How to do the open office plan right

Grace Sweeney


Today’s office is more for show than anything. Bright colors and the trappings of a fun, creative culture are powerful recruiting tools.

Open Office

For startups, well-designed open spaces signal to visitors that things are happening. Which can lend them some credibility when they need to impress angel investors, VCs, and the board.

At a glance, it’s easy to see the appeal. A lack of walls visually represents a silo-free workplace. A place where ideas flow freely and workers can talk to each other on an equal playing field.

Optics aside, study after study has shown that the open plan is not so good for those who need to work inside it. According to a 2013 study from the University of Sydney, a lack of sound privacy was by far the biggest offender associated with participants’ working environments.

And it makes perfect sense. There’s very little privacy, causing performance anxiety for those who need to make a call.

These spaces might even make us feel less positive about collaborating. That total lack of alone time can lead people to retreat inward.

People have tried all sorts of things like working at home after hours to arriving super early to beat the rush. Some organizations have coped by implementing strange rule sets aimed at clarifying the new norms.

Why are we committed to an open office plan if it doesn’t work?

The office (one with private rooms) was established in the 1960s. When open plans came on the scene in the 1990s, there was a sense of excitement that came with tearing down the walls.

But, as the inventor detailed in a 2016 Planet Money episode, that initial excitement quickly turned into a nightmare for workers.

Yet, here we are in 2019 and open offices keep hanging around. In part, because it’s cheaper than renovating.

The floor plan allows offices to fit more people into less space, thus saving money. They also make it easier for companies with high turnover rates — think startups who hire en masse — and sometimes downsize at that same scale.

The point is, we’re kind of stuck with the bad choices we made in the 90s. And workers are left to deal with the fallout.

Here are some thoughts on how to do the open office right, because we all know, it’s probably here to stay for the long haul.

Respect peoples’ need to get things done

If you don’t love the wide open space, make sure you’re a good example yourself. Don’t add to the noisemaking culture if it drives you up a wall.

Send messages to coworkers via email or chat to see if they are available to talk about something. Or, consider whether the issue demands an in-person conversation at all.

While we’re not advocating that you avoid the IRL conversations, it’s smart to consider when it’s appropriate and when it risks knocking yourself or a colleague out of a productive session.

Are you the chatty one in the mix? Chances are unless you’re an extreme introvert or hate your coworkers, you’re guilty of joking around on the job or chatting up other bored colleagues. We are human, after all.

Still, if you work in one of these spaces, it’s partly your responsibility to learn to read the “I’m busy” cues your coworkers are putting out and making sure that your desk neighbors are able to get their work done.

Minimize distractions

work distractions

Everyone presumably needs to work at work.

While entering your average open plan might have you believe that we’re all here to socialize, deadlines need to be met and solutions implemented.

As mentioned above, noise pollution is the biggest threat to productivity in the modern office. Employers should do their part to reduce noise levels. Sometimes it’s not so simple — certain rooms lend themselves to echoes, of course.

But, things like area rugs, large plants, adding noise canceling panels to certain walls — these things might be within a company’s budget.

Employees should invest in a great pair of noise-canceling headphones. The benefits are two-fold — there’s nothing like a big pair of headphones to say, “leave me alone.” And second, well, the noise-canceling aspect.

But, beyond that — focus on controlling other elements that can throw your focus out of whack. For example, keep your desk clean and make sure you have a comfortable space to work. Have sweaters at the ready if it gets cold and space for your favorite beverages.

Things like checking email at designated times or silencing notifications are also good ways to keep on task. As is listening to white noise or music that helps you concentrate.

Colleagues can talk all day and it’s often out of your control. But taking some measures to ensure you carve out your own space — comfort, noise-canceling, and some smart routines — can help you deal.

Dedicated quiet and loud spaces

This one is more on management, but the office needs to change to accommodate different tasks and different working styles.

One solution is designing a workspace that emphasizes compromise. There are indeed some benefits of tearing the walls down. It’s great for the brainstorming phase — just not the actual implementation of the ideas you generate.

But these collaborative conversations should be limited to specific spaces — conference rooms, a cafeteria, a walk around the business park.

There’s a reason those portable phone booths have blown up over the past couple of years — these pods present an affordable solution for companies recognizing this growing need to provide a refuge from noise.

We all need to look toward flexible work cultures

Maybe the modern workspace should take a cue from the modern co-working space. What we mean is, organizations may be wise to incorporate a flexible schedule or a partial remote policy.

Instead of forcing employees to suffer at their desk for a set number of hours each day, allow them to choose the space and time that works for them.

Sure, flexibility depends a lot on the types of jobs people do, but employers need to closely consider why some employees need to be at their desks. Knowledge workers, in particular, spend a lot of time working on the internet — many of them can do their job from anywhere,  but require focus to actually tap into their knowledge.

Complaining about the floor plan, unfortunately, won’t get anyone far. Unless the company is discussing a major remodel — most of us are stuck with these plans for the foreseeable future.

That said, we are starting to see more organizations adopting solutions that lessen the pain. From quiet phone booths to a variety of flexible rooms, this approach may well be the best compromise.

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