How to thrive in an open-plan office

Every month, Oliver Burkeman invites you to improve your work life


How to thrive in an open-plan office

Do you work in an open-plan office? Is the hustle and bustle getting a bit too much? Or is it so quiet that it makes you uncomfortable? Check out these tips to thriving in your open-plan work environment…

1. The project 

Psychologists’ verdict on the open-plan model, designed to enhance collaboration between workers, is clear: they mean more stress, lowered motivation and job satisfaction* and, even worse, less sleep (we are further away from windows**). But there are ways, both sneaky and straightforward, to lessen the pain.

2. The aim

Collaboration and solitude are two sides of one coin: everyone, even extroverts, needs time alone in order to collaborate well. According to a 2013 study***, what people hate most about open-plan offices is a lack of ‘acoustical privacy’: hearing others’ chat and phone calls, and wondering if they’re eavesdropping on yours. If you’re the boss, introduce more private spaces. If not, here’s how to reinforce your ‘private bubble’.

3. The theory

The answer isn’t to become the office misanthrope, permanently wearing headphones and scowling at anyone who approaches. Rather, to the extent your job allows, divide your time between private and public. Wear headphones – prominent ones – or work in a secluded corner each morning, then rejoin the fray in the afternoon. Book meeting rooms for three-hour meetings with yourself, if you can get away with it. Or let calls go to voicemail all morning, then return them in a batch, somewhere free of eavesdroppers. If you’re senior, tell colleagues, so that they respect your rules. But, even if you’re not, you’ll be surprised how easy it is to ‘train’ others, as long as you follow predictable patterns. Help cultivate the right culture by not interrupting others when they’re obviously trying to focus.

Now try it out

  • Break the silence. Ironically, almost-silent open-plan offices are worse for privacy and focus than those with background noise: when you can hear a pin drop, every sound makes an impact, and everyone can hear your conversations. If possible, use a white noise machine, open a window, or move to a more bustling part of the building.
  • Turn the tables. If you’re bothered by other people’s noisy phone calls, and don’t mind being a little wily, make it clear that you are listening in: nod in agreement with something that they say, or chuckle at one of their jokes. They’ll soon pipe down.
  • Restore yourself. If you just can’t find solitude at work, do all you can to get a little alone time outside of the office – free of parenting and relationship responsibilities. Even half an hour a day, at lunchtime if necessary, will pay dividends at work and at home.

Oliver Burkeman is the author of ‘The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking’ (Canongate, £8.99)

Research: *O Brennen et al, Traditional versus open office design, UNiversity of Calgary **M Boubekri et al, Impact of windows and daylight on helsth ans sleep quality of office workers, 'Journal of clinical sleep medicine' ***J Kim et al, Worspace satisfaction, 'Journal of environmental psychology'

Photograph: iStock