Is the open plan office all it’s cracked up to be?


If you never bought into the craze for an open plan office, don’t worry – you’re not the only one. The distractions that come with working in an open plan office can lead to frictions between employees that, if left alone, can fester. Here’s how you can get problems out in the open when everything is, well, out in the open.

Working in an open plan office can be distracting, to say the least. From loud conversations, excessive small talk or gossip, regular interruptions, loud eating, strong perfume or music – there is no doubt that it can be enough to test the patience of even the calmest person.

Social etiquette and common sense can help to keep the inevitable distractions in balance. However, these don’t always prevail. At times, a conversation is needed to clarify and negotiate expectations about what is or isn’t appropriate when working in an open plan office. Otherwise, people become increasingly frustrated and even resentful about what is seen as inconsiderate behaviour from others.

This type of situation is a recipe for disaster. Like the straw that broke the camel’s back, sooner or later a seemingly trivial misunderstanding can flare up into a bigger problem. As with any scenario where frustration is present, the long-delayed conversation can lead to less than ideal behaviours such as snappy or harsh comments, defensive responses, rude body language and an abandonment of common courtesies.

This is unpleasant for all people concerned and can cascade into ongoing tensions. When people talk about their frustrations, they’ll say things like:

  • Why should I even have to tell them to be quiet? It is common sense – they are just so inconsiderate.
  • What is their problem? They’re over-reacting and just being plain rude. If they want me to make a change they could at least be polite.
  • I can’t speak up, they’ve been here for years. They won’t change.
  • They are so uptight. Work doesn’t have to be so serious.
  • Why are they picking on me? Everyone here does the same thing.

The problem is that it can feel intensely personal, when from a broader perspective it is a predictable challenge at some point for open plan office environments. It is also not unusual for some people to feel uncomfortable making a simple request, especially if the other person does not seem approachable. Equally it is not easy for some people to be asked to change habitual behaviours, especially if the message does not seem to be delivered politely.

Whether this is initiated by staff, a manager or involves an external facilitator, the key is to encourage mutual consideration, flexibility and open communication. With this foundation, they can reach agreement on protocols for working in such close quarters. The types of solutions that can be developed will depend on the physical layout of an open plan office, technology, and access to other working spaces where staff can work and communicate in ways that support focused work and reduced distraction.

Employees and management need to agree on a basic code of conduct for working in an open plan office. Some common rules are:

  1. Be mindful of others such as utilising other work zones for louder work and taking non-work conversations to other areas.
  2. Make a polite request, or reminder, if a situation is causing an issue.
  3. Stop or remove a distraction when requested.
  4. Recognising that work conversations are part of the open plan working environment and while potentially distracting, they also need to be managed by each team member.
  5. While the intention is to simply and politely resolve concerns, if situations seem to keep repeating it is best to arrange a discussion or the assistance from another team member or manager.

Don’t wait until there are problems to reach these understandings. Ideally, it is a topic that should be discussed from time to time, and this might have the added benefit of nipping potential problems in the bud. You never know – it might even allow for a more light-hearted discussion about what can otherwise be an annoying or awkward situation.

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Catherine Cahill
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Catherine Cahill

In my experience “Open Plan” and it’s close cousin “Hot Desking” are decisions driven by the cost of Real Estate alone. Once that decision is made, HR people are then given the task of “selling” the concept by proposing it is inclusive, collaborative and friendly; and by downplaying all possible negative impacts. This decision making model seems to be in conflict with everything we know to be true about providing structures and systems which actively support positive behaviours required in the workplace. We may know through our experience, that the behaviours which arise in Open Plan and Hot Desking can… Read more »

Margaret
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Margaret

I couldn’t agree more. We have recently moved from an open spacious, open plan office to the very tiny open plan office. Some employees took the liberty to establish the future position of their desks as well as for others. It turned out that the accounts team has been separated from each other, some sitting right next to sales account manager who never gets of the phone, some next tothe orders department whoalso never puts the phone down and myself have been sat next to the technical department who naturally works all day long solving Internet access/connection issues. The lack… Read more »

trackback
Open plan offices: A victim of bad press? Or actually the worst? | Karstens

[…] lack of variety and choice interferes with productivity, and so it is no surprise there is a body of research that condemns them. But to do so is a little like declaring all chairs should be banned as a result of sitting on a […]

More on HRM

Is the open plan office all it’s cracked up to be?


