how do I manage people in an open office where everyone can hear what I say?

A reader writes:

I feel like I’m missing something obvious: How do I deal with needing to have negative conversations in an open office plan? There is no acoustical privacy. We have no walls, just lots and lots of desks (no cubes) and effectively no conference rooms (must be reserved in advance, often full, or the most fun, available but not soundproof). Everyone can see and hear everyone else all the time. Only very senior people have offices.

My specific issue is with delivering comments asking for improvements to reports like “here’s an error I’ve noticed a lot and we need to make sure it stops happening” or “I was expecting more progress than this” and so on. Just the small day-to-day types of things that are ideally addressed directly and immediately, but are somewhat negative in tone.

One option is I can just do it where everyone can hear — which I’m uncomfortable with personally and I’m sure my reports are uncomfortable with as well. On the other hand, specifically seeking out a room would be extremely weird culturally and just reads as way too formal for the conversation I’m intending to have.

I’ve taken to letting my reports know where I’d like improvements by email so the conversation can be private, but I don’t like this either as it feels like a cop-out when I should be able to have a face-to-face conversation, plus there’s never any actual conversation, just me dropping a bomb and running away. It doesn’t feel like a good solution, but at least it’s a private communication.

Ideally these are conversations we could just have at our desks as it comes up, but as mentioned, I’m uncomfortable with the 20 people around me listening in.

Surely this is a common problem as more and more offices go to open plans? How do others deal with this and do you have any suggestions?

Yeah, there’s no perfect answer to this. It’s one of the many problems with open offices.

The best thing you could do is to start having regularly scheduled one-on-one check-ins with each of your staff members, which you’d hold somewhere else. Ideally that would be a conference room (which might be more possible if you’re reserving them in advance on a regular schedule), but if that’s truly not possible, you can even do them outside or walking to a coffee shop or whatever’s feasible in your context.

Do it weekly or every two weeks, whichever makes sense for their work. The idea here is to have a regular, structured time where you can give feedback and — this is the key part — to normalize the practice of meeting with people in private so that it doesn’t come across as a big deal when you do it.

Frankly, having regular one-on-one’s is a smart practice for tons of other reasons anyway. It gives you a regular place to do the work of managing people: checking in on how projects are coming, giving feedback, serving as a resource, agreeing on prioritization, and giving people a place where they can easily raise any issues of their own. But in an open office like the one you’re in, they’re even more important, because you need to be able to have regular conversations with the people you manage without essentially being on a stage in front of others.

Of course, that’s still not going to be a perfect solution because there are going to be things that come up that you need to address immediately rather than waiting for your check-in that’s four days away. But if you’ve normalized the practice of meeting with people privately, you’ll be able to say “hey, do you have five minutes to talk in the conference room/over coffee downstairs?” (and can even say it privately over IM or email) without everyone else assuming something scandalous is happening.

And not everything needs to happen in private. If you create a trusting, supportive culture on your team, you should be able to do minor corrections in front of others without it feeling like a big deal. Of course, tone matters a ton here, and the bigger picture “I was expecting more progress than this” type conversations should still happen in private. But it’s generally okay to say, “Hey, I noticed that some of the numbers on this sheet are off — I fixed them, but can you double check in the future?” in earshot of others.

You should also consider pointing out this problem to higher-ups in your office, ideally with other managers chiming in as well. It might not make a difference, but sometimes a bunch of people saying “hey, this is causing X work-related problem for us” actually does get things changed.

{ 141 comments… read them below }

  1. ABCD*

    You could do everything in the hallway. Praise, complaints, check-ins, salary updates. LOL. This is what happened in a particular old-bad-job of mine. The building was with many companies, not just ours. So the hallway was in no way private.

    1. an.on*

      My open office doesn’t even have a hallway. Elevators open up into a tiny locked lobby area, you badge in, and then the entire floor is just open space. :)

        1. an.on*

          Well it is a 35 floor building. Plenty of time to get through a meeting if you go up and down a few times!

        2. Amber T*

          If you watch NCIS you know that’s where Gibbs has all of his important conversations.

          1. DArcy*

            Yeah, but that’s in an filming set elevator which *looks* normal-sized, but is in fact dramatically oversized to accommodate camera equipment.

    2. Elizabeth Ellis*

      I’m in an open plan office I don’t hate. We have dividers but no cubes, and we sit in teams. Crucially, we have two unbookable pods, and the floor below us has 5. We have a conference room you can book out, and a decent sized kitchen with a wall between the desks and it. So although the kitchen is open, there is room for 4 or 5 tables, and you can have a nice chat, or catch up, but you’ll use a pod for 1:1s. It works because culturally we make it work. We are in team set up, we are allowed to wear earphones, and have headsets for phone calls and video calls if needed. We also have a freestanding tv we can use for a screen in the pod (it’s on wheels and has standard hdmi connection for laptops) or in the kitchen, if we can’t use the conference room. It’s also ok to use a pod to retreat for work if you need to focus, but you can’t take the piss.

      It’s actually a really nice floor with a good vibe for individual and communal work. I’m at a university so nothing swish.

        1. Grumpy Mouse*

          I can’t speak for Elizabeth, but I’ve worked in a place which had “unbookable” rooms. The rule was that the unbookable rooms can be occupied for stints of 30mins or less. Anything over 30mins and you should book out one of the bookable rooms instead.

