We're getting an Open Office...how to make it not be awful.
August 14, 2018 6:15 AM   Subscribe

The bad news, we're getting an open office where some (but not all) people will be flex. The good news, we're being asked for input on how to set it up. What input should we give to make sure it's not awful?

The majority of the group takes calls and but few hand fulls of people doing and do projects and supporting roles (some of which needs quite/thinking space).
posted by Spumante to Work & Money (37 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
So the reason open offices are used are either:

Some bigwig is trying to be as cool as a tech company, or
You can fit more people in a smaller space.

If A: the "fix" for most open offices is small quiet spaces that you can actually work in. Those spaces are nearby, within eye distance from your open space and have glass doors/walls.

The feedback I would give (and what is usually ignored) is that those work spaces need to be as good / better than the open office desks!!

So often, the "quiet spaces" or "phone call rooms" or whatever you call them - don't have monitors or keyboards equipped in the station. You are expected to use your laptop screen/keyboard - which is notably smaller and worse than the double-screen setup you'll have at your desk.

So, besides saying "Please, please don't do this, no the studies about employee engagement being higher aren't reliable for lots of reasons" I greatly suggest you try and give feedback to nudge them into equipping employees in a way that allows them to get work done.

Then at the very least you can work in one of those spaces every day.
posted by bbqturtle at 6:31 AM on August 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

White noise generators to dampen sound and conversation more than a few feet from each other.

Really good headphones to tune out other people.
posted by nickggully at 6:48 AM on August 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

It’s definitely B, we need to fit more people in the office over the next few years.
posted by Spumante at 6:51 AM on August 14, 2018

Make some kind of etiquette document.
posted by amtho at 6:54 AM on August 14, 2018 [4 favorites]

Allow and encourage people to work from home as much as possible.

Isolate the "quiet work" people from the "phone call" people as much as possible. With a wall and/or white noise machines if actual doors are not possible.

Good luck.
posted by mskyle at 6:55 AM on August 14, 2018 [16 favorites]

You are expected to use your laptop screen/keyboard - which is notably smaller and worse than the double-screen setup you'll have at your desk.

This. I don't get it - when I need to do quiet work it often helps to have dual screens, and I've probably lost more in productivity than they've saved by not buying screens for the "quiet" spaces.
posted by madcaptenor at 7:02 AM on August 14, 2018 [4 favorites]

-a room where you can make a phone call that you don't want your coworkers overhearing
-desks set up so that you can wear headphones and not have people sneak up behind you
-desks set up so that no one is facing another person without a wall blocking them
posted by soelo at 7:08 AM on August 14, 2018 [7 favorites]

I get that this was something I only got away with because of my senior position and (small minority) equity stake, but when my dot-com era service firm went open-office, and I failed to quash it, I VERY VERY LOUDLY expensed a $450 pair of headphones and a $200 headphone amp.

Other folks with less social capital occupied conference rooms and refused to vacate them.

Open office layouts are a trend that needs to DIE. Every exec who pushes for this kind of thing is an Enemy of the People.
posted by uberchet at 7:15 AM on August 14, 2018 [18 favorites]

I've only ever worked in open plan offices. Having my own desk, chair, and drawers adjusted to me are important, headphones for when I need to focus. Also, phone booths or small unbookable (flex/focus) rooms to make calls in. Headset and webcam to do conferencing with at desk.
posted by JonB at 7:24 AM on August 14, 2018

If you can fight for assigned desks/chairs/drawers/headset; that makes a difference; humans like to have their own assigned spot.

White noise for the floor makes a major difference; it doesn't actually make it quiet, but it helps deaden the noise on the floor to a murmur.

flex rooms that are unassigned (and more importantly that no one can camp out in all day) are really important- being able to grab a colleague for a talk off the floor can be super important and if folks are camped out in these all day it's super awkward. I never find pantry areas that well used; it's better to separate those into small offices where people can take calls/have 2-3 person meetings... but don't get rid of the pantry; you just don't need a ton of seating in it.

