10 Rules for Surviving Your Open Plan Office

How can you get your work done in an open plan office? We've got some tips.
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A low chattering thrums through the air, occasionally punctuated by loud laughter, coughs and grunts. Suddenly the spicy smell of gyros fills the air, layered on top of a sharp, eggy scent. This might be a description of your company around lunchtime, if it's one of the 70 percent in the U.S. with an open office plan, according to the International Facility Management Association. Open offices are the norm in America today and are generally defined as a large, open space where employees have desks but no walled offices, or where "offices" are delineated merely by low partitions [source: Kaufman].

The movement toward open plan offices began with Silicon Valley employers.Soon companies everywhere were following the blueprint, which is less costly than having separate offices, or even cubicles, for every employee. From the management side, open offices have other perks beyond cost savings: Bosses can easily keep tabs on their employees — no need to wonder what Dylan is really doing at his desk all day. Gazing out over an open plan office, with workers chatting in groups and buzzing around, gives the picture of a busy, productive place. Plus, the workspace can be quickly reconfigured whenever a business needs to up-size or downsize [source: Church].


The problem is most workers strongly dislike them, studies have shown. Employees have little privacy; they can't concentrate due to loud noise levels; illnesses spread quickly; and workers can't control lighting, temperature, sounds and smells [source: Yonatan]. Studies also show if you have loads of disgruntled employees, they'll be much less productive. One survey reported lost productivity due to noise distraction was doubled in companies with open vs. private offices [source: Kaufman].

Employers apparently don't care. So if you find yourself dreading heading to work at your open plan office, try our strategies, designed to help make your workdays be less stressful and more productive.

10: Establish Office Rules

If you're having problems with your new office space, schedule a meeting to discuss a few ground rules.
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Whether your company is just switching to an open office plan or has had one in place for a while, it's always useful to discuss, and then implement, a few general rules for appropriate behavior. First, schedule a meeting so you can get everyone's input on some of the most distracting, unwelcome behaviors. Don't assume you know what they are. Although certain issues are common in open offices — loud music, overhearing conversations — others might be more particular to your office. Make sure no one feels targeted during the discussion. If a lot of you dislike Brianna's smelly egg salad sandwiches, don't suggest banning egg salad sandwiches. Instead, mention strong-smelling foods as a distraction. Try to get the group to agree on a few basic no-nos, then test out the "ban."

If the group largely adheres to the new rules, great. You've just eliminated some distractions. Schedule another meeting in a few weeks to see if there are any new issues to discuss, or rules to add. If there's little adherence, and no backup from the boss, your office probably isn't conducive to the concept. (Luckily, we've got nine more coping mechanisms that might work.)


9: Check Out Moveable Furniture

This office has some moveable furniture that can be shifted for private meetings.
© Corbis

Many employees find open offices distracting. Yes, they can be great when you want to collaborate with a large group of people. But if you often work alone, or in small groups of two or three, the swirling conversations, noises and general hubbub of an enormous open office with dozens of employees can be overwhelming. This is where movable furniture can make a big impact at a limited cost. Movable furniture consists of desks, tables, filing cabinets and partitions that can be rearranged into innumerable office configurations. The pieces may be on wheels or stationary, but are easy to move; often, a new set-up can be created within minutes [source: Southwest Solutions Group]. If your company is willing to invest in at least some movable furniture, you and your colleagues can work collaboratively when it's helpful, then return to your own spaces when the project or need is over. It's the best of both worlds, really.


8: Create Private Zones

Create some spots in your open plan office where people can hide out to work in small groups or by themselves.
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Sometimes, no matter how hard you try to concentrate, the office is simply too distracting. And if you're working on a tight deadline or an important project that you have to get just right, that adds to the pressure. In fact, even if your office is relatively quiet and sedate on a day when you're grappling with said deadline or project, you might suddenly find even minor noises or movements highly distracting.

Some open plan offices do incorporate private offices (or quiet rooms) that people can use, so escaping there could be an alternative. However, if these are often booked, or feature glass, fishbowl-type walls, this may not be an adequate solution.


That's when it helps to have private zones. Ideally, private zones are secluded spots equipped with a desk and chair, available to employees temporarily. If your office doesn't contain such a setup, you can create one on your own by moving desks, couches and the like into your desired setup. If nothing else, grab your work materials and a chair, then sit facing a corner.

7: Have a Phone Zone

It's important to have a private room where people can make phone calls without being overheard.
© G. Baden/Corbis

Overhearing phone conversations is one of the things people hate most about the open office plan. It's annoying and distracting to listen to someone else's phone conversation during the workday, and in offices without walls, this happens quite frequently. It's perhaps even more annoying when you're the one on the phone and it feels like everyone else is listening to you, especially if you have to discuss a sensitive or confidential topic.

It's not your imagination if you think your neighbor always appears to be shouting when he's on the phone; everyone's voice actually rises when on the phone [source: Cunningham]. And then there are the times you need to call the doctor or vet, and it feels like your colleagues are listening and judging you when they hear you're not conducting a work-related call, even if such calls are acceptable at your workplace. No matter the scenario, there's an easy solution. Create a private phone zone or two. Encourage employees to make their most sensitive or lengthy calls in this secluded area. Everyone will benefit.


6: Leave the Office for Some Fresh Air

If you can, get out the office at lunchtime.

Fresh air has long been touted as something able to cure whatever ails you. And it's true. If you make it a point to leave the office and step outside once every day, that can go a long way toward defusing any stress that's been building from your open office setting. So head out during your break for a walk around the block. Go out to lunch at your favorite restaurant, or eat your sack lunch on a park bench. Don't let inclement weather stop you; make sure you have boots, warm clothing, an umbrella — whatever you need to fight the elements in your area.

