In my work with both companies and individuals over the past few years, the issue of open plan offices has arisen frequently in the conversations. Mostly, people have told me how they are difficult places to work in. A quick google search on the possible merits of this style of office concern themselves with the very practical point that it is a more efficient use of space and that more people can be accommodated in this manner rather than in separate offices. There is also mention of the possiblity of increased connection between people and that it allows for more collaboration.
However, the down side is that it doesn’t suit everyone and that it can stymie productivity and creativity and be quite uncomfortable for some people. One man in his late 50’s told me how he had really enjoyed his work all his life and he had progressed through his career to finally merit an office of his own. He clearly was a highly motivated and hard working individual who worked well in the privacy of his own office. Now, he was being moved and he felt he really couldn’t cope with an open plan office and having people sit next to him or across from him. He had no idea how he’d get anything done and was thinking of leaving or retiring early to cope with this change and he certainly needed help!
In my recent work with one Irish company that have invested quite a significant financial resources into open plan offices, yet it appeared that this was to the regret of a significant proportion of staff members; I did some work to faciliate them getting the best out of this new arrangement.
The approach I worked with was:
1)Support staff to acknowledge and recognise there are issues.
Firstly to identify that this arrangement may not suit everyone and that some will find it threatening and not conducive to getting anything done. However, if you’re new to a job or ambitious in terms of your career it may not be strategic to air your grievances about the work setting. It can be such a relief to have a problem aired and realise you are not the only one finding something difficult.
2) Get specific about the particular issues for this team?
The issues are generally both practical as well as psychological and emotional.
The practical issues are often around the difficulties in concentrating with other noises and voices and general distractions in the background. It can be helpful to have these aired and support the group to come up with their own solutions. Some of these solutions have been to utilise break out rooms when the office is noisy or when a delicate or difficult telephone call needs to be made that requires careful attention. One staff member excitedly proposed that in future her was going to wear headphones at his desk to both answer calls but also to block out background noise. It is important that staff are supported to feel free to do what they need to manage the environment and that their colleagues and managers understand this.
Some open plan offices are open to the public and whilst this can be very customer friendly, it can mean that it can be very difficult to be productive if customers are walking in and wanting to have a discussion there and then. It can be useful for employees to discuss this and decide how to handle this in their particular office . Some proposed that they take it in turns to attend customers rather than leave it to whoever has the friendliest face! Others that they use the “break-out” rooms when needing to attend to a particular task requiring concentrated effort.
Some of the psychological / emotional issues I have heard often are that people can feel that they are being both observed and perhaps monitored by peers or others who are more senior to them. This feeling may not actually be accurate but nevertheless this can be the subjective experience of some staff. This may provoke feelings of inadequacy, that they are being judged or indeed that people realise that really they are not very good at what they do. This has been well documented elsewhere as the “imposter syndrome” and it can be very supportive for people to have the opportunity to begin to share how they feel. However the level of openness and disclosure, does need to be managed and group members are best to disclose only what they are comfortable with and what they want others to know. It can be very reassuring to realise that others may have some of the feelings you have such as fear of judgement and feeling inadequate. Some of these personal issues can also be brought to a one-to-one session with a counsellor for support and help with clarifying what really is going on versus what they might subjectively feel is going on. This could mean that whilst someone may perceive they are being scrutinised, in reality they are aware of being very under confident in the work and so their perception is skewed.
Having identified the issues specifically related to these individuals we set to finding solutions. People feel much better when listened to and also are then more ready to participate in finding a solution. It can be so useful to support people to identify what is the culture, how do things function, what are the issues and what are the best ways to address them. The group think on this is always better than the individual.
Most importantly, in my view, these discussions are opportunities to better communication and collboration within the team and a trained facilitator can ensure the “space” is held and that employees feel safe enough to speak about their experiences. Feedback on this piece of work is that staff felt the atmosphere had improved and also that they were better able to address further issues as they arose.