2 Mar 2023

Open Plan Office Etiquette

Regimented lines of cubicles, head-high partitions or rooms with firmly closed doors have been confined to office history. Nowadays, most offices are designed on open plan principles: colleagues are visible and accessible to each other, encouraging conversation, collaboration and creativity.

But the shared communal space throws up many challenges relating to privacy, territoriality and distractions, and these need to be negotiated with the help of consideration and good manners. Follow our open plan recommendations for a happier, more productive shared working space:

Arranging an Open Plan Office

• Work the layout

It will be counter-productive if you cluster all the desks together in large blocs in the centre of the working space. It is better to create ‘pods’ of up to four desks (or shared tables seating up to four colleagues), with lots of passage space between them. This will ensure that workers get up and move around, and easy access will encourage them to walk over to their colleagues’ desks for conversation and consultation, rather than shouting across the office and distracting everyone.

• Create dedicated spaces

Think carefully about how people work together and create spaces away from their desks and the communal area that will accommodate them. You may need to have a formal meeting room with a whiteboard and closing door; alternatively, you may simply need to hive off an area of the office where colleagues can gather around a table to brainstorm, chat or exchange ideas.  Maybe it is a good idea to have a ‘quiet space’, where colleagues who want to concentrate can sit with their laptops or notebooks away from background chatter. The important thing is to ensure that team collaborations take place in a dedicated space, which will encourage focus and concentration.

• Separate the Kitchen

Everyone enjoys taking a break, making a cup of coffee, heating up their lunch and enjoying a casual chat with colleagues. It’s time out from the working day, so it shouldn’t be allowed to intrude on working space. Don’t take the open plan aspiration too far; ensure that the kitchen stands apart.

• Respect Privacy

One of the disadvantages of open plan offices is that people’s screens are visible, and employees can feel scrutinised or spied upon. Think about sight lines when you’re positioning desks and computers and try to offset seating positions so that co-workers are not staring at each other or looking straight at a colleague’s screen.

Once you’ve got the open plan layout right, the success or failure of your office is very much down to the behaviour of your employees. For a communal working place to succeed, they will need to be conscious of other people and considerate about how they behave:

Office Etiquette for Open Plan Workers

• Keep a Tidy Desk

Your workspace is on full view in an open plan office so it’s a good idea to eliminate teetering piles of files and papers, dirty coffee cups or overflowing in-trays. Try and ensure your desk is as empty as possible when you leave it each night ­– remember, people will read unsightly clutter as a telling sign of disorganisation and disarray.

• Don’t be a Noise Nuisance

You may love listening to music or podcasts as you work, but if you do so ensure that you are wearing efficient headphones or earbuds and that no sound is leaking out. Moderate the volume of your voice and don’t shout across the office. Don’t listen to voicemail messages by speakerphone. If you’ve got to make an important phone call or you’re having a video meeting, politely warn your colleagues, and reciprocate by respecting your colleagues’ pleas for silence.

• Don’t be the Office Chatterbox

It’s great to chat with colleagues, to be friendly and interested in their lives. But you must be very aware of the time and the place and ensure that you’re not keeping them from their work or distracting them when they’re trying to concentrate. Attempting to minimise distraction by having whispered conversations is never a good idea – no matter how innocuous the chat, onlookers will begin to feel paranoid and targeted.

• Don’t Eavesdrop

Inevitably, in an open plan office you will be able to hear your neighbours’ conversations. You may be able to switch off from them, but if you do hear something (when they’re talking on the phone or with another colleague) the convention is that you don’t give the game away by reacting to what is being said. Open plan offices can leave people feeling over-exposed, so it is vitally important that colleagues respect each other’s privacy.

• Avoid Smelly Foods

You’re in a shared space, so if you’re inclined to indulge in greasy burgers or last night’s heated-up curry, spare a thought for near neighbours. If your lunch smells pungent it will permeate the atmosphere and your colleagues may find your food odours invasive or repulsive.

• Take it Outside

Try to avoid forcing your near neighbours to witness unfolding personal soap operas. If you’re experiencing a personal drama or crisis, especially something that involves endless phone calls, try and remove yourself from the communal area – explain to your boss if need be.

• Stay Alert and Observant

Keep an eye on your neighbours and ensure that you are not invading their space or distracting them needlessly. Ideally, you shouldn’t have to wait for them to plead for silence – if you can see they’re making an important call, moderate your voice or take a tea-break to give them privacy.


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