During the past few weeks in Boston, we’ve gotten record levels of snow and cold temperatures. My daily commute has become a trek over snow-covered peaks and ice-covered paths — that is, if I leave my house at all.
Working from home has so many perks — especially if your office is on an open plan like mine. The peace and quiet (and comfort of working in sweatpants) is a welcome respite from the daily clamor of the train and shared office space.
My office moved to an open plan about 6 months ago, and while I generally like it, many people don’t. It’s a big transition if you’re used to your own office, or even your own cube. That said, there are some easy ways to make open offices much more manageable.
Here are some tips for managing your life in an open office:
1. Establish rules
Don’t assume that people have the same problems with the open plan that you do. Maybe you’re sensitive to that guy speaking loudly on the phone, but your overpowering perfume is giving your neighbor a headache. This is where establishing and following a shared set of rules makes everyone’s lives easier. Rules might include not eating crunchy or smelly foods at your desk (think popcorn and tuna melts), not wearing perfume or cologne, not putting your phone on speaker, and respecting the headphone rule (which I’ll talk more about below).
When we moved, I had the distinct feeling that everyone walking by was looking at what I was doing. I’m the type of person that doesn’t want people to see my unfinished work, so the idea that people would potentially have access to my projects mid-process was stressful. I felt exposed and uncomfortable.
But after a few weeks, I realized two things: First, the majority of other people feel the same way, and second, no one is looking at your screen! Everyone is busy and has better things to be doing — like their own work.
3. De-clutter your desk
Part of moving to an open plan is making the workforce more mobile. The goal is to get people moving around, interacting, and thinking creatively. It’s hard to feel mobile when your desk has a pile of 3 year old paperwork on it. Get rid of it! Some people have records they need to keep for legal or other reasons — consider scanning and keeping digital files if possible.
It’s not just paperwork, either. One of the first things I noticed when we moved was how many chotchkies I had in my old space, just to fill it. In an open plan, you likely just have a desk space and maybe a small drawer, so keep a few things to personalize your space (for me, that’s a few small plants and a digital picture frame) but other than that, keep things clear.
4. Use your headphones
The most important rule of the open office is the headphone rule. It’s simple: If someone is wearing headphones, that means they’re in the zone and shouldn’t be interrupted. If they have one headphone in and one out, you can approach.
This will help if you are frequently distracted by people walking up to your desk and asking you questions (work-related or not). But if you have more of an issue with the ambient noise of an open office, consider investing in some noise-cancelling headphones.
5. Don’t be a victim
Because the office is a shared space, there will be times when people aren’t respectful of their noise level. Maybe it’s a visitor who isn’t used to open plans, or maybe it’s just someone who’s blissfully unaware of the etiquette. Remember — their loud speaking voice is not a personal affront against you, and complaining about it loudly to the people around you is likely even more distracting than the original offense.
If you are feeling truly distracted by this person, don’t feel bad about asking them to quiet down. But keep in mind, there’s no need to be rude about it. They’re not doing it on purpose, and when you bring it up, they’ll probably be embarrassed – so no need to add insult to injury and yell at them.
6. Remember, it’s not the end of the world
It takes some getting used to, but open floor plans aren’t all bad. One of my favorite parts about an open plan is that it’s more egalitarian. In a traditional setting, the office VIPs got the corner offices and could hog all of the natural light. Now, I get to share the benefits.