how to survive in an open plan office

On a recent open thread, commenter Frieda asked this:

Our CEO announced this week that the new office space we are moving to next fall will be all open plan. No offices, no cubicles. Apparently even executives will have the same workspace as everyone else.

Does anyone else have experience working in an open plan office space? I’m generally one to accept things that I can’t change and just see how I adapt, but I’m certainly not thrilled about the announcement. Any advice, other than investing in noise-canceling headphones? Negatives I might not have thought of? Has anyone had any positive experiences?

While companies that move toward this type of floor plan say that it fosters collaboration and team work, most people stuck working in them bemoan the loss of privacy and the distractions that impede their ability to concentration. In fact, a new Harvard study found strong complaints from workers in open plan offices about environmental noise levels – and also found that 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 some things that can help.

Establish work processes that maximize your focus and don’t be shy about asking your coworkers 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.

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.

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 3:00” 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.

Make sure you have at least some locked space. You might trust your colleagues, but visitors to the office, repair people, and other strangers will also have access to your space. So 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.

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.

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.

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, and high quality earphones can be what keeps you sane and productive.

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.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 242 comments… read them below }

  1. Samantha*

    Ugh. Experiencing this right now, though not quite to that extent. At my office, some have private offices or share an office with one to two others, but other people are in cubicles. I used to have a more private workspace but now share a relatively small space with about 8 others. As an introvert, it is extremely difficult for me to be productive and be able to concentrate in this type of environment! I know some people think it fosters collaboration by encouraging conversation among coworkers, but the only conversations happening in my area are personal, not professional. Add to that playing music without using headphones, cell phones ringing, and personal phone conversations and it’s a wonder to me how I ever get anything done!

      1. Windchime*

        Same here. It just seems crazy to me that putting everyone in an open room with nothing to buffer the sound could ever be a good thing. Before moving to this office, we were all packed into a room that had one long, curving countertop that snaked its way around the room. We all had assigned spots on this countertop, so we had room for drawers and a shelf, but there were no dividers between people. It was, quite frankly, hell. When people can see their neighbors, they tend to just yak all day long. Laughing, talking….programming in that kind of environment was horrible. At least now we are in cubes.

        1. virago*

          +1 million

          One of my co-workers (someone I genuinely like) has a cellphone ring tone is “When the Saints Go Marching In.” I cringe when I hear that song anywhere else now.

          We can get noise-canceling headphones on request, but I admit I really don’t like them. They’re bulky, and they make me feel like I’m part of an airport ground crew.

          1. Lore*

            When we first moved, we asked for headphones or phone headsets and were told we were welcome to bring them ourselves if we wanted them. Sigh.

            1. Michele*

              We were required to leave our phones on vibrate or no ringer at all at my old office. I think it is very rude of your coworker not to show some courtesy and turn off is his ringer.

              1. Judy*

                One of my former co-workers had the ringtone that would announce the caller if they were in the contact list on the phone. “Incoming Call from ….” He worked an earlier “shift” than I did, so he could pick the kids from school, he worked from 6:30am to 3pm. He never carried his phone on him. At least once a week, he’d be doing something in the lab and not leave at the right time. So about 3:30 I’d hear “Incoming call from Wife’s business”. I threatened to change the name of his wife’s business in his contact list to “Pick up your kids, dude”.

              2. Neeta*

                I actually like this policy, though I’ve only had it “enforced” once, at my first job. It was not even a company-wide policy, but rather one for our office (we were 15 people crammed in a rather small space).

                If anyone’s phone rang and it wasn’t on silent/vibrate, they’d have to buy a bottle of juice for the entire office, heh.

                1. Brandy*

                  I once had my ringtone as loud screeching cat. I turned it on high as I was getting ready to leave and went to the bathroom. of course it rang. My co-workers were dying when I cam back to my desk.

            2. Windchime*

              I had to purchase my own pair of Bose noise-cancelling headphones. They were horrifically expensive, but it was the best $300 I spent in a long time. Those headphones + a white noise app on my phone has saved my sanity.

              1. Shamo*

                Yes I have done the same. I love those headphones but am surprised that I could still hear co-workers over them. Yes I do have music playing but some people in the office just are loud.

          2. Bea W*

            I hate wearing anything that blocks my hearing in order to drown out noise. Having my sense of hearing dulled just ratchets up my PTSD hyper-vigilance issues, and then I can hear like the air in my head or whatever that is – everything in my head sounds 100x louder. I don’t know how noise canceling headphones work, but if it’s anything like earplugs….ugh. No. There isn’t enough anti-anxiety medication for that.

            I also find wearing large earphones, like those required for good noise cancellation, very physically uncomfortable, even painful. Having my giant ears squished up against the arms of my eye-glasses hurts!

            1. Jamie*

              Almost every time you post I want to have coffee with you because I feel like you’re speaking for me, too. I wish I could buy you a cup of coffee.

              I don’t have PTSD, but I have an embarrassingly hair trigger and exaggerated startle reflex due to hypervigilence – I’ve tried using headphones early in my career at a data entry job and it freaks me out.

              I’ve had to explain to everyone with whom I work that I can’t help it and it’s not personal, but I really can’t help it. If I’m focused and I don’t see you coming I will jump every time – sometimes a little – sometimes out of my chair. Needless to say my desk faces my door – but I really prefer people just pretend it didn’t happen. It’s like if someone has a stammer you don’t point it out whenever they exhibit it, but apparently this doesn’t get the same kind of pass.

              On a related note, hypervigilent people tend to have hypersensory issues and if noise is in your hypersensitivity basket it really does make an open office plan feel like you’re wearing sandpaper underwear or have a piece of glass in your shoe you can’t remove. It’s all you can think about and you spend an inordinate amount of energy trying to deal with it and tune it out – which leaves less for actual productive thinking.

              And I’m not saying every office should be designed to not annoy me and people like me (although that would be lovely, world, I’ll wait for you to do that), I get that everyone has to manage their own atypical issues, but this is why fit is SO important and environment is a huge part of that for a lot of people.

                1. Anonymous*

                  Same here. Seemingly normal things like someone coming into the washroom while I’m exiting, or someone coming into the kitchen to refill their coffee, will startle me so bad and I jump as though these people had snuck up behind me and yelled BOO! right in my ear :/

                2. Bea W*

                  Definitely not alone. I’ve met people with that same issue unrelated to anything that happened to them. They are just naturally startle-prone.

                3. Jamie*

                  will startle me so bad and I jump as though these people had snuck up behind me and yelled BOO! right in my ear :/

                  That’s exactly it. Collateral benefit of AAM comments is I feel less alone about stuff like this.

                  I know there are different reasons for this, but I swear there has to be a genetic component for me. My dad was like this and we all laughed at him – we called it the daddy shuffle. I feel so bad now for mocking him because as adults all of my siblings and I have the same deal. We all have similar issues with misophonia, sensory integration issues…which all our kids have as well.

                  Of course when we were growing up we didn’t know it was called sensory integration issues. We thought it was called “difficult children who act like a t-shirt tag is trying to slice their very skin, and who are so picky you can’t just buy socks because if the toe seam is lumpy they will go barefoot in the snow before wearing them, and pitas who police the table manners and noise level of everyone around them all the time.”

                  It’s a long name for a diagnosis, so sensory integration issues is better. :)

                  My poor neutral typical mom – she tried and was so patient but she never did really understand why we’d rather go hungry than eat something with a weird (to us) texture, and how we could be bothered by the sound of her filing her nails in another room. Poor typical mom – she was so outnumbered!

                4. s*

                  “Seemingly normal things like someone coming into the washroom while I’m exiting, or someone coming into the kitchen to refill their coffee, will startle me so bad”

                  Perhaps a doctor of therapist could help (assuming you haven’t explored that yet).

                5. Ellie H.*

                  Jamie – me too and mostly with physical sensations. It was much worse when I was a kid – tags, feeling the seam of your tights in your shoe, getting partially wet, basically any and all kind of inconsistent stimuli. Now it’s mostly that there are very few types of pants I find comfortable because pants tend to fit you differently in different places (tight in one place, loose in another). And it drives my mom crazy that my instinct is to cringe away from her if she tries to kiss me. I try to remind her to give me hard hugs instead. The absolute worst is a light touch in one place, like the feeling of someone fixing a tag or removing a piece of lint or something from your back. Anyway, it’s really nice to know that there are other totally normal functioning people with the same kinds of weird small issues!

                6. the gold digger*

                  “difficult children who act like a t-shirt tag is trying to slice their very skin

                  It’s not that bad for me, but I do wear most of my exercise clothes and my pajamas inside out because I hate the seams and the first thing I do with something new is very carefully cut out the tags as close to the seam as I can get.

                7. Bea W*

                  Ooo the light touch thing. It didn’t/doesn’t make sense to me, but a light irritant can drive me batty, while something pressing hard up against my skin is usually okay. This has become more of an issue for me as an adult. I have all kinds of funky back and neck issues that impinge on my nerves and cause chronic pain and muscle issues. I assume it’s related. Maybe it’s not.

                  Clothing comfort has always been a big deal for me. I cannot wear uncomfortable clothing, and for me that seems to be things other women find dress and fashionable. I just assumed it was normal to find this uncomfortable and people just tolerated it for the sake of looking good though I never understood how, because I really can’t function well when dressed uncomfortably. It’s distracting and distressing. Maybe I am just touch sensitive?

                8. Anonymous*

                  you can’t just buy socks because if the toe seam is lumpy they will go barefoot in the snow before wearing them

                  Ooooh yes, I’m like this with my socks, too. I spend too much time fixing the socks in my running shoes before I start a workout. If the seam is out of place by even a little bit (bunching into a tiny nub near my pinky toe or the seam hitting my foot in the wrong place), I can’t handle it.

                9. Becky B*

                  Same here. I seem to be the only one like this in my office, so knowing I’m not the only one, period, helps!

                  I have a tendency to jump, squeak or give small shrieks in alarm when surprised or startled. It’s funny after the fact–well, it seems to be funny to the person who startled me right away–but I often wish I had less of a blatant reaction. I get so focused on what I’m doing or deep in my own thoughts that it’s quite the rude awakening!

                10. Jen S. 2.0*

                  WOW, I never knew there was a name for this. I don’t have all of these, but the ones I have are big! fat! dealbreakers! I cannot STAND the sound of someone else chewing. I have dumped perfectly nice men for chewing too loud. I banned my college roommate from eating in our room. Someone eating while on the phone with me gets cut off almost immediately. I am RIGHT NOW in the process of moving offices to get away from a loud all-day gum chewer. It is the sound I hate most in the world, by far. I am flabbergasted when others say they “don’t even hear it.”

                  Also can’t abide clothes that are the teeniest bit itchy (I’ll hold a sweater up to my cheek in a store, and if I feel ANY kind of scratchiness, I won’t even try it on), have weird skin sensitivity, and am a very picky eater for both taste and texture issues (mushrooms have no taste, but they feel like eating rubber bands. And it is shocking to me that people purposely consume those giant slimy boogers known as raw oysters).

