Make It Work: How to Behave in an Open Office

If you happen to work in one of these offices, and it’s driving you nuts, here are some rules to follow that will make you a more pleasant coworker to be around.
Publish date:
February 23, 2015
relationships, office culture, work life, Open Office

People make a lot of fuss about cubicles, and how they are soul-sucking, useless work environments. “I’m in a cage! I am not free,” the cubicle dweller whines, but you know what? They have it better than most. Privacy! My kingdom for privacy. But open offices are the norm these days, and you heard it here first — they are the fucking worst. Meant to promote a false sense of togetherness and spirit, they are actually pretty shitty. So, if you happen to work in one of these offices, and it’s driving you nuts, here are some rules to follow that will make you a more pleasant coworker to be around.

1. Establish boundaries.

It seems silly that I should have to tell you to establish boundaries when you are clearly an adult reading this during your lunch break or on your phone or in line at the eyebrow threading place, but we live in a crazy world where people don’t understand basic shit, so here we go. Boundaries are very important in all of your relationships, but if you work in an open office, they are crucial. So, if your office is one of those where you’re just crammed in at a desk in between five other people, little worker bees plugged in to your whirring silver machines, do like you would if you were in the middle seat of an airplane. Be aware of the fact that your shit could be creeping over into your coworker’s space and try to keep it all in check. It works both ways: Feel free to let the person next to you know that their bag of Pirates Booty and sprawl of receipts, day planners, and chapstick is getting kind of close to your arm, and you’re really sorry, but is it possible for them to put some of that stuff away/off the desk? You might feel like you’re being naggy. But you’re not being naggy. You are taking ownership of the three-and-a-half foot space of desk you’ve been given, just like they are. Stand your ground!

2. Don’t fight in front of the kids.

You’d think that an argument between two coworkers would somehow dissipate in an open office, like a fart in the wind, hitting sharp and quick and then dissolving, never to be thought of again. Think again, friend. If you decide to have that screaming match with the person just across the way in front of everyone else, please understand that it’s going to be supremely awkward and uncomfortable for everyone once you guys are done yelling at each other. There is a very easy solution to this. Argue somewhere else! If you have an issue with your coworker that can’t be resolved via email or whatever, find a conference room, put some Vaseline on your face, ask someone to hold your earrings, and have it out. Just don’t do it in front of everyone else you sit with.

3. Be aware that everyone can probably hear you.

Do you make doctor’s appointments on your lunch break? Do you pick up the phone when your mom calls and find yourself going from zero to 100, real, real quick? Do you like to act like you actually have an office with a door you can close, but you actually are sitting in a row of five? If you are any of these people, understand that at least once a week, your coworkers are plotting ways to get you fired because your behavior is irresponsible and rude. I’m not saying don’t make the appointments or don’t answer the phone when it rings. Just understand that there are people in your office who all do a wide variety of tasks. Each task and each person requires a different level of concentration! That woman over there who stares at Excel all day and moves numbers from one column to another might need a little more quiet than her friend in sales, but guess what? The evil overlord that founded this company that you find yourself at didn’t think to separate people! Nope, you’re all in there together, one big happy family, so the only way to actually make it work is to be aware of what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. Handle your personal business — no one gives a shit — but try not to scream about it. Speaking of which . . .

4. Don’t yell! Find an indoor voice and cultivate it.

This is really the cornerstone upon which a happy office life is built. Do not yell. Harken back to the days of yore, when librarians shushed you in middle school, and develop your indoor voice. No one likes yelling — open offices are echo chambers, and it’s just plain rude and disrespectful to the others around you who are trying to work. So, if you have something super important to say to Samantha in marketing, and she sits across the office, get up. Walk. Get a seltzer on the way there. Log some more steps on your Fitbit. Just don’t scream about the report she owes you across the office. You are not an elephant seal, trumpeting your virility across a rocky Northern California beach. You are a middle manager who needs to ask someone a question. Just stand up and do it.

5. When all else fails, find a place to hide.

I worked in an office full of people who loved nothing more than yelling during the workday. Seemingly nothing could be accomplished without a loud 15-minute discussion, everyone’s voice raising to match the energy and pitch of the person speaking, until all I could hear was the dim roar of voices, each louder than the next. I am generally a patient person, but I hit a wall. I set up shop in an unused “phone booth,” a tiny room with a door that was supposed to be a haven for nursing mothers. I sat there for a week, with the door locked, like a lunatic. I had hit my breaking point. I’m not suggesting holing yourself up in a supply closet, but if you work in an open office, chances are there are some couches, or at least a beanbag chair or two somewhere in the vicinity. Just get up from your desk, and sit somewhere else for a while. The change in perspective will clear your head. I guarantee it.

Reprinted with permission from the Frisky. Want more? Check out these related stories:

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