          It worked pretty well, for a few reasons. One reason was that the company was reluctant to hand out laptops to the majority of the workforce (we were mostly all on desktops), so the scope for squatters was much reduced. Another was that there were enough meeting rooms across the building, both bookable and not, which greatly reduced conflicts and situations where a team would take over an unbookable room for 2+ hours. It also helped that the unbookable rooms weren’t as nice as the bookable ones, so generally if you had the choice you’d always opt for a bookable room with the comfier chairs than the uncomfortable, utilitarian unbookable ones.

    3. Sunshine on a cloudy day*

      Oh man – at one company I was at conference rooms/offices/any sort of private place. Some people took to trying to use the coat closet (it had a closing door) to have private convos.

      I was the receptionist at the time, but had no qualms about barging in (if necessary!). I felt their pain, but I’m not making the head of a major company wait on her coat because you decided the company coat closet was the appropriate place to have a performance review.

  2. OP*

    So the amazing follow up is that we are actually doing a complete gut & remodel office renovation *right now* …and I am on the team leading it. So — if there are any good suggestions on things we could do physically with the space, there’s potential to actually do it. The direction right now is towards an even more open environment at the desks, but with more “retreat” spaces available.

    1. Mike C.*

      You know your office best, but generally everyone hates open offices. If you have to keep those, look into some solutions for solid floors or sound deadening materials in the walls/cubicles.

      1. OP*

        Trust me, I hate open offices more than anyone. But it’s also definitely the direction – and no walls or cubes – just benching desks. Mostly no offices even for HR or VPs (unless they throw a fit and insist on one)… I don’t even know how it’s supposed to work but I don’t have enough clout to change that direction. So any mitigation has to be within that framework. For some reason this type of office plan is standard for my industry, and I just don’t understand how it’s supposed to be a good working environment.

          1. Lemon Zinger*

            HR needs offices. Period. At the very least, a few meeting spaces that are reserved for HR.

            1. Justme*

              I’m even thinking about the files that HR has that need to be looked at in private. Like tax forms, or things with other personal information.

        1. Lora*

          This is how the office is now where I work. Unsurprisingly, I hide in the coffee nook or the lab all day, and haven’t seen my real desk in weeks. Sometimes people come in here and hide with me.

          Once got additional conference rooms built by remarking to the VP guy in charge of the office design project, “heeeyyyy, now we will all know about layoffs at the same time! Democracy in the workplace!” He was not amused and three new “phone rooms” were added to the floor plan.

            1. AdAgencyChick*

              No, they don’t. The bean counters who love these floor plans because they can squeeze more people into a smaller space, are not thinking about the work experience for those people.

              Said bean counters usually are not cutting their own offices from the plan. In the case of advertising, they tend to work for the holding company, which means they never even set foot in our offices, so they are delightfully removed from the consequences of their decisions — except the only consequence they care about, which is the lower rent number on the balance sheet.

              I’m not this cynical about most things in the work world, but boy am I a curmudgeon about open offices and their motivations.

        2. Kathleen Adams*

          Two floors of of the building I work in (though not the floor I work on) are totally open, and the way they handle it is lots of different sorts and sizes of conference rooms. They all have different names to indicate how large they are, e.g., “conference room” = seats 6-10, “cubicle” seats 2-4; “pod” seats 1 for private phone calls, etc. I don’t think those are the actual names but that gives you a general idea. All have wifi but some have additional equipment for video conferencing and the like. Anyway, they have lots of rooms of all sizes and supposedly it’s not difficult to reserve one of them.

          This is pretty new around here, but supposedly it’s working OK so far. The only major trouble I can see (well, besides the fact that I have my very own office and I love it) is that almost all of the conference rooms are walled in glass, so while you can’t hear what’s going on, you can definitely see what’s going on, and since there are such things as emotional meetings in offices, that’s a problem, IMO.

          1. NW Mossy*

            Applying some form of frosting to the glass seems like a good move. My company has accidentally failed to provide for it in some of their remodels but quickly remedied it (at relatively small expense) once they saw it in life and realized the problem.

          2. JulieBulie*

            Given the recent letter(s) about the woman who was walked in on while pumping, I sure hope these places with the fishbowls also have a PROPER mother’s room.

          3. LBAI*

            Definitely think about the need for total privacy. Even frosted glass isn’t completely opaque, so you can see what’s going on inside the room. It’s good for knowing whether or not the room is occupied, but bad if you’re dealing with top secret information that shouldn’t be seen. Case in point: my company is going through major layoffs, and we’ve had to walk by a frosted glass conference room for weeks with nothing but “lean center” presentations on the wall, and “promotion v. demotion” written on white boards. C’mon HR–people can see this!

        3. Mike C.*

          Wait, so “open” as in “grade school cafeteria/gym”? You could save a lot of money by getting those folding tables that seat 20.

          1. Kathleen Adams*

            Well, not quite – at least not around here. There are various sorts of barriers and so on to cut down on noise, and it’s all very artful. But everybody’s desk is indeed out in the open, and in fact, most people don’t have an assigned desk. The exception is people who need extra computer resources, such as graphic designers, or people who work together as a team almost all the time.

            1. Mike C.*

              I had to look it up, but yeah, you’re right. I believed that things wouldn’t get that bad, but I shouldn’t be surprised.

            2. Kathleen Adams*

              Yep, that’s exactly what they are. I hadn’t heard the term before, but I’ll bet the people working in the redesigned area of the building have.

        4. PB*

          Yuck. I also don’t understand how this is supposed to make people more productive. It’s also interesting to me that the people who make these decisions almost invariably have offices with locking doors.

          I really hope this trend will die eventually.

          1. Kathleen Adams*

            Personally they’d have to pry my office out of my cold, dead fingers. I love my closing door – love it, love it, love it.