                  Someday when I go to Hell, it will be a big room of loud gum smackers, with nothing to eat there but raw oysters and Chinese food.

                  I never assume I’m the only one who does something, but it’s nice to have a name for it.

                11. anonn*

                  Jen 2.0 – yep, like me. Hubby tends to chew or rustle really loudly. He then turns up the TV to cover it and that doesn’t work. If I’m having a bad day the sound of bubbles in soda six foot away can enhance itself to deafening levels… He still doesn’t get it.

                  An open office really can make that sort of stuff hell – co worker eating with knife and fork in a office 10ft away with the door open at 11am, a pen clicker 15ft away, The all-year carol singer 20ft away…. Even the noise of a rotating fan (let alone the breeze). Frustrating!

                12. ellex42*

                  Hello fellow sensory integration sufferers! I’m another one. Intermittent sounds drive me nuts, although I’m okay with constant sounds. I’m completely sympathetic to the issue of seams in the toes of socks, which is why I’ve worn my socks inside out my entire life. I love the new thing where some clothing manufacturers print the tag directly on the clothing so I don’t have to cut them out. I absolutely cannot wear certain types of cloth or eat certain types of food (texture issues). I got scolded for fidgeting constantly as a child, and guess what: I’m still a fidget!

                  It’s taken me two years to find new nightshirts that I can actually sleep in. I threw out the old ones with glee, since by now they have holes in them.

              1. Cazzie*

                Wow I love AAM, you never know what you find out. I just thought I was extremely fussy or weird. Glad to know it has a name. Explains a lot of weird things I did in my childhood.

            2. Marie*

              I’m also not a fan of headphones – combination of a startle reflex and an inability to multitask (and ‘listening to music’ counts as a task for me).

              One thing which I found really helpful is musician’s earplugs. They are specially fitted for only your ears, so they fit identically everywhere. And they have a noise filter which uniformly reduces all noise by a set decibel level (the options for me were 9, 15, 20 0r 25db, and the 9s or 15s are sufficient for an office environment). So you can still hear clearly, but just less loudly. An audiologist friend made some for me for around $150.

        2. Jessa*

          Triple if you add hearing impairment to the above. I just do not understand how anyone thinks this setup actually fosters WORK.

          1. s*

            Have you missed the statements of how people think this fosters work, or you just don’t believe them? The proponents are not secret about why they think open plan is productive.

            1. NBB*

              I am sure she has not missed the statements, and no, it’s no secret why some think open plans are better, but their theories have been proven wrong. The research shows open plans do not foster a better working environment.

              I take it you are an open plan fan.

              1. Marcy*

                Not only would it not foster a better working environment, I would leave my job that I love over it. It would become a nightmare for me. I’m sure there are others that would do the same. I wonder how much the turnover rate changes after a company does this.

        3. cubenewb*

          Are we related? Check on both. I don’t even have a full cubicle.

          And I face a wall and I can’t see people approaching. I have hyper vigilance as the result of abuse as a kid (one incident involved my mother sneaking up from behind and punching me in the back so hard I staggered) and a physical assault by a neighbor as an adult. I’m startled, my anxiety levels are up and I’m afraid I’m accidentally going to hit my boss or someone else. I have to contain my instinct to hit people in self defense when they get too close in my personal space. I’m getting some mirrors so I can see people. And I’m in therapy to deal with the other stuff, so I’m going to see what advice my therapist has.

      2. Penny*

        Ugh, this sounds like a great way to decrease employee satisfaction and increase turnover.

        I’m a germaphobe so this setup would make me miserable and grossed out!

    1. Jamie*

      I know different things work for different people, but this would be a deal breaker for me. I can’t imagine trying to even function in this environment, much less accomplish anything.

      This sounds so stressful.

      1. Anon Accountant*

        Same here. I’d have to find another job because I couldn’t accomplish much or really get anything done.

        1. Lore*

          That was my first thought too, but sadly 90 percent of what I’ve seen and interviewed for has had some version of open-plan, poorly designed cubicles, “hoteling” (albeit combined with telecommuting), etc. The one place that would definitively have involved an office was going to a tiny company with under twenty employees, and the job had a lot of other potential issues, including salary.

    2. JCDC*

      Um, this discussion is blowing my mind a tad bit. I work in a semi-open office environment now and I really have to push to focus some days.

      I thought that I was just going through a procrastinatory phase or something — but maybe it’s my darn office. Huh.

    3. James*

      Anytime anyone says that ‘we are putting your group in an open office, or low cubicles to foster collaboration’ are talking like politicians – if their mouth is moving, they’re lying. It’s all b.s. How else can anyone explain it? My small 5 person team went from 3 people in one office and 2 in another, to 5 on a slightly larger office. Not one bit of any extra collabotation. But a whole lot more of several people’s drama every day. All day. So, folks, if your boss says ” Hey, were going to foster some collaboration by creating an open office”, realize he/she is priming your pump.

    4. John*

      Open plan are awful.
      I am currently listening to muffled radio from a coworker with really poor music – boom, bump, boom, bump etc etc
      From downstairs there is sporadic heavy metal, sh1t and bull poo.
      Add to that certain open and “interesting” weekend adventures with planning for next and there you have it…

      Open plan which
      1) Causes too many open conversations
      2) Show off exaggeration about whats been done or planned for in private life (keep it there)
      3) One up man ship bull
      4) Prowess in some endeavor
      5) Noise to stop you working
      6) Noise to stop you thinking
      7) Noise to slow you down
      8) Noise to make you make mistakes
      9) Noise to make you hate everyone around you
      10 ) Noise to depress the sh1t around you
      11) Noise to make everyone who makes it think they are being clever
      12) Noise to make everyone who makes it think they are being cool
      13) Noise to make everyone who makes it trying to ingratiate themselves into your personal space
      14) Noise by nobs to get into the young girls pants
      15) Noise because they are just too stupid to realize they are disturbing others and effectively saying F**** You
      16) Noise because they are so special we have to listen to them or their crap as only they count

      I could go on but I do actually have work to do and I resent falling behind due to the stupidity of thoughtless others. I want to die too in equal measure as it really is a relentless struggle to just come in to this tedious existence – a bit like watching a soap opera of some reality show for the rest of eternity as a punishment involving coworkers loosing the ability to hear music so they won’t notice when I TURN IT OFF

  2. Zahra*

    I work in a Agile team, so open plan is a must (lots of collaboration, etc.). My colleagues are rather young men (think 25-28), so sometimes veer into joking or YouTube videos, especially Fridays around 4 PM. Whenever they get too loud, I get my headphones out and blast some music.

    Otherwise, we have set up a Skype group for questions and transferring files and may ask questions out loud to other people. No need to holler, we are not in such a big space, after all. All in all, I usually like it, except when the team gets too loud.

    1. Zahra*

      I must add: nobody usually plays music out loud, phones are usually on vibrations and people go elsewhere for personal conversations.

      1. s*

        Glad to hear some people mention the upsides. If your work is very collaborative, with a lot of back-and-forth and need for quick discussions, it’s better than private offices.

        My organization went from private offices for most staff to open plan a few years ago and it’s clearly more productive for us, even if some people don’t “like” it. We talk more and share more.

        We have plenty of small conference rooms people can pop into for privacy, clearly discussed norms of behavior, and also some technology (white noise) helping now.

        1. Frieda*

          That’s part of the problem for us–our work (at least my department) is not very collaborative. What amount of collaboration I do need is easily handled now w/ offices. Maybe it will become more collaborative?

        2. Marcy*

          Hmmm, we use conference rooms when we need to collaborate, not when we need privacy. I’m glad someone likes it because I would not be able to work that way.

      1. Zahra*

        It’s a method of developing software which emphasizes team work and working by small, usable bits delivered in small intervals (max 2-3 weeks). You then work with change requests or adding features to basic functions. You do have a daily huddle to talk about what is done, what will be done that day, what blocks you from going forward, etc.

        The advantage is that your client receives regular updates and can change the direction of the project if their needs change before the final delivery.

        1. Penny*

          Ha, our IS team uses the Agile method too and they’ve mentioned the daily huddle- I thought that’s just what they called it, I didn’t know that was a real thing. They work in cubicles, but they are smaller and shorter so they can talk easily and teams are grouped together. Also, I see them a lot in the conference room with their laptops working together.

          Hey, if you happen to be in the Houston area or know programmers who are, we’re hosting a hackathon for charity in April and are going to try to get people outside the company to join! If so, let me know and I can get you my info.

    2. Windchime*

      We are (trying to be) an Agile team, too, but cubes work fine. We have a daily huddle around the Agile board and we meet frequently, almost daily, for strategy discussions. I would hate being in an open room, especially with people who are horsing around. I shouldn’t have to blast distracting music into my head simply to drown out coworkers who are horsing around on the company dime.

      Fortunately, most of my coworkers are older than yours so that makes it easier. We’re all too old and cranky to horse around. :)

      1. ThursdaysGeek*

        I did agile at a different job, and we had 2-7 people in an office. I thought it worked pretty well, because we were all working on the same project, and the talking was about work issues. We’d hear what was going on, but it was quiet a lot of the time too.

        I’m in a cube farm now, but with non-geeks, so there are no communication benefits to hearing other conversations.

        I’ve also worked cubes with geeks, and that stifles the open discussion that an open office can have, without stifling the noise.

        For work that requires concentration and collaboration, like programming, either individual offices or group offices with like projects seems best. Cubes provide the worst of both worlds.

    3. Mints*

      This seems like exactly the type of settlng that benefits from open office. Like so many other things, know your industry.
      And a cubicle set up doesn’t seem that different, there’s no noise difference and little privacy difference.
      If the job prioritizes collaboration, open plan seems useful, as long as there’s plenty of rooms for other situations

      1. Bea W*

        Cubicles can offer some privacy and personal space which is what is introverts need as much as not being bombarded with other conversations. With one big table, there’s nothing at all. If your butt gets itchy, everyone will see you scratch it. :D

        1. Mints*

          Haha that was exactly why I put “little privacy difference”! I was thinking at least you can pick your nose, and hopefully nobody walks by.
          I have seen some middle of the way open plans where everyone has desk cabinets and each worker has a defined personal space.

          1. Julie*

            In one of our offices, everyone has a locking file cabinet, and in theory, you can sit wherever you want. In practice, people end up keeping the same space every day (even setting out personal photos, etc.). It’s still open plan with no dividers, but at least there’s no “musical chairs.” I don’t understand what not knowing where you’ll be sitting every day is supposed to accomplish. My current situation is a desk in a room with six or seven other people. When I have to teach a remote class or have a long meeting by phone, I work from home.

            Our offices will be moving to another location next year, and they’re planning to do the “musical chairs” setup over there. I think I’ll just have to bring all of my stuff home and work from home every day. It’s a bummer because even though there are a lot of conveniences of working from home, I like to go in to the office at least once a week to see colleagues and just not be at home all. the. time.