Remember to breathe deeply when you're outside, too, to get as much air into your lungs as possible. (Deep-breathing is also a stress-reliever.) Exercise helps boost your mood, too. If you're able, take a brisk walk or even run during your outdoor break, assuming your workplace has shower facilities. If none of this is possible, walk to another part of the building once a day. Simply leaving your surroundings for a while can provide stress relief and a sense of perspective.


5: Be Tolerant

Sure he's annoying with his feet up on the glass but you might do some things he finds annoying too.
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We get it, we get it – it's really annoying when Sam loudly yucks it up on every phone call. Or when Gina eats smelly tuna fish every Friday. You want to scream when Casey is snapping his gum, and hand Phil, who has rampant B.O., a stick of Old Spice. You daydream about snatching the nail clippers out of Mary's hand when she begins trimming her nails, and of placing a wide strip of duct tape over Harry's mouth when he begins to hum. So many people have such annoying habits! And yet ... so do you.

You may try to be very conscientious, and do none of the things above that drive you nuts. But everyone likely has at least one habit or two that another person finds annoying. Maybe you aren't belching with abandon or screaming on the phone, but your seemingly innocuous daily weather reports or pregnancy updates might grate on a colleague's nerves. So when a co-worker is annoying you, breathe deeply, think happy thoughts and practice tolerance. Because you never know how many times others are practicing it on you [source: Cunningham].


4: Learn to Focus

The London office of energy company Saipem is open plan, but people have learned to get their work done.
© Huften and Crow/VIEW/Corbis

There are a lot of situations in life when people have to tune out distractions. Think about that college or pro ball player, standing on the free-throw line with the game tied, the win or loss up to him. Fans from both sides are screaming and stamping. He's got to learn how to tune out these distractions and focus on the job at hand. If he can't learn how to do that, he won't last. Ditto with, say, a concert pianist. No one may be shouting or stamping at her recital, but hundreds of eyes are on her (not to mention ears), and an audience's intent concentration on you and you alone can be just as nerve-wracking.

But like the ball player, the concert pianist has to tune the audience out and concentrate. You, too, can learn how to ignore or avoid distractions so you can better focus on your work. Business experts have a host of ideas on how to do so, from working on the tasks that require the most concentration at specific times (e.g., before the gum-snapper gets to the office) to turning off the sound alerts on your email to prioritizing tasks on a to-do list [sources: Smith, Orenstein]. You'll probably never be able to tune out every office distraction, but you should be able to diminish the extent that they affect you.


3: Make Use of Helpful Technology

Headphones are a blessing in open plan offices.

Sometimes all it takes is a little technology to help you withstand the challenges of an open office. Can't stand your colleagues' constant chatter? Try wearing noise-cancelling headphones while you work. You can also look for a website or app like Simply Noise that has a variety of white noise and environmental sounds to use for background. If you prefer music at work, a study showed that, for best results, listen to classical music if you're dealing with numbers; pop music for data entry or deadlines and dance music when proofreading or problem-solving [source: Davidson]. Bu do your neighbors a favor and listen to your tunes through headphones or a headset.

Here's another way, technology can help you deal with distractions: Tell your always-popping-in co-workers to send you an instant message first, asking if you're free to talk. Even low-tech devices can make your open-plan work experience more pleasant. Is the overhead light too dim? Get a desk lamp or try to wrangle a seat next to a window.


2: Know Your Triggers

If your coworker talks loudly on the phone every morning, use that time to get away from your desk and do something else. (Or tell her to be quiet).

Here's an easy, simple way to lower your open-plan office frustrations: Identify your triggers — those actions that drive you up the wall — and see if you can work around them. Let's say Paula brings a sack lunch to work twice a week, and spends her entire lunch hour loudly crunching carrots, apples and nuts. It drives you nuts. Rather than stew about it all day, get up and go out to lunch on those days so you won't have to deal with it. Do you get really annoyed when Joe comes into the office every morning and immediately phones a colleague, whom he then engages in a loud, boisterous conversation? Then as soon as Joe arrives, make a beeline for the coffeemaker, go to the restroom or hit the copy machine. Removing your focus from major irritations can actually help blunt their effects quite a bit [source: Boss].

If you can't get away from the distraction, focus on relaxing. The more relaxed you are, the less anger you'll feel. Relaxation techniques include deep breathing, some form of meditation and visualization — not of you lashing out at the offender, but, say, lying on the beach [source: Seltzer].


1: Mind the Germs

Use antibacterial wipes in your desk area when your coworker starts sneezing. And encourage him to go home.

All of that closeness and collaboration so touted by backers of open offices has had one unintended consequence: a lot more sick days. Think about it a minute: Kids in day care and elementary school are constantly coming down with one illness after another because they're in such close contact with each other. The same happens in open plan offices. If you're in an office, or even tucked into a three-walled cubicle, and your neighbor sneezes, you're pretty well protected. But if you and your co-worker are sitting elbow to elbow, you're outta luck.

The best means of staying healthy when you're so exposed may be the simplest: Wash your hands frequently. More than 20 percent of respiratory illnesses can be thwarted simply by washing your hands, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hand-washing also reduces your chances of getting diarrhea (ick!) by 31 percent [source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention].

Besides scrubbing your hands regularly, wipe down your desk, keyboard and phone with antibacterial wipes, get plenty of sleep every night and encourage your co-workers or subordinates to stay home if they're ill. And you should do the same if you're coming down with something. You're most contagious the first two or three days of a cold so do everyone in your office a favor and stay home [source: Medline].

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 Rules for Surviving Your Open Plan Office

I work in a home office, so I don't have to deal with cubicle farms, open plan offices or any other such office trends. Yay! But I also have no officemates, no water cooler chats and no office treats. Boo!

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More Great Links

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