By Jacquelyn Smith
The phrase "my door is always open" is becoming extinct in the workplace, as fewer and fewer people have actual offices with actual doors.
According to a survey from CoreNet Global, an association for commercial real estate managers, about 81% of companies in North America have adopted an open-space floor plan. And a recent New York Times article pointed out that the average amount of space per office worker has dropped from 225 square feet in 2010, to 176 in 2012, due primarily to rising real estate costs.
And with less privacy and personal space come greater challenges - especially for workers who aren't accustomed to open floor plans.
"Baby Boomers, for instance, grew up with a 'private office culture' where the pursuit of the corner office and rise up the org chart went hand-in-hand," says Lynn Taylor, a national workplace expert and the author of "Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant: How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior and Thrive in Your Job." "When this generation of people started their jobs in corporate America, open areas were typically reserved for administrative professionals - a stark contrast to today's more democratized floor plan."
Shared spaces, which are now pervasive, can take a toll on everyone's productivity (not just the baby boomers'), she says. "Besides the feeling of being cramped, with disruptive nearby conversations that you shouldn't hear or don't want to hear, smaller, open work spaces can have broader implications," she explains.
"Depending on their industry, many employees need quiet time built into their day, and without it, their productivity can suffer. Someone handling complex data, financials, or writing an in-depth strategic document is often best served to find a private conference room for those tasks, assuming the employer has built that into the space," says Taylor. "But moving to different locations and losing one's train of thought can be counterproductive, as much as it is a reflection of the times."
Of course, the open office also offers some benefits.
For example, these environments are known for promoting a more team-based culture and encouraging a more collaborative atmosphere.
But if you find it difficult to focus (and thrive) in an open office, here are some things you can do:
1. Take advantage of private conference rooms.
Hopefully, management has set aside such refuge areas to allow occasional personal calls or projects that require in-depth thinking. "Just be respectful to the written or unwritten rules of its use," says Taylor.
2. Use the golden rule with your colleagues.
Don't talk on the phone loudly or eat smelly foods if you wouldn't want your desk neighbor to do the same.
"Give your coworkers the same courtesy you expect," says Taylor.
When you lead by example, you'll help create a better environment for everyone.
3. Don't invade your neighbor's territory.
"Not only noise can be invasive - and that includes any form of music," Taylor explains, "but encroaching on their physical space with your belongings can be, as well."
4. Communicate openly.
If your coworker seems oblivious to the fact that the large open space is not his or her personal office, have a kind and diplomatic discussion so you can find common ground, she says. "Try not to escalate matters by going to a supervisor unless you have to."
5. Use a headset.
This is the least obtrusive way to go about your business when you really need to eliminate noise and distraction. "Noise cancelling headphones are even better," says Taylor. "If you work in a highly collaborative environment, you might post a mini-placard during those times with a friendly note about a deadline or when you'll be free."
6. Be patient.
Your environment may be new to you, but with time, you'll likely find a way to manage the challenges. "Try different approaches to see what works," she advises. "You may benefit by working during your lunch hour at the local coffee house if you can't find a private office for needed sanity."
7. Don't complain to your boss.
Don't expect your boss to restructure the entire floor plan just for you, especially if those around you seem content. "Instead, try to come up with a solution to any challenges you're facing on your own," says Taylor. Experiment with dividers and headphones, and talk with colleagues about ways to improve the environment for everyone.
8. Leverage the situation.
Take advantage of the benefits. Keep your eyes and ears open to what's going on in the company; approach those on the team when it's a good time; and observe how successful people operate, suggests Taylor.
"As is often the case, it's what you do about a situation more than the situation itself," she says. "Empower yourself to make the open office work for your needs. If you have extenuating circumstances where you require space that's seemingly unavailable, ask your boss for that occasional privilege - and offer your thanks."