        2. Windchime*

          Yeah, at least with a cubicle, I have the illusion of privacy. I can decorate my space the way I like; I’ve covered the ugly beige walls of my cube with a cute, graphic fabric and have pictures of my kids and kitty up. And I can more easily avoid visual distractions.

          Unfortunately, the layout of my cube forces me to have my back to the entrance, which I HATE because I am among the easily startled group. So I have a mirror rigged up that allows me to see when people approach from behind me.

    4. Meg*

      I also work in an Agile environment. We’ve got a 2×5 desk-size tables set up for each Scrum team. At first, we were the only ones with an open floor plan. Took some time to get used to, but by the middle of our first sprint (each sprint was about 3 weeks – correlated to our production release schedule), our team had gelled together. They moved our team to another location in the building where other Agile/Scrum teams are, so we’ve got four 2×5 arrangements now. It’s bit noisier, but honestly, it works well for us. We’ve got whiteboards as barriers, but the only issue is our standups – we have them at different times so that the area doesn’t get too loud, but then my team’s area ends up blocking the flow of traffic. Oh well, it’s a non-issue.

      It really depends on the industry and what the level of participation is. We’re all (developers, at least) getting laptops as primary machines by the end of Q1, so if you need to duck off somewhere to focus, you can do so.

      1. Judy*

        Our teams are going from rooms with 5-10 sw developers in them, set up with L shaped almost cubicles to an “open office” where all 6 teams plus people not related to our work will share a floor of a building. So more than 100 people in an open area, nothing taller than 3 feet, with a set of conference rooms (3 that hold 10 people and 3 that hold 4 people).

        Not looking forward to that.

        1. Meg*

          Try 290 in an open floor with only 6 bathrooms (3 stalls for women, one stall and two urinals for men). Yeah, someone complained to OSHA about that.

          We’ve got “UI/UX” designers on our floor, some mobile app developers, business analysts, my boss’s boss, etc on the same floor too.

  3. VictoriaHR*

    “ask people to email you or set up a meeting”

    Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of the open plan format fostering collaboration? Isn’t the point of it so that folks can turn around and say “Bob, what do you think?” I must be missing the whole point of the open plan.

    1. Samantha*

      How is anyone supposed to get any work done if they are constantly being interrupted? This would drive me insane. Unless it’s a quick question it something urgent, I would prefer to answer by email or set up a time to discuss it.

        1. Samantha*

          I think these ideas are much better in theory than in reality. I can see them working in some industries and environments but I feel like unfortunately many companies are going that route because it’s trendy and everyone seems to be doing it.

      1. Agile developer*

        If I had to wait for people to reply to email or set up meetings in order to discuss architectural decisions or do small code reviews, my tasks would take twice the time, and so would everybody else’s in my company.

  4. HumbleOnion*

    It really helps if your company can invest in some soft materials that will absorb sound, like felt or cork. It makes a big difference.

    1. Mike C.*

      Yeah, I can imagine stuffing cork in the loud coworker’s mouth makes things real quiet for the rest of the team. ;)

  5. Elizabeth West*

    We’re in cube farms, but we have an etiquette policy in place. Basically, we’re supposed to be mindful of people around us and consider things like noise, smells, etc. As for personal calls, the policy is clear that these things are sometimes unavoidable and you should pretend you heard nothing.

    I don’t know how effective that last bit is. But I try not to make any necessary calls at my desk about anything I wouldn’t tell my coworkers (anything with medical details or financial data). I get up and take my phone elsewhere if I need to do that.

    1. Lore*

      We have that policy too. The problem is, there are very few places to take a phone elsewhere: we used to have “phone rooms” but the ones on this floor have been turned into office space for new hires subsequent to the move. Our conference rooms can be used if they happen to be free but you can’t see if someone has it booked without going through a very elaborate Outlook ritual (and occasionally they will set them up as temporary offices for contractors or visiting staff), so for anything longer than a 5-minute check-in, you run the risk of being interrupted. And our stairwells block cell reception. It’s a conundrum.

      1. AdAgencyChick*

        This is my hugest, hugest pet peeve with open plan — you lose privacy AND you lose meeting space! It makes it harder for me as a manager to manage, because if I want to give constructive criticism to one of my direct reports, I have nowhere to do it privately. I can’t book a conference room — those are always booked several days in advance because there are so many people booking them for client or internal meetings. And if I *were* to book a conference room, it suddenly feels like a Big Deal even though it may not be.

        1. Christine*

          Scheduling recurring periodic one-on-one meetings with your direct reports would help with that. You’ll already have a room booked and it makes feedback part of the routine and not a Big Deal. I have a weekly meeting with my boss, takes 15 minutes most of the time.

  6. Allison*

    One overlooked problem with open offices, especially big ones: diseases spread like crazy, especially airborne ones. Hand sanitizer is a must, and people should be able (and encouraged) to stay home when they’re sick.

    Also, people get a little too nosy in open plan offices, it can be a little too tempting for management to look over people’s shoulders, check in frequently, and generally micromanage. I wish I knew how to deal with it from the employee’s side.

    1. Anonymous*

      I worked in an open plan one year and during the winter, watched 3 different colds make their way from one end of the room to the other.

      I literally have nothing positive to say about open plan workplaces – I don’t even have anything neutral to say on the topic. It was awful in every way you can imagine. I value quiet, personal space and privacy so this was basically my worst nightmare. On top of everything else, the single stall bathroom was in the room we were in – every single person knew when you went into the bathroom and how long you were in there…

      My only advice is know yourself. If you at all value quiet time to concentrate and need personal space, this is goign to be a rough transition for you. You can’t change what’s happening so just be cognizant that it’s going to mean more stress, particuarly at the start and figure out some coping mechanisms – earbuds/headphones, getting out of the office for a walk to get a break and some space.

      I knew this type of space would not work for me, but when I was hired, was told I would be working in an area that had cubicles. I wouldn’t have taken the job had I known – I was unhappy and stressed every day.

    2. Elizabeth West*

      We’re lucky with sickies–our office STRONGLY discourages you from coming in if you have even the hint of a fever. Of course, it’s pretty flexible on working from home if you’re able, or just keeping your germs to yourself.

      Not like Exjob, where the office martyr would drag himself in with the plague–and I always ended up catching it. >_<

  7. The IT Manager*

    My office will be moving. We found out that the new desk/cubical will be much smaller and worse have much shorter cubical walls. This is a terrible idea because I do not work on teams with the people I sit next to. It’s all virtual teams, and we’re on the computer and phone all day long.

    We all have have headsets for the phone/conferences (although I went with the mono instead of stereo). They’re making working from home look better and better.

    Unfortunately there’s an inconsistant telework policy and some people have mentioned they would like to work from home full time but have been denied due to apparent supervisor reluctance.

    1. Bea W*

      Even with people on headsets, they still need to speak on the phone, so what you end up hearing is a bunch of annoying one-sided conversations. We are in cubes here, and whenever we get a loud talker on the phone, it’s horrible. I’ve been on conference calls with people having conversations at the same time around me, and it makes it very difficult to listen and speak.

      I hope this open office plan fad dies out soon. Just because it works for Facebook, doesn’t mean it’s a great idea everywhere else.

      1. Anonymous*

        Amen! We’ve been recently moved to an open plan office and it is hell. Our supervisors are constantly going around telling everyone to be quiet – apparently the theory of this *increasing* conversation is a no-n0. It is virtually impossible to concentrate and I find myself having to proof items much more stringently as I am making more mistakes.

      2. Jamie*

        As a customer I HATE when I’m on the phone with tech support and I can clearly hear the other reps calls – I lose what I’m trying to say and find it really distracting to deal with their background noise. And I have to consciously monitor my tone because I feel myself becoming annoyed and I don’t want to take it out on the person to whom I’m speaking since I assume they didn’t design their workspace.

        But if I ever had a chance to speak to the person who did design it or approved it – I would not moderate my tone at all.

        1. Anonymous*

          The reps hate it too!! I used to do tech support and half the time I couldn’t hear my customer over all the noise going on.

          1. Jamie*

            Oh I bet. And I really admire how often they are able to stay on task and still be so pleasant.

            I have to say the vast majority of call center reps I’ve dealt with have been great. Polite, professional, and really seem to genuinely want to help. I would imagine that’s a brutal job and to do it well says a lot. I don’t think I could do it. I wouldn’t be actively rude, but I couldn’t maintain the friendly and pleasant demeanor whilst solving the issue hour after hour, call after call…that’s an excellent skill.

            1. Editor*

              One of my relatives worked in a call center on the 9-6 schedule (as opposed to 7-4) at one time, doing HR support for a very large corporation. She said she could always tell when it was going to be a bad day from the volume of the “roar” in the lobby as she approached the floor where she worked. The overall level of noise was a reliable indicator of how busy the place was.

          2. Elizabeth West*

            I would get that in the office at Exjob–it had cubes, but they were the short-walled ones. And people would always stop by my desk up front to have a conversation. I would have a customer on the phone and I couldn’t hear a damn word they were saying. I was NOT shy about asking them to quiet down please.

        2. cubenewb*

          There’s a special place in hell for the person who designed them. And the idiot who thought putting people who need to deal with in person queries so that they’re facing a wall. They should both have to face a wall and be constantly startled and interrupted.

          They did away with the coat closets in the new design and gave us hobbit sized closets which barely fit a sweater. We’re in the Northeast. Winter is coming!

      3. The IT Manager*

        Like I said I have a mono headset (only covers one ear) so I have ear plugs when I have having a meeting while one of my neighbors is talking on a conference too. The lower walls will only make it worse. What were the planners thinking?

        1. Windchime*

          They aren’t thinking. Because when things get too noisy for the planners, they just go to their offices and close the door.

        2. ellex42*

          The cubicles with lower walls are cheaper than the cubicles with higher walls. That’s what they were thinking.

      4. Jubilance*

        I’m in a cube farm with regular height walls and I can still hear my coworker who is 2 rows over and 2 seats back whenever he’s on the phone. Drives me crazy. And it’s even worse when my teammates and I are all on the same call cause then I hear them twice – over the wall and through the phone. *sigh*

        1. Bea W*

          Me too. Some people have no ability to modulate their voices, or they talk LOUDER on the phone. The hearing people twice thing drives me nuts too. We’d rather meet in one room using one conference phone, but there aren’t enough rooms for that.

    2. MaryMary*

      Since it sounds like your office plans aren’t final yet, do everything you can to convince your bosses you need white noise. It makes a such a difference in an open office or cubicle farm. White noise won’t do much if your next door neighbor is yelling into his phone, but really dampens general chatter and noise.

  8. Jess*

    I work for large company with a very open concept plan, and ALL of Alison’s tips are ones that we follow… the company is well aware that it is hard to work in this type of environment, so they have done quite a few things to make it easier – we all get a pair of noise cancelling headphones, there are tons of conference rooms (TONS!) and we are expected to use them for calls that will exceed 15 minutes.The company also has multiple kitchen/break rooms and encourage us to leave our desks for lunch.

