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“The Open Office and ADHD: Imperfect Together”

For people with ADHD, the open office is not a collaborative space. It’s a loud, chaotic wasteland. Here’s how to make it work for you.

“The first step,” my doctor said, “is to move out of the co-working space.” I was a business owner at the time, and had just relocated my company to Washington, D.C. Before the move, I’d been off meds for two years, managing through yoga, ginseng, and a lot of patience from loved ones. But living and working in a bigger city meant more stimulating surroundings, and it didn’t take long for me to melt down. I saw a doctor right away, and I told him about my worsening symptoms. He told me to change my office environment — and to change it fast.

The open office environment was designed for collaboration. But when other employers saw how much money they could save by cramming everyone in a single room, open offices went mainstream: 70 percent of American companies now have them.

As an extrovert with ADHD, the open office should have been heaven for me. There are no barriers, no hierarchies, no rules. The open office is a wall-free, cubicle-free room, just desk after desk lined with happy, gleeful workers. Or, as I like to call it, hell.

[Free Download: 10 Rules for ADHD-Proof Productivity at Work]

When you put someone with ADHD in an open office, you might as well throw her paycheck in the trashcan. Because that’s how much value you’re going to get from her work. For people with ADHD, the open office is not a collaborative space. It’s a loud, chaotic wasteland.

Adults with ADHD love to collaborate, don’t get me wrong. We are collaborating geniuses. Our boundless creativity means no one will put together a better marketing plan, strategize a better way to take down the competition, or forecast where an industry is heading better than someone with ADHD. Please don’t stunt our talent by making us work in a distracting free for all.

When we are crammed in room with 30 worker bees, we can’t concentrate on the job you hired us to do. How could we? The person in front of us is on the phone, the guy across the room is grinding coffee, and the lady to our left won’t stop popping her gum. And if you’d really like to ensure we get nothing done, throw in an office dog.

It’s unfair to put unneeded obstacles in an employee’s path. And when my doctor showed me how unfair, I moved my company into a traditional environment the very next day.

[Where Focus, Fatigue, And Fidgeting Meet]

But not everyone can make her employer move. Not everyone can go to their boss and demand a room with a door that shuts. ADHD or no ADHD, we have to be realistic.

If you have been diagnosed but don’t have the power to change your office floor plan, what can you do?

I won’t tell you to wear headphones. Someone’s probably given you that advice already and—if you’re like me—you know they aren’t enough. You deserve better than a life of distracting yourself in order to avoid distraction.

Elaine Taylor-Klaus, coach and co-founder at ImpactADHD, has advice: “I have a client who asked her manager if she could use a conference room when she has ‘brain work’ to do, like writing….She’s not asking not to do the writing, only to be able to do it in a location that helps her focus.”

[“7 Reasons Why People with ADHD Should Work from Home”]

It may also help to remind your boss that ADHDers aren’t the only ones who suffer in open office environments. BBC reports that open offices lower workplace productivity by 15 percent, even when people don’t have ADHD. A University of Sydney study revealed that 25-30 percent of employees in an open office find the noise level too distracting. And the Washington Post says, “The open-office trend is destroying the workplace.”

Open offices may destroy productivity, but you don’t have to let them destroy you. Have an honest talk with your doctor about your work environment and how it affects your self-esteem, productivity, and personal threshold for outside stimuli. Everyone with ADHD is different: Find what works, and is healthy, for you.

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  1. Could not agree with you more. That gem about asking for an unused office to work in when writing or when gathering info for a major project can be priceless. Though it was a few years later in the early Seventies we moved to an area that loved the open school concept . After 3 months we met our 7 year old daughters teacher. . We were totally taken by surprise when she said our daughter had not completed any of the work they were giving her. Apparently she loved going to the resources area and watching TV…… “No, the students didnt have to stay in any one location, they were allowed to go anywhere in the school as long as they remained quiet.” We booked areservations to our previous home and moved the family back there by christmas. It took another month for me to find work at an excellent employer… one of the worlds largest brokerage consulting operations. 6 years later i was promoted to Vice president, and ten years later established my own company. The ultimate best job for this raging ADDer. Another Three years before my son was diagnosed and another 40 years before I was.
    One of The attractions to move with my company the first time was my own office and car to carry out my work.

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