How to Survive in an Open-Plan Office (and Keep your Sanity)

How to Survive in an Open-Plan Office (and Keep your Sanity)
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The Office was like a Bombsite

New workers were literally setting up their desks in the corridor. Files and papers were everywhere.

The contrast between the conditions for people who had offices with windows, those without natural light, and those with no real space of their own was getting embarrassing. A decision was made to convert the office into an open-plan environment.

That decision was greeted with mixed responses, mostly based on who would win and who would lose under the new set-up.

But, after the change, which took place over one weekend, there was something of a carnival atmosphere in the workplace for a while. Most colleagues genuinely liked each other, and it was fun to have people close at hand. But it didn’t take long for some of the negatives to become apparent.

Stress Stalks the Workplace

People started talking about ‘sick building syndrome’.

That is something that has been ‘officially’ noticed about open-plan work places. According to the Health and Safety Executive, open-plan offices with more than ten work stations have been cited as a possible risk factor in sick building syndrome. People tend to experience an undefined sense of ‘not being well’. An obvious explanation is stress.


As early as November 2004, the UK Association of University Teachers, now the UCU, was raising concerns in a document presented to the management of the University of Sussex. The document notes “noise distraction” and a “lack of privacy”, and warns:

“The argument that open-plan offices enable easier intellectual interaction between colleagues is exploded by the protocol of having to keep silent so as not to disturb colleagues.” (Times Higher Educational Supplement)

So, my colleagues who complained about feeling ‘out of sorts’ were in good company. There is a problem. Open plan working is stressful.

Here are some survival strategies.

And the Top 10 Tips?

  • Suggest a staff meeting to discuss general rules that should be observed regarding considerate behavior, without singling anyone out. Try to agree informal rules. Arrange a follow-up in a couple of weeks for people to report back on compliance and any new issues. It is obviously important to keep the discussion general. It will relieve stress to some extent just to have a forum for discussion, and to know that others have similar feelings.

  • Leave the office at lunchtime, circumstances permitting. This will give you not only fresh air, but relief from the stress of the office and a sense of perspective.

  • Be aware that you raise your voice during phone calls (everybody does this), and make a big effort to conquer the habit, or to take the calls to a private space. You can leave the phone on voicemail and get the calls back at a certain time, which can be mentioned in your voice-mail greeting. Make sure the management knows that a separate space for calls is necessary. Make a list of calls you need to make so you can do as many as possible in one trip, away from the open plan area. It is stressful to be overheard as well as to overhear. Obviously if you work in a call-centre that will not be possible.

  • Take private conversations with colleagues outside the open plan space, or at least go over to people’s work stations rather than shouting across the room. This should be obvious, but it can be tempting to take the lazy way out.

  • Make notes of things you need to say to people and save them up, don’t just say them when they pop into your head.

  • Use any relevant technology, like headsets for phone calls. If it’s practical use a headset to listen to music for at least some of the day.

  • Take frequent short ‘long weekend’ type breaks as opposed to saving up your holidays, where possible. Your stress levels shouldn’t build up so much if you can always look forward to a break, even a short one, not too far away in the future.

  • Make your space as pleasant as you can. You haven’t got your own office and you feel like a homeless street-dweller. A tidy, pleasant space with plants and photos will make you happier. It’s true.

  • Make a conscious effort to be tolerant. It isn’t easy for anyone.

  • Be aware that you are a nuisance too, but don’t let it get you down. You are all in the same boat; that of modern office life.

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-17031-0004, Bergarbeiter bohrend

The above ideas on surviving in an open plan office are gleaned from my own experience and that of my colleagues, and I hope you find them useful. Remember, it may be stressful but it’s (probably) better than working down the mine.



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