If you never bought into the craze for an open plan office, don’t worry – you’re not the only one. The distractions that come with working in an open plan office can lead to frictions between employees that, if left alone, can fester. Here’s how you can get problems out in the open when everything is, well, out in the open.

Working in an open plan office can be distracting, to say the least. From loud conversations, excessive small talk or gossip, regular interruptions, loud eating, strong perfume or music – there is no doubt that it can be enough to test the patience of even the calmest person.

Social etiquette and common sense can help to keep the inevitable distractions in balance. However, these don’t always prevail. At times, a conversation is needed to clarify and negotiate expectations about what is or isn’t appropriate when working in an open plan office. Otherwise, people become increasingly frustrated and even resentful about what is seen as inconsiderate behaviour from others.

This type of situation is a recipe for disaster. Like the straw that broke the camel’s back, sooner or later a seemingly trivial misunderstanding can flare up into a bigger problem. As with any scenario where frustration is present, the long-delayed conversation can lead to less than ideal behaviours such as snappy or harsh comments, defensive responses, rude body language and an abandonment of common courtesies.

This is unpleasant for all people concerned and can cascade into ongoing tensions. When people talk about their frustrations, they’ll say things like:

  • Why should I even have to tell them to be quiet? It is common sense – they are just so inconsiderate.
  • What is their problem? They’re over-reacting and just being plain rude. If they want me to make a change they could at least be polite.
  • I can’t speak up, they’ve been here for years. They won’t change.
  • They are so uptight. Work doesn’t have to be so serious.
  • Why are they picking on me? Everyone here does the same thing.

The problem is that it can feel intensely personal, when from a broader perspective it is a predictable challenge at some point for open plan office environments. It is also not unusual for some people to feel uncomfortable making a simple request, especially if the other person does not seem approachable. Equally it is not easy for some people to be asked to change habitual behaviours, especially if the message does not seem to be delivered politely.

Whether this is initiated by staff, a manager or involves an external facilitator, the key is to encourage mutual consideration, flexibility and open communication. With this foundation, they can reach agreement on protocols for working in such close quarters. The types of solutions that can be developed will depend on the physical layout of an open plan office, technology, and access to other working spaces where staff can work and communicate in ways that support focused work and reduced distraction.

Employees and management need to agree on a basic code of conduct for working in an open plan office. Some common rules are:

  1. Be mindful of others such as utilising other work zones for louder work and taking non-work conversations to other areas.
  2. Make a polite request, or reminder, if a situation is causing an issue.
  3. Stop or remove a distraction when requested.
  4. Recognising that work conversations are part of the open plan working environment and while potentially distracting, they also need to be managed by each team member.
  5. While the intention is to simply and politely resolve concerns, if situations seem to keep repeating it is best to arrange a discussion or the assistance from another team member or manager.

Don’t wait until there are problems to reach these understandings. Ideally, it is a topic that should be discussed from time to time, and this might have the added benefit of nipping potential problems in the bud. You never know – it might even allow for a more light-hearted discussion about what can otherwise be an annoying or awkward situation.

3
Leave a reply

avatar
100000
  Subscribe to receive comments  
Notify me of
Catherine Cahill
Guest
Catherine Cahill

In my experience “Open Plan” and it’s close cousin “Hot Desking” are decisions driven by the cost of Real Estate alone. Once that decision is made, HR people are then given the task of “selling” the concept by proposing it is inclusive, collaborative and friendly; and by downplaying all possible negative impacts. This decision making model seems to be in conflict with everything we know to be true about providing structures and systems which actively support positive behaviours required in the workplace. We may know through our experience, that the behaviours which arise in Open Plan and Hot Desking can… Read more »

Margaret
Guest
Margaret

I couldn’t agree more. We have recently moved from an open spacious, open plan office to the very tiny open plan office. Some employees took the liberty to establish the future position of their desks as well as for others. It turned out that the accounts team has been separated from each other, some sitting right next to sales account manager who never gets of the phone, some next tothe orders department whoalso never puts the phone down and myself have been sat next to the technical department who naturally works all day long solving Internet access/connection issues. The lack… Read more »

trackback
Open plan offices: A victim of bad press? Or actually the worst? | Karstens

[…] lack of variety and choice interferes with productivity, and so it is no surprise there is a body of research that condemns them. But to do so is a little like declaring all chairs should be banned as a result of sitting on a […]

More on HRM