Here’s the cold, hard truth: The days of four walls and a door are, for the majority of workers, over.
Forget even semi-private cubicle partitions—in today’s modern, so-called open-plan offices, colleagues are working side by side, on connected desks in large loft-like spaces.
Historically, “It’s a real switch in the way that many companies have worked,” says Amy Stoldt, vice president of human resources at Peloton Cycle. “[Open settings] promote collaboration, sharing ideas, and it makes meetings so much easier.” Perhaps that’s why nearly 70 percent of US offices have some type of open plan, according to the International Facility Management Association.
Stoldt’s point is a fair one. And while the thought of bumping elbows with your future boss might have you panicked, there are proven ways to successfully navigate the inevitable challenges that arise when working in an open floor plan.
1. Invest in a pair of headphones.
Whether it’s your neighbor’s gum chewing or heated personal phone calls within earshot, managing distraction can be one of the greatest challenges of working side by side. One easy trick to maintaining peace and quiet? Noise-cancelling headphones.
“It’s an unwritten rule in our office,” Stoldt says. “Headphones mean, ‘I’m not available.’” For many, a pair of earbuds keeps loud neighbors at bay. Others choose to go big with padded headphones—they’re much more effective for detracting would-be interrupters.
2. Bid goodbye to office hierarchy.
Implicit in the all-for-one, open setting is a company’s neutral perspective on boss versus worker bee power dynamics. The CEO might have a small office for sensitive meetings, but on the whole, higher-ups are working among the masses like everyone else.
In short, companies are prioritizing transparency over privacy. Case in point: The glass-walled conference rooms that characterize many open-plan offices give new meaning to meeting “behind closed doors.”
“To be out in the open, you have to trust people,” says Lisa Campagne, a sales manager at LinkedIn. “If a company hasn’t moved to an open floor plan by now, that signals to me that they’re not innovative or open to new trends.”
With executive staff meetings and computer monitors all on display, open settings promote accountability for all—a tenet many modern-day employees are eager to get behind.
3. Embrace a new way of getting things done.
One good thing about being able to stand up from your chair and lay eyes on five departments at once? It can be easier to hunt down colleagues or snag a sign-off on a project.
“I know this sounds weird because it’s so distracting,” Stoldt says. “But it’s actually easier to get decisions made.”
The open, collaborative setting can also be a boon for creative teams who benefit from being able to bounce ideas off one another with ease.
“We’re on sales calls constantly, so everyone is pitching or selling,” Campagne says. “When you hear other people making calls, it can inspire you to try [conducting business] in a different way.”
4. Enjoy making conference calls—in bed.
For some companies, super-tight working conditions in the office can come with an attractive incentive: greater work-from-home flexibility. Consider it an olive branch to workers who don’t operate as efficiently with distraction at a level nine. Managers get it: neighbors are just an arm’s length away, and there’s little space for storing your commuting shoes—or organizing your thoughts.
These days, many offices or departments bake WFH days right into the schedule.
“It helps to have a set day in order to manage expectations,” Stoldt says. In other words, workers are invited to select the work-from-home day that works best for them. Once that’s ironed out, the team will adjust to the fact that, say, Amy works remotely on Thursdays or Lisa’s on email on Wednesday.
5. Be aware of your personal tics.
If you aren’t already aware of your toe-tapping habit, there’s a chance you’ll find out stat upon entering an open-plan workspace. And on the flip, if you fall on the neurotic spectrum or tend to be hyper-aware of surroundings, be prepared to hone your skills of diplomacy.
“I say, if it’s music, perfume, food—just address it head on,” Campagne says. “Although, with food, people need to be open to the fact that people eat food from all different cultures.”
Your best bet in these thorny situations? Keep it honest, but direct. Pick a quiet time when you’re equipped to deliver your request with tact and restraint (and at a reasonable volume), rather than snapping in the heat of the moment. The last thing you want is to let loose with grievances that have been piling up for months.
“Something highly personal, like body odor issues, can be a challenging thing to address,” Campagne admits. “I’ve dealt with this for over twenty years in the workforce and I have never been able to find a ‘good’ way.” In cases like this, relying on HR to do your dirty work might be advisable.