How to Survive in an Open Plan Office

Adjusting to a new open plan office may be easier with a little planning.

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Alison Green
As companies look for ways to cut costs, open plan offices are becoming increasingly common. "Open plan" offices is another term for workplaces that consist of wide open space – no private offices and not even any cubicles. Instead, workers sit side by side with little privacy.

While companies that move toward this type of floor plan say it fosters collaboration and team work, most workers bemoan the loss of privacy and the distractions that impede their ability to concentrate. In fact, a new Harvard study found strong complaints from workers in open plan offices about environmental noise levels. The study also found whatever collaboration benefits these layouts provide were outweighed by workers' dissatisfaction with noise and privacy issues

But if your company is switching to an open plan layout, you'll need to find a way to work in the new environment. Here are eight tips to help you survive.

1. Establish work processes that maximize your focus and don't be shy about asking your co-workers to follow them. For instance, rather than having colleagues call out to you from across the room when they want to talk, ask people to email you or set up a meeting. You'll need to be willing to redirect people to this method a few times in but after a few reminders, most people should get retrained.

2. Agree on shared behavioral norms. As a group, your team can establish norms to respect other people's space and concentration. For instance, you might all agree to keep phones and computer alerts silenced, to take any calls that are longer than a few minutes in a conference room and not to eat especially odiferous foods at your desks.

3. Establish signs to signal that it's not a good time to interrupt you. Whether it's a simple sign that says "on deadline – check back at 3 p.m." or a red flag signaling "not available," create some way to tell colleagues that you're not free right now and to check back later.

4. Make sure you have at least some locked space. You might trust your colleagues, but visitors to the office, maintenance workers and other strangers will also have access to your space. You'll want to have a locking drawer in your desk or file cabinet or another safe place to store your purse, wallet or other valuables.

5. Ensure that you have conference rooms available for meetings and phone calls. Open plan offices are challenging at the best of times, but they're practically doomed to failure if your company doesn't provide private space for meetings, sensitive conversations or long phone calls. If your office is in the process of switching to this layout, make sure the planners are including conference rooms for this purpose. If your office has already made the switch and didn't include conference rooms, it's worth raising as a request to your management or facilities staff.

6. Take advantage of teleworking or ask your office to experiment with allowing it if it doesn't already. Even just a half day a week of working at home can give you several solid hours of distraction-free focus, which can be enormously valuable when your work requires you to concentrate without interruptions. If your office won't allow you to telework, you might come in early or stay late when you're working on a project that requires particular focus.

7. Invest in good earphones. You'll have at least one colleague who carries on loudly, takes calls on speaker phone or otherwise makes it impossible to focus without a barrier to block out the noise. High quality earphones can be what keeps you sane and productive.

8. Make sure your company hears your feedback. If you're in an open plan environment and it's not working well for you and others on your team, speak up. You shouldn't push the issue incessantly, of course, but it's reasonable to ensure that your managers and others hear your feedback on the disadvantages of the workspace and especially how it's impacting your productivity.

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.