Open-plan offices: A love-hate relationship at work

co-working office

Is the open-plan workplace a viable and healthy work option? Or is it too noisy and distracting?

Researchers have deemed open-plan offices as poor for productivity, worse for socialising and bad for catching germs.


Many government departments and large companies are only just getting into the swing of open-plan hot-desking, where employees don’t have a permanent desk. Nowadays, many contractors and casuals are reminded that no-one ‘owns’ a desk and to remove all traces of their existence before leaving for the day. And with no filing cabinets, some workers trudge around buildings with full backpacks of files. 

These days, lots of people wear headphones. There is less talk, but more emails to the person sitting just metres away from you. When outsiders walk in, it’s seldom clear who’s in charge, what teams are doing, or why they’re doing it. If you’re lucky, you might get to speak with someone front-of-house (though that person might have a very odd job title). 

More people, less space

Impersonal office environments have been around for years, but there will always be new ‘solutions’ to ‘problems’ such as how to fit lots of people onto a floor of a building without paying very much. If you look up Roget’s thesaurus, you’ll see the synonyms for impersonal are words like “remote”, “detached”, “disinterested” — and even “cold-blooded”. Even Dilbert agrees. Is this really what we want for people trying to do their best work?

Interestingly though, many employees actually enjoy open-plan offices particularly if they’re used to them and thrive on the improved visibility of senior management. The rhetoric of silo-busting depends on the space, its organisation, the type of work a person is doing, and above all, the people involved.

So if you’re one of these ‘lucky’ employees who works in an open-plan office, here are some considerations and tips to help you get the best out of your work environment.

Flexible and “activity-based” working arrangements

A growing number of employers endorse flexible and “activity-based” working arrangements, which is essentially sanctioned opportunities to work from home or elsewhere on a regular, agreed basis. This is a blessing for many white-collar types your work area at home might be more ‘disorganised’, but at least no-one can tell you that it’s time to sort your papers or not to have coffee near your computer. Or you can be as OCD as you wish with no one dictating your workspace rules.

Make the most of new technology

On the days when you’re working off-site, meetings can be done via Skype. (Do what television newsreaders do: wear the smart jacket and keep your scuffy old sneakers out of sight.)  See if you can remotely log into your work email. Be clear, where possible, in your email signature about the hours you work that way, even with the cloud, no-one’s expecting 24/7 access (unless you’re the energiser PR bunny type).

Have a plan for when you go into work

A list of what you want to achieve that day is one example of a plan you can take to work with you, although you should always be prepared for some fluidity in achieving your daily and weekly goals. You can also organise meetings to help you keep tabs on what others are doing — and they you.

Minimise distractions where possible

There is a growing convention to leave a person wearing noise-cancelling alone. So if you need to concentrate, go ahead and out some on, but also make a point of signalling your availability for discussion during particular times. Most people understand the importance of focusing on particular tasks.

Ensure new people are properly welcomed, shown around and inducted

The worst mistake many open-plan setups make is throwing the newbie into the deep end and displaying little concern for how they’re getting on. All open-plan offices should assign a mentor or ‘buddy’ (though it’s a corny term) to help familiarise new starters.

Make suggestions for improved space segmentation

We need places where people can make private calls, have meetings behind closed doors, or go to concentrate when the pond is teeming with too many fish.  Research some cost-effective ways these can be done and present them to management.  Perhaps a barista at work would make some workplaces more inviting.

If there is no control over the workplace desk layout, then find creative ways to be more productive and boost all-round job satisfaction. It might require a little expenditure, but it will likely also result in less costly sick days not to mention fewer disgruntled employees.

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