How to Stay Positive About an Open Work Space

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I never thought I would work in an office, let alone in a government one. Since being hired I have occupied a giant gray cubicle with lights so harsh I requested building services unscrew the bulbs. The cubicle walls were so high I couldn’t see over the top without wearing heels. The windows were blocked by office walls and other cubicles. To say it didn’t inspire teamwork or innovation is an understatement.

That gray cubicle is now being dismantled; I have been displaced to the third floor while construction is underway. When it is finished the space will have a completely different feel to it, an open feel. I will have a desk where I can sit or stand to work. My team’s meeting areas will be greater in number and better equipped. Natural light will filter in above the shorter cubicle walls. Sounds like a dream, doesn’t it? I love the idea of open work spaces because I am focused on the positives. While it certainly brings some logistical challenges and potential morale deflators, most of these have easy solutions.

1. An office is a status symbol, just like the cubicles with windows. If you’re an office-dweller who is transplanted to a cubicle, it can feel like a demotion. Try to counteract this by reminding yourself why you do what you do. If that doesn’t work, start a new project you are passionate about to distract yourself from your loss.

2. Paranoia sets in. Everyone is watching when you come and go. If I’m being honest, some people probably are taking mental notes of your time away, but there is no need to announce when you’re going to grab a cup of coffee or go to lunch. Unless you’re offering to pick something up for me, in which case, please let me know!

3. Many government employees spend a lot of time on conference calls. Once you are in an open work space, it is common courtesy not to take those calls on speakerphone at your desk; it will disrupt everyone around you. Instead you could have the call on a day you normally telework or schedule a small conference room in which you can take the call. If you want to truly embrace the collaborative environment, check with your colleagues to see if others are participating in the call and invite them to the conference room.

4. As people work we collect things: things that are meaningful, things that are funny, things that we use. If your personal work space is downsized, where will it all go? You are going to have to eliminate some of your things. Be mindful. Don’t just throw everything away and don’t dump everything on a table assuming others will want your partially dried out highlighters. Recycle outdated manuals and return unused office supplies.

5. The number of people wearing headphones will likely increase. How do you get their attention without scaring them? Waving your hands behind them will not work unless they happen to turn around. Lightly touching their chair or shoulder works well but that will startle some people. If you’re constantly needing to get a chronic headphone user’s attention, ask him/her what he/she prefers.

6. It’s going to be noisy! Well…that one is just a fact.

Change can be scary. If you’re not looking forward to it, try switching your focus from the unknowns that are potentially awful, to those that are potentially awesome: further team development, an uncluttered area, and don’t forget about that natural lighting! This could be the jolt you and your team need to infuse your work with creativity and collaboration!

And maybe it’s time to invest in a pair of good headphones.

Jocelyn is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Mark Hammer

There are some things you just don’t leave up to economists, civil engineers or purchasing agents. My sense is that a great many public-sector workspaces are designed with other things in mind than how an organization functions best.
In fairness, many workplaces can predate our awakening to the relationship between workspace design and human interaction, and in some instances an organization can be in such constant flux that designing in anticipation of how people there work always leaves you behind the curve. But even when buildings and workspaces are more recent, or more recently revised, and made specifically for an organization, they can often pay far more attention to matters like footprint-per-employee than to how people interact with each other.
One of the more intriguing books I’ve read in recent years is this one: http://www.amazon.com/Enabling-Knowledge-Creation-Mystery-Innovation/dp/0195126165 One of the points they make in the book is that innovation can be aided by the design and layout of workspaces. They present several fascinating examples of companies known for their innovation, and examine the layout of their workplaces.
While presently back to an actual office in a different organization, I spent a year in an open workspace as part of an organization that had been cubicle-world for much of its history, before our move. Initially, the workplace was dead quiet, as if there were concrete walls separating us, rather than the waist-height baffles, or standing-height baffles we had previously had. After about 4 months, things started to loosen up, and by 6 months in, we were holding group conversations across pods spanning 20ft or more. It shifted from very insular to rather noisy.
As you note, conversations can be a problem at times. The solution was to accord several rooms specifically for conversations, conference calls, and personal calls.
One of the unanticipated issues was that of people’s computer screens being exposed to passersby. In some instances, people worked with confidential personal information, and were justifiably concerned about the degree of exposure. Polarized “privacy” screen filters helped, but not always enough, and folks would need to be moved. My wife was working in an open-concept office, and had the misfortune to have her pod near the men’s washroom. Thankfully, no evidence of what took place inside the door found its way outside the door, but she had a pretty good idea of how effectively everyone’s bladder functioned. So there can be unanticipated privacy issues emerging from such open spaces.
Your point about headphones is spot on. Although quite honestly these days headphones are as de rigeur an article of apparel as glasses. We were offered noise-cancelling headphones, and many took up the offer. If you are unfamiliar with them, noise-cancelling headphones have small microphones in each earpiece that “hear” what is going on around you, and electronically invert what they hear, to be fed to the earphones. Your ear essentially senses whatever is going on around you, acoustically, plus its’ opposite (via the earpieces), and they physically cancel out. The system is not perfect, but it does reduce ambient sounds significantly; moreso among the higher-priced units. Although people are more familiar with wearing them to listen to music, you don’t actually have to have them plugged into anything for them to reduce ambient noise. They “work” but one is glad to remove them, and the startle factor is ever present, as you correctly note.
The reduced personal space In such open-concept workplaces tends to leave you without anything, or at least very much, that you can call your own. Very reminiscent of what happens when seniors move to a nursing home, and can only personalize their living space with a few small framed pictures, and table radio. That said, some folks do find a way to make their little pod visibly their own,

Susan Stigers

Thank you for your tips! Being an “auditory” person, sometimes it is very hard to concentrate in open environment with an ear that hears e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. Sometimes people think the want of less auditory distraction means a person is an introvert (I am an extravert), while they may just have a different learning and working style. Headphones for me can mean a sing-along distraction and just wearing them as an “accessory” is awkward and uncomfortable. We would do better in business if we did less “one-size-fits-all” and sought tools that fit the worker. Your practical tips and advice helps me concentrate on what I can control and enjoy about an open office space.

Profile Photo Jocelyn

Susan, that’s very true. Employers and employees alike need to be more creative because people are their most productive in different environments. I didn’t think of how distracting music can be to some; for me it’s my saving grace when everyone’s in the office. Good luck in your work space!