An Open-Plan Office Can Work for You

by Nancy Ordman

Like them or loathe them, open-plan offices are here to stay. Companies justify this arrangement by touting its positive impact on creativity and relationship building. They also enjoy the bottom-line benefits derived from housing more people in less space.

Some employees work well in these kinds of environments. For others, however, the mere idea of an open office is anathema. The noise – and sometimes even the white noise pumped in to cover up conversational noise – shatters concentration. Drop-by visitors who ignore all signs that a colleague is concentrating unwittingly affect productivity. Sometimes the anticipation of interruptions keeps susceptible workers on edge.

Short of building a wall, office workers can implement strategies for taking back control over office space. Blogger Elan Morgan outlined some ideas she tested that address problems from productivity to self-preservation. Although she wrote from an introvert’s perspective, these suggestions work for anyone.

Define personal space: Methods for screening oneself from co-workers vary depending on the openness of the office. A coat rack, a bookcase, or plants can screen off at least a part of an area. Morgan suggested asking for a desk, or desk space, next to a physical wall to reduce traffic distractions.

Reserve a meeting room: Set up a standing reservation for an enclosed meeting space – small huddle or team rooms are perfect for this. Schedule high-concentration tasks or telephone meetings for these hours.

Observe and exploit quieter times in the office: Most workplaces are quiet early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Are there times when many people are regularly in meetings or out of the office? Exploit these quieter times to do work that requires concentration.

Find, use and enforce a “concentrating” signal: Headphones are a standard signal to leave a colleague alone. However, not everyone respects this standard sign of concentration. Another possibility is posting a sign that says “I’m busy.” For offices that use an instant messaging program, post a busy status and encourage all colleagues to check and respect that status, unless an emergency requires interruption.

Take more solo breaks: Leaving the office entirely for a solo lunch or break gives anyone a chance to unwind; introverts actively need this kind of space and time away from people. When weather or circumstances obviate an outdoor excursion, Morgan retreated to her car to read for 15 minutes. 

If telecommuting part of the time is an option, taking a day a week away from the office offers a big chunk of time to accomplish attention-intensive work. If telecommuting is not a choice, Morgan’s suggestions can help accomplish the same goal: quality time for focused activities, time to recharge, and time to enjoy the benefits of an open-plan office.