how do I give feedback in an open office where everyone can hear my conversations?

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.

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.

How do others deal with this and do you have any suggestions?

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 119 comments… read them below }

  1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

    Well that sucks. So for everything that needs privacy, you have leave the area. Like that’s not going to be A Thing. In my case, we’d go to the cafeteria.
    So if you’re ended up walking to an early or later lunch with our supervisor, the optics were “oooh, what did Not Tom” do?

    1. LadyJ*

      I think that is what gets me it might be someone not in trouble but having a personal issue that is affecting work but needs a workaround.

      1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        Very much this. When it’s a personal issue, you may feel more self conscious and feeling like everyone “knows” you are having a private conversation sucks. And then there are the oblivious/nosy/paranoid coworkers who will ask, pry or interrogate.
        “I saw you and boss walking to the cafeteria today. Is everything ok?”
        Yes. We were both going to get lunch.”
        (And why do I need to tell you that, random coworker?)

  2. Green great dragon*

    Yes, it’s a nightmare. Extra fun when dealing with a direct report on the verge of tears. If companies really must have open offices, at least have some non-bookable private spaces.

    I regularly worked from home even in the Before Times and I scheduled all my check-ins for my wfh days.

    1. Oh No She Di'int*

      Right. I once had a person who designs offices for a living tell me that Open Offices get a bad rap mostly because everyone does them wrong. In addition to the main open areas, which are supposed to encourage collaboration, you’re also supposed to program the office with plenty of private spaces so that people can handle precisely these sorts of situations.

      Unfortunately, most companies have come to regard the private spaces as dispensable.

      1. Venus*

        I worked at a place that had a good designer, because they specifically designed the smaller enclosed spaces to be too small for an office. It wasn’t ideal as there was only a small table and at most room for two people to talk, but this was in addition to conference rooms, and decades later those spots continue to be used for two-person meetings or one-person telecons. I can’t imagine working somewhere with no private space.

      2. coraline*

        If “everyone does them wrong”, it’s possible that everyone is doing them “right”.

        If an office is gonna have the room to have a lot of private spaces, they’re probably not going to switch to open office in the first place.

        1. TechWorker*

          Nah, having lots of private spaces (even say 1 small office per 5-6 desks) still takes up less room than 5-6 small offices. Plus everyone gets to work in a room with windows.

        2. Not Tom, Just Petty*

          I didn’t think open floor plans mania was spurred by lack of space, I thought it was a skewed interpretation of “collaborative workspaces,” or “an equal playing field” at best and at worst the idea that people need physical oversight all day. Companies moved from spaces with offices to spaces with open floor plans that were oftentimes bigger, but just took away private space.

          1. Daffy Duck*

            I thought they were spurred on by the cheaper building costs (fewer walls, doors, small windows are not only fewer building supplies but less labor).

      3. tamarack and fireweed*

        It took me a while to understand what the hostility to open offices was about, because the first one I experienced – at a summer job at a large industrial employer in my hometown in Germany – was so different from what I saw later. The room was gigantic, but it was intricately designed. Groups were seated together in landscaped desk pods. Each desk was a fair size, maybe 7 feet by 3 feet, and the walkways were delineated with dividing furniture. There were some central thoroughfares divided off with higher dividers and plants, and then branching off the smaller lanes to the individual team pods. There were enclosures with more privacy for the sales team and the typing pool (yeah, dating myself here …). There as some ingenious way to control the acoustics… In my memory it felt pretty intimate with a good sense of “our space” and a quiet environment.

        Nothing to do with the noisy, bare-bones, cramped open offices I saw later! This first example would rank higher on my preference ladder than a cube farm arrangement (which can feel really oppressive) or even shared offices that aren’t well arranged.

  3. Evan Þ.*

    Pre-COVID, my team was in an open office, and my boss did exactly what Alison suggests. We had a regular weekly 1:1 that took place somewhere outside the open office – sometimes we just walked up and down a hallway where no one from our team was; sometimes (especially for more sensitive discussions) my boss suggested we find an empty conference room.

    And sometimes, when it wasn’t time for the 1:1, he’d ask one of us to “come talk” or “grab a coffee together.” Sometimes it was for sensitive feedback; other times he wanted to hear my opinion on a project or my preference for what project I wanted to work on next. So, when he asked someone else to grab a coffee, I had no idea whether he was giving them some feedback or just talking about their projects.

    It worked really well; I was sorry when COVID drove us all to work from home.

    1. Anonymous Educator*

      Same. Pre-Covid, my boss used to regularly take one-on-one meetings outside of the office. A lot of times, we’d just go for a walk around the office building. Whether the feedback is positive, negative, or a mix of both, it’s good to have some measure of privacy.

    2. introverted af*

      I get that this is probably the way to do it, but gosh that still gives me anxiety just to think about it. Probably says more about me than the system though.

      1. DameB*

        I came from a deeply dysfunctional work environment to a really healthy one with an amazing manager. Took me fully 18 months to stop having palpitations and sweaty palms when I had my weekly one-to-ones with my manager. Now I actually really enjoy them.

  4. irene adler*

    I would think that management (i.e., those above LW) would realize the necessity of having regular, private conversations between boss and employee and provide a readily accessible space for this to occur. Short-sighted of them.