    For me, because my employer recognizes the challenges and helps do something about it – I like the atmosphere. Although it did take a little while to get used to the whole world seeing me checking my gmail every once in a while!

      1. Jess*

        because they consolidated two offices into one big ginormous building and are on a COLLABORATE! COLLABORATE! kick. Like let’s tear down the walls and collaborate!

        1. Jamie*

          Does it? I was curious about that. I’d think it would be more costly since you have to heat and cool a large area, regardless of how many people are working.

          1. Lore*

            Making the switch from a setup where 50 percent had offices and the other 50 large, private cubicles to 25 percent offices and 75 percent tiny cubicles/shared open space cut our total number of floors from 24 to 15. So a large rent savings.

            1. Jamie*

              Oh I see. That makes sense – I was thinking from the perceptive of free standing buildings already owned by the company.

              I’d like to see the ROI on this after they account for a drop in productivity.

              1. Lore*

                Indeed. Though we’re all super-conscientious, so at least in my department there hasn’t been so much a loss in productivity as an enormous increase in the number of hours required to stay at the same level (which costs them nothing because we’re all exempt), and lots of people working outside 9-5 because that’s when it gets quiet.

                1. KellyK*

                  The productivity loss will come later, when people burn out and either quit being so conscientious or leave for other jobs.

                  (Plus which, if you have awesome, conscientious exempt employees who are willing to work 10-hour days, it seems like an awful waste to have them doing that to accomplish 8 hours of work when they could be going above & beyond.)

                2. Jamie*

                  There is long term costs to that, though. Take a team of high performing people and make it harder and longer to remain at the same level?

                  High performers have options and I would imagine long term turnover will more than it would have been otherwise. And it takes an average of 2-3x an exempt employees yearly salary to replace them.

              2. Tax Nerd*

                That’s harder to measure than 9 floors or $X of rent, so they don’t consider it. (I gnash my teeth at this short-sightedness. But then the people making these decisions usually decide that they will still get private offices.)

              3. Meg*

                From a development standpoint, open-floor plans are very common in Agile environments. Coming from a traditional Waterfall methodology with cubicles and offices to the Agile method with open-floor plan, we were able to deliver MORE in a short period of time.

                After the performance of our pilot Agile/Scrum team (of which I was a part of), our business introduced MORE Scrum teams. We saved space on cubicles, delivering more product, and can hire more developers and invest in better equipment. In fact, over the last three sprints we’ve had, our focus factor has been something like, 75-80% easily (and that’s WITH accounting for development and QA environments being down, builds failing, miscommunication between code freezes and anything else that could possibly go wrong).

                And quality, too, improved drastically – Sprint 1 we had ZERO defects to report. ZERO. That is phenomenal. We’ve had zero production incidences (customer-reported defects) on our features. We’ve reduced the number of outstanding incidences from over 100 that were more than 90 days old, to 13 that are 60 days old. Customer complaints dropped significantly and continue to drop (we just finished Sprint 3).

                Did all this come from an open-floor plan? No. But the open floor plan definitely helped facilitate the change and encouraged collaboration and different way of working.

                An open floor plan benefits those in an Agile environment more than in any other industry because Agile itself encourages collaboration and removing barriers – whether it’s physical or a productivity block.

                Will it work for all industries? Absolutely not. I’m not a fan of open-space call centers, or in an industry that requires a certain level of privacy and confidentiality.

                1. Lora*

                  Ha. I was delighted to get an actual office with a door (which I share with my client PM), because a big part of my job is “who screwed this up, and why, and what can we do to make sure they don’t screw up anything else?” When all you deal with is fixing other people’s screw-ups all day long, you get a very low opinion of certain employees and your favorites become obvious. But you can’t be a manager like that, if the team is constantly overhearing what a dumbass Wakeen is and how he’s screwed up three documents in a row. You have to be positive to people’s faces and say, “Wakeen, I’ve talked to SVP Jane and we decided to put you on the Bubblegum Spoons team instead of the Chocolate Teapots team–they could really use your help!” You leave out the “…because you suck at teapots” part. But in private, you’re sitting there moaning, “lord help me, we need to put a stop to this guy, look at this garbage.” Doesn’t work in open offices, especially when you have even one or two Personalities.

                2. anonn*

                  +1 Lora.

                  In my office I sit within earshot of 3 people who fix problems caused by others all day and I also end up doing a lot of that. Hard to have the conversations or not overhear the “well if only X had pulled their weight” and generally feel uneasy.

                  Another one I’m in earshot of? The person who deals with staff illness and pay matters. Again, try to drown it out but they aren’t the quietest and I’ve heard and know stuff I *shouldn’t* because I’m not allowed headphones and I can’t wander away from my desk all the time when I have work to do.

      2. Judy*

        The new buildings and renovations my company is doing will have open plans, and they say it’s to get the LEED green building certifications. Apparently the more people (or % of people) that can see a window while sitting at their workstation, the more points they get in the certification process. At least here, that’s what we’re being told about the short or no walls in the new seating designs.

        1. Bea W*

          My company has the highest LEED certification and yet we sonehow managed to do that with cubicles. There is a big frosted window area on the outside of each cube. It gives you the privacy and light at the same time. The offices are clear glass though. You’re less exposed in a cube than in any of our offices.

          1. Elizabeth West*

            I got a much larger cube after I’d been here a while (I call it my “officle”), but it’s not one of the ones with a window in it. Doesn’t matter, because all I would be able to see is the wall. I’m offset too much from the window.

        2. Lora*


          While LEED does have some guidelines about minimizing footprint, they really don’t care how you put people in the building. You could be swinging in hammocks or working in outdoor gazebos to maximize the use of your space.

          The very greenest version of all would be…don’t build a building at all, let everyone work from home.

  9. thenoiseinspace*

    I don’t know if it’s a current trend or if it’s just my industry, but all of my previous jobs have been open-plan offices. I have an office to myself now and it’s very weird…I don’t like it as much and I’m not as productive.

    1. misstheopenplan*

      I’m with you! I worked in an open plan environment for 13 years and I actually really miss it now that I’m in an office by myself. My former company had white noise and rubber floors to absorb some of the excess sound and honestly, I never really minded the occasional interruptions. Plus I just found that everyone worked more collaboratively and seemed friendlier. Now I get lonely in my little office and am more tempted to drift off to non-work activities…hello, blog commenting in the middle of the workday! :)

      1. thenoiseinspace*

        Exactly! I was much more focused and productive before, and I miss the community environment. I felt like we were all friends! That said, I do get why it would drive some people crazy. I think it largely has to do with what you’re used to, and also the industry you’re in. I’m in a creative field, so it makes sense to share, but for other areas, I can see how that would be a total disaster.

    2. Susan*

      My office just moved from an open space plan to a series of offices in a hallway that has other companies. HATE IT. I’m constantly in meetings so I have to have my door closed all the time. I miss seeing my coworkers. My company encourages working from home, so it’s hard to motivate myself to come in when it’s no different than being alone at home.

    3. Jen in RO*

      I worked for almost 4 years in an open plan office and now I share an office with only one coworker – and I do miss my open plan! I kinda feel lonely now… My former company didn’t do everything right, but I did collaborate a lot with the pale on my team (which was a bad thing, sometimes, when they confused me with Google) and we were respectful of other people (most phones were on vibrate, most phone calls were taken outside, no smelly food).

      1. Jen in RO*

        Oh, and meetings were usually handled in meeting rooms – even if it was a phone meeting, you booked a room to make sure you’re not disturbing the whole floor.

  10. Anoners*

    I work in an open office plan, and its really not that bad. I’m kind of introverted, so being so exposed and having everyone be able to hear your every word takes some getting used to. Overall though, not as bad as I thought it would be. I find the most annoying part is having to listen to coworkers talk to themselves/hum/sing/whatever other kind of distractions, but you learn to tune that out. Good luck!

  11. Lizabeth*

    Noise cancelling headphones are great for listening to your own music BUT do not depend on them to block out voices entirely – they won’t. I got them to block out an especially annoying “nails on chalkboard” voice of a co-worker. Now I have an excuse to ignore her if she just talks over the wall because I have headphones on and have trained her to come to my office if she wants something. And yes, I wear them even if I’m not listening to anything…

    BTW if your headphones use batteries to create the white noise – rechargeable batteries are a godsend.

  12. AB*

    Our office is mostly open plan (the exec’s and higher ups have offices). We have “cubicles” but the cube “walls” are only maybe a foot higher than the desk. On the one hand, it’s great for getting to know your neighbors. We have a lot of talk back and forth and sometimes, try as you might, you can’t help overhearing a neighbor’s problem and know a way to fix it. On the other hand, you have the people in the office that have daily teleconferences (which they take at their desk), concentration can be difficult when everyone is chatting around you, and there are never enough conference rooms. Seriously, there are NEVER enough conference rooms. We have an office of just over 100 people and have 20 conference rooms of various sizes, and they are always booked and even when you do manage to book one, you frequently get booted by higher ups or have to put your game face on and roust someone from your booked room (which is really annoying if you’re meeting with a client or supplier because it feels unprofessional)

    1. Windchime*

      We are a department of well over 100 people and we have 4 conference rooms. Sometimes it’s almost impossible to get a room; we have had meetings in the lunchroom on occaision.

  13. Ivy*

    We moved to an open office plan 2 years ago and I started working from home 4-5 days a week. I am used to working in one room with people when we work on the same “project”, but otherwise it is frustrating to listen to conversations that don’t affect you, or be worried about bothering others with phone calls (and in my job I am on the phone a lot!). Not to mention confidentiality and the need to look for a free conference room any time you have a sensitive topic to discuss.
    We don’t even have the open plan benefits, because the desks are surrounded by low walls – enough to prevent you from seeing the person next to you unless you stretch and peep over, but not enough to do anything about the sound.

  14. Anon*

    I think it works for some people, but you really have to have a group that works well together and it depends on your industry. I work in a small office and we have an open plan with our boss having her own office. We also have a separate room in our building for lunch breaks.

    I’ve found that one of the biggest pros to having an open space in our industry (education) is that it’s more of a welcoming place for students, staff, and faculty. People can also stop in anytime and ask us questions and one of us will be able to help them out.

  15. Kelly O*

    I share an office with our payroll administrator, and we just have regular desks in the office – no cubicle walls or dividers.

    It makes my job so difficult on the days we’re in the office together. She has a steady stream of people in all day, and when our station manager is in, she is talking to him in the next office, or talking on the phone. It’s part of her job, which is fine. It’s just really, really hard to concentrate, and headphones are frowned upon, because apparently it signals that I am not interested in operations or whatever.

    I just try to tune it out, but it is so hard. (Never mind the hour every day that we have three or more people poking their heads in to tell one or both of us something. I cannot even start to think with that racket going on.)

