How to make life in a fish bowl tolerable
January 20, 2007 2:49 PM   Subscribe

How to make life in a fish bowl tolerable

I've started a new job -

I respect my boss, like the coworkers on my team, have a lot to learn, find it challenging, and if I can stick around for 1 to 2 years - hopefully I can move to freelance.

First few weeks were in a cube which was a new experience for me. I found it difficult to concentrate but an ipod solved that problem (no longer heard the latest sob stories on the phone)

However, now we have been moved to a real fishbowl. Glass walls. No cubes. We were told we will have 'half walls'. There are ten of us herded into a room like this.

I truly have a hard time concentrating and work efficiency is difficult for me (I can tell you, however, that my coworker owns four cats; or another one loves playing jazz). I find it dehumanizing and it makes me anxious to sit in an environment without walls.

Tips for survival? I like to cope sometimes with humor (and I will make my own jokes/but that time probably is limitted). Suggestions as to how to re-arrange the enviroment to make it conducive to work? Change my mindset? Make a profit from this (pictures and a blog or article?)

Anonymous since the 'owners' or managers with real offices put thought into this, designed it and I am assuming other work places don't have this 'yet'
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (33 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
Listen, does no other company in the world perform the same function as yours? If you're just going to bail and go freelance, why not do it now? Your situation sounds like it makes you miserable, and there's no real reason you should stay. Get out while you don't have hives and high blood pressure and haven't been trapped by the promise of tenuous and nonspecific promotion.

Barring that, how about a large whiteboard placed behind your monitor, that blocks out most of your field of vision? That, plus some noise-cancelling headphones, and there goes a large part of the distraction. Try to orient your desk in such a way as to eliminate motion in your peripheral vision, and then get a small convex mirror so you can see when people walk up behind you.

But seriously, please get a new job, and tell your managers why you're leaving.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 3:17 PM on January 20, 2007


Get a bunch of plants.
posted by odinsdream at 3:17 PM on January 20, 2007


I'm not sure if quiting is in order. It doesn't sound like you're miserable, just annoyed or uncomfortable. First I would try to adjust and if that doesn't work, complain (talk about reduced productivity).

I'm not sure if this is from where your problem stems but, I have problems with personal space. I have a hard time having a phone conversation when people can over hear, especially if I know those people. Or in a crowded but not so noisy restaurant. I used to be worse. But over time, especially time spent in circumstances like you discribe, I've gotten better.

Give it a week or two. Actively try to feel comfortable with your co-workers. Don't spend your time thinking about how bad it is. Eventually it's all white noise.

I think the key is really how you train yourself. Maybe try to develop mental tricks, like when you catch yourself eavesdropping, you force yourself to build 10 widgets, or whatever it that you do.

If it doesn't kill you it can only make you stronger.
posted by nazca at 4:00 PM on January 20, 2007


I once was put into a big cube with one opening in the side and a person in each of the four corners. I was gettting constant interruptions and wasn't very productive at all. My manager began to see how distracting that environment was for me, so he made an effort to put me in places where I was away from so many distractions. Some of my most productive times were when I wasn't able to be distracted because I ended up in an office by myself.

If your relationship with your direct supervisor is good enough, you should bring up your concerns with him or her. You may be surprised at what they will do to ensure you continue to be productive.
posted by hankbear at 4:18 PM on January 20, 2007


Tell your bosses. I know where you're coming from. I've worked in no less than two places which implemented this open-plan, no partition nonsense and it was a disaster in each. People became very resentful, nobody had any personal space (even something to tack photos to!), productivity dropped, the place looked like a tip, etc. Honestly, I don't think sitting tight and thinking positive thoughts will help.

But once we'd stopped bitching amongst ourselves and someone approached the powers that be, they were quite receptive to feedback (especially now you've just moved - the budget to relocate you and set you up may still be active) and brought in some partitions, notice boards etc until it was bearable.
posted by jamesonandwater at 4:42 PM on January 20, 2007


On the mindset thing: I can think of no more dehumanizing environment than a cubicle. I practically break out in hives when forced into one. It seems so dark and cave-like and nameless-cog-in-uncaring-wheel to me.

