Open plan work environments are the norm in most organisations. Some are ‘hot-desking’ where your workstation is allocated fresh daily. But how can you and your colleagues make the most of this environment without causing undue distraction?

“Open plan environments are flexible, positively encouraging conversation, and for many an enjoyable part of working life. But inevitably, noise levels increase, particularly when combined with distractions such as impromptu meetings, distribution of birthday cakes and the background clatter of printers and photocopiers in use.

And it has to be said, open plan working isn’t universally popular. The chatter, people walking past and increased interruptions sometimes causes loss of concentration, frustration and reduced productivity for some.

But, since most of us don’t choose where we’re going to work on our first day in a new job, we adapt to the environment quickly. These ‘”open plan working etiquette'” tips can help make this easier, and ensure you don’t finish each day with a raging headache.

Telephones are almost certainly the worst offender in any open plan environment, as a phone left ringing is difficult to ignore.

One simple thing we could all do today to make a big difference to overall noise level would be to lower the volume of our telephone ring. Most of us forget to adjust it, and it usually doesn’t need to be so loud when we’re sitting close by.

When at work, switch your personal mobile phone to silent or vibrate mode to avoid distracting personal calls. Better still,; switch it off unless expecting a very urgent call.

Some ring tones are irritating so think about the impact on colleagues when choosing your “signature tune”.

When away from your desk for any length of time, switch your phone through to voicemail or arrange with a colleague to pick it up and take messages.

Assuming somebody else will answer your phone (particularly if it always ends up being the same kind-hearted person) can cause resentment in a team. This is particularly important at lunchtime when the pool of available people is reduced.

And of course, take your turn answering your team members’ phones too.

Colleagues just dropping by for a chat, perhaps to ask questions or even the workmate visiting with their new baby can disturb others.
As few have a dedicated office, and meeting rooms are often at a premium, impromptu meetings can quickly develop within a work area. This open communication is great, really speeding up decisions for those involved,. b But it can be a major distraction for those not directly involved in the conversation.

Minimise disturbances by politely asking visitor(s) to get to the point quickly if they’re interrupting you.

Don’t hold mini-meetings at your desk — move to an area where it’s possible to talk freely without disturbing others..

Reduce interruptions by getting back to people quickly. This minimises their need to chase you up repeatedly.

Voice volume
We’re often unaware of our own voice volume, or how far sound carries, particularly when we are on the telephone. Overhearing a colleague’s’ one-sided conversation is hugely distracting, even though we’re not remotely interested in the content.

And the banter surrounding a colleague’s new haircut or contents of their shopping bags after their lunch time trip – well, even the most dedicated can’t help get drawn into the conversation.

If we all used our ‘”library voice’ voice” the overall noise level would reduce.

Never use speakerphones in an open plan area – it’s almost impossible to block out the noise, and really gets on people’s nerves.

You know this, of course, but as I still hear it happening, here’s the reminder:; please don’t just shout across the office when you want a quick answer. Walk across and ask quietly, or send an e-mail if non-urgent.

If you’re easily distracted, try a two-piece headset to block out sound. These block out much more background noise, so it’s easier to hear your own telephone caller over the “buzz”.

Use headsets in moderation. They’re a great aid when you must concentrate. But used too much when you’re not on the phone and colleagues may consider you aloof and inaccessible.

These simple tips can help make the most of the positive communication benefits of working in open plan environments, and minimise any negative impact on your productivity. “

Rosie Gray helps superbusy people better manage their precious time, feel less stressed and achieve much more. As a result, productivity improves and "life" returns to their "work/life balance" equation. After working at a senior level in fast-paced ... (Read More)

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