    1. Cait*

      I worked in an office that sounds just like this. One big room full of desks and a glass half-wall that created the conference room. Everyone could hear everything. Always. Worst part… it was an architecture and design firm. I guess they thought they were being edgy? But this meant all private meetings had to happen at a restaurant. And as the office manager/HR, I was the one constantly trying to get tables at lunch time at high-end restaurants in New York City (God forbid they go somewhere ‘low brow’). Also, they didn’t seem to care how much money they were then obligated to spend in order to have these meetings. I was relieved when I finally left.

      1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        They outsourced the entire problem on you. Love that the complicating factor was finding a place that cost MORE money.
        If they wanted to impress people, have a way cool spacious office in NYC. It’s crazy.

      2. OP*

        This was my letter from years ago and ironically I also was working in an architecture firm. We should know better…

        Even worse, we ended up renovating our office but not solving this issue at all (still far too few conference rooms, massive open plan desk area). What I did end up doing was becoming more confident as a manager and just scheduling 1:1s regularly in conference rooms and doing it that way. The pandemic actually completely solved this problem – I’ve found it MUCH easier to give real time feedback in conversation when we can just privately call one another.

  5. NotAnotherManager!*

    We had just moved to an open plan office prior to COVID, and I loathe it. Even if you have an office, the walls are all glass, so people can see your conversation, even if they can’t hear it, including seeing people cry (not a common occurrence but still not something you want an audience for). It is one of the things I would leave my employer over if forced to go back full-time.

    1. AndersonDarling*

      I only made it one year in an open office and this was one of the reasons. Even when my manager was giving me general instructions, I felt like everyone was judging me . Or if I was answering a question I felt like people were listening and thinking “I would have answered the question this better way!”
      It was nerve wracking to have everything out in the open all the time.

    2. Ann Furthermore*

      I worked in an open office setting for about 9 months. I went into it really trying to keep an open mind, but it was awful. My first desk was right by the break room. The company was one of those hip, cool companies with free snacks and other things meant to attract younger employees….including a ping pong table in the break room. The walls didn’t go all the way to the ceiling, so all day long I was treated to that unique sound of ping pong balls bouncing off paddles. After a few months I couldn’t take it anymore, so I asked for my desk to be moved. That was way better — it was by a window and in a quieter place in the office overall, plus the person next to me was an HR IT guy, so he was often working from home or in a one-person huddle room since he worked with confidential data all day, so I frequently had an open spot next to me. But it was still like working in a fish bowl, and even taking a personal call was a hassle, because there was absolutely no privacy at all. The principal at my daughter’s school called one day to let me know that she’d clocked another kid on the playground (after he’d taken a swing at her and missed), so I had to talk through all of that out in the open, and then call my husband as well. People can’t help but overhear, because they’re human.

      That company ended up being acquired, so I got laid off — or would have if I hadn’t found something else. For a variety of reasons, including the horrible open office, I was not sorry to leave.

      1. Jay Gobbo*

        No offense but I seriously don’t understand why people* can’t just step away from their desk and take a walk outside or inside the building to take personal calls. Pre-COVID I had to listen to a LOT of personal calls from my coworker handling the most inane family matters — but no matter how inane, it makes me really uncomfortable. I \hate\ being subjected to personal information that I don’t want to know and have no reason to know.

        I guess I just really hate hearing personal information from someone I’m not close to / friendly with. So it’s a game of my discomfort over hearing personal calls vs. the other person’s discomfort of getting up from their desk. Idk it just doesn’t make sense to me because (obviously) I am also the kind of person who would never want to take a personal call at my desk.

        *for disability reasons I understand why it’s not easy for \everyone\ to “just step away for a moment”, but I would think most people can…? Unless you’re talking about an age of pre-cellphones where you took this call from your office phone or something.

        1. MissElizaTudor*

          I get what you’re saying, and I think that generally applies for making calls, but when you’re getting a call, especially an unexpected call, it can be challenging to get outside or even to a different area of the building before the call goes to voicemail.

          It just might not be possible to get to another reasonable location to answer the call in the short amount of time between the first ring and the last one.

          1. Sea Anemone*

            So answer the phone, and it needs an extended discussion that you don’t want others to over hear, get up and walk somewhere.

          2. RebelwithMouseyHair*

            So you answer with a “let me call you back as soon as I’m out of the open plan office” or you just exchange pleasantries until you’re out, the possibilities are endless.

        2. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

          In some office cultures, stepping out to take a personal call draws more attention to the situation, particularly if it’s not the way most of your cubicle-mates handle their personal calls. Done enough, it can send a message that might be misconstrued.

        3. NotAnotherManager!*

          I’m sympathetic – I had an employee I had to talk to about not taking frequent personal calls at top volume where everyone stepping into our department could hear about all their medical issues. Our problem was where are you going to go in an entirely open plan? Our office is the center of DC, so the streets are loud and you can’t hear that well, and we don’t have a parking lot or an outdoor picnic area or anything – cars, if you drive, are parked in subterranean lots that don’t get cell reception. I wish we had one-person rooms where people could take/place calls privately.