            1. Anon Anon*

              I almost never close the door to my office, but just the idea that I can close the door, and that no one can creep up behind me is worth a lot. My goal in life is to never work in an organization where I would not have my own private office. In fact, it’s one of the questions I ask because it’s as much a deal breaker for me as salary.

              1. Kathleen Adams*

                I hardly ever close mine either, but having the option is just so wonderful. And so important!

            2. Marillenbaum*

              This is one thing I love about my current job–we deal with sensitive material, so while we have a cube-ish set up, it’s also remarkably quiet and has a lot of privacy.

        5. AMT*

          Might they be open to desks with dividers? This is a good way to baffle sound a bit and give people a tiny bit of privacy without cubicles or offices.

        6. Sarah*

          My husband is in an open office and actually loves it — he says because the type of work he does is super collaborative, it would be more disruptive to constantly be getting up and finding people vs. just turning your chair slightly to ask a question. I asked him what he thinks makes it work well and he says:

          — Very tall ceilings + some type of noise dampening thing on the walls so even with 100+ people in an open space it does not get too loud
          — Lots of conference rooms (it is never hard to book one) + a clear scheduling system that works smoothly
          — “Phone booths” that have room for 2 people and a small table, and you can make a private phone call or take a private meeting — totally soundproof
          — Big kitchen/cafe area with different seating for when you need a change of location

          1. EddieSherbert*


            Your husband’s workplace sounds similar to mine! Sometimes I do get annoyed with the chatter around me, but the vast majority of the time I’m glad I have 5-10 people in talking distance to verify/assist on different pieces of work.

            One more thing I would add that makes my open office plan work -we can work from home 1-2 days a week. I personally prefer being in the office, but if I’m cranky, slightly ill, need to recharge, or behind on laundry… I can work from home.

            1. CR*

              And I wanted to add, we also have white noise piped throughout the office and it makes a big difference.

        7. bench desks ughhh*

          bench desks really cramp my style*

          *my style is defined as:
          (a) stream old episodes of The Office and Parks & Rec on my 3rd monitor while I work
          (b) eat more m&ms than i care to admit to my colleagues

        8. AdAgencyChick*

          “I just don’t understand how it’s supposed to be a good working environment.”

          It’s not. It’s a *cheap* working environment.

          HR in my office sits in an open area like everyone else. There is one designated “HR room” which…if I ever got an invite to a meeting there, I’d know to start packing my things.

          To answer your original question…it sucks. It’s not easy. Run up the food chain the idea of being reimbursed for your coffee when you have 1:1s in coffee shops. Meeting in a Starbucks can be effective, but it shouldn’t cost you money to manage your direct reports!

          1. fposte*

            Can you talk a little bit about how you do the coffee shop thing? I meet with people in coffee shops sometimes and enjoy it for planning and brainstorming, but I couldn’t imagine coaching an employee in the middle of a coffee shop. (Though I can see it might be preferable to doing it in the middle of a wall-less, cubicle-less office space.)

            1. esra (also a Canadian)*

              I used to do coffee shops 1-1’s with my last boss, there just wasn’t space in our office. We would walk over + pick a corner table if possible, and take 30-60 minutes to talk about goals/feedback/issues.

        9. Mouse*

          Benching desks like benches, not chairs? I’m only 23 and I can feel my spine cringing at that. There is no way I could sit on a bench all day. I’m hoping “benching desks” means something else! If not, you might want to try to argue for actual chairs.

          1. Kathleen Adams*

            No, the chairs don’t look like benches. It’s the desks that are sort of bench-like. They’re the height of desks, though, not benches. I think “bench” just refers to the shape.

          2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            Benching desks look a little bit like “study carrels” in the library, but often the dividers are lower and the desk space is slightly bigger. The chairs are not benches. If you search Google Images, it will give you a better sense of what Kathleen and fposte are describing.

        10. nnn*

          You could encourage “privacy rooms” or “phone rooms” or “quiet rooms” – not someone’s office, just a small room with a door that closes that people can use briefly when they need to do something quiet.

          Then if you can get them to accept that idea, keep nudging the number of privacy rooms upwards. Maybe you could suggest polling employees and seeing how often they’d use that kind of room if it were available, and encourage them to commit to building a number of privacy rooms commensurate with the number of employees who the poll suggests would be using them at any given time.

    2. Jesmlet*

      Conference area plus desk dividers is how we’re set up, so like chest high walls in between adjacent desks. I don’t hate it… There are very few reasons to like open offices but I do like the amount of interaction I get to have with my coworkers if I choose, and if I don’t want to hear my desk neighbor talk, it’s easier to tune them out with the sound being partially blocked.

      For special meetings, our boss takes us to the deli/coffee shop near by, but doesn’t do it at a regular frequency so whenever it happens we know it’s either something negative, it’s wanting feedback on someone who’d otherwise be in earshot, or it’s a positive development thing.

    3. KR*

      Maybe smaller quiet rooms – not as big as a conference room but big enough for one on ones, small meetings, and phone calls/high focus work.

    4. Gen*

      One thing you might want to keep in mind when adding more retreat spaces with full height walls- if you have AC/heating consult with the plan for location of existing temperatures sensors and outlet pipes. We had a £500k renovation that made us all-open-plan except for twenty meeting/private working spaces. Somehow they ended up with the temperature sensor enclosed in the smallest work space so if anyone sat in there for ten minutes the temperature in the rest of the office dropped dramatically. After they fixed that they then found that another room was stiflingly hot and useable all winter.

