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‘The Open Plan Office Survival Guide’

open-office-plan-survival-guide  Open plan work environments seem to be the norm in most organisations. Some are even going further, introducing ‘hotdesking’ where even your workstation is allocated fresh each day.

  An open plan environment is flexible, positively encourages conversation between colleagues, and for many of us this is an enjoyable part of our working lives. This environment is credited with benefits such as better communication, faster problem-solving and decision-making. You can immediately see who is present, and typically you’ll have a wider circle of contacts to ask for help when working in an open plan office.

  But inevitably more conversation leads to interruptions to your concentration. Combined with distractions such as impromptu meetings, distribution of birthday cakes and background clatter of printers/photocopiers in use, the noise level can rise.

  And it has to be said, working in an open plan office isn’t universally popular. The chatter, people walking past and increased interruptions sometimes causes loss of concentration, frustration and reduced productivity for some.

   Most of us don’t choose where we’re going to work on our first day in a new job, so we learn to adapt to the environment quickly. These ‘Open Plan Working Etiquette’ tips can help make this environment a little easier, and ensure you don’t finish each day with a raging headache.


    Almost certainly the worst offender in any open plan environment, as a phone left ringing is difficult to ignore.

  • One simple thing we could all do today to make a big difference to overall noise level would be to lower the volume of our telephone ring. Most of us forget to adjust it, and it usually doesn’t need to be so loud when we’re sitting close by.

    Likewise, if your personal mobile phone is with you at work, switch it to silent or vibrate mode to avoid personal calls distracting you during the day. Better still, switch it off unless you’re expecting a very urgent call.

    Some ring tones
    on mobile phones can be a real irritation so think about the impact on your colleagues when you choose your ‘signature tune’.
  • If you’re going to be away from your desk for any length of time, switch your phone through to voicemail or arrange with a colleague to have the phone picked up and messages taken.Assuming somebody else will do it (particularly if it always ends up being the same kindhearted person) can cause resentment to build up in a team. This is particularly important at lunchtime when the pool of available people to take calls is reduced.

  And of course, take your turn answering your team members phones too.


    Colleagues just dropping by for a chat, or perhaps to ask a question or even the new baby visiting the team for the first time, can disturb others.

   As few have a dedicated office, and meeting rooms are often at a premium, impromptu meetings involving several people can quickly develop within a work area. This open communication is great, and can really speed up decisions for those involved. But it can also be a major distraction for those not directly involved in the conversation.

  • Minimise disturbances by politely asking your visitor(s) to get to the point quickly if they’re interrupting you
  • Don’t hold a mini-meeting at your desk – move away to an area where it’s possible to talk freely and without disturbing others
  • Reduce interruptions directly by getting back to people in good time. This will minimize their need to chase you up about the same thing repeatedly

Voice Volume

   We’re often unaware of our own voice volume, or how far it can carry, particularly as we often speak more loudly on the telephone. Overhearing a colleagues’ one-sided conversation can be a huge distraction, even though we’re not remotely interested in the content.

  And the banter surrounding a colleague’s new haircut or contents of their shopping bags after their lunch time trip – well, even the most dedicated can’t help get drawn into the conversation.

  • If we all used our ‘library voice’ it would reduce the overall noise level positively
  • Never use the speakerphone in an open plan area – it’s almost impossible for others to block out the noise, and it really gets on people’s nerves
  • You know this, of course, but as I still hear it happening, here’s the reminder; please don’t just shout across the office when you want a quick answer. Walk across to your colleague and ask, or even send an e-mail if it’s not urgent
  • If you’re personally easily distracted, try wearing a headset to block out the sound. Most telephone headsets have only one earpiece, but you can get them with two. I find these block out much more background sound, so it’s much easier to hear your own telephone caller over the background buzz
  • Use headsets to block out noise only in moderation. They’re a great aid when you really need some quiet time. But used too much when you’re not on the phone and colleagues may consider you aloof and inaccessible.

There are times when a colleague could really need your help but unsure whether to ask in case you’re on a call

   These simple ‘etiquette’ tips can help you make the most of the positive communication benefits of working in open plan environments, and minimise any negative impact on your productivity.

  And if you do lose focus because of a background distraction – don’t despair even if you feel you’re making no progress. Just pick yourself up, dust yourself down and return to where you left off.

© Copyright 2009 – 2014 Rosie Gray, Mosaic Learning Ltd. All rights reserved

Next post;  ‘Meeting Madness – How to Make Meetings More Effective’

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