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6 tips for creating an open office that works

3 min read


Laura Sherbin and Karen Sumberg made a compelling case for killing the cube farm in a guest post on Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s blog. They’re right, of course, that knocking down the cubicle walls can encourage more conversation and foster team cohesiveness — that is, unless everyone gets on each other’s nerves. It isn’t enough to just pull out all the walls. Open work spaces are the norm in newsrooms, and I’ve spent most of my career working in such an environment. Here are my five tips for maximizing productivity in an office without walls.

  • Consider the acoustics. An office without walls needs higher-quality furnishings — and possibly a very different ceiling — than you had before. Before you start hauling off the cubicles, consider hiring a workplace ergonomics consultant. Or at least make sure you understand the principles of noise reduction.
  • Create a quiet-time policy. Many workplaces have regular busy times when most workers really need to focus. At my former employer, The Washington Post, it’s evenings. At SmartBrief, it’s early in the mornings. Pay attention to your workers’ natural work rhythms, and give new hires clear instructions before they start work. Really, this is basic office etiquette, but an open floor plan magnifies the violations.
  • Ask before you interrupt. Just because you can see someone doesn’t mean they’re available to chat. Pay close attention to body language before asking a question, and use IM or e-mail to schedule nonurgent conversations.
  • Maintain private areas where people can have sensitive conversations. Some business needs to happen behind closed doors. Up until a few months ago, the head of editorial at SmartBrief worked amid her staff in an open office. It was great for camaraderie, but it was awkward when it came time to have confidential conversations. Nothing like whispering your way through salary negotiations with prospective hires. She has a private office now, and we’re happier for it.
  • Set up a welcoming group work space. I know, you thought that was supposed to happen organically when you took down all the cube walls, but it doesn’t work that way. Most of the time, people will be working independently, but sometimes they need to work together in a focused way. Make sure people have easy access to flexible work spaces where they can brainstorm, hold conference calls, teach each other how to use computer programs, etc.
  • Realize that not everyone is going to like it. In fact, a LOT of your workers aren’t going to like it. Or as one blogger put it: “Open-plan offices are the modern equivalent of working in an 18th century cotton mill. Really, the only major difference today is that you are slightly less likely to lose a hand to a machine or get stabbed in the head by something.”

Image credit, arattansi, via iStock