  16. Jaimie*

    I work in an open plan, and it’s fine. But I happen to like my co-workers, I work from home one day a week, and we do have a coffee-shop-ish spot where you can take your laptop and your headphones. The cost savings of this arrangement are huge, and my company funneled those savings into having beautiful space and a lot of perks (free lunch Monday – Thursday). Those things make the open space easier to tolerate.

    My last job was not as good of a fit, and I hated being in open space there with the passion of a thousand suns.

  17. Michele*

    One rule that was put in place in my first open floor plan office was absolutely NO conference calls at your desk ever! Way too disruptive and it really is rude.

    1. Bea W*

      Does you office allow for enough space that people can go somewhere else for conference calls? That seems to be a recurring theme – offices with opens plans don’t either don’t take this into account or do not have enough “phone booth” type areas to accomodate the number of calls and meetings people are taking.

    2. Colette*

      Looking at my calendar this week, I have at least 5 calls every day. I’d never be at my desk – and since my laptop is picky about undocking/redocking, I’d probably spend an additional half hour just doing that if I had to leave my desk for every one of them. It would definitely be a significant productivity hit.

  18. Tax Nerd*

    I hate hate HATE open office plans. (And I know it’s my profession of bean counters that came up with this as a way to save money on office space.)

    I can’t wear noise-cancelling headphones, because part of my job is to talk to clients. On the phone. About their taxes. So I can’t spend too long not hearing my phone ring, and then untangling a bunch of wires. More importantly, clients are not going to be keen on hearing a bunch of background conversation when I’m asking for sensitive information.

    I think open office plans are an incredibly un-thought-out idea, and I hope the idea dies out soon. (Especially before my offices switches to it.)

    1. Bea W*

      For some reason, I find white noise mostly distracting. When it’s loud enough, it’s like nails on a chalkboard to me!

      1. Queen Victoria*

        It’s definitely not for everyone! This website has three settings (white noise, brown noise, and pink noise), and I find the white noise setting really obnoxious. I’m all about my brown noise, personally.

        1. Windchime*

          I like the white and the brown is OK, but the pink noise makes me very, very anxious and I can only stand a few seconds of it.

        2. Bea W*

          Ah yes, the brown noise was better. The white and pink did nothing for me, with the white being the most obnoxious.

      2. Jamie*

        Yes, white noise hurts my teeth. I know that sounds crazy – but I can feel white noise in my molars and it makes me clench and unclench my jaw to relieve the sensation.

        1. Bea W*

          That makes sense to me. Some white noise, like that old time analog TV fuzz, hurts my ears at normal volume. That’s the only way i can decsribe it. It’s painful. Too much bass does something similar. I live in the city and can tune out a lot of loud sounds or music, but if someone cranks up bass, they may as well be standing next to me operating a jack hammer. I may barely hear the actual music if it’s far enough away, but the frequency and vibration is uncomfortable on a physical level.

    2. KayDay*

      I love simply noise! I actually think I found out about it from this blog (maybe you posted it before?). It’s really fantastic; totally understand that it’s not for everyone, but what I do is start it rather quiet and gradually increase the volume, so I get used to it. It’s the only thing that can drown out the awful loud-whispering and typing sounds *cringe*.

  19. Anonymous*

    I worked in a similar environment as a temp at a recruiting agency years ago. All employees, including the execs, worked at similar work stations. We did have some walls dividing departments, but for the most part, the walls were low so you could see across to the other end of the floor.

    I think the point of having the execs sitting with the rest of the employees was to give the perception of openness and approachability, but as with most execs, they were rarely at their desks (meetings all day long off-site), so whatever negatives to the open plan that the rest of us “peons” had to deal with were very seldom felt by them. And were they truly approachable? Sure, if you could ever find them at their workstation!

  20. Jamie*

    Apparently even executives will have the same workspace as everyone else.

    How does this work with confidential information. They need to go to a conference room for private discussions with or about employees? Or high level financial matters? Or any of the other million things that could be an issue if overheard and misunderstood or taken out of context by someone else?

    What about HR?

    It would seem there would be a whole lot of people getting up to do business elsewhere just to have walls and a door.

    1. Marmite*

      We have to go into conference rooms to do all this stuff, and, yes, it does involve a lot of wandering around the building seeking out four walls and a door that aren’t occupied.

    2. AVP*

      Two new companies in my building have very open plan offices. One does have conference rooms and the higher-ups have offices, but the other one is a serious all-open hellhole. The people who work there are ALWAYS sitting in our hallways and staircases for conference calls and things that require concentration. I’m waiting to see if anyone gets taken to the hallway to get fired as the other building residents walk by slowly!

    3. Frieda*

      I guess I’m the OP here–I raised this question in open thread (and thanks to everyone who replied!). The reason I said “apparently” is because while we are assured that even the CEO will have the same type of workstation as everyone else, executives will supposedly have private conference rooms near their workstations for just this reason that you mention…which sounds a lot like having an office, to me.

  21. Miss Betty*

    We have an open plan – had it long before I began working here. I hate it. Hate. It. I do like that I can look through attorneys’ open office doors and see through their windows, and it does make it easier to chit-chat. Then again, it makes it easier to chit-chat! I don’t like making phone calls from my desk, even though I need to do so frequently for work, because everyone can hear everyone else’s conversation, and, while it hasn’t happened it quite awhile, there’s always a chance someone will feel called upon to comment (e.g. “Why would you say that?” or “Don’t you know what those filing fees are?”). People generally don’t, but it still makes me edgy, plus hearing everyone else’s phone calls or conversations with their bosses can be very distracting. I like where I work, but would much rather have pods or even cubicles.

  22. Ann Furthermore*

    I’m hoping that this fad soon goes the way of the pet rock, big hair, and shoulder pads before I’m subjected to it.

    1. Jamie*

      I miss big hair. Can we trade this for big hair? On behalf of unhappy open plan dwellers everywhere I’ll stop for Aquanet on the way home.

          1. Marcy*

            And the blue mascara- although you can still get that somewhere. I have a friend who still wears it!

      1. Windchime*

        Hey, just because the girls in the magazine have flat hair, doesn’t mean we need to. I’m kinda rockin’ the big hair look today.

      2. The Other Dawn*

        Count me in for missing big hair. I have naturally curly hair, but I always took a blow dryer to it. Sometimes a crimping iron, too. My hair was high on the top and wide on the sides (“wings”). Aqua Net worked wonders. Too bad it was such a fire hazard. And stunk to high heaven.

  23. Marmite*

    My office is fairly small, split across three entirely separate main rooms that are all completely open plan. No cubicles, just desks. I’m lucky in that I only actually work there one week in four on average, but the downside is that I haven’t really adapted and find it hugely distracting.

    One tip, if you need to be able to hear your phone ringing, but also want to wear noise cancelling headphones ask if your company will give you a little adapter that attaches to the phone and flashes when it rings. When I first suggested it my company balked at having to buy something, but when I pointed out it cost less than £10 and would make me much more productive they agreed. They ended up offering them to everyone in the office and ordering for those who wanted them in bulk to make it even cheaper.

  24. Neeta*

    I’ve always worked in open plan offices, and I quite like it. Sure, sometimes the noise gets to be too much, and then someone will generally speak up (i.e. scream at the top of their lungs SHUT UP!). Until then, headphones are the way to go, and they’re not even noise cancelling.

    Also, listening to the odd joke, is relaxing, and helps me bond with my colleagues.

    In general though, I like hearing the buzz in the background. I once had to work a month at a client’s office, also open space, but it was so utterly silent. It made me crazy.

    So I guess, it’s just a matter of learning to live with it. Plus, it’s not like you’ll KNOW for sure that it’ll be very loud.

    1. Jamie*

      (i.e. scream at the top of their lungs SHUT UP!).

      Are you serious? If anyone did that in any office I’ve worked in they’d be met with immediately to ascertain that they were okay and find out wtf happened.

      It goes to show different things work for different people – that would unnerve me to no end.

      1. Eric*

        I can’t even begin to imagine what would happen if someone in my office screamed SHUT UP! at the top of their lungs. Probably nothing good.

        1. Windchime*

          Sometimes I am so tempted. People get louder and louder and all the sudden there are 5 or 6 antimated conversations with people laughing and talking. I fantasize about standing up and yelling “Shut up!!!!”. But I don’t.

          At Oldjob, there was a girl who would periodically hiss, “SHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!”. People were all offended but I silently applauded her. It was ridiculously loud, with people shouting across the room at their teammates.

      2. Neeta*

        OK, to be fair, this doesn’t happen too often, and when it does the general noise level tends to be overwhelming. Most of the time, we’re generally arguing the is it a bug or a feature case so heatedly that we don’t even notice.

        Perhaps, it’s the age difference? Most of us are in the 25-30 age group, so we’re much more informal than what I’m used to reading here.

        I did notice a vast difference between our clients’ behavior back in the US, vs how they acted when they visited us. They were much more laid back here (in Romania), not taking so much care to be overly polite etc etc. And I like it like that.

  25. LovelyLibrarian*

    Can anyone give the link for the Harvard study Alison mentioned? I’d like to read the whole thing. Thanks!

    1. kbeers0su*

      I’m digging into “Quiet” by Susan Cain, which is a book all about the power of introverts. (I’m not an introvert and am trying to better understand them, since I work with many of them.) It’s interesting because I just finished chapter 3, which talks all about the idea that collaboration (and open floor plans) are great for business. But it actually comes at the cost of creativity, especially for introverts. Very interesting read- made me rethink my office set-up, which is open floor plan because there’s not much else we can do with it. So now I need to go talk to my one introverted employee and find out if there’s anything I can change about his workspace to make it better :/

      1. Marcy*

        I finished reading that about a month ago and as an introvert, I can tell you it not only lowers creativity, it also lowers morale and productivity. I love my job but would leave it for a job paying half as much if they went to an open floor plan. It isn’t just the noise, it is also visual distractions. Way too much going on and would be exhausting to deal with.

  26. Mary*

    I have never worked in an open space; however I did have to share a normal sized cube with a fellow contractor. At first I didn’t like it; but you get used to it. You just get very robotic in your movements. Whenever I backed up I automatically turned to my let to make sure I didn’t hit my cube mate and then backed up in a straight line. I felt like I was driving the damn chair. Very difficult on calls; always hated wearing an earphone.

  27. Nonprofit Office Manager*

    Depending on the number of people sharing an open space, there’s a good chance I’d actually have to quit. Not out of protest or annoyance, but because if there are 10 people talking at once, I literally cannot think. It’s more than just distraction; my mind almost just shuts down. Does this happen to anyone else? I’ve actually thought about consulting a doctor because I think I might have a genuine sensory processing disorder! Luckily, I’ve worked from home for the past 4 years, so the only time it’s an issue is during the “breakout meeting” portion of our staff retreats.

