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Your Open-Plan Office Is Probably Missing This One Important Thing

Just make sure to keep it “quiet”

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BY Gene Marks - 03 Jan 2019

open-office plan

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

I just don't understand how you open-plan people do it.

The thought of working all day just a few inches away from other people gives me the willies. I wouldn't know how to behave. Don't their phone conversations distract you? When is it rude to ignore someone? Doesn't listening to your office mate's criticism of anyone who's not vegan get on your nerves? How do you put up with that guy who sits across from you and eats the same tuna salad sandwich every single freaking day?

If this describes your work environment I certainly sympathize. But take heart - relief may be on the way.

Open-plan offices were a popular 20th century thing (you've seen those endless rows of typists in photos like these, right?). That was until the end of the century when people wised-up and built walls around their cubicles that would make even our President proud.

Unfortunately, that trend only lasted for a few quick decades. Now, those walls have come down, and both big and small companies have re-adopted open-plan environments, citing research that shows how these setups improve productivity. But challenges (like the increased chances of a sexual harassment incident?) still persist.

"There's a recognition that the general adoption of open-office plans results in as many challenges as it provides solutions," Kristen Scott, managing partner of Seattle-based architecture and design firm Weber Thompson told the Seattle Times. "While great for transparency and communication, it can result in spaces that are challenging to focus in." Scott is very politely saying that yes, occasionally, and with all due respect: your eating habits are annoying me!

The thing is that people are still people and like most people you and your employees probably wouldn't mind a little time away from...well...other people. That's why the new open-plan office trend now includes a closed office. Yes, a closed office. It can be as small as a phone booth, as Inc's John Brandon recently wrote. Or it can be an entire space which we'll diplomatically call a "quiet room."

To help employees deal with these "challenges" - and get a little space from their workmates, a growing number of companies are now making sure quiet rooms are part of their open-plan office design. And make no mistake...these rooms are not an after-thought. They oftentimes incorporate specialized, mood-setting lighting, sleek tables, a comfortable chair or too and a small sofa to "meditate" (translation: nap) for 15 minutes or so.

"We have created spaces that are open and free-flowing for information sharing, casual spaces for connecting with one another, and private spaces for quiet introspection and deep thinking," said Courtney Burdette, the facilities operations and design lead for ecommerce software maker Shopify in the Seattle Times article.

Of course the challenge is making sure there's a system in place to make sure the room is fairly scheduled and that Peggy from accounting doesn't monopolize it. Plus, there's always the urge to use that space for storage or other "non-essential" functions and when the office gets too cramped there's a strong likelihood that the "quiet room" will be the first to go. Resist that urge!

Look, I get it. My company is completely virtual. Everyone works from home. It's kept my overhead low. But then again we have a very dysfunctional culture. If I were to bring everyone back into an office environment I'm sure I'd be strong-armed into an open space plan. But I can guarantee you that a "quiet room" would be part of it. Just be careful...that "quiet room" may soon just turn into "Gene's room" if I happen to even smell even a hint of tuna salad. Go ahead, try me.

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