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Open Office Plans: How they can be made to work better

Open office

Open offices are far from new, but they remain controversial. Most will agree that open office plans can allow for greater collaboration and interaction among employees. But the open workspace can also have an adverse effect on a person’s concentration, ability to think creatively, stress levels and feeling of control. Lack of privacy, noise, inability to regulate lighting, and interruptions from colleagues are some of the negative factors which may be more prevalent in open offices.

Despite the critical way in which they are often viewed, open offices in some form are likely here to stay, and since they are a reality for so many employees, one might consider how it may be possible to make them more effective, productive and comfortable work environments. Here are some ideas that may be worth considering in your workplace.

CREATE A VARIETY OF SPACES FOR DIFFERENT PURPOSES

While the majority of space in an office may be open concept, there is no reason not to provide employees with variety, and one cannot underestimate the positive effect on a person’s feeling of control that can be derived from the knowledge that they can find an appropriate space for the work they have to complete at a given point in time. After all, different tasks and types of work require diverse spaces.

Spaces within the open plan can range from: wide-open floor space with no dividers between desks; to cubicles with walls just above eye level; to at least some fully enclosed offices or rooms which better ensure quiet. Using sound absorption materials throughout the office can help to reduce disturbing noises. Offering people some access to windows and outside light, within the broader open space or otherwise, can lead to an elevation of mood. Collaboration and brainstorming may be stimulated by designing areas where a welcoming social environment is created, possibly reflecting a coffee shop atmosphere.

Any open office plan needs to have some defined quiet spaces that employees are able to access. A person’s personality type can obviously influence the mix of private/public time that they require to be most effective. However, whatever their level of introversion/extraversion, most people will likely need a silent refuge at some point in time to do their work unfettered or to simply decompress. Access to small private spaces will allow people to take care of personal or professional business (e.g. managing sensitive client relations or making medical appointments). The need for separate or private space is not only felt by individuals concentrating on “heads-down” work. Even project teams may need their own defined spaces in order to thoughtfully carry out their missions.

FREEDOM TO CHOOSE WHERE TO SIT, RECONFIGURABLE FURNITURE, AND ALTERNATIVE SEATING

Furniture that can be easily moved, including desks, chairs and dividers, will allow for the creation of temporary work spaces within the broader open office plan that meet the needs of particular individuals and groups. Moreover, spaces that offer a respite from continuous sitting can alleviate or prevent detrimental health consequences. Giving people some freedom to move around and work in different parts of the office space can enhance employee well-being and energy levels throughout the day. Greater productivity and engagement will likely result.

ESTABLISH BEHAVIOURAL RULES FOR EMPLOYEES AS INDIVIDUALS

The following are behaviours and practices which can support employees to be better neighbours and to be more organized, efficient, and comfortable when working in open spaces. Conversations can be especially distracting because of their information content. In contrast to the general background noise of unintelligible speech, it is difficult for the brain to ignore conversations which allow for a clear recognition of the words being spoken.

  • Direct employees to answer desk and mobile phones within a few rings or set them to only ring a few times before going to voicemail; set the ringers to the lowest possible level.
  • Encourage staff to conduct their conversations or meetings with others away from the personal workspace of colleagues, and not to yell across the room or have conversations standing up near others who are trying to concentrate or have a discussion with clients.
  • Request that each employee keep his or her desk and floor space as clean and uncluttered as possible.
  • Although headphones are often used to block out distracting noise and to show that someone is busy and does not want to be disturbed, ask employees to be sure that the sound is not seeping out of the headphones and bothering their neighbours.
  • Remind staff working in close proximity to others to make a point of monitoring the loudness of their voices.

WORK FROM HOME POLICY

A policy which allows employees to work from home on some days can open up more options for flexible work space. At a minimum, it can offer a break from an open concept plan that includes too many distractions. But this is not a given because the home may or may not allow for focussed work. As such, the policy should be optional. Also, it must not be forgotten that many workplace distractions can follow people home and elsewhere, including telephone calls, texts, and emails. Personal discipline and organization will still need to be exercised.

LEAD BY EXAMPLE

Executives and managers should get out into the open to work on their own or in conjunction with others. However, they should not do so to an extent which seems to increase the feeling among employees that they are constantly being watched and monitored. This kind of feeling can already be a natural consequence of very open office plans.

DO NOT BE AFRAID TO EXPERIMENT

The effort to create the best work environment possible is never wasted. It make take several tries to find out what works best in your office, taking into consideration the work that is done there and the composition and preferences of staff. Listen to, and incorporate, feedback from everyone. Improvements to existing office space may require some redesign with an attendant cost, but they can result in more engaged and satisfied employees, a reduction in errors, and increased success in achieving company goals.

Feedback

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  • Kathy March

    Very interesting article! Work environment is critical! As stated “the effort to create the best work environment possible is never wasted.” Want to know how your employees feel about your current work environment? Ask them!!

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