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Seven Steps to Making an Open Plan Office Work

Many organizations have moved from cubeland to open plan offices in which employees sit in rows of desks with no barriers between them.

open plan officeThere’s considerable research on the workability of open plan offices. Some of what’s written says that introverts do worse than extroverts in an open plan office. I disagree. I’d say that how a person learns/takes in information determines how well she’ll do in an open plan office.

If you’re a visual or kinesthetic learner who learns by seeing or doing, you’ll be less distracted by noise than an auditory learner who learns by hearing. Auditory learners hear everything and are easily distracted by talking, music, and other noise. Visual and kinesthetic learners often don’t hear distractions, so they do better in an open plan office.

Here are seven steps to make an open plan office a more productive environment:

  1. Schedule a meeting during which people sitting together can discuss the working environment they need to be satisfied and productive. Then facilitate a discussion during which the group creates 5 – 7 behavior guidelines each person agrees to follow when at their desks.
  1. Post the list of agreed-upon behaviors on a poster that is large enough to be read from any place in the work environment. Leave the poster up indefinitely.
  1. Give each person in the group permission to talk to individuals who violate the guidelines. This is very, very important. For the most part, employees won’t tell another person she is talking too loudly, eating food that smells, has too many visitors at her desk, listens to music or videos without headphones, or takes phone calls via speaker phone. People will suffer in silence and choose to work from home or in an empty office or conference room rather than speak up about the behaviors that frustrate them. Ask the group to grant each other permission to speak up when guidelines are violated. Giving each other permission to speak up will make future conversations possible – difficult but possible. Without permission and these agreed-upon behaviors in place, people will suffer in silence or talk about each other, not to each other.
  1. Ask everyone in the work group to take feedback graciously, responding with “thank you for telling me,” rather than with defensiveness.
  1. Two weeks after making the list of guidelines, get the group together to review the list and make any necessary changes to it. Discuss behaviors that were omitted, aren’t realistic, and are realistic but aren’t being followed.
  1. Then follow up by facilitating a monthly conversation during which group members give honest feedback about which guidelines are being followed and which are not, and problem solve as a group. These conversations aren’t a chance to embarrass or call people out in a group setting. If one person is violating a guideline, that conversation should happen individually.
  1. You will need a strong facilitator for the group discussions. The facilitator must tease out people’s thoughts, while making sure no one gets blasted in front of the group. Don’t let concerns that you know exist be brushed under the rug. Group members must openly and regularly discuss what is and isn’t working about their work environment, or frustrations will build and unhappiness and dissension will ensue.

It’s not too late to put these practices in place, even with a group who has been sitting together for a long time. Just schedule the conversation and explain why you’re having it. People will be relieved and grateful.

Working in an open plan office is challenging. It requires good communication and compromise. Don’t wait for problems to occur and frustrations to build. Have a conversation today.

Open Office Floor Plan Poster


Shari Harley is the founder and President of Candid Culture, a Denver-based training firm that is bringing candor back to the workplace, making it easier to give feedback at work. Shari is the author of the business communication book How to Say Anything to Anyone: A Guide to Building Business Relationships that Really Work. She is a keynote speaker at conferences and does training throughout the U.S. Learn more about Shari Harley and Candid Culture’s training programs at

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