9 MIN READ

Open-Plan Offices

Etiquette for Focus, Collaboration, Productivity, and Health

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Do you suffer from open-plan office anxiety?

Open-plan offices (as the name suggests) are work environments where everyone works on the same floor and in the same open space.

This can create "buzz," enable better collaboration or even "random collisions," and create an environment in which people can easily communicate and build relationships.

But, even the most beautiful open-plan office layout can cause problems for some people. They are often noisy and full of interruptions, which can cause distractions or encourage procrastination. This can make them particularly difficult work environments for team members who need to focus, prefer to work quietly, or who are more introverted.

In this article, we explore six strategies that will help you to beat distractions, achieve focus, and work productively in an open-plan office, whether you're a manager or a team member.

Is an Open-Plan Office a Good Idea?

An estimated 70 percent of U.S. companies have some type of open office plan, with 15-20 percent adopting a totally open-plan design. [1]

Advocates of open-plan offices say that they provide more opportunities for people to work well together, because they place fewer physical barriers between colleagues. This, they argue, encourages greater communication and teamwork.

These designs fit modern business needs, too. They allow organizations to easily accommodate extra people, and they are popular with CEOs who want to engineer "collisions" between their people.

These collisions are chance or spontaneous meetings between co-workers who wouldn't normally connect with one another, and are seen as a way to promote collaboration and inspire innovation. They can also be a great way for co-workers to socialize and reconnect, which can be particularly important for people who feel isolated or lonely because of long-term home working.

The Disadvantages of Open-Plan Offices

However, open-plan offices aren't the perfect work environment. Sure, they can feel vibrant, "buzzy" and creative to some people, but to others they are impersonal, demoralizing and draining, not to mention filled with distractions. Some organizations have found they bring no real boost to collaboration, or that collaboration even declines following a switch to open plan. [2]

Other research suggests that many workers actually find open-plan offices annoying and stressful, with these kinds of environments found to increase negative mood by 25 percent. [3] While, a separate study shows that open-plan offices have a 62 percent higher sickness absence rate compared to "cellular" (meaning one-person) offices. [4]

And these statistics were compiled before the COVID-19 pandemic, which has had an even more detrimental impact on the perception of open-plan environments. Since the crisis, many workers have been slow to return to the office, due to concerns about the spread of germs, as well as a shift toward flexible, home working arrangements. In fact, one in three workers say they would not want to work for a company that required them to return to the office full-time. [5]

6 Tips for Working in an Open-Plan Office

1. Strengthen Focus

The distractions found in open-plan offices can impact our ability to focus. Professor Nilli Lavie's Load Theory suggests that we have limited mental resources to concentrate with, and that distractions steal those resources, making it harder to focus. [6]

Avoid this by taking frequent short breaks throughout the day. This can enhance your concentration when you return to a task. It can also help you to tune out distractions, both of your own making, such as social media scrolling, and those in the office, such as intrusive background noise.

2. Match Space to Task

While some people may prefer to stay at one desk all day, others prefer to move around. Consider using Activity-Based Working (ABW) to stimulate collaboration. This is where team members use custom spaces designed for specific activities, rather than single workstations. These custom spaces can include "huddle" rooms for compact meetings, and café-style areas for casual encounters and collaborations. [7]

If you don't have these options, you can improvise with existing areas. Need a quiet space? Book a meeting room for yourself and close the door. Prefer stand-up meetings but don't want to crowd out other teams? Hold a walking meeting.

Tip:

It's important that organizations provide rooms or spaces that guarantee privacy, when confidential or sensitive work or meetings are required, for example. Suggest to your senior manager that these be provided, if nothing suitable is available.

3. Consider Sound

Noise can be a problem in open-plan offices, whether it comes from stand-up meetings, office chatter or music. In one study, noise was found to negatively impact around 69 percent of office workers' concentration levels, productivity and creativity. [8]

Combat this by suggesting that your people listen to music or "white noise" with headphones. This is fast becoming shorthand for "I'm busy, don't interrupt me" in office spaces.