    1. Bea W*

      Yes, too much going on at once, and my brain shuts down, like some kind of mental circuit breaker. There’s probably nothing wrong with you. We can only process so much information at once, and having 5, 6, 10 conversations going on around you at high volume is a lot to sort out.

      What I found out through neuro/cognitive testing, is that my brain processes stuff slowly, so you can imagine the overload that might occur with too much information coming at it or information coming at it too quickly. It just shorts out. What I really need is a mental surge protector.

  28. Jake*

    Open floor plans wouldn’t bother me because of noise. They’d bother me because of the constant feeling that I’m being watched.

    1. Bea W*

      This this this!! I get self really conscious, and it makes it really hard to work because I start focusing on not looking like I’m messing up.

    2. JustMe*

      Agreed. As someone in an open plan office, loud talking right beside me when I’m on the phone is frustrating. However, it’s not nearly as unnerving as hearing the boss pipe up (from across the room) with suggestions on what I should tell the person on the phone.

  29. anon*

    I’ve never worked in a place that DIDN’T have an open office plan. (Well as an adult/in my professional career. Odd jobs before that, yes.) It is the worst. I constantly feel like someone is looking over my shoulder, often because, ha, someone is! It’s not that I want privacy to goof off, I just want some privacy to actually do my job without everyone talking to me or talking to someone else using speaker phone. Grrrrrr.

  30. Karma S.*

    We have an open floor plan at our office and when we first built our office there was some hesitation ( especially from the introverts) – it has worked out fine. For everyone we got rolling whiteboards that can be used as dividers if needed as well as a whiteboard. It has brought our office more together as a team and when you don’t want to talk, put on some headphones if you can.

  31. anonymous*

    My experiences with open floor plans has been negative; however, I understand that they save a ton of money. At a recent job they kept offices for employees of a certain grade level or higher. It created a two class society. Some people who previously had an office were downgraded and disliked that. People in offices were more respected and had more perks. The open plan also had privacy and noise issues others have mentioned, with no telecommuting permitted. To add to the challenges, there were few conference rooms and they were always booked. I spent a lot of extra time just trying to book meetings.

  32. JJ*

    I am also in an open floor plan and i HATE it. We have several coworkers who do not respect others tolerance for noise. I even have one coworker who has this whiny-hummy singing bit to her blaring celine dion cd’s. I find myself hiding in the bathroom or kitchen for a good part of the day just to get away from this one’s singing, another’s cackling like a hen on the phone, and yet another person’s blaring cell phone and yelling at her kids constantly. I was in an office before we moved here, and i am getting a fraction of the work done because of the distractions. I”m also introverted, so every time someone chats, they all chime in, and expect me to as well. I HATE it.

  33. Jackie*

    I have worked in an open floor plan. I had a few people who would always have to interrupt my phones calls because they had information they thought would be helpful to give the person at the other end of the conversation. Some people would call this eavedropping. But how can eavedropping exist in an open floor plan ? There is no privacy in an open floor plan.

  34. Mike C.*

    Nothing like “open plan office” meaning “desk on the factory floor”. There were days where I would hear jackhammers at one end, rivet guns on the other, and then the bay doors open. Holy cow does it get cold quickly! Headphones are a must, but you have to make sure you can still answer your cell phone when a manager is trying to get a hold of you.

    When there isn’t a lot of construction work going on, the white noise of the factory is actually quite relaxing. Plus you get to watch the 40 ton cranes carrying parts around, that’s pretty fun. :)

    1. Jamie*

      Factory noise is a whole different animal! I admire your attitude.

      For me there is nothing like having to troubleshoot an issue on a PC integrated into a 3 ton machine so I’m trying to hold my cell to my ear to hear the tech from the software company, while typing on a keyboard balanced on a box or my own raised knee…with the ringing tones of press brakes, fork lifts, and material handlers moving tons of steel…

      That was one of the main reasons I took up meditation.

      You know, when you move steel it’s loud. My fantasy workplace moves nothing but soft pillows one at a time, marshmallows, and cotton candy.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        I liked how loud it was when I worked at a wire display factory on the floor, third shift. One night I got stuck all by myself behind a press brake bending little pieces of metal all night. I recited the entire script of a movie I’ve seen over 60 times and sang every single TV theme song I could think of.

        Okay, my cube neighbor is SINGING now. Time to put the headphones back on!

        1. JJ*

          the receptionist in my office listens to Celine Dion and christian hymnals and opera- she sings / hums and does this high pitched whiny hum which makes my skin crawl. I can’t wear headphones because i’m the senior person and people ask me questions, plus i have to be available to answer my phone. i’m taking a sick day tomorrow because she’s been singing Christmas music all week and i’m at my wits end.

    2. Windchime*

      Those cranes are amazing. I think I know the place you’re talking about and holy cow, that’s a cool building. I don’t think I would find the factory noise too distracting (except for the “beep beep beep” when a vehicle is backing up); it’s the yakking, chatting, laughing, and time wasting babble that I can’t stand.

  35. Frieda*

    Alison, thanks for bringing this out as it’s own question! I asked it originally in open thread, and got a lot of great responses from people there–and this discussion is great too!

    Some people above mention having a positive experience with open-plan; can any of you expand on that at all? What specifically made it work for you? The move isn’t happening until next Fall, and while I’m not sure how much they will take input from employees, it’s not like everything is set in stone yet–so maybe suggestions will help?

    1. Anonymous*

      I’ve worked in a open office plan for years now and I’m used to it and for me the biggest benefit is having access to windows and day light – our current office, which we just occupied this September, has windows that open so we even get fresh air. I think I would be super glum if I had to sit in a florescent lit windowless box day after day.

      Our office also has a lot of different work spaces that we can move to for different types of work – a standing desk, a treadmill desk, a phone room with a door. We all have laptops and the different stations have monitors and docking stations so you can plug in anywhere. The flexibility to move is really useful – you can go hide to do quiet work. Sometimes I even work in the kitchen at the end of the day if I need a change of pace and I know it won’t be too busy in there. I do think we are lacking totally private spaces and I wish we had more of those.

      I do find myself using headphones and a web site called Simply Noise when I need to concentrate: And you do need to create boundaries with some people who tend to be interrupters – something like “Sally, you seem to need to check in multiple times a day, and I have work that requires periods of uninterrupted concentration. Can you email me your questions so I can answer them all at once? Or would a 15 minute check-in every day be useful?” has worked for me.

      I have also heard of companies piping in white noise over a speaker system to deaden conversation. It doesn’t totally cover it up but it turns it into a soft buzz and makes it harder to pick up individual conversation threads that might distract.

      I think to make these types of spaces successful feedback and input from employees is absolutely critical, as they are the ones who work in the space and can identify needs, so I hope your design team includes you! Good luck.

      1. Frieda*

        This is one of the big points management keeps making (“We asked what everyone wanted in a new office space, and everyone said natural light…so open plan!”). I think it’s sort of BS (obviously the biggest reason for the change is saving money) but I’m trying to think of it positively. In fact I just started using light therapy to treat SAD/sleep disorder, and it’s amazing what a difference it makes. I get zero natural light at my desk now, so maybe it will be a game-changer for me. (One could say I’m trying to look on the bright side…)

        1. Bea W*

          I have SAD also. I felt soooo unbelievably crappy I was certain the light therapy would not make a difference, but OMG!

          I used to sit in a windowless area, and light really makes a difference for me.

    2. Yup*

      I’d still prefer to be in a private office or cube, but the positives for me are: it’s easy to find people, information flows pretty freely, and it’s been easier to get to know everyone and their projects. I do think it’s helped build relationships within my team since people are in closer contact (but my colleagues are very courteous in their open plan living, so that goes a long way too).

      I think having a few official policies in place initially would be a good idea — easy stuff like, “set all mobile devices to silent or vibrate, no speaker phones at desks, and please eat meals in the designated areas.”

      Also, maybe recommend that the layout (and policies) get revisited at 7/14/30/60/90 days? They should be prepared to have to tweak things as people arrive and settle in — like the desks that were originally in this section all need to face the other way because the afternoon glare is blinding, etc. If people know that modifications are expected as the organization adapts, it might reassure them that stuff that’s bad in the first week won’t be like that forever.

    3. Zahra*

      Respectful colleagues definitively help and if it takes policies to do that, well… they should be put in place.

      As I said above, we use Skype a lot to communicate, but for a bigger office, I’d try to advocate for some IM software. It keeps the noise level way down. Of course, when people need to work on something in pairs, they need to talk, but with a small team, it’s not much of a problem.

      I do use headphones for music, but then listening to some music will put me in a productive groove (when I’m procrastinating, for example), so it’s also a matter of preference.

      We do have our own desks, with laptops and docking stations. When people need to focus on a more difficult task or just generally need to workshop their way through an issue, they go to the conference/war room to work in teams. Conference calls are in the war room too.

  36. Anon*

    I work in an open plan. It’s only difficult to work with when everyone in the office is having a phone conversation at once. None of us can hear ourselves.

  37. Diane*

    I interviewed at a company that had moved to a new space with an open office plan for everyone. The view was gorgeous and they had plenty of conference rooms and break rooms. I was on the fence until my would-be boss talked at me nonstop during hour six of the interview. I knew I would never get any work done.

  38. Poster Formerly Known as Jane Doe*

    I am really surprised at the hatred for open offices. It’s all I’ve ever worked in, and aside from a moment here or there, I don’t have a problem with it at all. I work in a design field, in teams, and I couldn’t imagine having to go out of my office every time I need to share something.

    And, the collaboration thing is true. People share their experiences/warnings/knowledge a lot more freely in this environment, simply because they have the opportunity to do so.

    I find people to be generally considerate of each other (unlike most other aspects of life!). The only thing I’ve really run into is I used to work with a guy who would eat the strongest smelling sardines and Tuna. But we told him how it bothered us, and then he stopped. Communication is key.

    1. s*

      “I am really surprised at the hatred for open offices.”

      I wasn’t surprised but found it pretty whiny. Sort of a badge of honor on this site about how introverted we are and how annoyed we get at other people . I have those feelings of annoyance too but don’t think it’s good to be proud of it.

      And the attitude is provincial as well: If your work is sitting alone at a desk with only your thoughts and documents – OK, a private office is better. If you’re constantly on conference calls, OK, a private office is better. But the apparent lack of conception about jobs/fields/use cases where being able to talk to a lot of people if needed is kind of lame. Maybe they’re not the situation of each person/job, but not even conceiving of them is lame.

      1. Frieda*

        I’m actually glad not everyone’s experience is negative, but here is what I’m trying to tease out: why are some experiences with open plan positive but not others? Obviously you can’t please everyone, and yes some types of jobs will succeed more than others. But I also assume that there are factors in the implementation of open plan offices that can make or break the experience for most people. What are those factors? What makes open plan work, and what makes it fail?

        I’m all for accepting that this is where we are going so there is no use whining. But if there is still some flexibility in how it is implemented, I’d love to get feedback about which routes to take and which to avoid. Do you have specific advice on that score?

