ll give you eight examples of why open offices and coworking spaces suck for those of us who are highly sensitive — plus some tips on how to handle an open office layout if you’re an HSP yourself.

Why Open Offices Are Terrible for Highly Sensitive People

1. The noise

Technically, my employer had its own “room” in the coworking building, but the walls didn’t go up all the way, so we got tons of noise. The loud guy in the office next door was on the phone all day, so it was impossible not to learn all the intimate details of his life. No good. I need silence to focus!

2. No privacy

An open office is often arranged with the desks against the walls, so everyone’s computer screens are visible. I get it; no boss wants their employees to spend all day on Pinterest. But highly sensitive people get anxious and often freeze when others observe us working. I’m most productive when I feel safe, not self-conscious.

Privacy is especially important since highly sensitive people often wear our hearts on our sleeves. If I’m having a bad day, it’s impossible for me to hide it. When I’m grumpy, hungover, PMSing, or under-caffeinated, I’d like nothing more than to retreat into a cave of a private office (even if it’s just a broom closet!). Instead, open offices put us sensitive peeps out in the open, for everyone to see and scrutinize.

3. Surprise visits

Along those same lines, with an open office, higher-ups can saunter in and surprise you, ratcheting up the anxiety even higher. No lie, I’ve thought about installing a rear-view mirror on my computer screen (but that seems a bit excessive… right?).

4. You can’t eat in peace

Self-care looks different for everyone. We highly sensitive folks gotta avoid getting hangry, which for me means copious snacks. But with close quarters and my coworkers nearby, I find myself apologizing for my noisy carrot sticks or crinkly nut bar wrapper, and self-conscious about how often I’m snacking. I have to, though, because I want to avoid a snippy blood sugar crash!

5. You’re constantly overstimulated

With an open office, people can wander around whenever they’re bored, striking up a conversation and distracting you. I don’t want to seem unfriendly, so I’ll chitchat even if I need to get back to work. Why? Because it’s hard to enforce personal boundaries when there aren’t any physical ones.

6. It’s so super-bright

Who decided that blinding fluorescent lights were ideal? Highly sensitive people often need low, soft lighting, but it’s impossible to adjust the lighting in an open-plan office. If I shove you out of the way at the bus stop, sorry, I’m just trying to get home to my dimmer switch and accent lamps.

7. What’s up with the pace?

Leaders love to channel their inner football coach, ending team meetings with something like, “Let’s get to it! Go go go!” There’s pressure to rush back to your desk and churn something out. But HSPs need time to reflect and can be slower to make decisions — which often leads to better results.

Not in an open office, though: If everyone else is banging away at their keyboards, but I’m staring into space processing what we just talked about, I look like a slacker. I may need a slower pace, but I’m still productive and efficient, even if it doesn’t look like it.

8. No control of aesthetics.

We HSPs can be really creative, and decorating our physical space is no exception. I love to deck out my desk area with photos and cute, useful knick-knacks. But with an open office, and especially a coworking space, you’re often stuck with a cold, industrial vibe that you don’t have the freedom to change.

How to Deal with an Open Office as a Highly Sensitive Person

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying, “Give me a huge corner office, because I’m highly sensitive!” But I do think open floor plans are only right for certain temperaments (and can be downright detrimental to others). Being in that kind of space takes a real toll — especially if you don’t know how to manage it.

Fortunately, there ways to adapt.

While the best solution would be for employers to choose a more worker-friendly space, I’ve learned there are things I can do to make my time in Open Office Land a little easier:

  • Three words: noise-cancelling headphones. I finally gave in and splurged on some pricey headphones, and it was soooo worth it.
  • Ask about working from home. Explain your situation to your boss, and suggest working from home once a week on a trial basis. (And don’t slack off during the trial run!) One or two days a week can be ideal, rather than total isolation — we HSPs need meaningful connection, too.
  • Communicate your needs — period. Chances are, your boss isn’t a total jerk. Ask if you have some wiggle room to decorate or if noisy calls can take place in a different area. You don’t have to suffer in silence!
  • Take breaks for self-care. Walk around the block, or find a quiet place for some deep-breathing, stretching, a few minutes with your meditation app, or whatever refuels you. Be gentle with yourself!

There’s no perfect solution when you’re in a loud, open workspace. But taken together, these strategies can make an open office a lot less overwhelming. And, hey, you never know… maybe industrial designers will take us sensitive types into account when they decide the next workplace fad.

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