I will admit it. I cringe when I think of the beige or gray cubicle walls that surrounded me throughout my contractor life. All my cubes were recipients of terrible fluorescent lighting (either too bright or too dim) that contributed to my regular migraines. While I didn’t feel like someone was constantly watching me, it was uncomfortable when someone suddenly popped up behind me…not because I was cruising social media but because I didn’t have any time to mentally adjust to the rapidly descending coworker. Plus, the environment wasn’t always quiet because cube walls are not sound blockers. Every conversation that doesn’t take place behind doors is easily overheard, and regardless of the volume level of the computer speakers, any music selection is either enjoyed or tolerated by everyone. And let’s not even talk about all the hygiene practices that people take care of in their cubes that others can hear (yes, nail clipping should be done AT HOME!!!!).
So, let’s break down those walls and make the office environment even more open. Let’s see what actually happens when we do that. Basically, it takes all those annoying elements of the dull, cube life, and it puts it all out there. You used to only hear your coworker blowing her nose, but now you can look up and actually see her doing it – while trying to focus on your work.
So, while the open concept might lead to increased collaboration – when implemented with a good team on the right project, the key issue that seems to come up is high levels of distraction. Constant visibility does not necessarily lead to increased productivity.
Clearly, some companies see the benefits of an open concept – so many are doing it. Open concepts can cost less to set up, reduce heating and cooling costs, and house more individuals in the space. Some managers may feel open concepts provide a better visual on what employees are doing…or not doing. And of course, there are the increased team productivity and collaboration claims.
Benefits aside, constant distraction leads to irritability – not increased productivity. So, if you find yourself in an open concept office, take heart, you can make the situation work for you with these strategies:
1. Ask for “house rules.”
This is crucial. Different views of common sense and common courtesy can make many employees miserable and hitting the want ads. Managers should discourage any rivalry (coworkers counting bathroom breaks and monitoring each other). But this is all about making sure everyone is on the same page. It might seem like overkill, but it’s better to address things in the beginning before they get out of hand. Otherwise, coworkers start leaving snarky post-it notes out with passive aggressive implications about quiet times, hygiene issues, or microwave cleaning.
2. Ask your manager for Team goals.
If the goal is productivity and collaboration, so if it’s not being offered, you have to ask for it. In order for coworkers to unite with one another, there has to be a common goal everyone is working towards. Without a vision, the open concept just promotes wanderers. If you you’re moving from cubicles to an open concept office, make sure your company outlines the goal ahead of time, so you know their purpose – whether it’s simply cost savings or greater collaboration.
3. Invest in noise-canceling headphones or earplugs.
This one doesn’t cost a lot of money, and can help you focus on your work in front of you instead of all the conversations about last night’s reality TV. And it’s not a bad idea to add a headphone house rule (see #1) – if you see someone wearing these, they probably do not want to be interrupted and may be on a deadline, so consider an alternative form of communication or only interrupt with a pressing need.
4. Ask for space.
The squeaky wheel gets the grease. Ask for a work from home options or private workspaces, but communicate your desire to be more productive in that time and have more focus. The goal is productivity at a low cost, so work with your employer on finding the right solution.
5. Work toward the common good.
We’re pretty individualistic here in America. Our impulse is to take ownership of the shared space for our own benefit. Instead, care about the shared environment as a shared owner. Bring in plants that benefit everyone. Suggest a common background noise to coworkers (but pull the plug on it if everyone seems against it). See if you can create some simple collaboration areas that have a coffee bar vibe. There’s a reason why it’s easy for many of us to put in a few hours at Starbucks.
Perhaps the open concept office isn’t the best fit for every personality type, but some simple steps make it a survivable and viable option. Don’t just dump the stress of the open office environment on management. Bring ideas to the table and try to work together to make it a better work environment. After all, the open concept office is supposed to make coworkers collaborate, right?