My last office had a few big rooms, in which we all had desks (smallest room had about seven people, largest had 20-something). I found it *so* much better than a cubicle. I could see out the windows! I had sunlight! I was not trapped in an itty bitty cave, but surrounded by open space! I could see what was going on and not feel like someone was going to sneak up on me, and there was just a real sense of comraderie with the office in general (and I am *not* an extroverted, woo-camraderie person). It felt much more human.

I mean, really, where else in your daily life do you spend tons of time by yourself, in the smallest possible space you can find? Like I said, I'm not a big people-person, but my favorite spaces -- cafes, restaurants, parks, city streets -- all have lots of room to move about and lots of people all doing their own thing. And those are the spaces I (and I think most people) tend to think of as most "human." Not a cave shut off from the rest of the world.

For practical concerns: I also used headphones with music to shut out the noise around me when I needed to concentrate, and headphones without music when I just didn't want to bother participating in the conversation around me (it's a way to be anti-social without looking particularly anti-social). If you can snag a desk in a corner, that also helps a bit. And various glare-reduction things for monitors can make it impossible for anyone to see what's on your screen, if that's something that makes you nervous.
posted by occhiblu at 4:46 PM on January 20, 2007


1) Shop your story around.
2) Print out published story.
3) Paper your glass walls with copies of story. (Optional: draw lots of anarchy symbols around the margins of the printouts)
4) ???
5) Profit (emotionally).

But yeah, it'll probably get you fired. Personally, I'd confront my boss about it. I couldn't live with it, and you shouldn't have to. The walls go, or you go.
posted by empyrean at 4:53 PM on January 20, 2007


I was in a situation like this, and I wound up jumping ship. Give it a try, sure, but this doesn't seem to be the kind of thing you "get used to"—if you hate it to begin with, you're probably going to hate it even more as time goes on. Try to change the bosses' minds, but be on the lookout for other employment opportunities.
posted by languagehat at 4:56 PM on January 20, 2007


Maybe you could get some large fake plants and make a kind of fort out of them. For best effect they should have a decent amount of foliage around the same height as your head when you're seated at your desk.

I used to have a fake tree thing near the entrance to my cubicle, and I found it helped with the weird feeling I got from sitting with my back to an open door all the time.

If you decide to go with the fake plants, you'd probably want to bring them in one at a time over the course of a few days so as not to arouse a lot of suspicion immediately.
posted by benign at 5:11 PM on January 20, 2007


I agree with benign that sneaking decoys in one at a time is a safer bet, but if you want to go all out, you could try something like the Tent Of Doom.
posted by putril at 5:26 PM on January 20, 2007


Sorry to sound like an ass, but deal with it or move on. Some companies are like this, some aren't. I worked at a Fortune 50 company years ago that had contractors share desks, and I've been at a non-profit where almost everybody had an office.

US Government contractors, no matter their level, are almost always forced into cubes. There are some exceptions, but not many.

If you end up doing freelance (and best of luck with that!), you might find that you will end up doing on site work in the crappiest environment imaginable.
posted by bh at 5:27 PM on January 20, 2007


My employers did the same thing. We kept raising the issues about how difficult it made it to work, and that bought some improvements (book shelves, flimsy partitions, headphones, a meeting room) but top management were too invested in the prestige of our crappy new 'award winning' designer building to move us out and sort the problem. Line management were more helpful with small fixes like a corner desk, a white board or pin board or bookshelves to build walls with. Try raising the issue and asking for help.

What helped me most was re-scheduling my working day. I come in at lunchtime and work until late in the evening. That way half my day passes in peace, quiet and productivity when I have the office to myself. I deal with things which have to be done in 'office hours' in the afternoon. Most employers aren't so flexible, but even moving your working day a bit, so you work when others aren't in the office can be a great help.
posted by Flitcraft at 5:27 PM on January 20, 2007


You're working in what used to be a common city daily newspaper news room. And what still is the basic commercial office environment of most Japanese office workers. And in the basic plan of such architectural office shrines as the Johnson Wax building. Not to mention the open floor plan environments that are the common environs of most retail workers, and durable goods production workers. They're some of the most productive places on earth.

