In 2019, if you work in an office, chances are you don’t have your own office. Instead, you work in partition-free collaboration zones know as open offices. Here are some tips that will help you be a productive and pleasant open office co-worker.
Silicon Valley is largely responsible for the concept and image of the open office. Both Facebook and Google are known for their vast, wall-less workspaces where hip, intelligent, focused professionals blend a serious bent for hard-work with a casual, flip-flop wearing friendliness.
These are the image that are supposed to come to mind:
However, this picture perfect world doesn’t match the real world description you sometimes hear about open offices, which evoke these types of images:
So what’s the reality? Are open offices the way innovative, hip companies excel? Or does an office without barriers create too many productivity-killing distractions to be worth it?
At Marketing 360®, our Fort Collins, Colorado facility is a large open office, so we can speak from experience. Here’s the bottom line.
The open office arrangement – like most things in life – has both benefits and drawbacks.
The energetic, collaborative vibe of the open office is real. Our office is a high-energy workplace with free-flowing communication. It is, overall, a fun place to work.
Of course the open office is a cost saving measure. You need less square footage and you don’t pay for partitions or walls.
But there are also drawbacks. It’s inevitable that there will be increased noise-level distractions in an open office. There isn’t as much privacy – and sometimes we do desire more privacy. That’s human nature.
The point of this article is not to debate the validity of the open office arrangement. There is significant press that suggests the collaborative impact of the open office is really not that positive. But at the same time, many of the most successful, innovative companies on the planet thrive with employees working together without walls.
What we can do is offer some suggestions on how to increase the benefits of the open office while decreasing the drawbacks. Some of these ideas may work as company-wide policies, but most are suggestions individual workers need to be mindful of every day at their desks.
The open office is a cool idea, but it only works when people can work, both together and individually.
#1. Be Work Social
Take another look at the image above of the people at the table together, all working diligently on their computers.
Now, consider this table:
This is a different – yet strikingly similar – arrangement.
Here’s the thing about an open office. You are sitting as a group in a way that facilitates conversation.
When people sit together in groups, they socialize. At the dinner table, of course, that’s the point.
Dinner is convivial on purpose. You can laugh, hug, shout, argue, or berate. There’s nothing more welcome than hearing about a beautiful moment someone witnessed that day – or breaking out an old, dirty joke. It’s spontaneous, loud, and fun.
It’s easy to fall into this behavior in the open office because the arrangement invites it. If you’re new to this, it will feel as if you’re sitting together at a party.
Next thing you know, you’re having a drawn out dinner conversation – at 9:14 on a Tuesday morning.
Working in an open office requires discipline from all employees. You feel like you’re sitting in Starbucks with your friends, but you’re not. You have to curb the desire to have personal conversations, even when you’re sitting next to your new besties.
But here’s an important caveat. Nobody will curb this desire entirely. It’s impossible. In the open office, there will always be a certain amount of chit-chat.
The key is to be work social. That means it’s okay to mention something personal to a desk partner or ask somebody how their weekend was.
But in the work area, you have to keep it brief. Be mindful of the fact people are working around you – and they can hear you. Be assured if you spend 30 minutes talking about last week’s doctor’s appointment, you will be distracting your fellow workers.
If you need to have a long personal conversation, move away from the work area. At Marketing 360® we have break-out areas and private rooms where people can go to chat away from the workspace.
Pro Tip: Set Your Expectations
A couple of important considerations here.
First is for the person who thinks there will never be any chatting in the open office and finds themselves utterly distracted every time some chit-chat takes place.
Our advice: get over it. Like we said, it’s going to happen some. Expect it and focus through it.
At the same time, if conversations are inappropriate, you should feel free to ask your co-workers to move to a break-out area. This should be a company policy; nobody should feel like they’re a “downer” because they tell someone to take it away from the work area. Your ability to get work done takes precedence over their socializing.
Furthermore, understand that the point of the open office is for people to collaborate. Personal chit-chat should be minimized, but work conversations are part of the atmosphere.
What’s interesting is you’ll find that work discussion won’t distract you much, including people on the phone. You set the expectation that those conversations will happen, and because they’re appropriate, you won’t mind them.
In the same way, someone chatting at Starbucks won’t bother you if you’re working there, because the behavior is appropriate.
That’s it in a nutshell. Work social is appropriate communication in the open office space.
#2. Be Aware of Your Quirks
In an open office, you’re in close proximity to a lot of people. That proximity tends to magnify certain behaviors.
Many of us have behavioral quirks while sitting at a computer. Some of the more common include:
- Muttering to yourself under your breath or even making utterances to yourself aloud. This is often in response to something you’re working on that suddenly riled you up.