I've always worked on open plan offices where actually having the communication was important/expected (and needed for the line of work) but even with that, we have clusters of research folks grouped together so that there would be quiet zones where possible. When white noise is broken/taken out of commission it's miserable on the floor; no one is happy.
posted by larthegreat at 7:40 AM on August 14, 2018

Work on finding a good spacing for desks that maximizes the amount of privacy you get both visually and aurally. Noise dampening partitions are another way to provide that kind of privacy. Some sense of privacy is important if you want your team to communicate with each other in person.

See if there's a budget for noise cancelling headphones. If you have a way of generating white noise, use it -- it helps the overall hum of conversation blend together into something you can ignore.

Make sure there are flexible meeting rooms that people can use now and then for private conversations. In addition, it would help if you can make sure that there are some quiet lounge spaces that people can escape to now and then.

I have worked in some extremely loud open floor plans where marketing team meetings and after work (e.g. 5pm) exercise classes were happening over loud speakers fifty feet from my desk. I was still able to get work done, thanks to headphones, partitions, quiet rooms, and reasonably spaced desks. I can't say that I was happy (I left the team that was stuck in that area as soon as I could do so responsibly), but headphones made it possible to adapt.
posted by rhythm and booze at 7:46 AM on August 14, 2018

We're doing this in two weeks and while i wouldnt hold the management of my org up as an example by any stretch they have, thus far:
-bought everyone noise cancelling headphones
-paid for an acoustical consultants who sold us some white noise/noise abatement technology

heres the sticky part - in going from multiple floors in a traditional setup to a single open floor they also somehow reduced the number of toilets (actual stalls) by half. this has, unsurprisingly, not been popular and has caused much anxiety among the staff. managements response has been that its more than code requires and that it was prohibitively expensive to install additional toilets. dont be those guys, check on the basic stuff up front.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 8:03 AM on August 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

Soelo, can you point to examples of your #2&3 bullet points?( we can’t suggest “cubes”) -desks set up so that you can wear headphones and not have people sneak up behind you
-desks set up so that no one is facing another person without a wall blocking them
posted by Spumante at 8:04 AM on August 14, 2018

Review this recent thread for a lot of relevant comments.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 8:37 AM on August 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

Honestly, library rules on the floor with breakouts *for people who are making noise* is the only way I have not hated an open office. You don't want people to camp out in the quiet rooms? Make it quiet everywhere else — otherwise you are effectively making it unworkable for any of your project-focused people, which is why you see anti-social behavior like camping and refusing to move.

I see you have a lot of phone call people, so in that case I would make two rooms — one library rules, the other calls at your desk if you can't make enough noise breakouts.
posted by dame at 8:49 AM on August 14, 2018 [5 favorites]

An issue I've seen come up in almost every open plan office I've worked is is people finding the air conditioning too hot or too cold. As I understand it, the only real fix for this is to take it up with facilities – DIY measures like electric heaters and propping doors open can help locally, but can make the whole system overcompensate and make life worse for everyone – not to mention waste an awful lot of energy.

My suggestion would be to circulate a means of escalation when something goes wrong with the building. Ban electric heaters on energy grounds and ban propping doors open on security grounds.
posted by nthdegx at 8:51 AM on August 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

Sorry, I have no specific layouts in mind; those are just my biggest issues. The way to prevent people coming up behind you is to put your chair between a wall and the desk so people approaching you come to the other side of your desk. If you can't have any cube walls at all, that will mean everyone needs to sit up against an outside wall. There is usually not enough outside wall to hold everyone, so perhaps an interior wall could be added. If they say no cube walls, they may object to an actual wall as well. This actual wall would probably help noise, even if it did not reach the ceiling. I think the space should be cut into two separate rooms as suggested above and that makes for a lot more wall space.

As for facing others, I would hate to have someone in my eyeline all day and would be equally annoyed with being in someone else's eyeline all day. Staggering desks can fix this so people aren't face-to-face, but if the only thing blocking two people are their monitors, staggering will actually make it worse. There are dividers meant to be put on top of tables if people are forced to work on inward facing desks.