You might not feel productive in such places, anonymous, but that's more a matter of attitude and ability to selectively concentrate, than it is a fault of the floor plan. In fact, in an environment such as you describe, there is a permeating sense of organizational pace and a transparency of purpose that can go a long way to keeping things humming. The rumor mill is less important in such places, where everyone can see the comings and goings of others, and there is generally a lot less goofing off. Work gets done, and people tend to leave on time, and it's easy to see who is available and who is not, sometimes just by standing up, and craning your head.

A big part of making the adjustment to such an environment is making the decision to embrace it. Stop worrying about your privacy, and the distractions you are being forced to deal with, and just get on with your job. If you're having trouble concentrating, try picking up your pace a bit. If your job involves paperwork, learning to keep a clean desk and an organized work flow is important, as clutter sticks out like a sore thumb in such places. But make those simple adaptations, and in a couple weeks, you may like the place, more than you imagine you ever could, now. I really liked the two open office plans I worked in; by far, they were one of the best amenities of those places.
posted by paulsc at 5:36 PM on January 20, 2007


a lot of places do this.

it's called "open plan" and the motherfucker who designed it needs to be found and killed. It's demeaning, unproductive, and just plain stupid.

that said:

1) headphones
2) mirrors- a CD-ROM taped to the monitor will do in a pinch- see who's sneaking up behind you
3) seconding "glare-reduction things for monitors"
4) if you can get away with it, bring in Japanese screens, etc and wall yourself off
5) maybe just talk to the bosses about your concerns and see if you can get moved. you never know, they might surprise you and listen, esp. if you phrase it as wanting to increase your productivity
posted by drjimmy11 at 5:40 PM on January 20, 2007


there is a permeating sense of organizational pace and a transparency of purpose that can go a long way to keeping things humming

ha ha ha.

somebody's in management and has his own office with a door.
posted by drjimmy11 at 5:41 PM on January 20, 2007 [3 favorites]


Stop worrying about your privacy

or, treat yourself like a human being. Either way,
posted by drjimmy11 at 5:42 PM on January 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


Ohhh, I've lived in that fishbowl. I've stared at those walls, those glass partitions. I've basked in the glow of flourescents & breathed in the fake air.

I thought I could do it. But after a while, I was belly up & floating at the top of the tank.

It all depends on you. If you can take it, find a way to cope. Many, many people can & do. I couldn't. For me, cubicle life feels like someone has taken away my oxygen. Accepting that about myself has made my life much happier & better. You have to be who you are.
posted by miss lynnster at 6:05 PM on January 20, 2007 [3 favorites]


i don't like listening to music all day, but my cubicle-neighbours yap like crazy. i wear foam earplugs. but then people talk to me and i have to take out an earplug to respond. so over the earplugs, i often wear headphones (sometimes unplugged music headphones, sometimes ridiuclous red construction-site headphones- my office is sort of zany so that's ok)- and the visibility of the headphones means people don't bother to interrupt me unless it's really necessary.

i always leave the room to make phonecalls. it's good to wander a bit anyway.

plants make good barriers, so do bookshelves. if you can get away with being a bit girly, some of the girls in my office hung bead curtains from the ceiling to vertically extend their cube walls. the bead curtains are see-through- but they do make it feel a bit more private.
posted by twistofrhyme at 6:07 PM on January 20, 2007


I would really suggest talking to your boss. When you do, you may discover that he's a decent human being after all, and meant well. If you discover he doesn't care or isn't going to change, you know you've exhausted your options at this place and can move on knowing such.
posted by !Jim at 6:49 PM on January 20, 2007


I'm a freelance TV producer and I work on my laptop on a couch in my executive producer's office right now. When I need to concentrate I work from home but more often then not (when we are in pre or post production) I need to be in the office to get incoming calls so I have to live with my couch/desk. Headphones are a godsend when I have to write in the office-- I've also been know to not take calls certain hours of the day if we are on a tight deadline for scripts. I have worked at a few companies where they put all the associate producers in one large room, 30 people or so, with no walls and just small desks. When everyone is on the phone it sounds like a tech support call center-- it really does drive people crazy.
posted by mcbietila at 6:53 PM on January 20, 2007


used to be a common city daily newspaper news room

Every newspaper I have ever worked for and every newspaper office I have ever been in has been like this (with the half walls). I don't think it's "used to." I'm not a manager and I don't have an office or a door, but I like it. (Only the top managers where I work have offices.) However, newsroom work seems particularly suited for this floorplan. It is helpful to overhear other people working. So maybe it's not so great for whatever you do.

