Thursday, 2 October 2014

Open plan office

Four days after my last post, I started a new job. I begin with this partly to explain my lack of blog, and partly to introduce what this blog is about.

In my only previous paid employment, I worked in a small office with two other people, and the rest of the staff were in their own offices. In this job, on my first day I followed my new boss into my new office - an open plan office with about 40 other people, six (I think?) different departments, no cubicles, and desks in rows of three with people in front of, behind and to the side of me.

I don't immediately do well with new people, especially groups. I should perhaps also mention at this point that it took me 2 and a quarter hours to get to work each day, so I was already quite tired on arrival. To be perfectly honest, my first Asper-instinct (I've taken to referring to myself as an Asper, I far prefer the term to Aspie for some reason) was to say that this wouldn't work and to get on the next train home. Instead I kept going there four days a week for seven and a half months until the end of my contract.

A few people have asked me how I managed to cope with this, having Asperger Syndrome, so I thought I'd put down a few thoughts.

Firstly, I loved my job. I primarily did admin for a children's social services project, occasionally helping out other departments with researching procedures or collecting case studies from staff. I got on really well with my boss, and I really liked the people working around me. Social workers do an amazing job, it took working alongside them, shadowing and reading case notes for me to really appreciate that.

Open plan offices are a nightmare for someone like me. I'm not sure where to start, so I'll just list things:

- Going into a room where I know nobody's name or role is daunting
- I'm not good at initiating conversation - what's relevant to say? Are they so focused on work that this isn't a right time to talk? They've not said hi, do they want to be left alone?
- When I'm working, I'm not good at chatting at the same time. At school I far preferred 'silent work' since then I'd get a lot more done without distraction
- When I do talk, often it doesn't get responded to - I know that I'm quiet when I speak, but there's still that part of me that thinks that I'm being purposefully ignored
- At lunchtime I'm socially tired out from the morning, so sitting in the kitchen with more people who I don't know talking to each other is draining and felt isolating
- Continuing day after day to go into the same room where I don't know everyone's name is repeatedly difficult
- Lots of conversations going on around me make it very hard to focus, and to know what's being said to me
- Not responding when someone does talk to the group that I'm in and expects me to respond makes me feel guilty
- Standing by the printers in a separate room where there were three others working, I was always uncertain as to whether or not to say hi, and would just awkwardly stand there waiting for things to print

To be honest, it felt like I spent most of my energy just to stay focused on work in this busy environment full of noise and uncertainty, so that I didn't have much energy left for social chat. And for me, social chat does spend energy. If anyone's read the Spoon Theory of chronic illness (I strongly recommend reading it, it made me more aware of how difficult things are for my close friends with ongoing health conditions), it's like I begin each day with a set number of social 'spoons' where they quickly go down with each interaction. I had a 2 and a quarter hour commute home each evening, so I had to keep some energy in reserve to get back and do things in the evening. Thankfully my housemate, who's one of my best friends, has been very understanding that I've hardly done any housework or washing up during the week!

I tried to do some volunteering alongside this job on my day off, but that burned up my social spoons so that I ended up even more tired at work and didn't help as much as was needed in the voluntary role. After a few months, the organisation lead and I mutually agreed that I should leave at that time, which was hard to accept but I knew then it was for the best. With my three-day weekend, being more socially aware at work was a bit easier.

I think what made me feel more socially inadequate is that a lot of my coworkers have incredibly busy lives outside of work, looking after kids/other family members/their own health, yet they could still come in and be social. I just couldn't do that. Is it being Asper, is it me, am I just doomed to fail in this situation, I don't know.

I was really touched on my last day. My boss had organised a leaving lunch, she'd brought in food and three other people had brought in salad, cake and snacks. The department had signed a card and chipped in to get me a scarf and notebook, I wasn't expecting that at all. This time I was stuck for words for emotional reasons rather than awkwardness. I really didn't want to leave.

This week I've largely been catching up on sleep, helping out a bit at events, and arranging job interviews. Fingers crossed I move back into employment soon, I'm not good at doing nothing for more than a few days!

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