Noise is the other problem. As a project worker in a call center, this is my number one complaint. This is the reason cube walls were invented and white noise is suggested so often. The issue with wearing headphones is people standing there talking to you without knowing you have your headphones on, or in the case of one jerk, actually poking me because he thought I was ignoring him. So, if you do get headphones, get the largest ones you can handle so it is obvious to others. Also, come up with some method that allows others to alert you they are there without touching you. That may sound uptight or stuffy, but open offices require some different etiquette.

That is the other issue - your office rules will likely need to be updated to account for the tighter quarters. If you have a culture where complaints are routinely ignored, this does not bode well. If so, an anonymous survey periodically can uncover issues that people are loath to bring up but are grating on everyone's nerves.
posted by soelo at 8:58 AM on August 14, 2018 [4 favorites]

Enough closet or hook space for coats and umbrellas.
posted by Pax at 9:24 AM on August 14, 2018 [6 favorites]

Make sure that they're increasing the number of conference rooms considerably in this switch - it should become good etiquette to book a room for 2-3 person meetings that may have happened in an office previously (especially if they involve a speakerphone). Those conference rooms should probably include some smaller spaces for meetings that size. In my semi-open-plan office, everyone who manages anyone has an office, which is actually really nice to ensure that every team has access to at least one office for small informal meetings (generally speaking using folks' empty offices without them is fine).

Sufficient storage, also - and not in the form of far-away lockers.

Ensure the kitchen is inviting & spacious, and do whatever is needed in terms of design, role modeling, events (we have a popular, completely optional, weekly potluck), etc. to set the precedent that people are encouraged to eat in the kitchen instead of at their desks. Smells travel further in an open office.

Ideally given folks some way to be able to customize their space.

White noise definitely...it makes such a difference.
posted by mosst at 9:35 AM on August 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

I know you said no cubes, but low desk dividers like this or this can make a big difference in breaking up the space (and avoiding distraction) without making things completely claustrophobic.
posted by mosst at 9:39 AM on August 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

Unclear from your question if people are going to have assigned desks or not? If they don't, make sure
- Strategically-placed lockers
- Wireless peripherals that can be locked in said lockers
- *Easily-adjustable desks (may I suggest motorized sit-stand desks?)
- *Laptop stands on the desks
- *Easily-adjustable monitors (like the kind that are on an arm attached to the back of the desk)
- A variety of types of chairs
- An expectation that everyone will wipe down and tidy up the desk they used at the end of the day

*These are things that are great even if you have an assigned desk!

Headphones must be allowed, and there needs to be a culture of respecting headphones and not bothering someone if they're concentrating. Due to a disability, I personally can't work comfortably anywhere other than my desk, so I have to be able to concentrate at my desk.

In addition to conference rooms, my company also has "phone booths" that are nearly soundproof. I find them heavenly. Some of ours are bookable and some are not.

This might be already accounted for by your HR team, but make sure that you provide a compliant room for lactating mothers who need to pump. You should make this bookable only by lactating mothers.
posted by radioamy at 11:14 AM on August 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

Ensure the kitchen is inviting & spacious

and also not in the same space as the people working. This is the situation we have. A lot of my colleagues seem to want lunch a little bit before I do, and they sit down at the tables and start eating and talking and oh now I can't concentrate. (Personally I usually go off-site for lunch because I can't take a whole day of being around people who might talk to me. I know my limits.)

This might be already accounted for by your HR team, but make sure that you provide a compliant room for lactating mothers who need to pump. You should make this bookable only by lactating mothers.

This. As a new father, I've been wondering where that room is in our office, if it exists. Either it doesn't exist or it's really well-hidden and they only tell you where it is if you need it.
posted by madcaptenor at 11:32 AM on August 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'm one month into a new job where there is an open floor plan. Here are some things I've noticed.

Conference Rooms - You definitely need more of these than you expect. Ours range from tiny rooms for 2-3 people up to 12-15 people. Some are reserve-able, some are not. Most have an iPad in a special dock that glows green or red based on availability. You can easily see from across the floor if a room is free or not. All rooms have at least a monitor with all the relevant video dongles. As the rooms get bigger as do the amenities (more monitors, cameras, speakerphones, etc.).

