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:
- Be mindful of others such as utilising other work zones for louder work and taking non-work conversations to other areas.
- Make a polite request, or reminder, if a situation is causing an issue.
- Stop or remove a distraction when requested.
- 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.
- 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.