      1. Security SemiPro*

        It’s not just my company!
        Our largest conference room on the NEW! AMAZING! floor (trendy open plan furniture, no white boards, the engineers rebelled and we had to reno the entire floor again) was some how set up with no HVAC. We took to leaving a thermometer on the conference table, because filling it with people would quickly make it go from 80 F and stuffy to 90F+ and bad locker room. Not fun.

      2. Sam*

        Ha, this is apparently what happened in our office too, except reversed. The sensor is in the main area that gets warm throughout the day (we have cubes but it’s still very open) and one of the main AC vents is in my boss’s office. It runs nearly continuously since it’s hard for the cold air to get out into the main room, and she can’t keep her door shut for more than 5 minutes without it turning into a refrigerator in there. She wears a lot of sweaters.

    5. Murphy*

      We have something like that. We’re a mostly open office (a few people have cubes, only senior people have actual offices with doors) but we have a few “collaboration areas” that are a little away from people’s desks, but are still a part of the open environment. Our main one is in a little alcove, where people can easily be seen, but you can’t really hear what’s being discussed unless you walk inside.

    6. BadPlanning*

      We recently moved to an open workspace and thankfully they gave us an assortment of smaller rooms. Most of the smaller rooms can’t be reserved so you can just get up and look for one (we also have rooms that can be reserved). They vary from room for 2 people to sit (2 chairs, 1 tiny table for the phone and a little laptop table) to 3-5 person rooms with a small but regular size table and 3-5 chairs.

      So far people have not been camping in them. I mean, I see some people in them a lot — but they don’t just hang out all the time.

      The drawback is that we asked for partially frosted glass (we wanted something at least partially opaque in the middle) and they claimed we didn’t “need” that so now there are just big panes of glass. I am now attempting to train myself to not look into rooms as I walk by and accidentally stare at the people inside. Distracting for everyone.

    7. MillersSpring*

      Congratulations on the remodel/renovation! And you’re leading the plan to redesign the space, well done!

      Add LOTS of conference rooms, of many different sizes. We have “phone rooms” that fit two people, three max, as well as several conference rooms for four or six people. Anyone with two or more direct reports should have an office, even if it’s small without a window. Include wellness rooms where people can breast pump, administer medication, etc. If you have multiple “kitchens” with coffee and a sink, include a mini fridge and microwave so people don’t have to traverse the entire building just to warm up coffee or lunch.

      1. Trout 'Waver*

        I’d add in to make sure one of the wellness rooms is prayer-mat friendly for the observant Muslims. I’m sure there are people from other faiths that would appreciate that as well.

      2. Kim*


        I sit on the “pilot floor” testing the open office concept for the new office tower my company is building, and we are continually being asked for feedback from the project team. There are about 75 people on our floor and 12 conference rooms of various sizes. I have never had trouble finding a room when needed, but we do have issues with sound inside the rooms (white noise outside, but not inside since it can interfere with conference calls). One thing the project team is changing for implementation in the tower is that all conference room walls shared with another conference room or office need to be drywall or have sound absorbing material. Hopefully that helps you!

        1. the gold digger*

          I have never had trouble finding a room when needed

          I first read this as physically locating a room and thought, “Finally! A place that has a map of the floor in convenient places so I can find the darn meeting room!”

          1. Chelle*

            My company is massive and we do this by necessity :) You can search the meeting room name on our intranet and it brings up a map with a pin in the room you need, plus on each floor of each building (by the elevators) there’s a map with the meeting rooms called out.

            Of course, only three buildings have the maps at the elevators properly oriented relative to a person looking at the map…but you can’t win them all.

          2. Arjay*

            I used to have the first cube when you got off the elevators. I put a map up on my wall because everyone stopped to ask me anyway.

          3. Kim*

            Ha, nope. But our floor is locked down for occupants only, so we have to meet people at the elevators to escort them anyway. We were given paper floor maps on our first day, though.

      3. Doesn't Mind Open Office*

        I’d rather be in the middle of the open office with my reports than in a windowless closet. Honestly, I’d quit if they took my window away; we have less than 4 hours of daylight in the winter as it is. Going to work in pitch black and leaving work in the same darkness, never seeing the sun? Not. Going. To. Happen.

        1. DecorativeCacti*

          I’m currently in a windowless office and I would much rather be there than out in the open part of the office. I get really distracted when I’m trying to compete with a ton of other conversations and phone calls. And I like to be able to listen to music while I work and close the door when I’m really busy.

          I keep trying to convince them to at least give me a solar tube through the lab above me but something about structural integrity and safety, blah blah blah.

          1. Doesn't Mind Open Office*

            See, I’m the opposite. I find the presence of other people to be energizing. Being trapped in a dark office just makes me tired and I am easily distracted by the internet/my phone/amazon music.

        2. OP*

          I agree – I spent some political capital (read threw a fit) when they tried to put me in a windowless shared cubicle with 3 other people. I was in there for 6 months (IN THE DEAD OF WINTER) before I finally managed to get out…

          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            Ugh! This is seriously one of my biggest peeves. How do people not know that lack of access to natural light makes people miserable? Do they want all their workers to feel sluggish and sad? All they have to do is watch one of those pharma ads for Seasonal Affect Disorder. Or read about rickets. At the very least, they owe you a Vitamin D lightbox.

            Someone who worked on the ground floor of a library basement like a mole-person

        3. curmudgeon*

          worked for 8 years in a windowless cold basement before they laid me off.
          Really sucked my soul & I think it part of the reason I had spiraled into a massive depression and lack of self esteem. Every time someone came I my office they’d comment about how cold it was. Every. Single. Damn. Time. like I hadn’t noticed that it had managed to “warm up” to 56F in the office that day.
          Got a sun lamp to help some.

