Open offices may be popular, but they take work to function well.
- The most important aspects of good open office etiquette are communication, respect and continual check-ins.
- Employees should avoid strong scents, keep a clean space and try to keep noise output to a minimum.
- Open offices aren't for everyone, so make sure you have a good idea of how it might work in your space if you're considering a switch.
Open offices have become the ubiquitous hallmark of modern companies. 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 office on the block.
However, studies have shown that open offices often do not contribute to productivity and that many employees dislike them. Sitting shoulder to shoulder with co-workers at a communal table or a computer monitor away from the CFO can be stressful and distracting, but there are ways to make an open office a functional, collaborative space that doesn't drive employees crazy.
To that end, here are six open office etiquette tips.
1. Set clear expectations for your open office.
As a manager, it's important for you to start out on the right foot with your open office by implementing a clear set of rules and expectations for your employees.
"Putting an emphasis on ritual or culture-building practices are great ways to foster a better space," said Alec Melger, operations specialist 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 office rules as they go along. The problem with this is that it can lead to resentment and discord if unwritten rules are not understood or followed by everyone.
You should make a point of leading by example and eliciting feedback on a consistent basis to see what is working and what is not. 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."
2. Respect privacy.
In open offices, employees typically work close to each other – in fact, you could probably read what your colleague is typing on his computer from your own seat. This can cause a feeling of insecurity and discomfort in workers. The distraction of feeling 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, human resources specialist at Resume Genius. "So try to arrange seating so that positions are offset on either side of the desk. Otherwise, install some basic privacy tools, such as desk dividers."
Privacy also means respecting your co-workers' right to work uninterrupted. This can be difficult to communicate without the benefit of a closed office door, so you may have to get creative with how you communicate a time 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."
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3. Keep your space clean.
Since you don't have your own office or cubicle, your space is also everyone else's in a way. Even if you have your own desk, you still share the area with others, meaning your mess can affect them.
"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."
Be sure to dust and wipe down your desk each week, don't leave old food or cold cups of coffee out overnight, and try your best to keep your station 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 it 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."
4. Be conscious of noise.
Noise travels far in an open office. Even if talking or music doesn't distract you, it may distract those around you, hindering 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."
You don't have to be silent or keep to yourself the entire day, but be aware of your volume, especially if you notice others getting sidetracked or frustrated.
5. Don't overdo scents.
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 you bike to work or spend your break outdoors, make sure you come back to your desk clean and fresh, but don't douse yourself in perfume or cologne to overcompensate. Also, she added, if your lunch has an overwhelming smell, eat it in the break room or away from your desk.
6. Be considerate.
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 you or your actions, try your best to accommodate them. You should also be conscientious and aware of what your co-workers are doing – like if they are on an important call or focusing on a complicated project – and act accordingly around them.
Olga Mykhoparkina, chief marketing officer at Chanty, once had a colleague play a joke on her while she was on a video 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 your 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."
Additional reporting by Sammi Caramela. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.