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Dear Miss Open Office Manners

by Mary Isner / June 8, 2017

I had a bit of a eureka moment recently. I was talking to someone whose agency was in the process of transitioning to an open office environment. She said that the new space was nice, but that people did not seem to know how to behave in such an environment. For example, people would talk so loudly that she could not focus on her work. I also heard about people “staking claim” to shared workstations by decorating them with personal objects, such as photos and sports memorabilia. “Don’t these people have manners!?”, I thought. I’m sure some of these people are polite in other scenarios, but perhaps they don’t know how to behave in an open office environment.

That’s when I had my eureka moment (drum roll, please). I thought, “There are all sorts of etiquette guides for many types of situations: weddings, baby showers, you name it. It seems there should be an etiquette guide for the open office!” That’s when I decided to write a Miss Open Office Manners column. So, let me give it a whirl. Here are some letters and my responses for my inaugural Miss Open Office Manners column. Enjoy.

How to Break the Open Office News to Employees?

Dear Miss Open Office Manners: I’m the manager of an organization where everyone has had a private office for years. Last week, I was notified by my higher-ups that we are going to convert to an open office. I don’t know how to break the news to everyone. Help! I am so nervous as to how they are going to react.

-- Walking on Eggshells

Dear Walking on Eggshells: No need to be nervous. In the long run, this will be a good thing, I promise. But establishing good open office etiquette does begin with you, and in how you break the news! Which should be done very gently. Tell them it’s not them, it’s you. (OK, maybe don’t do that!) But really, just put yourself in their shoes and be respectful! Explain to them that while leaving a private office is hard to do, it may be the best thing that ever happened to them. Make sure you highlight the positives - for instance, a flexible furniture layout can mean having more options - access to more space and the right space to meet the task at hand. Shared offices can mean that teamwork is being cultivated as employees work together. Low partitions can provide employees with a greater opportunity to watch, listen, and learn from others. Mobility can mean that the employees have more autonomy and are trusted by management. And so on. The more you focus on the benefits of an open office, the more likely you are to win them over! Just remember, breaking up doesn’t have to be hard to do!

Drowning Out the Sound in an Open Office

Dear Miss Open Office Manners: I am at my wits’ end. I work in an open office and one of my colleagues listens to country music all day long. She says it keeps her productive. It’s so loud and I can’t get anything done. If I have to hear about someone’s pickup truck, drinking by the creek, or cheating partner one more time, I might explode! What can I do?

-- Achy Breaky Ears

Dear Achy Breaky Ears: Wow, that does sound rather unpleasant, to say the least. Lucky for you and your ears, the solution is simple: headphones. If you’re comfortable approaching your country music-loving colleague, by all means do. Explain to her that while you understand it helps her to be productive, it is causing your work to suffer because you cannot concentrate. Ask if she would mind wearing headphones. If you are uncomfortable approaching your colleague, reach out to someone in management and ask that they institute a headphone policy or even suggest office quiet zones. There are other ways to compensate for noise in an open office environment, such as using a white noise generator. Good luck to you and your ears!

Is There Hope for the Open Office Slob?

Dear Miss Open Office Manners: I have a confession – I’m a slob! My desk is always a mess of papers and personal items. We are moving to an open office and I am going to have to share a workstation with others. Yikes! Do you have any tips for how I can keep my stuff organized in an open office?

-- A Messy Desk is the Sign of a Brilliant Mind, Right?!?!

Dear Messy Desk: Here are several suggestions that should help.

  • Consider putting your personal belongings in your locker.
  • Store as many items as you can digitally.
  • Keep your paper files in a locked file cabinet. If there is not one available, keep the files in a box that you can move to and from your workstation.
  • Try replacing photo frames with digital photos on your laptop.

Not to worry, many self-confessed slobs have successfully transitioned to an open office and you can too! Brilliant AND organized – now there’s a winning combination!

I hope you have found this week’s tips both helpful and enjoyable. Keep the questions coming and here’s wishing everyone a productive and polite open office work environment! Never forget to mind your manners!



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Tags: Open Office Design Space Transition

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Mary Isner

Mary Isner

Mary has a master’s degree in public administration and has worked as a facility planning analyst for Fentress since 2003. In her free time, she enjoys baking, decorating, and spending time with her family.