          At every other job in my life before then I ALWAYS had a window and room was decent temperature most the time.

          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            There’s a reason sensory deprivation to natural light and prolonged exposure to cold are torture tactics.

            (I’m very very sorry you had that experience—I felt myself going crazy after 2 weeks in the basement. I cannot imagine 8 years.)

      4. Friday*

        +1 pumping room. With an outlet, a table, comfortable chair, locking door. No frosted glass either – opaque walls only. It can be tiny as only one person will be in there at any point in time anyway.

    8. chocoholic*

      My husband’s office has an open floor plan, and it works for their company culture. They have 5 or 6 “quiet rooms” that serve as small (2-3 person) conference rooms/personal phone call rooms/pumping rooms. The doors lock and each has a small table/chairs/whiteboard. Not sure if there is an office phone in them or not, but I would not be surprised if at least some of them did. That may be an idea for flexible space if you have the room for it.

    9. TotesMaGoats*

      What about some…alcoves for lack of a better description. Floor to ceiling or at least fairly high walls and at least 2 and a half of them. You’d get privacy for quick conversations. Or if you just need a minute of not staring at your coworkers faces you could pop in for some solitude. Nooks. Nook is the word I want.

      1. De Minimis*

        We have high walls at mine [and even doors] but the lack of enclosure at the top means all conversations are public, no matter how softly you speak. We have to warn visitors and new employees that if they want to make a private call or have a discussion they’ll need to find a conference room or go out in the hallway.

        It’s a weird layout….the room has a super high ceiling. My “office” is walled off and has a door, but there’s an extra 7-8 feet of open space above my “wall.” The space has changed over the years as staff have been reduced. We are located in a historic building so I’m guessing there are restrictions on what can be done with the space. Another floor does have some actual offices for senior staff, and a more traditional “cube farm” for everyone else.

      2. Justin*

        We call ours fishbowls. They are visible but mostly soundproof. This is in addition to conference rooms. People take personal calls in there etc. Or have meetings.

      3. nnn*

        On first reading I thought you meant two and a half alcoves instead of two and a half walls, and I was wondering what half an alcove is.

    10. HRtripp*

      One office I worked at had 2 different types of conference rooms. 1 – was by reservation only and the others were drop in. If we had to have a quick call or conversation that needed more privacy it was nice to have the drop ins available. There was also no reserved seating in this office so departments had specific buildings/floors to work but no designated work space. They had several seating areas set up and you’d just find a place drop your stuff and work. Some of the seating areas were desks with dividers and others were couches or stand up desks etc and they made conference room that was designated as a quite room only for. They did make expectations for certain finance/hr folks and they were given an assigned desk and everyone had a locker or file drawer with a key to keep their items in. Overall it worked well but everything was pretty spread out so there while we did keep our voice down for certain phone calls or conversations it wasn’t too big of an issue

        1. AdAgencyChick*

          Yeah, I’ve heard of this setup before and it sounds like a nightmare! Where would you keep things like tampons, snacks, etc.? Also, what about people who need a special desk setup due to orthopedic limitations?


    11. Just another commenter*

      Hi there, OP. I work in acoustical design for architecture, and one thing you might try doing is asking if there’s an acoustical consultant working on the redesign for your office. You’re right that open offices are bad for acoustic privacy (and really there’s no solution to that without putting up walls), however an acoustic consultant could help with a design that will minimize some of the annoyances of an open office.

    12. RabbitRabbit*

      If possible, try to designate at least one 2-3 person conference room as basically “unreservable” – something that can be grabbed for maybe up to 30 minutes and no more than an hour ahead of time or so? Explain the need for those quick meeting spaces to be available at short notice, but not for anything protracted.

    13. Open Workspace*

      My office has the hoteling concept on my floor/for my department. No one has an office or an assigned desk (at any level), but there are plenty of other workspaces for different types of work. There are several single-person rooms with the same desk setup as everyone’s desk, for private phone calls or work where you really need to focus, there are also quiet rooms with two desks where conversations/talking on the phone aren’t allowed, and NUMEROUS huddle rooms for 2-4 people, as well as several conference rooms for larger groups. This is better than other open environments where I’ve worked thanks to the plentiful private/collaborative work spaces. People generally respect the norms of not using those more private spaces for longer than they need to, and there are more than enough of them. We also have a few “pod” chairs that could be used for a semi-private phone call (or for eating lunch alone outside the kitchen).

    14. bystander*

      When planning the number of “retreat” spaces, make sure you allow for the likelihood that your staff will evolve. When we moved into our space five years ago, each floor had two phone rooms, two or three medium-sized meeting rooms, and one large conference room (for about 100 people in cubes, so barely adequate as it was). Over time, since we had no empty offices or cubicles, staff changes started eating away at the common spaces. We’re down to about a third of the original spaces, and there’s no cell reception in the fire-rated stairwell, so if you need to make a private call it can take 15 or 20 minutes to find or wait for a location to make it in. If you need to spread out paperwork or work for an extended period of time in quiet, you’re pretty much out of luck.

    15. designbot*

      People need padding. By that I mean, open offices can be fine if there is sufficient interstitial space that folks aren’t right on top of each other so that you don’t always feel like you’re listening in uncomfortably. But also, make sure you’ve got plenty of highly absorbant materials! Carpet, felts, acoustical materials on the ceiling, etc. all absorb sound while hard materials like concrete and metal bounce sound around. The difference in how clearly your voice carries in a loud, hard space vs. a softer space is really noticeable.

