The open plan office rules of engagement


A recent study suggests that 80 per cent of US offices are open plan, almost half of UK workers are based in open plan, and globally 23 per cent of office employees work from an open place.

While this design can increase collaboration and communication, co-workers can become frustrated by living so ‘openly’ with each.

With this in mind, we look at some common open plan living sins to avoid in order to create a harmonious working environment.

1. Respect the invisible door
While there may not be doors to each person’s workspace in an open plan environment, it’s not acceptable to just walk up and start talking to them. Everyone has work to do and they may be in the middle of something important, so first ask if you can interrupt. Similarly, if they’re eating their lunch or involved in a conversation with another colleague, don’t stand there and interrupt, come back later. Let’s face it, no one wants to be this guy.

2. You are not a DJ
Like music while you work? Great, lots of people find music motivating. However, lots of people find music distracting while working, especially when they’re an 80s love ballad kind of gal and their co-worker next to them is playing the last Drake track. So be respectful of each other’s preferences and put headphones on when listening to music, videos or podcasts.

3. Meeting rooms are there for a reason
One of the benefits of open plan offices is that your colleagues are all around you so it’s easy to bounce ideas off them or give them quick updates on how things are tracking. But if the ‘quick update’ is turning into a more in-depth conversation, with a number of co-workers involved, why not grab a meeting room and let the rest of the team focus on what they’re doing. Same goes for personal phone calls, no one needs to hear your monthly catch up with Auntie Gina.

4. What’s that smell!?
Pungent smells tend to permeate. So, if you’ve brought in last night’s fish stew or have a craving for a curried egg sandwich, either eat it in the lunch area or head outside to enjoy your stinky treat. Just don’t bring it back to your desk and assault your co-workers’ nasal cavities. People can also get headaches from strong smelling perfumes and cologne so go easy on the Old Spice.

5. Not feeling well? STAY HOME
One of the biggest gripes among colleagues is when someone comes to work sick. This is particularly irritating in an open plan office as everyone’s in close proximity to each other sharing the same air and space. Not only is it distracting listening to sniffling, sneezing, and coughing all day, no one wants to feel they are trapped in an ever-widening Petri dish. If you have something urgent to complete, then work from home. However, if you’re sick then take a sick day, that’s what they’re for.

6. Be an adult
Everyone’s different and alternative viewpoints are often what lead to the best work outcomes. It’s ok to disagree with a co-worker about what they feel is disruptive behaviour or an offensive food smell. Often, they will be oblivious that what they’re doing is annoying so if you’re open and polite with them usually they will be happy to stop tapping their pen incessantly while they think or take Tuesday night’s curry to the lunch area to eat. If you’d rather not address them directly then ask a manager to do so. Just don’t let the issue fester, as that doesn’t help anyone.

Have an open plan office gripe? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.





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  1. “co-worker”? Seriously? What happened to ‘colleague’ or ‘workmate’? If you are going to lift content off the web to use in the newsletter then at least proof read it and convert it into Australian English before publishing.

  2. A better idea is not to go down the open office route in the first place. All the research evidence points clearly to the fact that they do more harm than good to organisational performance and to employees.But that’s just my professional opinion as a Prof of management and organisational behaviur expert.

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