          Also, my kids’ school, despite it being next to last on the call order list, insists on calling my office line rather than a cell phone or, at the top of the list, my spouse who works from home and is closest to the schools if pickup is required. I asked once if they could, again, my spouse as the first call and the office lady was very confused and told me they ALWAYS called mom first. Then why give me the option to order the numbers in order of preference on the form!??!

          1. Katherine A Preston*

            THIS! My son’s school keeps calling me first. I don’t even live in the same city. They have been told multiple times that my number is for emergencies only. I work in a hospital, while my ex doesn’t work. I have literally had to explain multiple times per school year, why I can’t just pop over to the school to pick something up or drop something off. I am 4 hours away. No, I will not leave my department unstaffed because my son needs his sneakers for gym. He wouldn’t even get them till after school anyway.

        4. Ann Furthermore*

          It’s not always that easy. In that particular situation, going outside was not an option, because I was on the 36th floor, and the call would have dropped in the elevator. There were no open conference rooms that I could see, and the break room and lunch room were full of people.

          Sometimes the best you can do is to just take the call where you are, and try not to speak too loudly so you don’t cause too much of a distraction to those around you.

        5. ceiswyn*

          Because I don’t hear very well with background noise of wind, trees moving in the wind, cars going past, pedestrian crisis beeping etc. The office is always much quieter than outdoors.

          ‘elsewhere inside the building’ would be nice. Where were you thinking that won’t disturb anyone else?

  6. Yellow Springs*

    In my office, this would be a perfect use for our internal chat system (Slack, Teams, whatever is used at your workplace.).
    We never used this before the pandemic, but it’s been a lifesaver with everyone being scattered around working from home and in the office. We do team building and have general discussions in the group window — both on topic and off topic. This could also work really well in an open office where chatter like this would be distracting, and might be a practice I’d consider starting up in a case like this.
    And then for this specific instance for giving feedback, sending someone a private chat message on the chat platform is a great way to have a private conversation without it seeming as formal as an actual email.

    1. Susan Calvin*

      We’ve always been fairly distributed, geographically, so IM and intranet have seen a lot of use even pre Covid, and I’d agree that having it as part of your culture cuts down on chatter and background noise in the office significantly. For regular personal manager check-ins I can’t see it be enough though – and even worse, for Serious Conversations? Absolutely not.

    2. allathian*

      Yeah, I was going to say this. Do it on IM if at all possible. If it’s one of those things that’s really easy to show but difficult to explain in writing, get a conference room.

      If it’s a small thing that feels too small to book a conference room for, it’s probably not urgent enough to require immediate intervention/feedback. So save it for your regular 1:1s, and have them more often than just once a year to catch up and also to give low-stakes feedback.

  7. Dana Lynne*

    When I worked in a newspaper bullpen in the Olden Days, and before that in a TV newsroom, which was also open, we would have these types of meetings by borrowing the Executive Editor’s or the General Manager’s office. They were the only people on the floor with private space where you could close the door. Occasionally we would meet at a coffee shop as others have said.

  8. Caboose*

    Yeah, I keep thinking about this with my current job. I’m not planning on leaving soon, but the office is completely open, and I have no idea how I’ll go about resigning when my boss is in the same open cube farm as me!

    1. Seven hobbits are highly effective, people*

      Just yell “knock knock” in the general direction of your boss’s desk:
      Knock Knock
      Who’s there?
      Ike who?
      Ike quit, I’m taking a job with some actual privacy for important conversations.

    2. allathian*

      Just do it by email. You could say you’d prefer to do it in person, but went with email because there’s no privacy in your office, if you want.

  9. Valkyrie*

    I had a similar situation. I wasn’t in an open concept office BUT everyone, except the executive director, had to share an office – there was this one empty-ish office because we’d have contractors come in and use it several days a week, so that wasn’t always available, and they always used the conference room for client meetings or other client-related things (e.g. events). So for meetings with my boss, we’d have to use the kitchen, which was constantly being barged into because people would be coming to get water, microwave their lunch, etc. and it could be incredibly awkward because my boss was a VERY toxic person (e.g., she’d literally just make stuff up about my work so I’d be having to show her files and emails that I had sent to her to prove that none of what she was saying was even true, and it made for really tense and awkward meetings)

  10. Jaina Solo*

    At my one job, we would do walking meetings a good bit. Our office building was had a sidewalk/walkway space circling it so we normalized stretching our legs and chatting through projects or other things on walking meetings. I think because we preferred to move around and made it common if it was just a 2-3 person convo, it wasn’t foreboding if a few of us stepped away for one. We just clearly needed space away from the room that the rest of the team (11 people) shared.

    I will say that the only benefit to an open-office plan is when someone behaves foolishly, all their peers see it. The husband of one of my coworkers worked in another department and came into our team’s space to “chat” about a project we were both working on. He wanted to cancel a meeting that would provide my team details on deliverables; one of his colleagues scheduled the meeting to make sure we were all on the same page. He was totally unaware that his pushing me to cancel it, in front of all my coworkers (including his wife), reflected poorly on him. The rest of the team was awkwardly quiet while he harassed me about it; then they witnessed me grit my teeth and give him a death glare while I agreed he could cancel the meeting but he had to provide me deliverables details. That incident was talked about for a bit because he subjected everyone to his poor behavior.

