How to work best in an open plan environment

Open plan has been under attack for a while now. While it saves space and fits a lot of people into less space, the wanted benefits of “cross communication” and informationsharing has turned out to be more a source of disturbance and not allowing people to get into a state of concentration and focus (The entrepreneur among others).

Hugo Gernsback “invented” this device in 1925 as an aid to concentration.   He reasoned as follows :  When working, the main problem is distraction, so if you can isolate the individual 100% from all possible surrounding influences, then he or she will be able to give their full attention to the task on hand. (source).

According to Atlassian it takes 16 minutes to refocus. This could be after checking mails or pop-up messages, but also after being disturbed directly or indirectly by colleagues.

Picture from

But open plan will probably not disappear anytime soon, so what can be done to deal with the downsides of this type of layout? Gensler has 10 tips to improve your workday in an open plan environment. Listet in short below (read the full blog post here):

  1. Plan out your day (move around depending on the task at hand)
  2. Reduce your storage (clean and tidy desk liberates)
  3. Balance accessibility and distractions
  4. Take phone calls in the open (if they are not confidential). I must add here that if you talk loud (like I do) moving away from others may lessen the disturbance of you getting or making a call – confidential or not. Might be better for you to stay, but not necessarily for others.
  5. Having confidential conversations (many may be able to ears drop, just remember that).
  6. Using space to manage availability (do focused work away from the desk if space is available).
  7. Encourage informal meetings when it makes sense (often meeting rooms are scarce, so use open collaborative areas in stead when possible and appropriate.
  8. Coach each other (share what works for you and try to have open dialogue about “rules”).
  9. Use the opportunity to strengthen the culture of your team.
  10. Lead by example

All people are different and some thrive better in open plan environments than others. One size does NOT fit all. Remember to respect you co-workers, what works for you, may not work for them. Also an open dialogue and “permission” to speak up if change is needed is imperative to make open plan work.

Like the Gensler blog implies, things can be done to the office to make the open plan work better. Providing rooms for skype meetings and phone calls, having areas for informal meetings, having areas for focused work. This would mean people should move to a location suiting the task before them (Activity Based Working) and this may take a while to get used to, but the alternative is maybe lower productivity and happiness in the whole workforce.

Alternative work and meeting places in the center of the building – for all to use. Picture from

What can be done to improve your workplace?

4 Replies to “How to work best in an open plan environment”

  1. 31% of employees in open offices say they hold back their true thoughts and opinions while on calls in the office because they don’t want co-workers to hear and judge them. Large companies already struggle with employees speaking up or voicing their concerns when they disagree with others on projects or initiatives. Giving employees yet another reason not to voice opinions is definitely a step backwards, not only for employee engagement but also for being innovative. 1 in 3 workers feel distractions and noise from open work spaces hinder their productivity, while 1 in 6 say it hinders creativity as well.

    1. You are so very right Patrick, but many things can be done to do to improve this. But first the issue must be addressed and the problem accepted – then we can work on solutions and how to avoid this huge loss of innovation, creativity and productivity.

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