    16. Djuna*

      Our office has 4 standalone pods that look a little like capsules, each of them is soundproofed, and has their own door and frosted glass. We use vacant/available sliding signs on the door to prevent interruptions.
      There’s room inside each pod for a table and 2 chairs.
      They’re unbookable and were designed specifically for one-to-one meetings in a huge open-plan office.
      They’ve taken a lot of pressure off conference room bookings since they were added – and they do often get used for the sort of ad hoc meeting you were asking about in your OP.

    17. DevManager*

      We’re mostly open office in one of the two buildings at my workplace. And < 5ft high cubicles in the other. What has worked really well here has been setting up a variety of conference rooms like others have said. We have everything from full VTC rooms down to what they call huddle rooms that fit 3-4 people with a whiteboard. We also have what we jokingly call principal's offices – small rooms with two comfy chairs with writing arm rests and a phone.

      Most importantly, and I think you should advocate for this, we have "privacy rooms" with full docking station and monitor setups – this allows us to have conversations we can't have in the open and/or work on sensitive documents without everyone seeing.

      1. bystander*

        Ooh, the docking stations are a great idea. Even when we had more spaces, none of them had computers, which meant you were always choosing between spreading out and having access to your email, files, etc.

    18. BigJlittlej*

      Hi OP, another consideration is to make sure there is a private room where breastfeeding parents can pump.

    19. Sunshine Brite*

      Ditto on most of the suggestions but also dedicated lockers or file cabinets for people to be able to set their stuff somewhere reliable.

    20. I'll say it*

      so I worked for a time at a company called SEI investments, who were a pioneer in open office environments. it wasn’t my home office (I was a vendor) so I had my own offices to compare with and here’s what I observed:

      1 – there were “pythons” that hung from the ceilings that you could use to connect your entire workstation, including phone. very helpful.
      2 – the white noise they piped in was critical. once, we were without power and on generator, the white noise was stopped. you heard every keyboard stroke and every mouse click. it was awful. white noise was critical to people being able to concentrate. they also had recycled tire rubber floors which also was critical to noise reduction.
      3 – even with no offices, people created ways to show seniority. the pythons by the windows and toward the outside of the room were almost always senior people. there would be talk if someone more junior moved their desk there. also, people used bookcases and filing cabinets to create their own spaces and privacy. point is, people wind up making their own spaces and hierarchy no matter what you do with the office layout, so really evaluate how to allow for that.

      take a look at their website to see how they are set up; there have been multiple articles written on their office space.

  3. De Minimis*

    We have this situation [permanently] in my office. People go to a conference room if they want to discuss something in private.

    Stuff like regular feedback about work [like stuff where a number might be incorrect, etc.]is done in public, and people in the area just try not to listen. We don’t do feedback in an embarrassing way, so hopefully it doesn’t bother people.
    Informal feedback that would involve overall performance [not specific to a project] would be either done in a conference room or over e-mail. My boss usually e-mails me about these things, we only meet in a conference room at the formal evaluation time.

    The main annoyance with this setup is not so much with coworkers as it is with people on the phone. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to tell a caller that we have to take a conversation to e-mail because we’re discussing something I don’t want my office neighbors to hear about [for example, a temp agency calling about the performance of a person who is only 15 feet away and within earshot.]

  4. Been there*

    I’ve worked in an environment like this where we had semi-regular one on ones but my boss then asked us to step into a conference room every time she wanted to give even minor feedback and many people on the team (everyone I talked to) felt really uncomfortable anytime she wanted to have a quick, un-scheduled meeting. I really wished she’d either email or stop in and make quick notes even though people could overhear them. I think part of the problem was also that her style of talking about things made people put their backs up about it from the beginning, and there was definitely more going on there. But please don’t pop in and ask for unscheduled meetings unless you do them with positive things too!

  5. StartupLifeLisa*

    I’m in an open office and we do a lot of walk-and-talk meetings, except when it’s triple digits outside.

  6. TootsNYC*

    I manage to make this work. I just say stuff at their desk; partly I think that saying it right there and then LOWERS the emphasis on it. If I’m willing to just talk about it, even if I’m saying, “I’ve noticed this has happened a few times, so please be careful,” I think that implies that it’s not a big deal, but it was worth saying. Right now it’s just a process thing, not a “job security” / “performance appraisal” thing.

    If I want it to sound a little more serious, like “I’m your boss and I’m telling you to get this right,” then I will email. That puts it on record, and putting it in writing means it’s a bit serious.

    If I ask to reserve a conference room, or to meet somewhere private, both of us think this is “performance evaluation” time (sometimes because it literally that time of the year again).

    1. Slow Gin Lizz*

      I was thinking something similar. It might be advantageous to have an open office plan for this reason alone.

      I’d still find it annoying, though.

  7. TootsNYC*

    Also–consider talking to HR about the idea of creating “breakout rooms” or getting one enclosed area set aside for short meetings like this.

  8. Ramona Flowers*

    But it’s generally okay to say, “Hey, I noticed that some of the numbers on this sheet are off — I fixed them, but can you double check in the future?” in earshot of others.

    Depends on the staff member – personally I much prefer to both give and receive that kind of feedback on private.

    We are open plan but managers book meeting rooms for 1:1 meetings. We also use the senior execs’ offices when they’re not in them. Or you find a quiet spot where not many people sit.

    1. Ramona Flowers*

      Oh and use your indoor voice. You can sit and chat quietly enough that it’s not heard by everyone.

