My Life Out in The Open: How 'Open Workspaces' Stink and What I Did to Win

July 6, 2017

Chris Brogan is CEO of Owner Media Group, Inc, which delivers business systems for personal leadership for top companies like IBM, General Motors, PepsiCo, and Microsoft. He’s the New York Times-bestselling author of eight books and counting, and a professional speaker. Chris is passionate about helping companies earn more customers, simplify the complex, and build out better business relationships, before and after the sale. 

Following is an excerpt from our ebook called "Make Your Work Matter: 7 Thought Leaders on Why Work Isn't Working For You and How You Can Change It." You can download the free ebook here.

Before I became a business advisor and author and speaker and stuff, I was a cubicle farmer, just like lots of people. And like many of us, I worked in an “open” office environment.

I’ll explain it in case you’re from some other planet and pretending to be a human. “Open office” is polite business language for “you’ll never get anything done ever again!”

Check out our SlideShare "Office Space Invaders: 5 Species of In-Your-Face, Productivity-Killing Co-Workers" for tips on how to escape common office distractions.

My Life Out in The Open

One of my roles was project manager. That job comes with a LOT of communication. We measure life in meetings. It also means that if I’m bad at my job, many people get stuck in way more meetings than they need.

But the other side of my role was that everyone was encouraged to talk to me often. Interruptions aren’t all that useful in ANY business. For me, it was part of my job to be interrupted.

So let’s look at the game as I’ve laid it out:

  • The goal of my role — projects completed properly on time and budget.
  • The players — internal customers (teams) and external customers (clients).
  • The wins — fewer meetings, more execution, no mistakes, happy internal/external customers.
  • Scoring — faster meetings, more time for the teams to do their work.

I succeeded in keeping my projects on track (most of the time—nobody’s perfect). I also did so while maintaining sanity and building better business relationships. Want these tools for your own work? Let’s go!

Tools For Surviving in an Open Office Environment

There are five ideas I’ll give you for your own use. No matter what your role, these are powerful tools to be the hero of your office.

There are always exceptions, but just like they say about “exceptions” in a diet: an “occasional” cheeseburger means once a month, not all the days that end in “y.”

Object Permanence—Keeping on Task

Just like Gold Five used to say to me while we were lobbing rockets down air vents on the Death Star, “Stay on target! Stay on target!” One way to do this is to set up as many micro systems as you can to promote “object permanence.”

It’s an overly big word that covers a simple idea: just because you don’t see something any longer doesn’t mean it no longer exists. (We use the test of playing “hide the keys” to gauge whether babies are at a certain developmental level, for instance.)

In your work, there are a few ways you can do this and a LOT of them are physical in nature:

Use sticky notes to remind yourself of core projects. Put these in line-of-site areas to your primary work area. (Stick them on the edges of your screen, for instance.)

Block out parts of your calendar for the work you’ve already accepted so that you don’t say "yes" when you don’t have the time to execute (if that’s even an option). 

Before any meeting, any call, any interaction that you can do this, keep a quick cheat sheet of notes to guide you through your choices in any dealings.

For instance, if you are asked to go to a conference, it sounds fun, but what are your deadlines like around that time? How can you get that managed?

How to Deal with Walk-Ups

One challenge that happens often in the open workspace is that people come up to your desk or cube to talk with you because, hey, you’re there. It’s the only part of our communications life where you can’t fake being “out of office” because, um, we see you trying to crouch down under your desk.

So what to do?

Here’s my method.

You: *working*

Really Thoughtful Person That Knows This Will Only Take Just Two Minutes: "Hey, Sheila!" (If your name’s not “Sheila,” this is the perfect reason to ignore them.)

RTPTKTWOTJTM: "Hey, ____ (okay, now they’ve called you by your name)."

You: "Oh hi! I’m just in the middle of a flow here. How about I call you/email you in about ___ minutes?" (Make that number real, not a brush off.)

RTPTKTWOTJTM: "It’ll really just take a sec. Did you hear --"

You: "I know it will, and I really want to give you all my attention when you tell me. I’ll catch up in just a minute. Promise."


You: "You’d want me to treat your project and time as valuably, I know. I swear I’ll come see you by ___ (whatever time it is you really mean)."

This delivery ONLY works if you stick with it and if people can trust whatever time/date you give. Yes, there are always exceptions. Yes, if someone says, “Hey, where’s Surya?” it’s okay to answer. (Well, if you actually know where Surya is. That guy is the office CHAMPION at hiding!)

Tips to Politely Shorten Any Email Conversation

This takes a bit of practice, but you can most definitely improve your email back and forths with just a few tips.

  1. SUBJECT LINES ARE GOLD. The difference between “quick question” and “Will using plastic instead of steel change things much?” is massive.
  2. START AT THE TOP. Put the most important point or question at the TOP of the email, right after your greeting. “I’m worried Heather might quit.” “Should we cancel the party?”
  3. BREVITY RULES. Make your emails less than a few hundred words. It’s almost never useful to send the “full” email with tons of backstory.
  4. GIVE PEOPLE CLEAR OPTIONS. “Should we launch Tuesday or wait for next week?” That gives people a head start on what you most want them to answer.
  5. RECOMMEND SOMETHING. “What do you want to get for lunch?” It’s the worst question in the world. Instead, “I know a great Viking place down by the highway.” That way, if someone wants Viking food, you’re good. But if they don’t, they’ll likely have a second suggestion.

And what do these email tips have to do with working in open environments? Everything.

Your ability to deliver crisp, simple, brief communications gets you back to the time you need to accomplish your work. And the better you manage email communications, the fewer “in-person-to-make-sure-I-understand-you” visits you have.

Make Your Desk Your Ally

A long time ago, I did a few things to make my cubicle work better for me. You might or might not be able to make use of some of these ideas:

  • Reposition your chair and work area so that people can’t walk up on your back. This is jarring and probably bad Feng Shui (not that I know anything about that except that you should never build a business over a river).
  • Post a little sign (you can even frame it for extra points) that says: “Focusing right now. Please come back later.” (For a while, people will joke about the sign. Then, eventually, they’ll respect it.)
  • Get a white board, if possible. Put your “most important priority” tasks up there and remind yourself to keep your focus there. Use the board for that and only that. (If you can’t have a white board, consider just printing something and leaving it in a very visible-to-you area.)
  • Put subtle barriers between you and casual interaction. If you’ve got close neighbors, maybe a plant is allowed? All the greenery does great to turn you into a bunker-hiding antisocial! (I jest, but there’s such gentle psychology involved in saying, “Hey, I’m working here,” but meaning it with love.)
  • Never have a candy dish. Unless you really want everyone stopping by at random times, a candy dish is basically a sign that you’re begging to be interrupted.

Again, I’m not saying you have to be some kind of reclusive shut-in, screaming, “Get off my lawn!” But if you want to be one of the most successful and productive people at the office, these are some ideas that might help.

Wrapping Up

Having read all this, you might presume that I don’t like fun. Maybe you think I’m some cold jerk who doesn’t want to talk with his teammates. Au contraire. I love using ideas like the ones above so that I have more time to do what I want.

That might be chatting up a storm with people at work, or it might not. But when you master your time like this, it gives you back some of your control. And this frees you up to be whatever kind of hero you want to be. Beautiful, right?

Check out our SlideShare "Marketers Time Management: What's Happening to it, How They Cope, and How to Get Time Back" for more time-saving advice.

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