The open plan office was set up to encourage disclosure, discussion and debate. At the time it broke down traditional office hierarchies, sitting managers among the ‘workers’ and promoting a more flexible and democratic way of working. It saved companies money too, as the need to construct large, fancy offices for senior management was drastically reduced, as was the overall volume of office space needed.
Today, over eight million employees in the UK work within an open plan office, but over the past couple of years particularly there has been a growing bank of research to show that the concept isn’t necessarily living up to its expectations. In particular, the lack of private space in office interiors is said to be constraining the creativity and productivity of its workers.
Gensler’s 2016 UK Workplace Survey found that employees were more likely to be innovative if they had access to a range of spaces supporting different working styles, including private, semi-private and open-plan environments. “Effective workplaces must support both individual and group work, and open plan environments without access to a range of alternative settings and enclosed spaces are challenged to do both,” the report claimed.
Additionally, the What Workers Want survey by Savills and the British Council for Offices published in June, found that only 45% of respondents were satisfied with the noise levels in their office. In some open plan offices, the volume of background noise can make it impossible to think and be creative, but conversely, an open plan office which is deathly silent can have detrimental impact on morale and well being.
Other common complaints around open plan office design centre on the lack of privacy, the interruption of unplanned micro-meetings, time wastage due to unwanted and irrelevant conversations, lack of control over personal space (temperature, light, smells etc), and the sense of guilt for making noise when on the phone, for example. There has also been much research linking open plan offices to health problems such as stress and high blood pressure.
But there are techniques that can be used to overcome many of these challenges, so that it’s possible to get more done. If you’re struggling with productivity or other challenges within an open plan space, here are some tips to help make the environment work better for you…
1. Get to your desk earlier
It makes sense that the office is at its most calm in the early morning, before everyone has arrived. If you’re a morning person and tend to be most productive at the start of the day, adapt your routine so that you can get to your desk at least an hour earlier. This will enable you to ‘eat that frog’ and nail your most important task of the day before your colleagues have even arrived.
2. Set a routine for yourself, and for your team
As much as we may resist it, the human brain thrives on routine. If we can teach the brain to do specific tasks at the same time each day, or each week, it becomes easier to achieve those things. In an open plan office it can be extremely effective to set aside a block of time each day when you, and potentially your team around you, are not to be disturbed. Other teams within the same space will quickly learn to respect this. By doing so, it will also help to minimise your cognitive load, which can become burdened when there are myriad distractions around you.
3. Identify a preferred private space
We all need some time to ourselves at certain points in the day; some more than others. If you’re an introvert particularly, taking private phone calls or handling sensitive conversations within an open plan office can be a particular challenge. To avoid self-censoring or embarrassment, find a private space you feel comfortable with, for talks with your colleagues or phone conversations. This could mean going on a walk around the block, a quick trip to the local coffee shop, or slipping into an empty meeting room.
4. Tune out
Nowadays, within any open plan office you’re likely to see many employees wearing headphones. Noise cancelling headphones are the most effective way to drown out the office hubbub and assert some control over what you are hearing. While music is another form of ‘noise’, it’s something we’ve chosen, and additionally there is much research to show that under certain conditions, music can help to improve our performance. It’s true that in some situations music can serve as a distraction from cognitively demanding tasks, but the key is to discover what works best for you personally.
Sometimes just the act of popping on headphones is enough of a deterrent, and people will leave you alone, believing you’re in the creative zone. There doesn’t always need to be music playing!
5. Make open office ‘communications’ work
In most scenarios, a quick and purposeful chat is easily more desirable than a long chain of emails. If it’s done right, the in-person communications that open plan offices encourage can be a great way of cutting down on email overload.
For example, when GlaxoSmithKline moved its workers from cubicles and offices to open plan work tables, “email traffic dropped by more than 50%, while decision making accelerated by some 25% because workers were able to meet informally instead of volleying emails from offices and cubes,” according to the Wall Street Journal.
So be strategic about the conversations you have with colleagues, and use the accessibility of individuals to your advantage. If you’re in need of help, it can be far easier to approach an individual within an open space, than to knock on their closed office door.
6. Move, when you need to!
A change in environment is beneficial to productivity, in any scenario. If your office tends to get particularly noisy around 11am on a Wednesday, or on a Friday afternoon for example, don’t hesitate to take your laptop and work elsewhere at those times. Seek out enticing, calm spaces to work during those hours, such as a quiet coffee shop, a library or hotel with wifi. You could even arrange to work from home once a week to account for those situations, if your contract allows you to. Use these times as opportunities to focus on creative work particularly.
5. Own your personal space
Providing you have been allocated a fixed desk, take the time to make it a pleasant and personalised space which meets your individual needs. If you’re introvert by nature and would like to make your area more private, plants, storage systems, a bookcase, pictures and even a display board, can be used cleverly to make your desk feel less ‘open’. You could even find some way to hang your coat creatively, so that it forms a subtle screen. If you find yourself completely adrift within the space you’ve been allocated, request a move to a desk located near a wall, which will mean you’re less exposed on all sides.
Do you work in an open plan office? Have you discovered some tried and tested ways to help the space function better for you, so that you can concentrate and be more productive? If so, we’d love to hear your suggestions below.