Shift to open plan office need not be a hindrance

Office employee moved from private office to open-plan environment could adopt a traffic light system on his desk to avoid interruptions with red meaning do not disturb.

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My company has decided to redesign the office and make it completely open plan. I will lose the office I have worked in for the past five years and join my colleagues on the main floor. To be honest, I like my privacy and don't like this new layout. I also feel slightly demoted by the move. How do I adapt? TM, Dubai

I have a lot of sympathy for you. I much prefer having an office to working in an open plan environment. I find it easier to concentrate and I find I get interrupted less (although it still happens a good deal). It is also much easier to have confidential or private conversations, whether on the phone or face to face. However, I do recognise there can be benefits to an open plan office. It is more egalitarian, and it does seem to foster more of a sense of team spirit. In open plan we are, it seems to me, more likely to form good relationships with more members of the team. We are also likely to be more transparent as an organisation. It is also argued, of course, that proximity can lead to more arguments, more relationships that are dysfunctional and that hold back the team, so I suppose it can be looked at either way.

Regardless of the strengths and weaknesses of open plan versus more traditional office-based architecture, the fact remains that you are being required to adapt to an open plan environment. So what can you do? If the thought truly upsets you, then of course you can look around for another job, making sure that your own office is part of the job specification. But you may not have that luxury. I don’t really have a lot of sympathy for your feeling of being demoted. I can understand you being demotivated, but unless your job role or title has changed, feeling demoted seems to be a little self-indulgent. If you accept the new order, then there are two broad areas where you need to plan in advance.

The first is how to concentrate at your desk when there is lots of activity and bustle going on around you. I don’t know whether your open plan is one where there are cubicles or screens around the space, or whether it is a true open plan, perhaps even one where every desk is a hot desk and there is not even a space you can call your own. Regardless, some people seem better able than others to shut out the world around them. If you are one of these, then the transition will be easier. But after five years with your own office door, this may be unlikely. So invest in a good pair of headphones and make sure that there is lots of music on your phone or portable device, or that you can get good reception on a radio. Sounds played quietly into your ears can drown out a lot of the discordant noise around you, so the idea here is to retreat into your own quiet space via the earphones. Here, you can concentrate on your work uninterrupted by what goes on around you.

The second area of challenge is interruption. Somehow, people think that if you are in an open plan environment, you are permanently available to be interrupted. This can begin to feel quite invasive, and can also interrupt your flow of thoughts, making your work disjointed. Here’s my idea: have a traffic light system on your desk. When the traffic light is red, it means you don’t want to be interrupted. Amber means you are busy, but if the interruption is important then you are available. Green means you can be readily interrupted. You need to maintain your lights so that they always accurately reflect your level of availability. Not everyone will respect them, but you should find that the number of interruptions is minimised. The system might even catch on around the rest of the open space.

Other thoughts: if you have a job that allows home working, perhaps you can schedule the work that requires maximum concentration and do that at home, meaning that when you are at your desk you are doing things which are more reactive or more mundane and you are available for interruption. If you are regularly on the phone as part of your work, then headphones are probably useful as well. Get full headphones so that you are cancelling out the maximum amount of background noise. This makes the call much easier for you and for the other party. If you regularly need to have confidential conversations, then you will need ready access to a space where these can take place – make sure this is built into the design of the open space.

Doctor's prescription: Embrace the change. I quite see you don't relish it, but you can't avoid it, so it is much better to be accepting and to manage it so that you can work as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Roger Delves is the director of the Ashridge Executive Masters in Management and an adjunct professor at the Hult International Business School. He is the co-author of the book The Top 50 Management Dilemmas: Fast Solutions to Everyday Challenges. Email him at for advice on any work issues

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