    Ironically, his boss insisted we schedule a meeting to discuss the deliverables about a week later. So he embarrassed himself for nothing. That’s legit the only time the open office was really beneficial.

  11. I'm just here for the cats*

    I hate this. had something similar on the call floor at the first place I worked at. Luckily there were other rooms for some conversations, but any of your 1 on 1s you were just in the open and people would interupt all the time.

    I think for bigger conversations you certainly need to have a more private space. Is there an area where people don’t sit at? Like a far corner of the room or something? For more day to day things I don’t think its a big problem as long as your matter of fact.

    Bill, I saw this error on the spreadsheet. Can you make sure its fixed before the meeting.

    But i would bring it up to management, stating your afraid your employees won’t go to you if they have problems if there is no privacy. Also, If you get interrupted by others during these conversations that would be a good thing to point out. Maybe they can do some re organizing to give some private space, Even if its just a cubical with tall walls and a door.

      1. NotRealAnonForThis*

        The option to request a desk has appeared in our sign in app, and the day I have to physically request a desk when we’re 100% in person is the day I turn in my resignation. (We won’t go into my thoughts on being 100% in person because I just can’t today.)

      2. I'm just here for the cats*

        How about hot desking in a call center when there are more people “on” then space. first job was like that. There was a time between shifts ( around 2pm) where the early people were still on because they had that last minute call and us late people who had to wander the call floor looking for an open desk. we weren’t even clocked in, so if you couldn’t find a spot you were technically late. Sometimes it would take 10 minutes to find a place. then of course we would be on the opposite side of the building from our team lead so on your break you were supposed to move closer (once more spots opened up). It was really stupid. (and totally gross)

    1. TechWorker*

      I do find the AAM commentariat hates them more than anyone else I’ve ever encountered :p

      But perhaps that’s because they are ubiquitous in my industry and having tried working in a room by myself for the whole of the pandemic I find the open office 100x better.

      1. Nesprin*

        Can you speak a little more to why an open office was better? I’ve never come across anyone who preferred them to an office with a door before.

        1. Tara R.*

          I also prefer open offices– they’re also fairly ubiquitous across my industry (software). There’s a ton of communication that needs to happen for most projects, and it’s a lot easier to just sit side by side and talk through things out loud as they come up. It also makes onboarding and helping junior teammates much much easier. Generally, there’s a ton of information exchange that needs to happen, as well as a lot of impromptu “Hey, have you seen this error before/ do you have any ideas about how to do X/ I’ve been debugging this for an hour, please help, oh now that I said it out loud I immediately see that I spelled this word wrong” type things.

          Every job I’ve had had a strong culture of headphones on = ‘trying to focus, DM and they’ll get back to you’ (usually with a side of Do not disturb status = ‘leave completely alone unless something is on fire’), so it’s not like it’s impossible to get work done without interruption. And two offices had lots and lots of private rooms if you needed to have longer discussions or did want space for absolute focus on solo work.

          In an open office space, it was like I was tackling every problem with 80% of my own brain power and 20% of my teammates’ brainpower– it’s not like I asked for group input on every minor thing, but if I saw someone coming back from the kitchen with a cup of coffee I might take a moment to ask their thoughts on something. WFH, it’s more like 95/5– I’m a lot more hesitant to bug people over slack, especially for the sort of thing that I would only ask when I could clearly see someone wasn’t busy at the moment if we were back in the office. And things are slower and more frustrating as a result.

          1. Software Dev*

            See, we did most of that over Slack prepandemic and I preferred—having to type stuff out often makes me solve the problem, plus stuff is now in the slack history if I want to search for it and a lot of times I need to test something out before I reply to someone about whether their solution worked, which is way less weird to do over Slack.

            1. Tara R.*

              We used slack a lot too, but generally you would send one slack message and if the answer took longer than a second to type or required any more back and forth you would just turn around and reply out loud. We would often follow up by typing an “FYI, ran into this, here’s the solution Jane helped me sort out–” style message into a team channel.

              1. Tara R.*

                Oh, and re: testing, I never really found it weird? I would just say “Let me test that out” and they would go back to doing their own thing and I would either say out loud or slack “Thanks, that worked/no it didn’t” depending on whether they looked absorbed in something when I was done. But I can see your perspective for sure.

          2. RebelwithMouseyHair*

            “it’s a lot easier to just sit side by side and talk through things out loud as they come up”
            But there’s literally nothing to stop you sitting next to somebody to do that in their private office either, unless there’s a furniture problem. And while you talk it through out loud, your colleagues are all being disturbed.
            I would hate to have to use headphones just to keep noise out.
            And how many of you are there in the room? And how many of those do you actually need to talk to regularly to pick their brain? I totally get that it’s easier to wait until you see your colleague coming back from coffee to ask that question, that’s what I did with my former colleague who hated being interrupted, but she was the only person who I would ask complicated questions of. If I wanted to ask questions of other people, I would just stop off on my way back from the loo and ask, because they didn’t require the same depth of concentration as the other colleague.

