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Performance Management

Is Your Open Office Putting You Off?

September 18, 2014
3 min read
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Performance Management, Supercharged



Do you remember when everyone started knocking down cubicles, going office-less and embracing the open office floor plans? Do you also remember when they all realized that it was extremely noisy, distracting, smelly, and lacking privacy?

The open office trend comes with a lot of great benefits like increased collaboration, energy and innovation. The idea was to embrace the employee-centric culture, knock down the hierarchical pyramid and create a more horizontal vibe in the workplace. The flaw is that just about everyone went out, bought a pair of noise canceling headphones, put them on and never took them off again.

Proximity to our colleagues makes it easier to have a spontaneous micro-meeting, but it also means we have to sit through their deconstruction of the previous night's TV, or their shouting matches with teenage children over the phone.” - William Kremer, BBC News

FastCompany asked over one hundred open office employees what they liked least about their work environment, and we have offered solutions so that you can get the most out of your office space.

It’s Either Too Loud, or It’s Too Quiet

Many respondents reported that they have a hard time concentrating with the noise of everyone around them: conversations, phones ringing, coughing, laughter etc. Banning noise kind of defeats the purpose of the open office floor plan, and it’s just not possible.

On the flip side, open offices will often go to a noise-less extreme. Some workers will find this environment to be boring, lifeless and undesirable. Offer noise-canceling headphones for those who need silence to concentrate, but designate certain parts of the day as “collaboration” times. This ensures that employees can prioritize their work, with scheduled spurts of time for collaboration. 

The Interruptions Don’t Stop

The average employee experiences 56 interruptions per day, and spends about a total of 2 hours per day recovering from distractions. Additionally, almost 80% of interruptions at work are considered trivial.

The best remedy for this common open office issue is to implement project management software with a strong social component. When employees don’t want to be disturbed, they can announce it over the platform. When someone needs their attention, they can also use the software to alert them, instead of walking over and starting to talk.

Sometimes You Just Don’t Want to Talk to People

That’s okay, that’s normal. Designate “headphones on” as the universal sign of do not disturb. No “Good morning! What’s for lunch? Have a good one from the dozen people who pass your desk each day. In order to ensure that common courtesies and manners don’t die out, don’t be too strict about social sites, and encourage employees to communicate with a company hashtag, or over the shiny new project management tool you’ve implemented.

There’s No Privacy

One respondent noted that they don’t feel comfortable taking calls in front of everyone. They get anxious about it, purposely dodge calls and take them outside of the office to avoid everyone listening to their conversations.

Open office companies should offer quiet rooms with time limits for such occasions. The time limits are so that everyone can have an opportunity to get a little privacy, and they also ensure that calls or tasks don’t take longer than they probably should. 

I’m reminded of a particularly awesome scene from the 1999 movie, Office Space. An employee who has experienced an awakening calmly takes apart his cubicle in defiance of the all too corporate-ness of his organization. Cubicle workers everywhere applauded this character. 

Open office layouts do need some tweaking; I think we can all admit to that, but going back to the cubicle is not the answer. Those tiny little workplace silos kill collaboration and energy. If you have gone the way of an open office, you just need to create policies and guidelines to ensure that everyone can be as productive and collaborative as they can be.

Want to learn more about keeping the lines of communication open in an office full of headphones? Get in touch, and let’s talk!


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