Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Six rules for the open-office environment

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.

There is a movement afoot in workplaces across Canada to shift to the open-office floor plan. This, despite numerous scholarly and mainstream articles that catalogue all the reasons the bullpen is a bad idea: noise, distractions, increased conflict and stress, lack of privacy, and increased employee turnover being some of the more common.

Yet increasingly, companies are moving to open-plan offices, often a mix of cubicles, open workstations, private offices and group workstations. And in some cases, the spaces are not assigned to one particular individual, but rather are available to any employee of the company on either a reserved or first-come, first– served basis.

Story continues below advertisement

Some say the decision to move in this direction is driven by lower costs, others say it encourages teamwork. Whatever the reason, it is happening, so it is time to talk about how we make it work, rather than continue to debate its merits and drawbacks.

Be thoughtful about the floor plan

Keep work areas distant from high-traffic or potentially loud locations. So don't place individual workstations next to the washrooms, the elevator lobby, the common printers, or the coffee counter. One of the biggest complaints about the open office floor plan is its predisposition for distractions, and when you aren't thoughtful about where you place the actual individual workspaces, you're just setting your employees up to fail.

Have lots of areas for collaboration

If you're going to take advantage of the much-touted benefit of strengthened collaboration and keep potential distractions at a minimum, then it's vital to create spaces where people can brainstorm and confer that are away from the individual work areas. Whether they are small meeting rooms, open areas with casual seating, or wired and connected bar counters, these spaces are essential to both encourage dialogue amongst those who need it, and keep those who are concentrating from pulling their hair out in frustration. And by the way, having a few closed spaces available means that people can use them as private spots as well, should discretion or confidentiality be required.

Respect is the word of the day

At the end of the day, it comes down to something your mama probably taught you: respect each other. Be aware that the open-office floor plan requires a different way of working than you might previously have been used to. Whether it's loud telephone conversations, pungent lunch odours, or catching up on weekend adventures, save it for the coffee counter or the aforementioned collaboration areas. Establish a no-speaker phone rule, use a headset instead. Don't eat at your desk unless you're positive that it won't bother anyone else. If a brief conversation with a colleague is beginning to get lengthy, stand up and ask the other person to join you in a more appropriate area.

Story continues below advertisement

Let there be light

Sure, windows are wonderful, but in large spaces, it is usually not possible for every work area to be adjacent to natural light. Nevertheless, research shows that light levels create different psychological effects, so in a best-case scenario, a lighting system that lets people alter the hue and brightness of their work area is ideal. Dimmer environments tend to boost creativity, while bright lights are more conducive to analytical and evaluative thinking. Open airy spaces and higher ceiling contribute to abstract thinking. All this can be individually controlled by placing adjustable desk lamps at each workstation or cubicle.

Take control of your workspace

If you're struggling with adapting to an open-plan environment, then take ownership of your piece of real estate (no matter how small it is). The simple act of making your own decisions about how to organize your workspace is empowering and has also been shown to increase productivity. Bring in a small plant or put out a couple of framed pictures. Even the use of a pin-board to post your own pictures and messages will help you feel that the space is yours, with resulting benefits for your work.

Embrace the positives

When all is said and done though, thriving in an open-office environment comes down to a shift in perspective. If you seek out and embrace the positives, you'll find them. If you dwell on the negatives, they'll come up over and over again. DJ, a manager at an oil and gas company in Calgary that has adopted open-plan offices tells me: "This creates great opportunities for us in so many ways, but as managers, we need to be role models. We need to walk the talk and use this environment as a way to break down barriers and get the conversations started."

Story continues below advertisement

Merge Gupta-Sunderji (@mergespeaks) is a speaker and author with 17 years of experience as a leader in corporate Canada. Her blog is at www.TurningManagersIntoLeaders.com.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles as we switch to a new provider. We are behind schedule, but we are still working hard to bring you a new commenting system as soon as possible. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.