        1. Lore*

          Someone mentioned above the availability of different kinds of work-stations for different projects, and that would make a huge difference here. The desks as configured actually are not large enough for some of the document review we need to do, so we are constantly moving the phone and the keyboard in order to create working desk space. If there were some areas with larger tables, or larger computer monitors for online document review, as well as the aforementioned spaces for phone calls or meetings, that would help a lot. Also laptops, rather than or in addition to desktop computers; if, for example, you should need to be on the phone and have access to data on a computer, there is literally nowhere in the office that can be done without disturbing someone or making special arrangements for a temporary laptop with IT. Adequate storage for work materials would be great, too–we have a random array of shelves and file drawers in public areas, but nowhere convenient to actual work spaces to keep files, projects-in-process, or reference materials. So those pile up in already tiny cube spaces.

        2. Jamie*

          I think the positive experiences, and there are people who love them, are based on if the work lends itself to this kind of environment being helpful and the personal work styles of the people involved.

          True collaborative jobs with a lot of interaction needed to accomplish the goal as opposed to stuff like accounting or some areas of IT where it’s purely a solo activity and requires intense concentration and people who don’t like a more fluid environment may very well thrive and be more productive in an open plan.

          But no matter how you structure the implementation, you will have some people who love it and some who will be miserable. Making sure everyone is on the same page with the manners of where to take calls, social chit chat, cell phones etc. will help. And if true let them know that if there are truly productivity issues (I can see every accounting department I’ve ever worked with lodging complaints) you will listen and try to find a solution. But if that’s not possible and it’s a take it or leave it kind of thing that’s fine too – just so people know either way.

          But there is no way to do it so the people who need quiet and space to work will be happy just like there is no private office nice enough to make someone who craves the flow of an open plan happy there.

          Some will love it, some will hate it – no matter how it’s implemented. Some of the people in the hate column will accept it quickly, because a lot of people have a knee jerk reaction of resenting change of any kind. The people who truly have a serious problem with it will either have to find a way to deal with their issues on their own or hope to find a better fit elsewhere…because while in a perfect world everyone would have an ideal workspace, the fact is you can’t make everyone happy no matter what you do so the employer needs to do what they feel is best and people can either adapt or leave.

        3. ND*

          I commented in detail further down, but I had a positive experience with this setup. In my case, I think it helped that the “creatives” worked on similar projects in the open floor plan, while the “executives” had their own offices (separate from the open plan).

      2. Bea W*

        My objection is the use of the open plan in places where people normally spend a lot of time working quietly alone and/or on calls a lot. Some job types benefit from the open plan and make it easier to work instead of harder. I think a lot of the dislike comes from people who don’t have those types of jobs or have jobs where the open plan doesn’t add much value to what they do.

        I don’t get any sense that people here wear anything like a badge of honor. I see people sharing their experiences and taking comfort in finding they are not alone, not bragging.

        I’m also not finding people lacking any conception so much as experience, because when you spend your career working in a field that isn’t open-plan friendly, why would you know much about how it would work when the only jobs you do are ones that would be more difficult in an open configuration? I feel like that comment implies you think people are almost stupid (“lame”) because they can’t see the application of the open environment to their own job. Really, it’s not stupidity or being lame. It’s that some jobs, like the jobs all those people do, aren’t a good fit for that environment. It’s hardly close to whining.

        Some people also just don’t have a personality or disposition that fits well with that environment. That is exactly why they work in jobs the work in. People who are suited to the type of work that involves working in an open environment are more likely drawn to those types of jobs. People who aren’t suited to it gravitate to jobs where work occurs in a less public space – cubes, offices, at home.

        Seriously, some jobs just don’t work well in a wide open space. It is what it is. Foisting it on people in those fields will not change that, and is likely not to be successful in the long run.

        1. Windchime*

          Thank you. I hardly think that hating being distracted while trying to write complicated code is “whining” or wearing it like a badge of honor. It is frustrating beyond belief to be trying to juggle several complex thoughts and maintain the “thread” of what I am trying to achieve, only to be interrupted by people in the room hooting and hollering and laughing, or doing long, long , long tech support calls, or having their daily huddle conversation, or any other disruptive thing. That doesn’t mean that I think that *nobody* should work in an open office; have at it! Just don’t force those of us who do individual, mentally complicated juggling to have to listen to you talk about totally non-related things. It’s impossible.

  39. Hannah Marshmann*

    I don’t work in an open office, but interruptions were becoming a huge issue in our department. So Admin made us all little cards that are red on one side and green on the other to indicate whether or not it’s okay to interrupt. The system was adapted very quickly and even staff from other departments have easily accepted our system. My card sits right on my desktop in a wedding place card holder, others hang theirs from whatever is close by.

    The department across the hall is an open plan, and one girl I know has a problem with distraction, so I suggested she set up a beautiful antique folding screen (like from a boudoir) when she needs to concentrate and isolate herself from everyone else. I think it would help to psychologically give her the privacy she needs, plus I don’t think anyone would mind. That and earplugs.

  40. Anonymous*

    I’ve worked in an open-office plan. My largest problem was was actually visual — I found the constant activity in the walkway behind my computer monitors distracting.

    If your desk doesn’t face a wall and your workplace allows it, you can put a piece of artwork behind the monitor(s) that extends about a foot beyond the edge in each direction. I personally used a tapestry. You still get the open-layout benefit of being able to talk with your co-workers, but with a little less commotion.

  41. Julia*

    There are pros and cons to working in an open plan environment. I found that moving my team into an open plan office gave them a lot of useful visibility to the other teams in the space. Previously we’d been out of sight and out of mind. After we moved into the open plan area we were much more in touch with what was going on.

    However, some companies seem to think that just setting up an open plan office will engender collaboration with no further effort required, and it doesn’t always work like that.

    My worst open plan experience was when we were located beside the telephone support team. They were on the phone all day long – often shouting to make themselves heard over a bad phone line – and every one of them seemed to have a super-annoying ring tone. One had a ring tone that shouted “ARE YOU THERE? ARE YOU THERE?”.

    My top tip for open plan working – invest in some annoying music (bagpipes are good, cats and dogs singing Christmas carols are brilliant). If anyone plays music without using headphones, treat them to a blast of your own music. They’ll get the point. Mwahahaha.

    1. Windchime*

      I used to have a co-worker whose ringtone was her granchild yelling, “Answer the phone, Grandma! I know you’re there…..blah blah blah”. It went on and on and on, and she would always forget to turn her ringer off before she left her desk.

  42. Ruthan*

    Okay, I’ll go out on a limb here and say: I work in an open plan office, and I like it.

    We all sit with our backs to the wall and our monitors facing us, so snooping isn’t an issue. Most of us are working on individual projects, so there aren’t a lot of conversations going on back and forth all the time, which helps. I’d guess that my coworkers are mostly introverts, so that helps too. If someone has a question, they tend to just ask the room, and it gets taken care of quickly.

    I occasionally put on headphones and musicForProgramming if I really need to concentrate for a bit (or if someone’s carrying on about something I really don’t give a crap about). In general, though, I think people are more conscientious about noise than they would be if we were in cubicles — illusion of walls = illusion of privacy (and soundproofness.)

    And I’d hate to give up our impromptu foam-dart skirmishes.

  43. Cath@VWXYNot?*

    In my last job, everyone else around me had offices, and I (as the newcomer) had a desk in the area immediately outside the offices. I had visual privacy, but it was unbelievably loud – everyone kept their office doors open most of the time, and there were always multiple in-person and/or phone conversations going on at once. One time, I counted six separate (loud) conversations going on at once within earshot. I couldn’t work through that – I grabbed the department’s shared laptop and went to a coffee shop.

    For my current job, I moved to an office where most of us sit in an open area – no cubicles, but we’re separated by dividers (a few inches higher than my head when seated) into several six-person “bays” – with a small number of offices around the outside. When I first saw the layout I was worried about noise, but it’s actually much, much quieter than the environment in my former job. My theory is that when most people are in an open area, there are more people around who are conscious of noise and therefore keep their voices down / move to private areas for loud conversations; when most people have their own office and can shut their door whenever they feel like it, they’re just not at all aware of how noise affects people who don’t have that luxury.

  44. EvilQueenRegina*

    In my old job, we had an open plan office. One day, I had a woman on the line irate and complaining about something I can’t remember now. Somewhere near me, someone burst out laughing as she had swivelled back in her chair and collided with someone else. The complainer heard this on the phone and thought she was the butt of the joke, and wouldn’t believe that she wasn’t until she’d asked to complain to our manager and he’d explained that it was background noise and not related to her.

  45. theotherjennifer*

    IT SUCKS. in the name of “Transparency” we did this at ex-job and it was horrible. CEO butted into every telephone call – especially when we were on the phone with clients or prospects, overheard every convo no matter how inconsequential. Everyone knew everyone else’s business and can’t use noise canceling anything when you are the first line of defense on the sales phone calls. I think it actually bred a lot of resentment because we could hear what supply chain was doing, they could hear us blaming them for shortages and it was not good for morale.

    Give me a cubicle farm any day.

    1. Jackie*

      I would agree this type of office set up encourages eavesdropping. It’s impossible not to hear conversations of others whether work related or private.

    2. JustMe*

      Haha, I guess I should’ve read all the way down before I posted my comment above about the boss doing that at my office. Nothing like simultaneously having a customer in one ear, and the boss in the other.

  46. Laura*

    My department is about to move to this type of environment, and I’m dreading it. I already can’t concentrate in a regular cube farm environment, and now we’re going to be sitting together like pie slices with no walls between us.

    I always thought I was a freak for the sensory issues I have, but it’s nice to know I’m not the only one. Not sure how to handle the new layout…

  47. AB*

    Equating open space with collaboration is just wrong.

    I remember reading in Steve Job’s biography that he made sure that Pixar’s headquarters was designed as place that “promoted encounters and unplanned collaborations.” The design included an atrium that housed a reception, employee mailboxes, cafe, fitness center, a large theater, etc. According to the book, it was also planned by Jobs to house the campus’ only restrooms. The idea was that people who naturally isolate themselves in their offices would then be forced to have great conversations, even if that took place while washing their hands.

    I thought it was a brilliant idea (well, maybe not the part of having to walk a long way to the restroom, a part of the design which later changed, heh). At least some engineers from Pixar confirmed that it did make it easier to collaborate with people they would otherwise hardly see, if it weren’t for a central atrium that people had lots of reasons to visit.

    I can see myself collaborating more with people I bumped into while getting my mail or grabbing a cup of tea. Merely sitting in an open space, or even cubicle farm? Never increased my level of collaboration with colleagues.

  48. ND*

    I haven’t read the rest of the comments so forgive me if this has been said, but in my experience the success of an open office plan really depends on 1) the nature of the work being done and 2) the people working in the environment.
    I worked in an open design room for 6 years. The open plan worked beautifully for creative collaboration. It helped that we all got along really well for the most part, so we knew when someone didn’t want to be bothered, when to be quiet, etc.
    When I really needed to concentrate w/o distraction, I’d just pop in headphones to tune everyone out.

