Surviving open plan working

Imagine you are having a great day, you’re feeling positive and productive – the sun is shining through the window, you are whizzing through your emails, tasks are being completed, you share a joke with your colleague sitting beside you, a cup of tea and ideas with your boss opposite.  Then comes one of those bad days, when you didn’t get enough sleep, the phone doesn’t stop ringing, the paperwork is mounting up and you want to kill your otherwise lovely colleague beside you for pressing the keyboard so loudly! Can’t people see you are busy?  Ah, the joys of the open plan office!

Pros and cons

Studies show that open plan working encourages teamwork and creativity, as well as making the sharing of information easier. You don’t need to think ‘next time I pass by their office’ or wait for ‘the right time’ to ask information. People tend to collaborate more and have less need for so many meetings. Open plan offices also use the space more efficiently and encourage sharing of facilities and flexible working practices.

This environment can also be great for the social aspects of teams: better social interaction and good relationships with work colleagues contribute to staff morale and job fulfilment.

So why is one survey finding that 84 percent of workers would prefer to work in closed rather than open-plan offices? Is it fact that when you work open plan you can’t hide anything?

The reality of working in an open plan office is that the privacy you may have had from your own office, or at least separate departments, is greatly reduced. Your business becomes everyone’s business.

With that in mind, here are some tips to survive the open plan experience:

  • Unwritten rules – if possible, consider suggesting a one-off meeting to agree on a set of rules for the office. Whether it’s eating in the office or room temperature, it will be useful to get people to voice their opinion. However, avoid putting up written instructions as this can make people feel they are being treated like kids.
  • Communication – where possible, speak to colleagues face-to-face instead of sending emails or phoning but to make sure you don’t interrupt something important, ask permission first. Also avoid asking a question every five minutes, instead write things down and go to see them when you have a few issues to discuss. If you are ‘walking and talking’ with a colleague then don’t stop at other people’s workstations to chat, be considerate. Also, never shout across the room to get anyone’s attention.
  • Be respectful: Food and Clear desk policy – if you don’t have a company rule against eating on your desk already, then at least avoid smelly foods. Concentrating in open plan offices can be hard enough. Also, avoid too much clutter. Open plan office studies have found that the lack of privacy leads people to put up boundaries by decorating their desks with personal items. This is normal and usually acceptable but don’t overdo it – choose something that will inspire you and make you feel positive when you look at it. Plus, make sure you tidy up at the end of the day as a clear desk policy is in force in most corporate buildings.
  • Telephone manners – turn down the ringer volume so you can still hear it but it doesn’t disturb everyone else. Be conscious when you are on the phone of your own volume as well; if you know it will be a long conversation or a confidential issue, it may be worth booking a meeting room to take the call. Finally, take private calls in private – not everyone wants to know your plans for the weekend!
  • Plan for interruptions – another bugbear of open plan working is the constant stream of people that can interrupt you at anytime. Good time management will tell you to plan for ‘email time’ instead of answering as they come, so in addition, avoid back-to-back meetings wherever possible, something is bound to come up last minute. People will need five minutes of your time (more like an hour) so plan spaces in your diary to account for interruptions and last minute requests.
  • Book time away when necessary – if you are having a bad day, try not to draw attention to yourself. Be discreet go for a long walk outside. This might also help to make you feel more energetic. Also, if you are working on something that needs a lot of concentration then think about going somewhere else or booking a small room, if available. Another option is earplugs or headphones; however, this can seem unfriendly, so only do it when it’s something really important.
  • Have fun! – make a point to greet people in the morning but also even if it’s only once a week, create some office fun by having a laugh, relaxing or inventing a game, just make sure to keep it professional!


The good news is that studies show most people who are used to having their own office, with time, are able to adapt to this new environment and soon develop ‘tune out’ mode or ‘selective hearing’. Open plan working is a learning curve but can be achieved; it is a myth that you need peace and quiet to concentrate.

By Ana Canabarro


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