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5 Tips to Make the Best of an Open Office

Open officeA vast, open office space without doors or interior walls. Sleek, floor-to-ceiling glass windows. An office dog, unlimited free snacks, and maybe some music. Sounds fun, right? For years, spurred by the second tech revolution (Facebook, Google and their ilk of Silicon Valley giants), open-office floor plans — and some of the above-mentioned perks — grew in popularity. But if you actually talk to the employees who have to work in these offices, you might find they aren’t the halcyon spaces that were intended.

The open floor plan was envisioned as a way to break down the ever-present office silos and spur collaboration, creativity and promote group problem-solving. While in some industries (think of Peggy Olson and crew in the creative lounge in “Mad Men”) this is necessary, in many others it has simply made it harder for employees to get anything done. In fact, recent studies suggest open offices hinder employees’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking and satisfaction. But why?

People feel exposed. Barriers — be they office doors, cubes or other structures — create a sense of privacy, and privacy can boost job performance. Beyond all of that, for many it simply comes down to noise. There are a great number of people who need quiet to concentrate. They don’t want to hear coworkers talking on the phone with a client or their child’s school, crunching on a mid-afternoon bag of pretzels, or listen to their neighbor’s Pandora station, regardless of how low he’s playing the music. A recent AICPA discussion on LinkedIn and Facebook indicates CPAs are not especially fond of open floor plans. To put it bluntly, the majority of respondents to the poll indicated they either greatly dislike working in an open office, or hope that they never have to. However, while there was some acknowledgement that time spent in an open office area is good for collaboration and brainstorming, isn’t ideal when you need to “drill down.”

What is your experience with open office spaces?

What can you do if you work in an open office environment?

1. Get quality noise-canceling headphones. Not only will they block out noise, they will indicate to your colleagues that you are not to be disturbed.

2. Designate “Focus Hours.” Speak with your organization about designating certain hours of the day as quiet hours so employees can focus.

3. Work remotely when possible. If you have a big project and need to focus, see if you can arrange to work from home while you complete the project.

4. Make phone calls elsewhere. No one wants to have to speak at top volume on the phone to be heard over the thrum of an open office. And your coworkers don’t want to hear you shouting into the phone.

5. Find ways to embrace the chaos. Get to know your neighbors. Be open to the possibility that an open concept will, in fact, lead to the generation of a new idea or solution to an existing problem.

How is your office structured? What is your ideal work set up? Tell us in the comments.

Lauren J. Sternberg, Communications Manager-American Institute of CPAs.

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