Lockers - Ours are two compartments...one a traditional hanging file cabinet and the other an 18"x18"x18" or place to store stuff.

Variety of seating - Most of seating is broken up by sections of low cube wall...say 4 feet tall. Desks can be arranged along the inside walls of a square, others in traditional rows and others still as an X (are four people facing the center). There are also just some plan tables where small groups work as well as some high top bar seats. There is also a large open area with couches and chairs and tables that is used for large gatherings, informal meetings and some eating. There are floor to ceiling frosted glass partitions in a track that can be spread out to make the area more quiet and more private. This area also has some large format monitors on roll-able stands in case you have to present/collab with a group. There is a separate kitchen and seating area as well.

Breaking up space - Besides the core of the building where the elevators and bathrooms are, there are islands of conference rooms that break up space as well as some hanging mostly transparent banners which functionally split up the floor.

Lastly, you mentioned that your company is doing this to fit more people in the space. You really should have more people working from home if at all possible. For big events when everyone is in the office, you can really notice that the place is full.
posted by mmascolino at 11:44 AM on August 14, 2018

We just moved into an open plan, and it's not quite as bad as I feared.

One thing that helps is that visual sight lines are broken up by a few offices and conference rooms in the middle. Not feeling like you're on display all day is a big thing, particularly for women. Glass is a lovely thing because light makes everything better, but there should be at least some places where you can go for a phone call or a meeting, shut the door and not be seen. Many offices (ours included) have all glass walls and doors, even in conference rooms, which is exhausting.

As a addendum to that, be aware that if there are no assigned seats, people may have trouble defining boundaries, which can be an issue in cases of harassment. Have a plan in place for when flex doesn't work.
posted by oryelle at 11:46 AM on August 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

I just went through an office move, so I'll try not to duplicate advice that is already posted up-thread.

* a mix of _type_ of private spaces. We have traditional conference rooms in varying size, but we also have rooms with comfortable furniture (e.g. sofas and a coffee table), and phone booths for a single person, etc.

- a mix of _type_ of public spaces. We have the desk areas, but we also have lots of lounge areas, and areas with whiteboard walls. Some of these spaces wound up, organically, becoming quiet places for focus, others wound up being places for collaboration.

- fewer phones. we all have the ability to make calls from call rooms, conference rooms, and those phone booths, but only those who spend their lives on the phone have a phone on their desk. (almost nobody).

- good a/v equipment in all of the private spaces. every private space is setup for easy screen-sharing and videoconferencing. They're all bookable as well.

- if at all possible, leave some flexibility in your design, so you can adjust if, after a few months, there are some types of work that the space doesn't facilitate.
posted by whisk(e)y neat at 11:49 AM on August 14, 2018

Office plants, big ones. They break up the room visually and provide a little nature contact.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 11:59 AM on August 14, 2018 [7 favorites]

Speaking of privacy, make sure that any desks that don't face a wall or another desk have "modesty panels" in the front (basically so if someone wears a skirt, nobody can see up it!).

I had an interesting discussion with a coworker yesterday. She said that at a previous job, some conference rooms had frosted glass for privacy and some didn't. People got nervous if one of the private ones was booked because they thought they were going to have a "bad" meeting. Better to just put frosted glass (at least in the middle of the glass, doesn't have to be floor-to-ceiling) on all of them.
posted by radioamy at 12:57 PM on August 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

Oh, since someone mentioned bathrooms, we have a weird setup in our new office with the bathroom locations. In our old office, the bathrooms were in a central hallway that only had the bathrooms and a storage closet. In the new office, the bathrooms open up into the middle of the main seating area. It doesn't seem like a big deal, but it was super awkward. We ended up putting up a privacy screen and plants.
posted by radioamy at 1:13 PM on August 14, 2018

We moved to new open plan space that we were extensively consulted on and they put in a lot of things that I think really help:

- white noise generators
- lots of greenery to help break up the space
- each desk is divided by "noise cancelling" dividers (not sure if they actually dampen noise but they are a visual break, which is nice)
- every desk has noise-cancelling headphones
- different teams are separated by tambors, different units are separated by noise dampening shelves
- 10 "quiet rooms" per floor, some of which are bookable, some have natural light, all have a monitor screen to plug in with your laptop
- many "booths" for break out/working spaces that are also filled with "noise dampening" materiel
- every desk has a "busy light" which you can set/is set against your calendar aka if it's red it means "busy", green means "available to talk" etc
- flexible work from home policy
posted by liquorice at 6:22 PM on August 14, 2018 [4 favorites]

There needs to be a strong etiquette policy, particularly around fragrances.
posted by winna at 7:01 PM on August 14, 2018

Set the couch on fire. Burn down the house. Move to a new city.

