For better or worse, the open office space has become commonplace, replacing many offices or private cubicles with open work areas entailing little privacy or personal space. Some companies are even eschewing assigned workstations and having employees rotate their work area based on a first-come, first-served concept meaning a potentially different seat, view, and set of nearby coworkers on a daily or weekly basis.
Touted by businesses as a way to improve communication and collaboration, it's no secret that the open office space also represents cost-cutting measures designed to seat as many employees as possible for the lowest cost possible.
In my experience, the open office concept is rife with potential problems. Close proximity to coworkers even considered close friends can lead to lack of focus and distractions if not properly managed. Worse, small frustrations with coworkers can escalate or inflate into larger problems.
There are some articles such as by Harvard Business Review and Gallup which advise how to best design these environments, but here are some tips from personal experience on how to thrive — or at least survive — in them, based on courtesies you and your neighbors should extend to one another.
1. Keep the personal chatting to a minimum
I'm a baseball fan and I'm all in favor of a quick, two minute talk about "Hey, did you see the Red Sox game last night?" It becomes a problem when the chatting gets out of hand, however. Yes, personal conversations build rapport among coworkers, but it also distracts from productivity.
Save the half-hour conversation over who was the best pitcher of all time for your lunch breaks or after work. Remember that others around you also become impacted by such talks, which can eat into their own concentration.
2. Take the phone calls and meetings elsewhere
Whether a personal or professional phone call comes in, take it elsewhere to avoid disrupting people nearby. Most personal calls come in via mobile phones which are easy enough to transport elsewhere such as a break room or stairwell.
Redirect professional phone calls to a conference room phone nearby and take the call in private. Many conference rooms have computer equipment which will let you connect to the systems on which you may need to access data for the purpose of the call.
It's also a good idea to consider temporarily relocating to a conference room to work if you need privacy or want some interruption-free time to focus; that way you won't be an easy target for a "drive-by" or phone call.
3. Behave professionally
It should go without saying that professional behavior is the best complement to an open office space; inappropriate conversations, practical jokes, sleeping at your desk and so forth will quickly make the environment an unhealthy one.
With more visibility into coworker actions and interactions there comes a greater likelihood for others to be negative impacted by a failure to adhere to professional standards, and an encounter with HR over such matters is never pleasant for anyone.
4. Adhere to hygiene standards
I know it may sound far-fetched but I've seen it all in some environments. I'm not saying shave and wear a suit and tie every day (though I'd like to see the programmers I know try that), but stick with certain hygiene practices which can help your neighbors tolerate your presence.
Bathe regularly, don't take your shoes off, don't clip your fingernails (or toenails) at your desk, apply makeup elsewhere, don't hang up your sweaty gym clothes on your desk — you get the point. And yes, I have witnessed these examples firsthand.
5. Keep the workspace clean
This is especially important in companies which rotate workspaces: exhibit common courtesies such as throwing away trash, cleaning up spills, removing desktop food or ink stains, etc. Yes, the janitorial squad may be primarily responsible for such actions, but living like a slob throughout the day renders the environment unprofessional and unpleasant to look at.
I'm not saying you have to be a neat freak with a gleaming workspace, but adhering to the basics - using drawers to store material rather than having it strewn about your workspace, putting books or publications on shelves and bags underneath desk counters can make a big difference.
6. Be aware of your unconscious habits
This one might take some self-analysis, but it will pay off. All of us do certain things we might not even be aware of, perhaps as part of our normal operations, a nervous habit or an unconscious tic. These activities may cause negative impact to your neighbors without you even realizing it.
For instance, talking to yourself (in IT it's more like "muttering darkly to oneself"), chewing loudly, tapping your feet, drumming the desktop, even typing too loud.
I've known people who would slam their computer mouse against their desks when frustrated by a slow computer, then when I politely asked them to stop doing that would answer in all earnest innocence: "Stop doing what?"
Try to take inventory of the things you do which may be potentially disruptive and make an effort not to do them in an open office environment.
SEE: Working in IT: Why we love it, why we hate it (free PDF) (TechRepublic)
7. Mind your own business and be independent
It's hard to carry on your own business in a crowded area, but it's important to help you coworkers achieve this end so you can do so as well.
Respect other people's time and privacy; don't ask what they're up to if it doesn't involve or concern you, unless you're simply looking to book time with them for a collaborative project. If they want to vent to you, that's one thing, but don't pry into unwanted areas.
Don't drag coworkers into every last thing you're doing if you can avoid it; chances are they're working on something which is equally important.
Don't ask unnecessary questions or inquire about things you could easily research but elect not to do so; that takes away from their available time and puts the burden on them.
8. Ask permission
It's amazing how much acrimony can develop in an open office environment just by a simple thing like not asking permission. Usually the act of doing so can alleviate any tensions which might otherwise arise.
For instance, before you open/close the window, turn on or off the lights, adjust the heat or the air conditioning or even eat food with ripe odors, check with your neighbors to see if they object.
In many cases, people who might otherwise have objected to your sardine sandwich will opt not to do so if you ask in advance. The goal isn't to win a potential disagreement but rather extend the respect of making sure it's OK first to show you care about your coworkers' comfort level.
9. Use headphones
We've all taken a little time during the day to watch a funny video, check out sports highlights or play some music to unwind. Always use headphones when you do so. While my coworkers don't mind me viewing that grand slam Xaender Boagarts hit against the Kansas City Royals, they'd probably mind if they had to hear it again and again which is why my headphones are invaluable.
If work doesn't supply headphones? Buy them. The price will be worth the benefit of workplace harmony.
10. Mute your phone on conference calls
This one can be more for the benefit of the people on the conference call, but always mute your phone when you're not speaking. Modern phone systems have amazing capabilities when it comes to detecting sounds, so any last noise in your office area — sneezing, coughing, conversations, etc. — will be passed right into the call and cause distractions which reduce the focus of the discussion.
- 11 ways to eliminate distractions while working from home (TechRepublic)
- Top 5: Ways to improve your focus at work (TechRepublic)
- Why your open office space is messing up your brain (TechRepublic)
- How to negotiate a flexible schedule with your company (TechRepublic)
- Flexible working: How to help your company make the shift (ZDNet)
- How Georgia-Pacific embraced a flexible workspace with hoteling desks and conference rooms (ZDNet)
Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.