  49. So Very Anonymous*

    I’m an extrovert and I haaaaaate open offices. I’m sensitive to sound, and believe it or not, extroverts need to be able to concentrate, too. My cube farm has a person who scream-sneezes, coughs, and sniffles/snorts loudly constantly, and the way our layout is, it sounds like this person is sitting at the desk next to me. I’m probably ruining my hearing from having my earbuds turned up some high. I’m in a group noted for its lack of collaboration, so the layout doesn’t really serve any positive purpose.

    Another extrovert who hates open layouts:

    1. Lia*

      I’m another extrovert who hates them. Former Boss wanted to convert our entire operation to them (AND eliminate email, so we’d be forced to talk to everyone for everything). Most of us worked with highly confidential material, and access to certain info was restricted based upon job tasks. Yeah, having that all out in the open would have been fab.

      She was overruled not by upper management, but due to the fact that there was not a sufficient office to house everyone in one room and keep the fire marshal happy, and no budget for renovations to knock down walls to enlarge the current space. I still lost my private office and wound up sharing a cube, but it was better than the alternative.

  50. Anne 3*

    I’ve always worked in open plan offices and it’s been fine. I’m pretty good at tuning out the noise. However, recently our setup was changed to “shared desk”, which means we no longer have our designated desks but we have a locker for our stuff and pick a desk every morning. It didn’t make a ton of sense to me to implement this because we’re not a department where people are out of the building a lot… we all come to the same floor every day for the whole day.

    It’s been a few months now and so far, it’s okay, but I do feel like disease spreads a LOT faster now. I’m not the type to spend 10 minutes every day wiping down the keyboard/phone/mouse/desktop with Clorox, so I’m hoping that I’m building up immunity…

    1. ellex42*

      Anti-bacterial wipes are a godsend for offices. Just keep a container of them in your desk and wipe everything down…in the morning before you start, because you never know what lands on your desk overnight. They’ve really helped cut down on the spread of germs even in the tiny business where I work and we all have separate offices.

      I don’t get this “pick a desk” everyday notion. People crave stability and boundaries. We didn’t have assigned seating in most of my classes in high school, but people still sat at the same desk in each class every day!

  51. ellex42*

    I can see how an open office plan would be great for jobs where people need to collaborate…but in any job where people mostly work by themselves, it’s a disaster and mostly just breeds resentment unless management sets firm policies and enforces them.

    I worked at a data analysis/entry job, and we had two large rooms full of desks and tables, and several offices for managers. There was no door between to the two large rooms, and the managers seldom closed their doors, so the noise level was atrocious. I could hear three different radios (all playing different stations) from my desk and every conversation and phone call. I was the ONLY person who bothered to wear earphones. I prefer to listen to classical/instrumental music when I’m working, and of course, it’s okay to blast country or pop or even oldies so everyone can hear, but not classical music, because “it makes people fall asleep” (yes, that’s exactly what I was told).

    When we moved to a new building, with more offices and cubicles for the open areas, the noise level dropped significantly. The goofing off also increased significantly, although I attribute that more to the incredibly poor management than the disappearance of the open floor plan.

    When I left that job for one with less noise, my stress levels also dropped significantly.

  52. Vicki*

    Important note: If you get the headphones, you want noise _isolating_ headphones, not noise _canceling_ headphones.

    Noise isolators cut down on noise — all noise — incuding talking and ringing phones.

    Noise cancelers filter certain kinds of noises, such as the steady hum of an airplane engine or a fan, but do NOT reduce the sounds of talking.

  53. Liza*

    I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I miss having a cubicle. Another useful piece of advice: try to get a desk that is not in a high-traffic area. Sitting by conference rooms, kitchens, bathrooms or at work area entrances/exits are all high-traffic areas and tend to be where most people stop and have conversations. Try to get a desk with your back to a wall or next to a structural post and off-the-beaten path, it will have less auditory and visual distraction. Although I am in senior management, my desk is out on the development floor. I currently have a smaller than average desk next no one wants, but it’s beside a structural pillar, not far from a window and off-the-beaten path. It’s been one of my favorite spots to sit in our floor plan.

  54. Henning Michael Møller Just*

    I can’t believe there are still people who think open-plan offices are a great idea. You mention recent research … sure, that research only confirms decades of other research showing that open-plan offices are a bad idea.

  55. anon*

    I recently got a new job with an open office plan. The noise is constant. Worst of all, my boss literally talks all day long making comments about every single thing she is working on, complaining that’s she’s tired and overworked, and making snide remarks about other coworkers. It’s pretty insane. Does she really think we all enjoy listening to every little thing that pops into her mind? She’ll also call out from across the room and talk to me about work, sometimes pointing out mistakes I’ve made. It just feels like we’re all on display all the time. I can’t think or have a normal conversation without feeling like I have a big audience. Luckily my other coworkers are great, but it’s hard to believe they actually expect me to get huge volumes of work done that requires meticulous attention to detail. I feel completely drained by the end of the day.

  56. Radar O*

    Prepare for major distractions, disruptions and noise. My company went to this type of furniture and i share a giant table with 7 other people. Be ready for you desk to be bumped and jarred and I always reach for my phone when my co-workers phone vibrates as it lays on his desk. Headphones help but you will learn to block the distractions and concentrate.
    Oh yes, there is no privacy at all.

  57. Josh B*

    My company went to an open office concept a couple years ago and there is no getting used to it. I am also an introvert who is very prone to illness. I find that I am more stressed, have had to take more sick days (including hospitalization), decreased focus due to the noise. For the first few years with my employer, I was doing well, raving performance reviews along with decent raises to boot. When the open office concept was introduced, this went straight down the toilet. Maybe that was the point, I don’t know. All I can tell you is that it has taken a toll on my career and my health. All future interviews for employment will include a question about whether the open office concept applies. If yes, the interview is likely over. I know this will limit my opportunities but no job is worth the unnecessary stress.

    1. Simona*

      I totally feel your pain, Josh. I put up with my open office nightmare for 3 1/2 years, and you really don’t get used to it. If anything it drove me crazier and crazier as time went on. I’m starting a new job Monday and I did get the courage to ask about the office environment before starting the job. They responded favorably, and I will never hesitate to ask this again. As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that some jobs are just not worth the stress no matter how well they pay, and I should’ve left my old job years ago (or not even taken it in the first place). Your health and happiness is much more important. It might take longer to find the right fit for you, but you’ll be so glad you took the extra effort. Best wishes to you as you seek that new job!

  58. Will Code for Coffee*

    No matter what anyone tells you … the only reason a company chooses an open office arrangement is to save money. There are documented studies that have shown without a shadow of a doubt that Open Offices are detrimental to analytic jobs, that require deep thought.. for example writing code. We moved from a traditional layout (offices for managers, and assigned cubes for worker bees) to an extreme open office environment where everyone sat at long desks with no assigned seats. The absolutely brilliant beancounter that came up with this idea decided.. to only have seats for 80% of the staff, so guess what if you don’t get in super early, you don’t have anywhere to sit. The noise and distractions are bad.. and almost manageable if you walk around with a scowl on your face (nobody will eff with you).. and wear noise cancelling headsets, but what’s worse is having to come in at 6 AM so you can get a place to sit. Studies have shown that incidence of hypertension and # of sick days taken are higher in an open office. There is corporate liability here, and the day a smart lawyer finds a way to fashion this into a class action law suite is the day this idea ends.

  59. Simona*

    I just left a job with a horrible open office plan, and I can’t wait to settle into my private cubicle at my new job next week. I’m an introvert by nature, and I do highly technical work that requires solid concentration. Once I get “in my zone” I perform at my best, but I could never reach that point at my old job.

    I was also the only person in my department doing this job so “collaboration” was never part of my daily routine. I cringed every time management used “collaboration” as the reason we were put in such a dreadful space. I totally agree with other posters that their real reason was cost savings and gaining the ability to watch over us like Big Brother. Even many of my extroverted coworkers complained how awkward it felt having to sit next to their boss (or even their boss’s boss) who had no walls or privacy either.

    My space in the office was in the middle of a long a bench facing a wall with a whole room of noisy folks in the room behind me. I could feel the increased tension in every cell of my body, and this could not have been good for my health. My company subscribed to the “extrovert ideal” and clearly favored talkers over thinkers. Sometimes the raucousness of the office made me feel like I was at a bar when I longed to be at a library instead. The workers on either side of me engaged in long conversations everyday while the verbal crossfire passed over my head and grated on every nerve. People also interrupted me constantly, and if I had a dollar for every time I thought “okay now where was I?” as I resumed my work I could be comfortably retired by now.

    When I started to get serious about my job search a few months ago, I found advice in several articles that said it was okay (and even encouraged) to ask about the space you would be working in if you got the job. I did get the courage to ask this of my new employer, and they responded very favorably by showing me the cubicles in my new department. They even let me choose which empty one I wanted after I was offered the job. They responded that they realized people in my technical field needed privacy and the ability to concentrate, and I was so appreciative of the fact that they understood.

    Everything cycles, and open office plans are no exception. They are beginning to reach fever pitch these days but will eventually start to backfire on companies and you’ll see a return to more traditional layouts. Unfortunately this cycle seems like it will take more time than most of us wish.

    1. firesheep67*

      Well said! Good to know that there are still companies that respect and support the needs of introverts. Everything you said in paragraph 3 (with the exception of how your workspace was laid out) perfectly captures how overloaded and tense I feel, it’s a wonder that my brain hasn’t spontaneously combusted…

  60. Johnny R*

    I don’t think it’s right to pathologise the effects of working in crowded conditions. It’s just not natural for us to work that way! I have issues with colleagues constantly eating at their desks, chewing loudly and ‘foraging’ through noisy packaging or belongings while I’m trying to concentrate.

    Occasionally, I haven’t been able to hear myself speak during phone calls. Open plan offices are too public, and one feature of modern life seems to be a kind of endemic rudeness. Some of the people involved are perfectly pleasant … until you sit near them!

    Anyone who says ‘I can’t hear this stuff’ is probably lying. Or they are hearing impaired. Or perhaps they’re stupid.

  61. firesheep67*

    Day 5 post move…as an introvert with ADD……

    All my time and brainspace is devoted to transforming my space by every means possible to wall myself in (more like strap myself into my strait jacket).

    Why couldn’t this office trend have peaked a long time ago or been delayed another 20 years so I can quietly retire?!? The pink noise we were promised? Not here and may never be implemented. ummm…is everyone really that clueless? When I asked about it, 99% of the people I approached had no idea what I was talking about and let’s just say that I work for a high tech company, where knowing what this is should be a given. sigh.

    Definitely buying a weekly lottery ticket. One needs a light at the end of the tunnel…a small flame of hope.

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