This is the roach infested couch post, right?


I don’t suppose this works for this post too?
posted by evilDoug at 9:37 PM on August 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

We moved into a new open space in March and a lot of the advice above is good. I’d add the following, which many not apply to you: Our group is about 90 people, assigned to about 75 desks, since they did a survey that shows on any given day, only 65 people are there. About 20 people have assigned desks. The rest of us are supposed to flex. But, people like to have their own space, so about 30 people sit in the same seat every day. (unsurprisingly, tends to be those who get in early and are there almost every day). There is some grumbling as this tends to be the better seats - closer to windows, quieter, etc. The rest of the group comes in and plops into any available seat. I work on a small team of four people, and we never sit together, nor do the other teams in our larger group. This means I need to search around to find out if someone has come in, and go find them (one of our members clearly doesn’t want to sit near the rest of us, probably because they prefer relative anonymity- thus was someone who used to work with a closed door all the time). I recommend that actual working teams sit close together, if possible. It can also be stressful to come in late and try to find a seat - like being the new kid in the high school cafeteria. Is someone sitting there? Is she really loud? will my laptop hook up to the monitors properly? Do we have visitors so that there are actually 80 people here today? (We’ve got some great senior people who lead the way on not taking a desk on those days since they are often in meetings anyway - they end up at a table with just a laptop and never camp out solo in a room, which sets a good example).

Be prepared for technology issues and lots of wasted time at the beginning. For some reason, each workstation required software downloads to make the monitors work, and for those with older laptops, it was a nightmare as they would need to try multiple spaces. Make sure the WiFi is really, really good since more people will depend on it.

Make the workstations as similar as possible. No one wants to use the 20 year old keyboard with food in it. Buy new ones.

Encourage but don’t mandate that people eat lunch away from their desks. Keeps them cleaner, cuts down on smells, and increases interaction in the common areas. I like that I now eat with someone else more days, in a different space.

If there are only communal trash and recycling, make sure they are close by, emptied often and well marked. No one wants to walk a used tissue 200 feet away.
posted by Sukey Says at 1:51 AM on August 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

- every desk has noise-cancelling headphones
Each person needs to have their own set since headphones can be hard to clean.
posted by soelo at 6:36 AM on August 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

Common here to have “shower caddies” that you keep getting n your life cost with your own pens, earphones, candy etc in. The desks are designed for these to fit into. It makes things a little easier.
posted by Iteki at 9:01 AM on August 15, 2018

Sukey_say mentioned keyboards..... something I’m not looking forward to is having to set up my ergo keyboard and mouse with me....
This is personal but I’m considering asking for dispensation and asking for an assigned desk just because of this. Worried about people seeing this and there being two classes of people....
posted by Spumante at 10:06 AM on August 15, 2018

People needing accommodations is something the higher-ups will need to deal with and you should not feel bad about it. It might be a big eye-opener for them to realize that their workers are not interchangeable cogs in a machine and need a bit more consideration. Maybe they already know that, but it would not hurt to add that to the list of suggestions: a transparent and simple way to handle accommodations. I personally need headphones that cover both ears as I am easily distracted by people talking when I am trying to listen to another person. I don't have a note from my doctor about it, but I would go get one (and be a little annoyed) if they refused to give me a dual headset.
posted by soelo at 10:04 AM on August 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

There needs to be a norm against watching videos with a lot of movement or having a device with bright blinking or flashing lights. I would rather listen to someone on speakerphone then see a light flashing in my peripheral vision.
posted by AFABulous at 5:03 PM on August 16, 2018

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