Open offices have become a ubiquitous hallmark of modern companies. A trend that started as the answer to the soul-sucking cubicle farms popularized in the ’80s and ’90s, the open office promised collaboration, equality, productivity and an identity as the cool workplace on the block.
However, studies have shown that open offices often don’t contribute to productivity and that many employees dislike them. Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with co-workers at a communal table, or only a computer monitor away from the CFO can be stressful and distracting. That said, there are ways to make an open office a functional, collaborative workspace that doesn’t drive employees up the wall.
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Open offices can strengthen bonds between colleagues, as they ensure employees work in close quarters instead of being siloed in cubicles or private offices. But that proximity can be a curse just as much as a blessing, depending on how team members conduct themselves in the workplace. To that end, here are six open-office etiquette tips.
As a business owner or office manager, you need to start out on the right foot with your open office by implementing a clear set of rules and expectations for employees.
“Putting an emphasis on ritual or culture-building practices are great ways to foster a better space,” said Alec Melger, global HR generalist at Design Pickle, “whether that’s designating spaces to be more secluded or quiet or creating companywide signals for quiet time without seeming imposing.”
If you don’t implement expectations as soon as you move into your open office, your employees will create their own office rules as they go along. The problem with this is that it can lead to resentment and discord if these unwritten — and unsanctioned — rules are not understood or followed by everyone.
Instead, make a point of leading by example and gathering feedback on a consistent basis to see what is working in your office space and what isn’t. This will help your employees feel heard and like they have a say in the office culture.
Melger also said that the power of choice is a big motivator, particularly in open offices.
“Give your employees the freedom to get work done in a physical setting that they work best in. Allow employees to work away from their desks, in a different room on a couch, or [let them] listen to music or podcasts.”
In open offices, employees typically work close to each other — so close, in fact, you could probably read what your colleague is typing on their computer from your own seat. This can cause feelings of insecurity and discomfort in workers. The distraction that happens when someone feels like they’re being watched can lead to a drop in productivity.
“One of the most dreaded aspects of open offices is the visibility of your screen,” said Darko Jacimovic, founder of WhatToBecome. “Staring at other people’s displays is an absolute no when it comes to open-office etiquette.”
To avoid this, try to position furniture in a way that provides as much privacy as possible for employees.
“It’s awkward to look up only to see your co-worker looking at you,” said Sam Johns, senior content editor at Resume Genius. “So try to arrange seating so positions are offset on either side of the desk. Otherwise, install some basic privacy tools, such as desk dividers.”
Privacy also means respecting co-workers’ right to work uninterrupted. This can be difficult to communicate without the benefit of an office door to close, so you may have to get creative with how you communicate the need for focus.
Shawn Breyer, owner of Breyer Home Buyers, says his company devotes a window of time every morning to focused work across the office. They set aside two to three hours of guaranteed uninterrupted time during which employees are encouraged to work on their most meaningful tasks.
Mutual respect between employees is also key.
“You and your possessions should not distract [your co-workers],” said Johns. “If you want to listen to music, listen with headphones. If you want to use your desk fan, make sure it’s pointed away from your deskmates. If you need to take a call, consider stepping out of the office for a moment.” [Read related article: Music and Its Effects on Productivity]
Since employees don’t have their own office or cubicle, each person’s space is also everyone else’s in a way. Even if someone has their own desk, they’ll still share the area with others, meaning their mess can affect others.
“Your workspace is in full view of others, and the way you keep your space reflects upon you and your department,” said Jodi R.R. Smith, owner of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting. “Neat and professional is the only way to go.”
Encourage employees to dust and wipe down their desks each week, not leave old food or cold cups of coffee out overnight, and try their best to keep their stations organized.
Polly Kay, senior marketing manager at English Blinds, said that an overcrowded desk can lead to unfortunate accidents, so it’s best to keep the space minimal.
“Precariously tottering piles of paper, top-heavy plants, and cups of coffee too close to the edge can all get knocked over by others,” she said.
Noise travels far in an open office. Even if talking or music doesn’t distract you, it may distract those around you and hinder productivity.
“The noise from your space should be at a minimum,” said Smith. “This means no listening to voicemail via speakerphone, no singing/humming/whistling, no playing the drums with your fingers on the edge of your desk, and no perpetual gum snapping. Little habits you barely register in yourself have a way of quickly driving your co-workers batty.”
Employees don’t have to be silent or keep to themselves the entire day, but everyone should be aware of their volume, especially if you notice others on your team getting sidetracked or frustrated.
A quieter open-office space is generally better for everyone. That said, employees should be permitted to speak with co-workers at a low volume when necessary. See more tips for staying productive in a noisy office.
Some people are sensitive to smells, feeling ill at the slightest scents. Even sweet aromas can cause nausea, headaches, an itchy nose, trouble breathing and other unpleasant symptoms.
Smith said that if employees bike to work or spend their break outdoors, they should come back to their desks clean and fresh but avoid dousing themselves in perfume or cologne to overcompensate. Also, she added, if someone’s lunch has an overwhelming smell, they should eat it in the break room or somewhere else away from their desk. No one wants to work with the scent of tuna wafting through the air. [Find out the top ways to make your workspace more productive.]
You should “pay attention to colleagues’ cues,” said Brett Good, senior district president for Robert Half. If someone seems disturbed, anxious, annoyed or affected in any way by a teammate’s actions, try your best to accommodate them. Be conscientious and aware of what your employees are doing — like if they are on an important call or focusing on a complicated project — and encourage everyone to act appropriately around them.
Olga Mykhoparkina, founder of Quoleady, once had a colleague play a joke on her while she was on a video conferencing call with an important client. “In the middle of the call, a colleague of mine dropped in the background, imitating a raging monkey. [I thought] it was really funny, but my client didn’t appreciate it at all.”
Recognize reasonable office boundaries, and continuously check in with yourself and others around you to make sure everyone’s needs are being met. Open offices depend on strong communication and a willingness from everyone to make them work.
“Always put yourself in others’ shoes and consider how you would want to be treated,” said Good. “How you conduct yourself in the office and treat others can be just as important to your career as your work performance.”
Not sure if an open office is the right style for your workplace? Below are some of the advantages and disadvantages to consider.
Open-office floor plans can help employees collaborate, feel more equal to one another, and experience less workplace stress. But they can also lead to cluttered, distracting environments that lack privacy.
Whether or not an open-office layout would work for your business depends on your employees’ habits and your team’s dynamics. Are many of your staffers prone to creating clutter and noise as they work? Have you noticed that certain team members’ lunches smell a bit pungent? Ask yourself these questions and others about your workforce and work environment, then use the answers to decide between an open or private office.
Max Freedman and Sammi Caramela contributed to this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.