    2. Jesmlet*

      I’m a praise in public, criticize in private kinda gal but will admit that when you do something privately, it gives the impression that it’s more significant than it may be. Maybe ask each person how they feel and go off of that?

  9. Cookie*

    We have this issue at work. Annual evaluations take place in our conference room, but all other critiques are made out in the open in our open office. I know way, way too much about my coworkers and I have to say, it totally effects the way I perceive them and interact with them because I know Jane (for example) is chronically behind on her projects (even though it doesn’t effect me at all). I knew someone was getting demoted and why because that talk took place in a cubicle and everyone in the area could hear.

    In my previous open office, management had private offices. I liked that much better because private conversations were possible. Not only does that help with giving open feedback, but it also allows the employees to be open with management too.

    1. Slow Gin Lizz*

      They demoted someone within earshot of other people??? That’s pretty unprofessional.

      1. Cookie*

        We also get a weekly spreadsheet of all the projects along with who’s responsible for them and progress made so far. So we regularly have access to information about who is behind on various matters. But this is unrelated to the open-office issue. It’s uncomfortable. It’s also caused me to prioritize things on the spreadsheet above and beyond other duties (even though non-trackable matters are also important) because this is how my coworkers will judge me.

    2. AC*

      I wish I could upvote this comment! I’m a subordinate, but my manager seems to have frequent issues with the work of another colleague at my level. My manager likes my work, so she just never gives me any feedback even on minor corrections or issues. But with my colleague who is underperforming, I have to sit there pretending to stare at my screen as the manager very tensely interrogates the colleague about why she did X or made Y error. Oh, and did I mention that I literally sit in between them so sometimes these awkward convos are shouted over me until my boss gets frustrated enough to get up and stomp past my chair to my colleague’s desk?

  10. Sketchee*

    I feel your pain, OP! I’ve really adjusted my tone to be incredibly positive and more of a “Can you help me with this change?” rather than “Can you fix this error?” A lot of big changes in language to make this just the next step and less of a big deal.. I’m also more outgoing and thankful in my praise. Changing tone was the hardest for me.

    It’s been harder to develop personal connections over the past few years. Less one on one time with coworkers in an open office means less time talking or building a specific repoire. I feel like I’m being a generic catch all public version of myself except during smaller meetings.

    I used to work in a newsroom and it was open. Yet everyone was very good with language and tone, I never noticed much awkwardness compared to the current culture. There are less processes and defined roles in this company, so I think we don’t have the safety net of clarity.

    1. DDJ*

      I’ve had my new office for less than a week and the quality of my conversations (over the phone and in person) has already increased dramatically. When you’re not worried about your coworkers overhearing everything or you try to keep things brief to keep from being disruptive, it really creates a different dynamic.

      “I feel like I’m being a generic catch all public version of myself except during smaller meetings.”

      You’ve nailed it. I had to really fight to get an office and make a business case for it (and it just so happened that an office opened up, there hasn’t been an open one for years). But already, I can see that things are going to be so much better.

  11. Sibley*

    Be careful doing everything via email or IM. Tone matters a lot, and you can’t control the person’s mental “voice” when they read it. Sometimes its the difference between one of your high performers being slightly unhappy with the mgmt shift but overall content, and that high performer becoming disengaged and starting to job search.

    Ask me how I know.

  12. Justin*

    I am probably the only person who likes open offices, and I work in a gov’t office where even the top line directors have the same set up.

    That said, we have ample, ample, conference rooms and meeting rooms we can book.

    We lock our computers whenever we leave our desks, and the files have their own area.

    Would it be nice to have locking doors and be able to hide? Yeah, probably for some people. For me, it does seem like we’re truly on the same team, and no, the directors have plenty of authority when hard conversations are needed (in private spaces).

    Yeah, it’s just personal, but I also think there’s a way to make it work (OP added her office is changing so just in general if you’re stuck in one).

    And we do have plenty of introverted people. In fact, more than the more extroverted people like me.

    I’m hardly a director, but I also do get lonely not having people around, even if we don’t much speak.

    I’m aware of the “less productive” stats, though. I’ve never been more productive myself, but I am just one data point. Very low turnover on our team and treated well, so that probably counteracts it for the people here who might not like it.

  13. Hannah*

    I don’t think it’s a huge deal to inform someone of something you’d like done differently in hearing of others. Big performance issues that have consequences, sure, that needs to be private, but something like, “These numbers weren’t right. Can you do review it and submit again?” or “Next time, please glue the teapot spouts on the outside of the pot rather than the inside, thanks!”

    If the culture is generally healthy, very light corrections like this shouldn’t be a source of humiliation and discomfort, whether or not they happen behind closed doors. This kind of thing happens in my office and it is no big deal.

    1. OP*

      I definitely do the light corrections as they come up and it works fine. But I run into issues with things that are more serious – not fireable stuff but things that essentially need to not keep happening. I want to be direct in a conversation like that that I’m serious but don’t want publicly shame anyone…

      I also have issues the other direction, in having honest conversations with MY boss, since I often need to discuss staffing of people sitting right next to me and similar “personnel” type things..which I find uncomfortable and occasionally impossible conversations to have. Those end up going to email which is also unfortunate since we file all emails to a searchable server for legal reasons and it’s possible for people to find things they shouldn’t (ask me how I know).

  14. RMF*

    Kudos to OP for being conscientious and thinking about her reports’ sensitivity. I’ve been in a similar situation where one manager didn’t even stop to think about who could hear all the tough feedback she was delivering to her team.

