How Not to Be the Jerk in Your Open-Plan Office

Don't make it any worse than it already is.


The open-office plan was supposed to be a thrillingly radical departure from traditional, stuffier office spaces. Invented to tear down the fascist walls of isolation and hierarchy in the workplace, they were designed to encourage more socializing, more light and more free-spirited collaboration between workers, who could stop and chat freely rather than resort to more formal, and delayed, lines of communication.

But no good deed goes unpunished. Most companies took that utopian blueprint and stripped away everything but the flat surfaces, and we know what came next: the proliferation of the open-office plan jerk.

He can blast jam bands while you’re plugging away at a deadline. She can reheat fish for lunch. That guy can break up with his girlfriend three times a day, and that lady can force you to look at 37 photos of her pet Komodo dragon. To say nothing of the many perfectly well-meaning colleagues who tap you on the shoulder out of nowhere and just start yammering away about whatever comes to mind.

So it’s no surprise that years of research have shown us that open-office plans are the absolute worst. And in the midst of this ultra-modern bleak dilemma, some companies have reinstated a solution of sorts in the form of private phone booths, where coworkers are battling amongst themselves for territorial rights to sneak away, close a door, and get some work done. But that’s merely a blip of a trend in a sea of partition-less misery. Until your particular office wises up (unlikely!), here’s how we could all do our part to keep the open office plan from destroying what’s left of our souls.

Ignore Your Coworkers as Much as Possible
You’re right that the open office plan is supposed to make you hash out all the details of the new product launch with Jim in person. You’re wrong that Jim wants to. Research shows that open offices actually force people to communicate electronically even more, because of the basic, human need for privacy (especially for the introverts). No one wants to be ambushed with small talk, much less big talk. In one set of studies, researchers found that taking away walls to force face-to-face communication does the opposite: Workers spoke in person 73 percent less, used email 67 percent more and increased messaging 75 percent more.

Don’t want to be a jerk? Pretend the walls are still there. Assume everyone is extremely busy. Don’t look at anyone’s computer, or comment on what they’re looking at. If you need to actually collaborate on a project, schedule a private meeting. Don’t be the jerk that hijacks your colleagues with needless conversation when they’re just trying to get stuff done — that’s what group Slacks are for. Don’t listen in on their personal phone calls. Don’t make your own personal calls loudly, either. That’s what the bathroom is for.

Don’t Kiss the Boss’ Butt
Yeah, we get it. The open office plan design put you right next to the big guy. But just because you can manage up next to him all day with funny quips doesn’t mean you should. Not only will it make your coworkers hate you, but it’s a mirage. The illusion of access to your superiors created by open office plans with so-called “flat” hierarchies is just that: An illusion. You’re no more his bud than you are taking home his salary.

Don’t Force Your Own Sonic Preferences on Others
No one needs to commune with your hankerin’ this morning for that Bob Marley jam you loved in college. Research shows that open-office plans kill productivity by 15 percent. The reason is they encourage nothing but endless distraction, forcing people who actually need to concentrate to work (that’s everyone) to buy additional equipment to drown each other out and spend enormous energy ignoring intrusive sounds. Workers lose something like 86 minutes a day to blocking this crap out, and by the time you add chitchat and lunch, you’ve now burned half the day.

Much of that is the cumulative effect of the noise of people being people without walls to buffer it — no one’s fault but the designers — but a particular type of jerk insists on setting the mood for everyone by playing their own music, or listening to videos without headphones, or yakking it up with others well within the earshot of everyone. Who died and made you office DJ? Slap on those headphones and get to quietly tapping your foot on any surface covered with cloth.

Back off Your Female Colleagues
Everyone endures the scrutiny of the open-office plan, but women in particular find it especially grueling, according to research into the subtle sexism of the layout. Because there’s a greater tendency for men to look at, notice and comment upon women’s appearances than the reverse, women feel more on display in open layouts. As a result, they tend to feel more pressure to dress up and look good, which increases their anxiety. What’s more, because culture permits women to express and display a greater range of emotion in public and in the office, women find it more stressful to mask those feelings in open offices. If they need to have a private conversation, or go somewhere to be upset, they must flee to the bathroom to avoid being detected, judged or questioned about it.

This is also true with particular female ailments: Women in the research found it difficult to manage everything from cramps to menopause due to the attention a fan might create (hot flashes), or even, say, managing cramps.

This is doubly true for harassment, and women in open office spaces have described the constant sense of surveillance from higher-ups as to their whereabouts — but also lack of options for privacy or escape — as a contributing factor in being sexually harassed.

Your best bet is to never comment on your fellow female colleague’s appearance or emotional state, unless you’re already buds and you know it’s well-received. What’s more, if you do see something truly troubling, speak up. Research shows it’s the best antidote to workplace harassment.

Practice Good Hygiene
People who work in open office plans use 62 percent more sick leave! That’s not always directly a result of infectious disease — sometimes it’s the result of higher blood pressure from constant stress in an open office plan (thanks to the stress of having your back exposed). Sometimes it’s literally everyone’s germs flying all around the place like crazy.

And there’s a domino effect: It’s one thing to trudge into work with a terrible cold, or menstrual cramps, or hungover, and muddle through because you can slump down behind your private half-partition undetected. But when your personal health is not just threatened by your office layout, but also always on display for everyone to see, you’re much more likely to stay home rather than submit to the fishbowl. Bare minimum, by practicing good health hygiene to minimize contagion, when you are sick, you don’t have to be the jerk who sets off an epidemic of office call-ins.

What’s more, you can avoid scent pollution (and migraines) by staying relatively well-bathed, and by not wearing overpowering scents that agitate your fellow tablemates.

Leave Your Desk and Go Somewhere — Anywhere
Finally, the easiest and best way to not be a jerk in an open-office plan — and, if you’re looking for a silver lining — is to lay low and make yourself scarce. One of the few upsides to open-office layouts is that to avoid being constantly surveilled and distracted, workers put a lot of energy into finding somewhere else to be. They go for walks, hide on the stairs, head outside or just meander about forlornly.

Regardless, it all adds up to more physical activity. One study found that office workers who need to escape the hell of the peep show were 32 percent more active than the more sedentary workers who have their own private box. This of course presumes that your office is the sort where you can somehow manage to sneak away without detection or weird vibes.

But if you can manage it, make your escape. If enough people keep a constant rotation of absences from their desks, ignore each other, and generally mind our own beeswax, we all might actually get some work done.