“If you haven’t already made it to the corner office, it’s probably too late.” The Wall Street Journal wasn’t mincing words with that statement — an observation of a culture in which “workstation walls of any height are becoming relics as businesses from corporate giants to small startups embrace open plans in which employees of all statuses sit crammed side-by-side amid a sprawling sea of desks.” And despite the supposed “perks” of such an office aesthetic — advocates argue that a lack of walls fosters more innovation, collaboration, and connection — for many workers, the open office also comes with plenty of challenges.
“Open offices are appropriate for certain types of work, but for work requiring focus — which many of us do — they’re distracting,” Meredith Wells Lepley, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Southern California who studies workspace personalization and workplace issues, tells Thrive. “This is more than just annoying; it can lead to frustration and a bad mood, in addition to making us feel that we have little control over the world around us.” What’s more, studies show that open work spaces have the capacity to reduce productivity and lower employee morale.
Also interesting: Sometimes the connection that an open office plan is designed to foster never really manifests. In 2018, Harvard Business School researchers analyzed the impact of open plan offices and found that co-workers often craved less social contact when they were already sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with their colleagues. The study found that an open office reduced face-to-face interactions by about 70 percent, and increased email usage by about 50 percent.
Knowing about these challenges is important. Why? Because if you’re mindful about some of the downfalls associated with your environment, you can develop strategies and work-arounds to ensure that you’re thriving — not just surviving — in an open office plan. If walls are a relic in your workplace, these tips are for you:
Find your office “nook”
Wells Lepley says there are four “work modes” that the workplace should accommodate: collaborating, focusing, learning, and socializing. But if your workplace doesn’t provide an optimal setting for each, you may need to get creative to find spaces that meet each of these needs. For instance, maybe you feel good answering emails and taking care of paperwork at your desk, but need to locate a quiet corner (or even book a conference room if one is available) to tackle anything that requires 100 percent of your focus. By experimenting with different settings, you may find DIY solutions that boost your productivity (and even your mood).
Plan important conversations in advance
Open offices make it tricky to have personal or sensitive conversations with colleagues or a manager. “If there are important one-on-one discussions to be had, take a little time in advance to find the best spot for that communication and ensure you have the necessary degree of privacy,” advises Wells Lepley.
Establishing boundaries for “deep work” can be more of a challenge in open office setting, when colleagues are constantly engaged in chatter around us or leaning over to “pick our brain” about something. To ensure you’re protecting your time and space, be clear with your colleagues about when you’re available for collaboration and when you need some quiet time. A bit of compassionate directness goes a long way here.
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