The Open Plan Office Survival Kit
28 October 2021

Open plan offices are like marmite – you tend to love them or hate them. Even the experts can’t agree. Some research suggests they generate creativity and camaraderie; others that open offices encourage employees to avoid one another.


As with most things in life, it’s a good idea to develop some survival strategies as well as some ground rules that you and your team can agree to. Here are some ideas.


Benefits


Remember that song: “Getting to know you” (from The King and I)? Research suggests that when people spend time together start to find things in common and get on better. There are many positives to getting to know your colleagues more intimately. There’s laughter, there’s humour, and you feel the rhythm of each other’s work and lives.

If you’re in an open plan office focus on the positives and downplay the negatives. At the very least, resist your impulse to be the first to grumble about the noise. You don’t want people to see you as pernickety or difficult.


Set Team Expectations

It can be helpful got the team to agree behaviours that you’ll apply. For example, when one colleague is on the phone, the rest will speak very quietly. Ask for explicit and implicit support. Pick an ally who can be a second set of eyes for you, so that if colleagues are being noisy when you’re on an important call, for example, this colleague could politely ask them to pipe down.


Use Technology to Achieve Quiet

When you are working on something that requires intense concentration use a set of noise-cancelling headphones. You can listen to white noise or classical music or whatever it is that helps you feel and perform at your best.
Headphones also serve as a visual cue to your colleagues that you’re not to be disturbed unless it’s necessary. Use discretion in how often you use them and show that you are still part of the team.


Take a Stretch

We all need a place at work where it’s possible to think, write and brainstorm free of distractions. Even the most open of open offices tends to have spaces that allow employees to remove themselves from the commotion. You should take full advantage of empty conference rooms, semi-private cubicles, and quiet alcoves.
That way when a chatty colleague starts talking about last night’s TV, you can just take your laptop and move to a different part of the office. If you have the option, it’s often helpful to move to a different floor of your building. People aren’t as apt to know you and, therefore, you’re less likely to be distracted.


Change of Scene?

If you’re having problems concentrating, ask your manager for permission to work elsewhere — the local library or a nearby café — from time to time. Depending on what you’re working on, pay attention to where you feel comfortable and where you are most productive, and frame your request around that. This is a smaller ask than requesting to work from home one day a week, and therefore it’s harder to refuse.


Move

If your problem isn’t the open office itself, but one talkative or very loud colleague, talk to your manager about moving desks. Don’t complain. Instead, talk to your manager about how you will be more productive in a new space. Say something like: “It will be easier for me to meet deadlines if I move to a place that is quieter.”
Whatever you do, don’t let your annoyance get the better of you so that you one day scream at your colleagues to shut up. An outburst like that is very hard to repair.


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DISCLAIMER

Although every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information contained in this blog, nothing herein should be construed as giving advice and no responsibility will be taken for inaccuracies or errors.

Copyright © 2021 all rights reserved. You may copy or distribute this blog as long as this copyright notice and full information about contacting the author are attached. The author is Kate Russell of Russell HR Consulting Ltd.