        2. TechWorker*

          Similar to below – I think there are huge benefits to being able to overhear and on occasion join in conversations around you. We are very collaborative in how we work and especially for training junior people it’s a massive advantage of sitting together as a team that is pretty difficult to replicate remotely and wouldn’t work at all if everyone was in separate offices.

          I also like that I can see at a glance who is at their desk and who isn’t, and who is clearly deep in thought and who is browsing Reddit :p I am a manager and fairly often need to say talk to 3 or more different people in a meeting room but I don’t care about the order. In an open plan office I can do that pretty efficiently and avoid interrupting people doing focussed work (we have enough small meeting spaces that finding one is rarely a challenge). Remotely I have to IM them and wait to see who replies/maybe they’re on a break/maybe they’re right in the middle of something. If we all had separate offices I guess I’d also have to IM or walk around knocking on doors? Just doesn’t seem as efficient.

          (I also liked open plan as an IC, fwiw, but I have always hated working in silence and like working amongst other people working with snippets of conversation)

          1. allathian*

            Your last sentence explains it. I vastly prefer working in silence, because I write for a living. If someone’s talking somewhere around me, it’s very hard for me to ignore. Or rather, random background noise or white noise is fine, as long as I can’t distinguish any words. This in spite of the fact that I have trouble retaining information that I hear, and vastly prefer getting all actionable tasks and information in writing.

      2. ceiswyn*

        I love open offices. I like the buzz of other people working around me, and my job is made 100% easier by overhearing about projects or issues that nobody would think to tell me about. I love being able to look up, pause, have a brief social exchange with someone, then get straight back to work.

        But you do need to have private spaces available for ad-hoc conversations and personal calls.

  12. Thistle Whistle*

    You could always be like my ex-boss and take your employee to St*rbucks (other coffee chains are available) to tell them they aren’t getting the permanent contract that had been dangled in front of them for months. *shrug*

  13. MyDogIsCalledBradlyPooper*

    I would follow what the experts at Manager-Tools say about this and they cover feedback a lot. If its a quick thing do it in the moment without any emotion/anger etc. Don’t make a big deal of it. If you do if frequently your directs won’t make a big deal of it either. Treat feedback as a tool for changing future behavior its not about changing the past or going into why. For example let’s say you have a direct that is constantly checking their phone in a meeting, walk out of the room with them and say something in a quiet tone like “Hey PK when you are constantly checking your phone in a meeting you are not able to fully participate in the meeting. Can you put your phone away when we are meeting?…Thanks”.

  14. Cold Fish*

    Are these feedback sessions in person or over the phone?
    Would it be possible to get a white noise machine, fan/heater, radio for your desk? Something that might drown out your voice so that if someone is eavesdropping, they would have to be intentionally eavesdropping. Nothing too loud or distracting but it might give some sense of privacy. While this would probably work for me, I admit to having a very soft voice so this might not work if you have the type of voice that just carries.
    If over the phone, could you switch any feedback to email. Although, I recognize that comes with it’s own set of problems/inability to provide nuance.

    1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

      I appreciate the sentiment, and I don’t want to be all “sandwiches”, but white noise is unhelpful for those with hearing loss and/or certain neurodivergence.

      Similarly, walking meetings suggested elsewhere in the comments won’t be suitable for employees with reduced mobility.

      Which is not to say that they can’t be part of a manager’s repertoire or company culture; just that it could be problematic if they became the default. A conference room that people use all the time for different kinds of focused meetings is the gold standard and should never have been designed out.

      1. SnappinTerrapin*

        Yeah, I’ve reached the point where the background noise I’m trying to block consistently overrides what I’m trying to concentrate on. I call it having my filter in backwards.

        I didn’t understand when Granddaddy complained about that in his hearing, but I know now.

        And in my current workplace, I have to try to hear what people are telling me while we’re wearing masks and machinery is running behind me, reflected off the walls and plexiglass.

        The Cone of Silence should help, if they could get the elevation properly calibrated.

      2. Seven hobbits are highly effective, people*

        Walking meetings are also not great for those of us who lip-read, at least for those of us who also need to watch where they’re putting their feet. (I also prefer to be able to take notes.)

        I have a hard time following even casual conversations while walking, particularly if the other person is ahead of me.

        1. allathian*

          Yeah, me too. I have slight hearing loss, and it’s just at the point that it’s making it difficult for me to follow conversations if we’re walking and the person who’s speaking is slightly ahead of me. And masks don’t exactly make it easier. Luckily we don’t have to wear masks outdoors, but I already have problems with this when I’m at the office and we’re walking to the cafeteria in our office building with our masks on.

    2. Mr. Shark*

      I vote for the Cone of Silence. It’s the only way to make sure your conversation is confidential.

  15. higher ed cog*

    Ugh, this is my problem as well. I supervise an all-student staff of about 20 in a big open space. I have no closed-door office anymore (the arrival of an on-campus Starbooks took over that space), we have other students in and out, and I have no other private area. A lot of what I do is teach students workplace norms – and they get a lot of leeway as students – but I still have a wide range of issues I have to address sometimes.

    I tend to use our Slack messaging, but it feels weird to do that sometimes. This may seem low stakes compared to more traditional offices, but it’s a common complaint for me. If I’m to model good workplace practices, I want to do that fully.