Those half-walls block out more than you would think, though, so don't worry too much until you get those and give them a chance. (If the room is quiet, to talk to someone right across from me on the other side whom I can see clearly, I need to raise my voice or stand up.)
posted by Airhen at 7:03 PM on January 20, 2007


Ideas 1 are standard cube survival. The iPod is key. When I was a coder electronic music was the business, I tell ya. Plants help if you have enough light and don't do business travel. Don't put up posters or cards unless you want to chat with your co-workers. Book ends and tall reference books help extend cube walls.

Ideas 2 is a little more controversial.

Swear and mutter to yourself. Quit showering. Don't brush teeth. Fart.

You will have all the room you need in no time.

posted by YoBananaBoy at 7:40 PM on January 20, 2007


The weirdest thing about working in a half-wall cube farm, for me, was that anybody moving around outside my immediate space was only visible from the neck up. I was surrounded by floating heads all day long.

The other weird thing was the coffee area. To get to the urn, you had to find your way through a literal maze of half-walled alleys to get to the end of the blocked-off corridor where the urn was installed. Next to the urn was a Smarties dispenser.

After a while I became quite skilled at navigating the maze and pressing the little bar to get my reward of brightly colored food pellets.

It's difficult to keep taking the aims of the corporation seriously when working in such an environment.
posted by flabdablet at 7:42 PM on January 20, 2007 [3 favorites]


Other than my current gig, which I do from home, I've never worked anywhere with real walls. So, in my experience open plan offices are very, very common. These were my survival strategies:

- Studio monitor headphones instead of wimpy earbuds. Not only is the sound quality superior, they're comfortable to wear for long periods. They also attenuate annoying office noise very well. I love my Sony MDR-900s.

- Seconded on the hours adjustment. Come in early and leave early, or come in late and leave late. I was often the last guy to come in, and always the last guy to leave.

- Sticky notes on the walls, or tacked-up papers related to your job, to break up the outside environment. Use "The Parking Lot Is Full" cartoons if you want to be left alone, are leaving soon, or both.

- A cell phone. If you need to do any non-business-related activities, do it outside where nobody can overhear.
posted by hackwolf at 8:53 PM on January 20, 2007


I was there. It sucked.

Management has this ever-present fear that people aren't constantly working, and by making things "open" they think it will make people work more.

It's just going to suck that way in corporate America until...who knows?

I have no advice. I was there. It stunk.

Best thing is to get out and maintain a sense of dignity.

Environments like that will make you jaded and impersonal, which is worse for you in the long run.
posted by rougy at 9:33 PM on January 20, 2007


Having worked for the last three years in a giant room with a bunch of people who can confirm every time I have had to talk about my vagina on the phone with my doctor, it can be a hard adjustment. One of the best things you can do is buy yourself a pair of very serious headphones that block out outside noise and are large enough that there can be no doubt that you are wearing them. When I wear my earbuds, people will often have a conversation with my back without knowing that I can't hear a word. When I wear my big-ass headphones, I don't even need to turn the music on, they don't bother engaging me. The entire open office thing bugged me a great deal when I first started. Now I have learned to create a privacy inside, if that makes any sense, and I don't feel the need to wall myself off. Concentration is harder but, if you discipline yourself, you can learn to deal with it.
posted by Foam Pants at 10:16 PM on January 20, 2007


It seems like your manager has dumped you and your coworkers in this new environment without making the necessary cultural changes for it to work. In order for the fishbowl thing to be successful, work has to be fun. That means that everyone needs to know exactly what they should be doing at any given time and there need to be clear, well chosen processes that everyone understands. I actually agree with what paulsc says about organizational pace and transparency of purpose but I think some management skill is required to get there; it doesn't just happen as a function of the environment.