Other workers, particularly those working in sales or customer services, thrive in spaces that other people would consider too noisy. So, avoid dampening their enthusiasm or making them feel self-conscious in a hushed environment. Instead, designate "noisy areas" and quieter spaces.

You probably won't be able to redesign the entire office. However, you may be able to negotiate sound-masking (adding background sound to reduce noise distraction) or barrier solutions, or consider assigning meeting rooms for use by louder or quieter teams.

4. Agree a Code of Conduct

Everybody knew the rules in the days before open-plan offices: a closed door meant that you were busy, and you'd eat lunch at the canteen, not at your desk. In contrast, open-plan offices can feel like a "free-for-all." Office etiquette is changing, with people experimenting with different behaviors, from dress codes to ways of working.

But just because an office is open-plan doesn't mean there are no rules. And if you feel that the rules aren't explicit or widely understood, then clarify them. This doesn't have to involve a list of things that employees can't do. Instead, it can give people the chance to innovate.

At your next team meeting, start this process by asking people what rules they'd like to establish or to reassert. For example, you could experiment with red or green flags on desks to signal whether people are available, or with set "quiet times" when any background music is turned off and people avoid disturbing one another.

As a manager, you should model the behavior that you want to see, being mindful of behaviors that might annoy other people, such as eating strong-smelling food or talking too loudly.

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5. Manage Sensitively

Open architecture can make it tempting for managers to over-monitor and micromanage their people. But this can cause resentment, harm relationships, and distract you from your own work. Trusting your people is important: it strengthens relationships and makes your team members feel respected. And it's usually more productive to pick up any issues that you spot in one-on-ones, rather than to spend your time looking over people's shoulders.

However, as a manager, you owe your people a duty of care, so use the office design to everyone's advantage. For example, you can easily keep an eye on morale in your team, and intervene promptly if you see conflict.

6. Communicate and Collaborate

Thriving in an open-plan office isn't just about minimizing the downsides. It's about grasping the opportunities that the environment presents.

You can create the random collisions that open-plan offices make possible by stimulating creativity, communication and collaboration. Simply walking around and talking to people with different skill sets and levels of experience can spark conversations that generate ideas and solve problems. This can reduce the dangers of sitting for too long as well.

Consider introducing hot desking, but discuss this with your team members first, as it may clash with some people's desire to personalize their own spaces. Think about positioning the coffee machines a little more strategically, and encouraging people to deliver non-urgent messages in person at certain times of the day.

Watch out for unintended barriers to collaboration that emerge in open-plan offices as well – who did you connect with strongly in the past that you've now lost contact with, and what is the cause? What could you do to remedy this?

Key Points

Open-plan offices are popular with organizations and CEOs, but they can be less so with the people who work in them. Fewer physical barriers might encourage communication and collaboration, but this can also make it easier to get lose focus, get distracted or feel overwhelmed.

Apply these six tips to work productively and harmoniously in an open-plan office:

  1. Strengthen focus.
  2. Match space to task.
  3. Consider sound.
  4. Agree a code of conduct.
  5. Manage sensitively.
  6. Communicate and collaborate.

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Comments (5)
  • Over a month ago charlieswift wrote
    Thanks for the possible typo spot - in this case, we're suggesting that people work together and agree a code between them, that is, draw one up that everyone's happy with, as opposed to agreeing TO an existing code. Meanwhile - we hope you find the article useful in practice in your own workplace. Have you got any more tips to share? - Charlie Swift and the MT Content team
  • Over a month ago BillT wrote
    Hi,

    Thank you for bringing this to our attention. I'll be sure to let our editing team know.
  • Over a month ago wrote
    Small edit...
    "4. Agree a Code of Conduct" should be "4. Agree to a Code of Conduct"
    thanks
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