    1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

      Looks like you should have demanded free coffee for life as the price for giving up your private office, at least you could then hold meetings in the shop…

  16. English Rose*

    One thing you can do is to thank and praise people regularly in the open plan, then when you have to give smaller corrections it lands better.
    Small comments like thanks you worded that email really well, or Jane told me how helpful you were on X shows the person – and crucially the whole team – that you’re looking at their entire performance, not only correcting course when small things go wrong. Just make sure you find opportunities to do this with everyone.
    But yes, for more in-depth feedback, regular and frequent private one-to-ones somewhere away from the open plan are the way to go.

  17. Lure King*

    I struggled with this when I worked in a large open office. I found it emotionally stressful overhearing all of these conversations.

    We didn’t have private spaces to do it with same level colleagues.

    The decision markers around this all had private offices.

    It ultimately spoke to an office culture where these kinds of needs weren’t a priority

  18. Tamarack with a phone*

    Every open plan office I’ve worked in has had spaces for the whole gamut of privacy needs for conversations, including bookable rooms for employment status level feedback. The sofa and chair behind the potted plant is as much about being able to deal with minor frustrating situations as it is about not disturbing desk neighbors.

    This said I would make a distinction between performance conversations and day-to-day course changes. I would very much aim to normalize the second type (“client X doesn’t like how we deal with topic Y, so here’s how I want you to proceed” or … “what solutions do you propose?”, “I see you’re still busy with report A, but I need you to drop it and get me report B real quick”, “the solution we agreed on for problem X won’t work…”). I really dislike workplaces where every semi-public conversation has to be relentlessly positive. Everyone, including the manager, messed up and/or misjudges something and/or has to correct course sometimes and it’s more efficient and humane to make it part of the normal work conversation.

    This is true even when it overlaps with performance evaluation. “Sam should really know to handle client X differently by now” or “Fergus will need to speed up pulling report Y – it should take 15 min, not 2h” may be going through your head, but saying it can wait until the weekly check-in. For which you need a private location, and if you don’t have one this is something to escalate up the ladder!

    1. Tamarack with a phone*

      I should add that Slack/a good messaging platform can help. I would put the small things that sting (“error in spreadsheet”) there or in a quick email. Also, because errors in spreadsheets are best put down in writing rather than explained verbally.

      And if there’s no quick reply, I can walk over and say “about that email that I sent…” and the employee can say “oh, yeah, getting on it right away”, and no one overheard anything critical.

    1. Mr. Shark*

      Ah, I just commented this above, and just now scrolled to your comment (which was commented way before mine)…
      Great minds, though.

  19. Middle Manager*

    One of the best parts of changing to primarily telework- I no longer have to find a conference room every time I want to give someone some feedback that could be considered negative! Sorry to the OP, I’ve been there and it is very annoying. I don’t have grand solutions. If it was relatively minor, we’d do email (like “these numbers don’t match, can you go back through and ensure everything is aligned”). If it was more significant, I would mostly save it for our weekly 1-1 meetings, since I already had the conference rooms reserved for those.

  20. Cowgirlinhiding*

    Have a conversation with your group and get their input. Do they hate the emails or do they understand why you use them. Would they rather have those conversations in person. I hate it when my boss calls me and asks me to come to his office. He doesn’t give details and it gives me anxiety.
    I like the suggestion for doing daily walks, outside of the work area to have open conversations with your people so they have the opportunity to speak openly without prying ears. I had a really good boss who used to do this with me and sometimes we all went as a group. It was the best office, we all felt like we had a voice and the communication was awesome.

  21. Alexis Rosay*

    Ugh! Any sensitive conversation in an open office is terrible. Once a direct report wanted to alert me to some personal bad news of hers that would impact her work. We were on a Zoom call with headphones but other employees could hear my end and there were no private spaces available. Immediately when she said she had something to tell me that was private, I said “there are people around me, would you like to wait until I can get a private space?” She said no–I think she wanted to get the conversation over with–and while no one could hear her end of the call, it was extremely difficult for me to carry on the conversation without alerting folks around me to the fact that something was going on.

  22. Constance Lloyd*

    I’m suddenly having a flashback to the time private offices were available, but my managers intentionally held a coaching meeting in the wide open work space so my coworkers would overhear. I think the hope was the public shame would motivate me to improve, but it only motivated me to find a new job.

    It was Wells Fargo. I was a model employee but wouldn’t get on board with their predatory sales practices. When I gave my notice they offered to nearly double my pay to get me to stay. Oops?

    1. Fresh Cut Grass*

      Ooh, we love to see it! (Not the predation, the desperation to keep people when they realize they messed up big time)

      1. Constance Lloyd*

        I thought nothing could make me happier than I was the day I left, but then a few months later all the news stories broke and I was just giddy.

    2. lilsheba*

      Ohhhh that was where my last job was, in one of their call centers. GOD I HATED IT SO MUCH!!!!!! The 1x1s were in an open cube, where they would play my calls for anyone around to hear, and the micromanaging was unreal!! The pandemic saved me from that place, I was off for 5 months in 2020 paid because of it and then I got offered my current job and I jumped at the chance! It was a good day when I got to quit that horrible evil terrible soul sucking place.

