Buildings behaving badly: the perils of ‘open plan’

Published: 7 April 2016 at 14:30

Dr Alison Hirst

Business researcher offers tips on how to survive in a modern office environment

A business academic who specialises in studying office life has suggested four top tips to help survive in a modern open plan workplace.

Dr Alison Hirst, of Anglia Ruskin University, investigates the ways that buildings can affect how employees work and interact with one other.

Dr Hirst, a Research Fellow at Anglia Ruskin’s Institute for International Management Practice, spent time with employees at a local council ahead of their move to a new headquarters, and then studied their behaviour once they were inside their new open plan offices.

"Staff were moving out of what’s considered an old fashioned building – with teams in their own separate rooms – to open plan offices, unrestricted by walls,” explained Dr Hirst.

“Their new building, constructed mainly of glass, had been designed with the aim of making office life less hierarchical, less divided and more ‘networked’.”

Dr Hirst discovered that despite the building’s bricks and mortar becoming less restrictive, the unwritten rules of office etiquette and hierarchy were still very much alive.  She said:

“The theory was that the space would be ‘open access’ and anyone could go anywhere. It was believed it would encourage more networking and chance conversations that would spark new ideas and opportunities. 

“However, the subtle rules of how to behave were very much present and the hierarchy the architects hoped to eradicate re-established itself very quickly in the new building.  It was clear that certain areas were for certain staff only.

“The new office was perfect for the ‘networkers’, whose job was to set up projects between different parts of the council.  However, those with specialist jobs, who needed a quiet space to complete a task with great attention to detail, were clearly finding life difficult.”

Dr Alison Hirst’s four tips to survive working in an open plan office:

Buy some headphones

People need quiet and privacy some of the time and headphones are the new walls.  Open plan offices are designed on the assumption that privacy = hiding, and so walls should be removed.  Headphones at least allow people to avoid some of the distractions. 

Make an effort to get to know your colleagues

It’s difficult to get to know people in an open plan office, which sounds counter-intuitive because you see far more people each day.  However, we often don’t get introduced to everyone, so the situation can resemble a commuter train where we see the same faces but never talk.  It’s awkward to say ‘Hi, I’m Jen from accounts’ when you’ve seen, but politely ignored, that person for weeks, so introduce yourself as soon as possible.

Find somewhere (anywhere) that offers a bit of privacy

It’s great to sit with your team members when it’s business as usual, but there needs to be a bolthole for that ‘quiet word’.  Also there needs to be somewhere you can both recover from these difficult encounters – it can be uncomfortable having to go back and sit opposite one another straight away.

Look busy and dress well

There’s no escape so, particularly if you are lower down the hierarchy, be prepared to look busy most of the time.  Modern offices also effect personal identity, and during my research I’ve seen how much more effort people take over their appearance once they are in an open plan office.  Dress code, self-presentation and self-preservation are key.