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Behind Closed Doors

Balancing sociability and productivity in the office.

December 28, 2015

Jonathan D. Fitzgerald is PhD student in English Literature at Northeastern University. You can find him on Twitter at @jon_fitzgerald or at his website www.jonathandfitzgerald.com.




I have a hangup about closed doors. I’m not sure where this comes from—probably something my mom told me once about open doors and transparency—but I’ve never been comfortable behind a closed door. Also, I always feel this twice-removed sense of guilt: I wonder what other people are wondering about what is going on in there. And I imagine they imagine it can’t be good.


This is why I was surprised the first time I walked the halls of what would soon become my department and found that most of the doors were closed—many offices were empty of course, but even those that weren’t, the doors were closed or mostly closed. Upon getting my first office, I kind of made it a point to go against the grain. Though my office was shared and I didn’t have complete control over the door, when I was in there by myself, the door would be open.


And then I tried to get some work done.


I quickly learned that an open door means an open invitation. Any passer-by could stop in and chat about this or that class, how exam preparation is going, whether you’d like to get out of here and head over to the bar. An open door signals that distraction is permitted, maybe even requested. People weren’t closing their doors because they were anti-social, they were just trying to work.


In my last post, I discussed the benefits of working collaboratively with peers and offered some suggestions for finding opportunities to do so. Working together is important, of course, but sometimes you just have to hole up in your office, close the door, and get to work. In this post, I’ll offer some tips for avoiding distractions by working behind a closed door, without seeming like an anti-social jerk.


Set some ground rules with your officemates: Because you do have officemates, don’t you? Early in September, when we were all still just choosing our desks and settling in, one of my officemates delicately suggested that she likes to work with the door closed to ward off distraction. Like me, she knows about wearing two hats; she has a toddler at home and so our office on campus really is a sacred space of productivity. We agreed on this and going forward knew it was okay to keep the door closed when we were in there. While I didn’t have an explicit conversation with my other officemate about this, I always ask if he minds if I close the door. Not surprisingly, he never does.


Get a humorous door sign or a whiteboard: I have a whiteboard featuring Darth Vader on my office door. He looks pretty fierce, but coupled with a funny message about the work that is being attempted inside, I find it a more subtle version of a straight “Do Not Disturb” sign. A whiteboard can also signal the level of do-not-disturbness you’re looking for. One of my favorite mixed messages is “Distractions welcome” on the outside of a closed door.


Be a (good) visitor: Even though I choose to think of my office as that sacred space of productivity, I acknowledge that others don’t feel the same way about their offices. In fact, several of my friends in adjacent offices never close their doors. I try to make it a point to stop in and hang out for a while. But, keep in mind, that just because they choose to keep their doors open, doesn’t mean they don’t have work to do. A good visitor knows when it’s time to leave.


As in all things, balance is key: Maybe don’t always have your door closed. Even if you’re on campus to be productive, there are certain tasks that you can perform even amidst distraction. Whenever I’m doing administrative kinds of work—checking my to-do list, updating my calendar, answering emails—I try to keep the door open, even if it’s just a crack. And, of course because we’re grad students and not robots, sometimes it’s a good idea to banish grad school guilt and be social—open the door wide, invite people in, and just hang out.


But I don’t have a door: While shared office space is fairly common for those of us in the humanities, many of you--particularly those who work in labs--may not have an office, and thus no door to close. My advice for you is to erect a kind of imaginary door with a little bit of technology and some body language. Specifically, when I’m in my office with my officemates and I want to signal that I’m there to get work done, I put in my earbuds, put on a “working face” (the academic’s equivalent of a “game face”), and never, ever look away from my computer screen. This imaginary door, paired with the tips discussed above, should ensure a distraction-free work environment, while also not earning you the label “antisocial.”


As I discussed in my previous post, there are immense benefits to working collaboratively in grad school, not the least of which is staving off the loneliness that can come as you begin to specialize in your field. But collaborative work—and the associated meetings, emails, Slack messages, and committees—can definitely eat away at the time you set aside for work that is necessarily individual. So, by all means, collaborate with your colleagues when you can, but right after a group meeting, head back to your office, close the door (or insert those earbuds), and get to work. And maybe get a Darth Vader whiteboard to ward off would-be distractors.


How do you balance socializing and working solo in your office? Do you worry about being perceived as anti-social when you close your office door to work? What other advice might you offer those navigating this balance?

[Image by Ken Hawkins from SC, USA (Closed sign).CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), via Wikimedia Commons]


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