Quiet Please! How to Survive in an Open Office

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Helen Monument details the steps you can take to make your open office as productive and pleasant as possible

There was a time that office space was allocated according to role. The higher up the chain you were, the bigger, more luxurious and private the space you worked in. Times have changed and the trend for open offices took off. However, a wave of surveys has now found that open workspaces are not the collaborative, time, and money saving havens that was first thought.

You may be one of the lucky ones who has their own allocated desk, but nowadays, in an open environment, it’s often ‘first come, first served’. For those who are at the office 40 hours a week, it’s hard to give up your ‘own’ territory for a different daily flex-desk.

The best open office layouts have a combination of various zones, to suit the needs of all; quiet rooms with soft furnishings and restful colours for individual focus and concentration; bright spaces with informal furniture for social interaction, networking and games; efficient and ergonomic work spaces where you can sit, stand or even cycle while getting on with your daily tasks, and flexible meeting rooms, equipped with the latest technology for local or virtual team collaboration and creativity.

Set Ground Rules

As with many office-related issues, communication is the key to a successful open office. Discuss with your colleagues, team or manager the desired behaviors. Draw up ‘office etiquette’ guidelines that all agree to abide by. Some examples could be:

  • Eating at a workspace is not allowed
  • Leave the workspace as you would wish to find it
  • Consider that your conversations could be distracting others
  • Are you joining a conference call? Use a quiet booth
  • Having a meeting? Book a conference room

Quiet booths are designed for privacy and to limit the disruption to others.  They can’t be booked in advance or monopolized for more than one hour at a time. Agree on the use of these common spaces and speak up if someone abuses these agreements.

Do Not Disturb

When you need to focus without interruption, here are some tips:

  • Design some cards to hang up or place on your workspaces; “Feel free to talk to me” if you’re happy to be interrupted or “Please come back later” if you really need to concentrate on a task.
  • Use the ‘location’ button on your IM tool. Skype for Business will let you show to others if you’re green (available), red, (on a call) or in ‘do not disturb’ mode.
  • Look for the quiet times. This may be early in the morning, or at the end of the afternoon. You may benefit from shifting your arrival or departure times to suit the rhythm of the office. Does everyone go to lunch at the same time? Take advantage of the quiet time.
  • You may think that wearing noise cancelling headphones (NCH) will solve your problems, but not all NCHs are the same. Some filter out the ambient noise, but not conversations. You also run the risk of missing out on the ‘buzz’ in the office, what are people talking about? What’s new? Being able to bounce an idea of someone opposite is often a quick way to jump start your creative juices, so don’t isolate yourself.

Further Reading

In his 2019 article ‘The Truth about Open Offices”, for Harvard Business Review, Ethan Bernstein found that in open office environments, face-to-face interactions decreased by 70%, with an associated increase in electronic interaction. Workers admitted being reluctant to hold conversations that colleagues could hear, afraid of being judged by others on their opinions, so they would send emails to the person opposite instead or use instant messaging.

A 2018 study from Karlstad University in Sweden discovered that open offices do not only damage collaboration, but actually reduce employee’s happiness.

Open office environments are doing the opposite of what they were designed to do. Your company may have spent serious money on creating a new open office, so you’re probably stuck with it. But, if your organization is thinking about changing to an open office space, the surveys mentioned above should certainly give them food for thought.

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About Author

Helen Monument

Helen Monument inspires and encourages Assistants to be the best they can be, by sharing 30 years of experience as a management support professional. Her career has taken her through many stages, from Secretary to Office Manager and Business Support Team Leader, so she understands the profession inside out. An honorary member of International Management Assistants (IMA) Netherlands, she also served as Association Secretary, then as European Chairman. Helen has recently launched her new venture Monumental Assistance. Helen offers coaching, counselling, mentoring and training to assistants at all levels and is a stimulating, knowledgeable and entertaining conference speaker. Helen will be speaking at Executive Secretary LIVE Wellington, 21 & 22 May 2021. For further information and to book, visit www.executivesecretarylive.com

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