- Frequent use of foul language. Yes, it works for Gary Vaynerchuk and Gordon Ramsey, but they’re exceptions. Dropping constant f-bombs in an open office is unprofessional and distracting.
- Loud eating or gum chewing.
- Speaking at an unrestrained volume (some people have louder voices than others, but try to avoid sounding like Gilbert Gottfried shouting through a megaphone…)
- Humming to the music you’re listing to on your headphones.
- A tendency to enunciate every interesting idea that pops into your head or that occurs with your work (“You guys won’t believe what this client just said…”).
The list could go on. The point is to be mindful of things you do or say that might unnecessarily distract your co-workers. Remember you’re not working at home alone.
And here are two big ones. Do these and you will soon have few friends in the open office space.
- Come to work sick, coughing and constantly blowing your nose. You’re a sickening sight and sound, plus you’ll get others ill. Stay home and get better.
- Microwave leftover fish and eat it at your desk. This happened once in the history of our office. After the uproar, it hasn’t been repeated.
#3. Protect Your Privacy
There’s an irony to the open office. It has no walls or barriers, but at times it can feel oppressive.
If you work in a big open office, there will be times you’ll wish you could get some privacy when you can’t.
Work through times when you have to be at your desk. But when you get the chance, get up and get some air. Take a walk, get some coffee, or relax in the break room.
The energy of the open office stimulates you in many good ways, but it can also become overstimulating.
When you work in that type of environment, it’s critical you catch your breath now and then. Make sure you use any breaks you’re allotted, and if you’re feeling overwhelmed, step outside and gather yourself.
A couple of tips:
- Use headphones to drown out distracting noise when you have to concentrate. Choose music you can work to but that also gives you a privacy bubble.
- Be aware that your computer screen is visible to your co-workers. You may need to visit YouTube on occasion to give yourself a reprieve, but in an open office, people can see what you see. Use discretion.
#4. Forget the Fishbowl
An unexpected finding about open offices is that they sometimes do the opposite of what they’re supposed to do.
One of the main benefits purported about open offices is that they open up communication and allow co-workers to develop closer working relationships. These interactions add up to a kind of collective intelligence that improves the organization across the board.
But a recent, in-depth study on open office interactions found that face-to-face communication decreased by 70% after implementation of the open office.
They attributed this to the fishbowl effect.
First, in an open office, people realize everyone can see them working, so they strive to maintain the perception that they’re always busy. People put on headphones, type with determination, and click about through a maze of open pages and spreadsheets.
When someone looks this busy, co-workers avoid interrupting them face-to-face. Instead they defer to chat or email.
Second, many people shy away from having an interaction in front of a large group of peers. In an open office, your work is always in front of everyone else. This fishbowl effect also causes people to revert to chat or email instead of working face to face.
This is another area where having a company standard is helpful. There should be an expectation that people can work together in the open office and that face-to-face conversations should take place. It’s appropriate, necessary, and encouraged.
It can work well to chat a colleague who looks busy to ask if they have a moment before you tap on their shoulder. But if most of your communication is going through chat or email – with people who are 10 feet away – it kind of defeats the point.
If you have stage fright talking in front of peers (or taking phone calls in the open office), strive to get over it. Remember that this is normal and that, in fact, most of your peers aren’t paying as close attention to you as you think. They have their own work to do.
The open office plan debate is likely to continue unresolved. The fact is it works for some businesses but not others as it works for some people and not others.
If you’re starting a business with a new open office, be aware that it does have some drawbacks. Every once in a while you’ll look across the office floor and it won’t seem like anyone’s working. And occasionally, you’ll be right.
But you’ll have a more energized team and when they understand expectations, they will communicate better and work together tighter.
If you’re an employee considering working at an open office, realize that you won’t always get the privacy you might feel you need. And, inevitability, there will be someone who occasionally gets on your nerves.
But you’ll also get to know your colleagues and your work communication will be more creative and in-depth. Be sure to stop using chat all the time and go talk to people face-to-face.
When I started working at Marketing 360®, I wasn’t sure I could take the open office. I had been working from home, and the noise seemed overwhelming.
But I got used to it and developed strategies to prevent me from getting distracted.
Recently, I had to visit my insurance agent in his office – one with walls. As I waited to meet with him, I took in the vibe of the place.
It was very quiet. Too quiet. The silence was stifling. Everyone was in their own office – and own world. It seemed as if time stopped. I thought a day in that office would feel like a week in ours.
There’s a lot to be said for energy, camaraderie, and communication. There’s also a lot to be said for professionalism, focus, and respect.
Put those things together and you’ll have an excellent office; the more open the better.