4 Tips for Working In An Open Office Environment


This post may contain affiliate links, meaning I may receive a small commission if you make a purchase through any links that you click. Proceeds are used to help grow the Adulting With ADHD universe - thank you for your support!    

If you work in an open office space and are an ADHDer or ADHD introvert, you know how extremely frustrating it can be to get through a workday. Unfortunately, office spaces are built for the neurotypical, which means you’re likely to continue to run into work environment-related challenges. The level of support you will receive at work will vary and will also depend on whether there are workarounds available that can be explored. Here are some tips for working in an open office environment.

It’s A Common Struggle, Even For The Neurotypical

According to a 2014 open office space study by Ipsos and Steelcase, 85% of people are dissatisfied with their work environment and can’t concentrate. While almost all respondents valued working privately, only 41% had that option and 31% had to leave the office to get work completed.

So while you’re not alone, as real estate prices climb, don’t expect it to change. On the bright side, more and more companies are moving to telecommuting and/or hybrid open-office options where there are private rooms to use as needed. And if push comes to shove, you may find yourself in a situation where your work environment can be a factor in whether you accept a new job opportunity.

5 steps button

Can Accommodations Be Made?

That is a very slippery slope and your mileage may vary.  When it comes to ADHD, you do have rights. If you work at a company with at least 15 employers, your company may be required to provide accommodations.

Per the Americans With Disabilities Act, you are entitled to accommodations if  1) “have a disability that substantially impairs one or more major life activities”; and 2) “are able to perform the essential functions of your job with or without reasonable accommodations.”

So what if you work for a company with fewer than 15 employees? In that case, it’s on a state-by-state basis. What kind of accommodations can you expect? According to the ADA, the request must be reasonable. And this is after you have a formal diagnosis and a job impairment due to your disability has been established.

Explains Dr. Carl Sherman to ADDitude magazine:

“It depends on the situation and the size of the company. What’s reasonable to expect from a multinational corporation might cause undue hardship for a small business. Let’s say you’re not a “morning person,” and that you say to your boss, “I need to come in at 10, but I’ll work till seven.” If the office does all of its business from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., your request probably won’t fly. Given the demands of the business, it may not be reasonable. Or let’s say that the only way you can stay organized is to have your own secretary. If the company has a firm policy of one secretary for every three workers, that accommodation may also be seen as unreasonable.”

Before You Disclose

While you certainly have a right to disclose your ADHD to your employer, it’s not that straightforward. Stigma still exists in the workplace, and it’s a personal decision that should be weighed carefully. In a 2016 interview I did with ADHD coach Linda Walker, she explains:

“First, do you meet the job qualifications? What is the organization’s track record when it comes to this type of request? Are you well regarded as an asset in the organizations? How easy would it be to replace you? How easily could you bounce back if you lost your job? I would usually invite a person to first put into practice self-accommodation strategies to mitigate ADHD-related workplace issues. This shows initiative and a willingness to improve in the face of challenges on your own.”

Okay Great, Now What?

If you’re finding yourself in an open office nightmare, run a check on these items to see if there’s anything else you can do to alleviate this incredibly frustrating situation. On the bright side, if you’re able to successfully resolve this struggle on your own, it’s a great way to demonstrate your independent problem-solving skills and poise under pressure. And if you do find that you just can’t hang, it could be just the nudge you need to find a better workplace situation for yourself. Without further ado, here are the top pieces of advice out there on the topic.

1 – Noise-Cancelling Headphones

This is certainly not a cure-all, but it can go a long way, especially when matched with white noise. So what makes a set of headphones noise-canceling and where do you get them? As opposed to regular (aka passive) headphones, noise-canceling headphones use active noise control to neutralize decibel levels as opposed to soundproofing. Put another way, the headphones are emitting another sound that’s canceling out the sound you’re trying to tune out.

While it can be frustrating to have to drop money down on a pair (can we say tax deduction?), a good pair’s going to set you back $30 to $70.

Some of the top models out there include the Mpow 059 Bluetooth Headphones. These over-the-ear models come in a variety of colors and come in both wired and wireless options. Meanwhile, the COWIN E7 Active Noise Cancelling Bluetooth Headphones come with a microphone – great for those who also need to take calls. Another option is to buy an affordable pair of Philips headphones and pipe in white noise through Spotify (which is what I do).

Also, think about what’s distracting you – is it people talking or is it what they’re talking about? If it’s the content of what they’re discussing, crank up some white noise or music until you can’t comprehend what’s being said.

2 – Communicate With Desk Mates

Tread lightly on this one, but try to use non-verbal cues (such as the aforementioned headphones) to get your point across. That said, prepare for the problem not 100% going away – and in some instances, it can get worse if you don’t have the support. Another tactic is to lead by example to try to help set the tone for the workspace, but again, your mileage may vary.

I’ve never met anyone in person who’s tried this, but depending on your crowd (read the room!), you may try using a pomodoro status desk flag or this digital version of the same concept. It could be a fun way to break the ice. In one of my jobs, a worker would bring yellow caution tape and wrap it around her cube when she was really deep into a project and needed to be left alone. It was a funny, non-confrontational way to communicate that she needed to be left alone – and it worked! Meanwhile, if you use an interoffice messaging system like Slack, you could always change your status to Busy or Do Not Disturb. You may get teased or it may not work, but it could be worth a shot. Standing up for yourself is always a worthwhile endeavor.

3 – Go Private For Major Projects

I try my best to go with the flow, but if I’m faced with a last-minute and/or high-priority project (often they’re both), I push for using one of the private meeting rooms. It’s a completely fair thing to ask for, and more companies are actually moving to this hybrid situation of having both open office space and private workspace.

Another related alternative is to set quiet time hours where you can go to an isolated place for a couple of hours and be interrupted. In my case, this doesn’t really work because I need to be “plugged in” my entire shift, using both monitors. However, maybe for you there are certain tasks that you could save for a quiet time block away from your desk. 

4 – Provide Feedback To Management

If all else fails and you’ve tried to be independent, proactive and productive in managing your challenges, you may consider providing feedback to management. However, tread lightly and don’t be surprised if you’re faced with a lack of support. It would be more advisable to bring up a specific thing they can address such as a coffee machine that’s placed behind you that brings in a lot of foot traffic that can be easily relocated. It’s much more challenging to tell a manager you can’t work in general because of the people you sit with (which, by the way, is totally valid, too).

On this topic, also try to handle frustrations with grace. Even if you are completely justified in your reasoning, I have found it to fall on deaf ears if my feedback is delivered negatively. Instead, try to go take a walk or grab a coffee if you’re too frustrated to hang. Then, once you’ve collected your thoughts, you can come up with a plan. That could be communicating with your deskmates or updating that LinkedIn page to find a more desirable workspace situation.


Open office environments suck for ADHDers, but they’re also a necessary evil for cash-strapped companies, creative agencies and almost everyone else it seems. In the end, you do what you can using your ingenuity. Short of that, do what you need to do to get into a better situation. The beauty of this all is, you’re the architect of your own life. There are plenty of fish in the sea when it comes to gainful employment. Life’s too short to stay crouched behind your desk frustrated, so make a plan today and go get ‘em, tiger!

How do you handle distractions in open office situations?



Recent Content