Many years ago now, when I took over managing our team of consultants, I made the high profile and much-discussed decision to move to an open office layout. No walls, no cubicles, just desks with one-foot high dividers.

Eight years and a new building later and our team is still in our open space—and so are many more of our colleagues on other teams. The benefits are clear: greater collaboration, infectious energy, and more serendipitous collisions that drive innovation (not to mention lower rent).

But even eight years later, we need to invest in making our open office work. It’s not always easy. So when a client told me she and her team are moving into open offices, I knew it was time to document what we’ve learned about making teamwork work in an open office.

Tips for Surviving an Open Office

Relax, it gets better. At first, you will hear everyone and everything, but over time, your brain has an incredible ability to filter out the sounds you don’t need. The annoying corollary to this is that any novel voice in the open space will drive you to distraction! I recommend that you ask visitors to use an enclosed space.

Set it up for Success

Use technology to your advantage. Use headsets for the phones and ban use of speaker phones. Also, if possible, set your phones to different ring tones so you don’t all whip your heads around going “is that me?” when a phone rings.

Know when to close the door. I KNOW, there IS no door! But you need to create a metaphorical door that tells people you’re focused and can’t be disturbed. We have a couple of pairs of noise cancelling headphones (roughly the size of ones the guys who direct planes on the tarmac wear) that do the trick beautifully. A few of us also have mini desk flip charts with different moods so we can give folks a heads up when they need to “Beware of Pitbull.”

Take conversations to a separate spot. It’s ok to have the odd two-minute conversation in the open space, but for longer (or more sensitive) conversations, take it elsewhere. It is amazingly difficult for others to ignore an interesting conversation, so don’t create the temptation.

Be smart about the candy bowl. If you are looking to make new friends or become the central meeting point of the office, by all means, have a candy bowl. But if you’re easily distracted, the last thing you want to do is put bait on your desk.

Invest to Make it Work

Get good at giving feedback. Develop some hand signals or code words to tell people to turn it down. Quietly seething while someone talks too loudly on the phone is not productive. Just walk over and give them that painfully pleasant face that says “pretty please with sugar on top…could you talk more quietly?”

Capitalize on the Benefits

Use your space for meetings. Using meeting rooms encourages our bad habits around meetings that are too long. Instead, when the content calls for a short huddle, just do it standing around in the open space. A little stretch of the legs is good for you, and this way, it’s harder for people to skip the meeting or multi-task on the conference line.

Enjoy the interaction. There are so many moments of joy in an open office, revel in them. Crowd around the baby pictures on your neighbor’s screen, notice that someone is trapped on the phone and grab them a bevvie on your coffee run, and ask the enviously tanned teammate about their vacation. Bonding can be time well spent.

I wouldn’t trade my open office for anything, but I know that being attentive and respectful of my colleagues’ needs is essential to making it work. Try some of these ideas to make your open office a boon to collaboration rather than the bane of your existence.

Further Reading

10 Questions to Increase Collaboration

I Beg (You) to Differ

A Sure Path to Snuffing out Innovation

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