    She also didn’t think to censor her personal phone conversations–and let me just say, it got awkward…

  15. MusicalManager*

    As a fellow mgr in an open office layout in a building with not enough conference rooms i really feel you, OP!

    1. Definitely schedule 1:1s regularly if you can…conference room space is sometimes easier further out and I’ve found the practice really helpful to just stay aligned with the team.

    2. If that’s not an option could you do lunch biweekly or monthly 1:1 with eqch staff member as a way to have private conversations with them? It’s a little more awkward but unless you have to deliver a really hard message it shouldn’t be too bad…

    3. Would a senior leader in your group let you use his or her office for these sorts of conversations when he or she is out of the office?

    Best of luck!

  16. Menacia*

    The “cone of silence” would come in handy here, though it did have its issues. I tried posting a YouTube video of this device (from Get Smart), but I guess that’s not allowed. Still pretty funny though.

  17. AthenaC*

    If you need to have a conversation with someone, can you “take a walk” around the office or outside?

    I often work in audit rooms with multiple people at clients where it can be impossible to get some much-needed privacy for sensitive conversations, so that’s a technique I trot out a lot.

  18. Dulf*

    I understand the concerns mentioned upthread about tone of email or IM, but I think it’s actually the best medium for specific feedback such as discussing errors in reports, particularly if they need to be fixed and not just caught earlier the next time.

  19. TheAssistant*

    One thing I really liked about a previous job was using an IM system (in our case, Skype) for quick conversations with my team members throughout the day. Our office was open, and while we did have lots of conference rooms (and regular check-ins using them), the ability to ask my boss a quick question or get her take on something without The Entire Team Knowing About It was incredibly beneficial for me as both an awkward person and someone with a lot of questions. We didn’t just use it for mild criticism or whatever – we also used it to signal “do not disturbs” in an open floorplan, and to casually chat with each other and check in on donors or what have you throughout the day. Maybe something like Skype or Google Hangouts would work well for your team?

  20. AC*

    At the risk of derailing, I would love Alison’s opinions on how to deal with this as the subordinate.

    I’m in a 100% open office space with a limited number of conference rooms that are frequently occupied. I never have the opportunity to discuss anything remotely sensitive with my direct manager, “Carol,” who deals with this by just never giving me feedback. (Other managers I have worked with here just don’t care about being overheard, which I actually prefer since it helps me know how to improve and I never get anything too critical or embarrassing).

    I have asked for more regular feedback from during my formal reviews, to which Carol responds something like “you’re doing great but sure, we can chat more frequently” — followed by absolutely nothing changing.

    It also gets awkward on a personal level. For example, last fall I wanted to ask to take 2 days off to help an ill family member, but I didn’t want everyone to overhear so I ended up emailing Carol as she sat about 3 feet from me. Calling her into a conference room would feel overly dramatic because I have literally never done that over the past few years, and she would probably assume I’m quitting.

  21. Corporate Lady*

    I recently joint a company with no office space. I do have biweekly one on ones with my team where we book conference rooms in advance. For my one on one with my boss (aVP) I actually go to my car. I am a loud talker and want to be able to express my thoughts without concern.

    However, for day to day – why isn’t this done, here’s a mistake, say this when you talk to the customer – I do it in the open.

    No one is perfect. Certainly not me and certainly not my team. If I want to encourage mutual feedback, it’s my responsibility as the manager to normalize it. It should not be soul crushing to hear that you could have made that ppt or report it a better fashion. At the same time, I acknowledge my own mistakes and praise my team in open as well. I really think it’s about how you approach it and deliver the message.

      1. Corporate Lady*

        Nope. I’d book a conference room because I’d likely know that conversation is coming days in advance!

  22. Shadow*

    C suite types who set up open offices get so excited about the supposed benefits and cost savings they rarely account for the need to tough one on one conversations. I’d ask your boss “I need some advice on where I should be holding sensitive one on one conversations that aren’t appropriate for co workers to hear. I’d normally reserve a room but they’re rarely available.” She probably won’t have the best answer but this is something your boss needs to raise up the chain.

  23. Kelly*

    As an introvert on a team of hard core extroverts, in an open office plan, with construction on our building taking away conference room space, I beg of you to start booking conference rooms. Out in the open=serious anxiety bordering on panic.

  24. KC*

    Just to be on the other side of the convo, I really love working in a shared or open office space! I feel so isolated when I have an office to myself, and it feels like a waste of space. Plus it is so motivating to see your team working hard and accomplishing things together, and you build such great relationships. Granted we have conference rooms and tables etc you can book when you need, and I have a lot of my meetings off site, but for my personality shared space is preferred. I think this varies greatly from person to person, so to everyone saying shared is the devil, maybe it just isn’t right for you, or isn’t set up well in your office. To each their own and in a large company you can’t give everyone exactly what they want!

  25. Pierre*

    I love my open office workspace. I get to hear about my neighbor’s apartment search, partner issues, kids soccer schedules, and share in the wonderful smell of my neighbor’s lunch.

  26. not so super-visor*

    Thanks for covering this AAM! I have the exact open office problem — teeny tiny cubes, no walls, only directors have offices, and the conference rooms are almost impossible to book!! I really struggle to figure out how to provide more consistent feedback to my team.

  27. Nox*

    What we do in our open office set up is we do not permit certain types of performance discussions to be done in side by side format. Small stuff here and there is ok like if we need to tell someone to correct a typo or something but anything related to the KPI or disciplinary stuff is done in a conference room or borrowing someones office for a few hours.

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