      1. Constance Lloyd*

        CONGRATULATIONS!! On the new job, the 5 months off to recover, and on escaping! I met my favorite person there but otherwise don’t miss a darn thing.

  23. EngGirl*

    This is my biggest issue with our open office! All of our conference rooms are big glass rooms. So basically anyone can see you having a one on one and people have a tendency to just barge in if they need you for something, especially if they just see you in a room with one person.

    1. Miss Chanadler Bong*

      At my last job the conference rooms were like that. But then the only good thing that I could say was that we had private offices that if you needed to have a conversation on the phone or a one-on-one meeting, you could go in there. I used to use them to give myself a breathing treatment (I have pretty severe asthma). They were great. At my current job I have to go out to my car for a treatment.

      Some of the managers had private offices. You could see right in them because they were all glass. We called them the fishbowls. It was especially bad for the women who wore skirts because you’d walk up the stairs and could see right up. Thankfully they frosted the glass.

      1. LadyJ*

        One office I worked in had conference rooms but even not being very loud you could sometimes hear what was being said or more annoyingly it sounded like a Charlie Brown cartoon when the adults talked.

  24. Miss Chanadler Bong*

    My boss does a couple of things because we’re in an open office as well:

    1. We have team meetings when everyone is working from home. Anything negative that needs to be said can be said in private then.
    2. We have conversations over IM even when we’re right next to each other. Sometimes this isn’t because I did anything negative, but because team x did something to screw us up and team x is right next to us. He also does this because he knows I have my earbuds in and I can’t hear him.

    I also hate the open office concept because it’s so noisy. I have earbuds that I have in pretty much all day for this reason. Thankfully I work from home three days a week.

    1. James*

      Even cubicle-land is bad for that. I remember once discussing a field effort with a colleague, which included weekend plans (a common thing in our office culture). On one side of us we had someone dealing with a contractor who wasn’t meeting agreed-upon deadlines, and on the other side we had a senior VP dealing with negotiations with various regulators–again, common things in our office. None of us had any interest in the other’s conversations, but all the privacy rooms/conference rooms were booked.

      I get why, as an incoming newbie, I got a cubicle. But once you start dealing with venders, contractors, regulators, and the like, you really need a private space to work out of.

  25. Mental Health Lawyer*

    I wonder if it would be possible to proactively ask your staff how they would like to receive feedback? That way emails do not feel like a cop out, but a choice. And if someone knows they prefer to just get it over with in the open, you ca do so. It might minimize unnecessary reserving of conference rooms, and a quick post it with people’s preferences would be a pretty easy reminder.

  26. PT*

    I had the reverse of this situation. We were in a public facing job (say, a llama barn) and sometimes I had to give people quick bits of feedback like, “Hey could you separate Llary and Llauren, they aren’t getting along these days,” or “Make sure when you start a llama training lesson you’re ready 5 minutes early in case the client is early.”

    But I worked somewhere where they wanted all feedback to be private. So I would have to wait for the trainer to finish their shift, go downstairs and ask to talk to them, wait for them to change, then bring them upstairs and around the corner to my office, and sit and have a formal performance chat about how Llary and Llauren the llamas should have been in separate stalls four hours ago but I couldn’t just ask them to do that then.

    1. Tamarack with a phone*

      Yeah, that is ridiculous. Sometimes something should happen now, and someone’s in charge of making it happen if it’s not otherwise getting done.

      In my experience in real llama barns (or any environment that in which employees are in charge of of other sentient beings, be it dogs, horses, children, patients…) this doesn’t actually happen. If two children start hitting each other in a nursery school, and your subordinate isn’t already on the job, you get them or someone else to out a stop to it. Or if the cellos are out of tune, and you’re the conductor, you tell them. Arguably this configuration may favor tyrannical screamers in positions of power, if it’s not counteracted by other cultural norms.

      1. Tamarack with a phone*

        And the “making it happen” should be treated separately from performance feedback.

    2. I'm just here for the cats*

      See, i wouldnt see those examples as feedback, more of passing knowledge along. Llary and Lauren dont get along well, keep them seperate is different than saying, You messed up on Llary’s grooming today. Owner wanted his hooves painted blue not green. Please check the paperwork next time.
      (I obviously don’t know anything about llamas.

      1. tamarack and fireweed*

        Agreed. Normal what-needs-to-happen-when conversations should be blame-free. Performance evaluation LATER can be about something like “you need to be quicker figuring out llama conflicts and acting decisively – otherwise you can’t be responsible for barn management and continue to need to be supervised; this is an important point, and your career here will be affected if you don’t get to this level of competence”. In private.

  27. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

    How many people in these glass fishbowl conference room environments eventually put up screens and big fluffy plants to block views?

    Having no “hides” in a space gives me the willies.

    1. NotAnotherManager!*

      I’ve been joking about this for months, especially for the people know to keep messy offices, but, apparently, our CEO is VERY committed to this open + glass thing and has declined requests for shades, window frosting, and any number of other things that would make it feel less fishbowly.