In short, if you can figure out how to make doing your job fun, you'll be able to be productive in this new environment. List the things that stop the job from being fun right now, and figure out a way to deal with them. You might need to make some requests to management in order to achieve this, but if you're a decent communicator and your boss is not a total asshole you shouldn't have a problem with that.
posted by teleskiving at 2:03 AM on January 21, 2007


I once had to work in a corridor behind half a wall. It was a horrible working environment - shouting, multi-player games noises and music were constantly disrupting our work, not to mention all of the people staring at the freaks who work in the corridor.
I had hard time believing they actually wanted us to work in a corridor. We complained to our boss, but he said we'd have to wait. After a week of this I was ready to quit my job.

We were lucky - about two weeks later the head of our department moved to a new office. Within a couple of hours we grabbed our computers and moved ourselves to a new office, before waiting for permission.

So - complain. Complain a lot. Ask your boss if he really thinks these are normal conditions to work in. Ask him to try to work in your place. He will probably understand and try to help you. And you should help him help you - approach him with solutions. If he sees no problem, well, you're screwed. Look for a new job, where they treat their workers like human beings.
posted by ye#ara at 3:17 AM on January 21, 2007


I work in a completely open environment without any walls or half-walls -- one of the things that we introduced early on was an internal IM network that helped people stop shouting across the room and generally took the noise level down. I think a lot of the "chatter" also got moved to IM as well, so maybe you won't hear so much of that.

In my experience, the quality of an open environment is dependent on the people sitting immediately around you. If you're struggling, try asking for a desk swap to see if that helps a bit.
posted by ukdanae at 3:23 AM on January 21, 2007


My research lab got redesigned like that a few years back. I couldn't hack it at all to begin with, ended up stropping out completely (tears, complaints to the boss, the whole shebang). I'm here to work, god-dammit, and there just wasn't any serious work getting done. I ended up getting some higher partitions on that desk, and those, combined with headphones, did the job.

We also instigated a fairly strict "no phonecalls in the lab if they can be avoided" policy, and mercilessly taunt anyone with an irritating ringtone on their mobile until it gets changed - if this is an issue for you it might be worth pursuing that avenue as well.

Now I'm back in the same lab, and find that a dual monitor setup works well. Headphones and 2 monitors provide enough "blocking out" of the rest of the lab for me to be able to get stuff done. I still think I would be more productive elsewhere, but I wouldn't be such a useful member of the team, and I expect that trade-off is worth it. Interestingly, a second flat panel monitor (new) would cost less than an extra high partition screen. But I didn't even have to raid the budget for this one, as a colleague got an upgrade meaning there was a spare one in the lab.

Another solution that's been used here is the jungle-desk: an array of houseplants around the edge of your territory which provide just enough of a screen to block out visual disturbance. This of course only works because we have a good deal of natural light, but might be worth considering if you do too.
posted by handee at 5:14 AM on January 21, 2007


I've always worked in environments like this, I think it's normal in the UK. Lots of us are so used to it that we'd hate it in private offices. But there's a couple of essential things that make it work:

1. Decent acoustics. Of course it's going to be hell if the conversations opposite are reverberating around the room. Can you ask the boss to invest in some acoustic ceiling tiles or something?

2. Politeness. Everybody needs to understand that personal phone calls and longwinded conversations get taken to a meeting room. Stinky food stays at home. People with streaming colds stay at home. And so on.
posted by emilyw at 9:37 AM on January 21, 2007


I don't actually mind open plan work spaces -- when I'm only working with the folks I need to communicate with regularly. Where I'm at now is wide open to everyone, with every body walking past on their way to the kitchen right now & it's driving me crazy. Just as I was getting used to that, they decided to put an open plan meeting space right directly in front of where I sit. That'll be fun when there's something going on there, & my little group needs to participate in a phone conference.

I have no practical advice, but I totally sympathize.
posted by susanbeeswax at 10:02 AM on January 21, 2007


Full-height cubicles were invented because people are far less productive when they can see people working and moving around. Perhaps you could find one of the studies to this effect and forward it to your office manager.
posted by Afroblanco at 11:38 AM on January 21, 2007


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