Do open offices improve collaboration?

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Q: During the pandemic, my company reduced our office space.  Now many of us are being asked to return to the office.  The offices are no longer the same.  Our office space is all open.  No one has a cube.  It is an oddly public situation, especially for employees who use their phones throughout their day.  We have no sound buffer between people.  Management says the open environment “encourages collaboration.”  We collaborated during the pandemic when we were 50 miles from each other.  Now, we hear every potato chip being eaten, every burp, every groan, every sneeze, every cell phone hum.  Every noise!  I find it maddening.  I have actually started to job hunting!  Am I doomed if I stay here?

A: Open environments can be tough.  For those of us who are easily annoyed by noises, smells and sights, I understand the challenge!

There is research to indicate that open offices do not result in improved collaboration, specifically face-to-face contact.  An article written by Ethan Bernstein and Ben Weber, The Truth About Open Offices, found that face-to-face interactions became less frequent in open offices, as workers relied on electronic communication tools instead.  Slack, Teams, texting and emailing became the substitute for in-person interactions.

For years, I saw cubes in offices.  Then, there was movement to an open work environment, and sometimes very sleek -looking open office environments.  Now I am seeing a bit of a shift back to cubes.  One recommendation which may restore your sanity includes using ear buds or ear plugs, if permitted.  I also know a few friends who force themselves to take a walk around the office, to get a break.  There may be a conference room that you could use periodically when a higher level of concentration is required.

Though this may not be your role, some supervisors will discuss ground rules.  Some may include guidelines around food, drink or personal conversations.

I can empathize with your colleague since I am a loud person.  I chomp ice loudly (or so my friend Kim says).  I talk loudly, especially when on the phone (or so my husband says).  Us loud folks sometimes don’t know when we are annoying.  We just get lost in the moment!  Sometimes it is ok to tell a co-worker that their lip smacking, yawning, humming of repetitive pencil tapping is annoying.  A gentle request, of even humor can sometimes work. And for those seeking alternative workspaces where individual quirks are embraced, it might be time to consider Coworking Houston offices.

Few people truly intend to offend.  However, that doesn’t mean that their behavior is acceptable.

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.

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