      1. just a random teacher*

        This fishbowl trend came to schools as well, but we also have to be able to cover all windows, internal and external, for active shooter drills. So, the way it goes is that the architect designs this space with glass walls pretty much everywhere there aren’t whiteboards and windows to the outside the entire length of the classroom. Congratulating themselves on a job well done, pleased with how open everything feels, they then move on to their next project and the school staff moves in.

        Then, about a month later, on the day before the first active shooter drill, everyone is told to go and get enough butcher paper to tape over all of their windows and glass walls. (In buildings where the admin doesn’t specifically discourage this, you can always tell which day drills are scheduled for because those are the days everyone tapes butcher paper over all of their glass walls first thing when they get to work in the morning.) Once, I worked in a place that actually bought blinds for all of their glass walls instead (but didn’t want you to pull them except in emergencies), but butcher paper is the most common solution. In my current district, students are not allowed to help you put it up during the drill, because they are supposed to be curled up in whichever corner of the room is the least made of glass while the sacrificial adult frantically tapes paper to all of the glass walls as quickly as possible.

        How well this would work in an actual active shooter situation is not discussed. I suppose it depends if the shooter decides to give everyone 10 minutes to get ready to hide or not.

        1. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

          And, not for nothing, the cue that there’s fresh paper being taped up on the windows might tip off a shooter that someone’s inside …

          Good grief.

  28. anonymous73*

    My husband has to deal with this…it’s so ridiculous. Anyone in a supervisory position needs a closed private space. One of my jobs had the managers in cube like offices with high walls that were still open at the top – so while they were better than an open office, they weren’t completely private.

    I agree with Alison that it needs to be a regular thing with your reports, because feedback shouldn’t just be about what’s not working. If you keep these regular meetings with your reports about feedback in general (good and bad), it won’t become a thing, as in “oh crap I’m in trouble, OP wants to meet with me.”

  29. Lady Danbury*

    Hate hate hate open office plans. I worked at 2 different organizations as a lawyer that had mostly open offices. They both had a variety of private spaces that you could book for meetings, etc but there’s only so much you can do to ensure confidentiality when pretty much everything is confidential. Allison’s suggestion is a great idea for negative feedback but doesn’t really solve the issue when the conversation should also be confidential.

  30. hayling*

    I don’t see this as a problem with open offices per se, it’s a problem with open offices that don’t have enough conference rooms and don’t have a culture of 1:1s. I have worked in plenty of open offices where it was normal to have a closed-door 1:1 weekly with your manger.

  31. OP*

    This was my letter from awhile back – you nailed it. There was no culture of 1:1’s in that company (and there still isn’t – I just do it anyway), and my managerial role was at the time de facto (all of the responsibility, none of the title or pay – now is formalized so that issue went away at least), so it never even occurred to me I could just schedule a regular 1:1 until I started reading AAM.

    1. NotAnotherManager!*

      I am a big fan of 1:1s, even when I don’t need to convey major feedback. It gives everyone a chance to catch up, talk about status, set priorities, and sometimes just to make sure your team feels like someone’s paying attention and cares about what they do. I don’t do long ones, unless there’s something they need to discuss, but nearly all my folks like having a regularly scheduled meeting.

  32. Amethystmoon*

    Open offices suck. On my previous team, there was a manager whose idea of giving negative feedback was to chastise someone loudly in front of everyone within earshot. She made fun of people for crying.

    I did get some karma when I left though. She was fired several months later, and I heard it was “very bad.”

  33. John Smith*

    If there is absolutely nowhere in the office to have the conversation in private, go elsewhere. Cafe, pub, park – anywhere where employees won’t hear the feedback. Yes, other people in these locations may hear what is being said, but it’s basically anonymised if they are strangers

  34. Anonymous in PDX*

    Yea i really don’t understand the overall benefit of open offices besides providing more natural light for everyone. I think at least every supervisor should have their own office and several conference rooms to go to if needed. I know some people who camp out in valuable conference rooms to escape their desk neighbors annoying behavior OR just to escape the fluorescent lighting….

  35. lilsheba*

    WHY are open offices even a thing anymore? I was so sure they would go away with …you know…a pandemic going on! And the no privacy, OH I hate that so much. I value privacy, I don’t like being out in the open like that.

  36. raida7*

    At my mate’s office when it became ‘too’ open plan they bought some plants and acoustic panelling, made a few ‘quiet spaces’ that fit at maximum four people close together.
    Turned out to be very useful for when staff need to be on the phone to their bank, for example, as well as quiet conversations.

    Other than adding this type of furniture to the office, I’d say go to a coffee shop

  37. Testerbert*

    The office I worked in (I’ve been WFH since everything started) is open plan, but did have a small space set aside for impromtu 1-2-1 meetings or other private matters. It wasn’t glass-sided, and couldn’t be booked out. It was very useful!

    Then someone decided that no, this senior manager is too important to slum it with the proles, so it got converted into a private office for them, in addition to the pre-existing ‘exec’ room (a small private office for any executives who might be passing through that day). Add in the hilarious tendency of meeting room bookings getting overriden/bumped (“Oh, you’ve had this meeting room booked for weeks? Well, this exec has decided he needs a break-out room in addition to every other meeting room we have, so get out!”), and we were very annoyed some days…

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