How To Survive An Open Plan Office

Work in an office? Then you probably work in an open plan space, with over 70 per cent of workplaces organised in this way.

The move away from private offices is meant to promote collaboration and cohesion, but this isn’t always the reality: there’s evidence that open plan is actually bad for employees. It has been linked to unhappiness at work, decreased productivity and even increased stress levels.

Whether you’re at a big bank or the tiniest not-for-profit, the reduced overheads offered by open plan remain an attractive business proposition for employers. So how do you survive? We gathered some tips from people who’ve mastered the open plan office space. Here’s how you can make this situation work for you.

#1 Have A ‘Stay Away’ Signifier

Putting in coffee orders. Eavesdropping on a project status update. The old “how was your weekend” banter. When there’s so much going on around you, it’s easy to become distracted.

Research from the University of California has found that when interrupted, it can take up to 25 minutes to get back to your original task. It’s in your best interests, then, to find a way to let people around you know that you need to get work done. If your workplace permits it, headphones can be an easy way of doing this. “I’ve started wearing obnoxiously big headphones to indicate when I’m in my zone and not to disturb me,” explains 32-year-old Sam.

Where a formalised approach is needed, agree on the best way to indicate ‘stay away’ with your team. It could be as simple as notifying colleagues around you that you’re having a ‘power hour’ and not to disturb you. Alternatively, having ‘available’ and ‘not available’ signs above your desk may help. And of course, you should check with your boss and colleagues whether this is appropriate for your office.

#2 Investigate Flexible Work Arrangements

An open workspace can be particularly difficult for people with introverted personalities or those who don’t work well with background noise. If you really need time out, schedule a phantom ‘meeting’ in your diary and book a room or find a quiet space in a cafe or library. If you tend to work better early in the morning or later at night, see if your company offers flexi-time arrangements; just an hour during which there are less people in the office could be all you need to boost your productivity.

Depending on your industry and situation, working from home or from another office could also work. Says Chris, 28, “with the move to cloud-based computing, anywhere that has a wifi connection becomes an office.” The change of scenery will allow you to spend time away from distracting colleagues, unnecessary meetings and the watchful eye of micromanagers.

#3 Embrace The Benefits Of Open Plan

Open plan spaces were introduced because people legitimately believed they would be a good thing – so let’s not forget that they do have benefits. Being amongst workers with a variety of skill sets and different levels of experience means that you have a wealth of knowledge and resources to draw upon. Suffering in your spreadsheet? See if anyone nearby is an Excel whiz. Does your sentence feel grammatically incorrect? Maybe someone has time to give it a quick proof-read.

Don’t forget to lock your screen when you step away from your desk, and be aware of your surroundings. As Sash, 28 explains, “conversations are never actually private, regardless of how softly you’re speaking.”

Prue, 29, agrees. “Lead by example and pop into a meeting room to complete a long phone call, conduct impromptu work chats out of earshot of desk neighbours… and don’t discuss private matters in public areas. You might see your colleagues start to follow suit!” Save the negative and difficult discussions for the meeting room or over coffee – your reputation will thank you.

#4 Get Up And Get Out

We’ve all heard it before: sitting down at work all day is killing us. Getting up regularly is even more important in noisy and sometimes claustrophobic open plan offices. Prioritise going for a walk every day, whether that’s stepping out to buy food, offering to do the coffee run, or just taking a stroll around the block. Doing so will help you get some much-needed Vitamin D and give you a mental break. For added motivation to get up regularly, try apps like Rise & Recharge, Stand Up! and StretchClock, which provide automated reminders and tips on what exercise to do.

The open plan structure should make approaching people on your floor easier, so take advantage of it. Rather than engaging in unnecessary (and sometimes heated) email exchanges with colleagues, talk to them in person. It will not only build rapport but also get you away from your desk.

#5 Make Your Workspace Your Own

Working in a space with rows of homogenous desks can get pretty dull, so brighten the mood by customising your workspace. Decorate your area with photos of people you care about and images and quotes that inspire you. You might not be outdoors as often as you’d like, so bring some of it indoors by investing in a plant – research suggests that doing so can actually boost well-being, creativity and productivity.

See if getting a standing desk is an option for you. “Having the ability to transform my desk with a click of a button allows me to quickly view things differently… my posture has improved, but I truly think the change from sitting to standing has improved my energy levels especially around the afternoon lull,” says Chris.

Though employers increasingly prefer open plan offices, they are also introducing more ‘zoned’ formats that use open plan in principle, but have separate meeting rooms, social spaces, and quiet areas to improve employee wellbeing and productivity. Some are even investing in innovative designs, including altered acoustics to reduce ambient noise.

But until such models are standard at most organisations, dealing with open plan is up to you to manage. By having open conversations with your colleagues, employing a few hacks and injecting a large dose of positivity, you’ll be the master of open plan in no time.

Chelsea McIver is a freelance writer and editor based in Melbourne. Her work appears in titles including VICE, Junkee, Broadsheet and The Big Issue. Tweet her @ChelseaMcIver