The 10 Best Tips on How to Survive an Open or Shared Office

The 10 Best Tips to Survive Working in an Open or Shared Office

Over the past decade, I’ve worked in what seems like a countless number of different work environments and setups.  Of all of these, none have been more dreadful than the open and shared offices I’ve had to endure.  I’ve never had a good experience working in one of these setups.  I don’t think many people do.

Unfortunately, due to the increasingly capitalistic approach of many companies, more and more workplaces are adopting open and shared office arrangements due to their cost savings benefits.  Office equipment, cubicles, and of course office space, are all quite costly, (I was surprised when I learned how much a simple cubicle setup cost!), and employers do stand to save quite a lot by placing workers into these environments.  After all, 50 shared offices are cheaper than 100 single offices!

Are Open and Shared Offices Really That Beneficial?

Unfortunately, costs savings is usually one of the only benefits, as various research studies have shown decreased levels of productivity and higher levels of unhappiness in employees when working in an open or shared office.  Employers try to defend their actions by claiming these setups increase productivity by allowing collaboration to more naturally exist, or that each person’s skills and knowledge are more accessible or shareable to their co-workers due to proximity.  However, the actual result is an environment when professional adults lose all privacy, are micromanaged, and have to deal with a mess of conflicting personalities, habits, and work styles.

These work setups can do some good under the right circumstances, but the odds are generally stacked against you.  Working in an open or shared office is much like having to share a living space with roommates.  It’s rare to find that perfect person who is respectful, mannerly, and clicks with your personality and style.

Because people tend to be different, a best-case roommate situation often times is just someone that will simply ignore you and not make your life difficult, while far too often many individuals become the roommate from hell who make you absolutely hate and dread everything about your situation.  When it comes to working in an open or shared office, how lucky do you feel?  Will you get those perfect co-workers?  Likely not.

Making the Best of an Open or Shared Office

So working in an open or shared office is usually a bummer, but I’m here to say it can be made better.  I’ve put together a list of the top ten things I did to make my own experiences in these setups more bearable, and sometimes even not so bad at all.  There are some differences between open and shared offices, but after much thought, I found them similar enough that you could apply my set of strategies to either.  If you play your cards right, maybe you’ll even be able to turn the environment into a positive one.  Here are the tips and tricks for surviving an open office plan or shared office!

10 Tips to Make Working in an Open or Shared Office So Much Better:

1. Follow the Golden Rule

Treat others how you wish to be treated.  Be kind to someone and they are more likely to be kind to you, but be a jerk to someone and they will probably be a jerk to you back.  Be the bigger person, don’t judge, don’t discriminate, simply treat others the way they wish they would treat you, even if they haven’t been the greatest to you.  Lead by example, others will likely follow.

2. Communicate, Let People Know What’s Bothering You!

Speak up!  Communicate with your co-workers and let them know when something they do or say is bothering you.  Far too many people stay quiet hoping that the other person will have the good sense to stop on their own.  Unfortunately, people cannot read minds!

We also can’t assume that the other person knows their actions bother us.  Sometimes people may be completely oblivious they are bothering someone until it is mentioned, and usually once they know, they are apologetic and make a good effort to change their behavior to make you comfortable (Not everyone is a jerk).

The longer you stay quiet, the more unwanted behaviors become ingrained in the work environment while passive aggressiveness tends to build amongst workers.  Nip all these in the bud by simply talking about it like the mature adults you are!

3. Invest in a Pair of Headphones

For the folks who aren’t exactly socialites, a good pair of headphones will be a godsend.  Not only will a good pair of headphones allow you to listen to your favorite music, podcast, radio, or show without disturbing others, but they will also help block out the circus of noise in the office while also creating a protective aura around you that usually prevents people from trying to disturb you often.

If the look doesn’t bother you, I recommend a big pair of closed back headphones as opposed to earbuds.  The audio quality will be much better, noise won’t leak in or out of your headphones helping to block out those office distractions, and it definitely helps with that whole “don’t bother me now” thing we were talking about earlier.  As a general rule of thumb though, be mindful of your volume levels as you should still be able to hear someone if they are speaking to you directly without them having to scream your name.

4. Work Differing Schedules

Many companies are opening up to more flexible work schedules and even opportunities to work from home.  If you’re someone that really dislikes the aspects of an open or shared office, see if you could work an alternate schedule when less people will be around.  If most people work from 9AM to 6PM, perhaps you can alter your schedule to 7AM-4PM or 11AM-8PM to get a few hours of quiet and undisrupted time.  Perhaps you can work on the weekends and take your days off on the weekdays, or work from home if your company allows it.  If your co-worker is taking PTO for one week, why not take your PTO another week?  This especially works well in a shared office.  With a little planning, you might be able to have the office to yourself for a majority of the week depending on your company’s flexibility.

5. Respect Boundaries

I would hope that this would be common sense, but please respect your co-workers’ privacy and boundaries.  Don’t noticeably eavesdrop on their phone calls, or peer at their computer monitor every few minutes.  Don’t pry for details on what they are working on or what they are doing.  The same goes for personal details about their lives unless they are willing to share that information on their own. Avoid putting your co-workers into situations that might embarrass them or make them feel uncomfortable.

Last but not least, it’s just as important to respect physical boundaries.  Be mindful of yours’ and others’ desks and office spaces and don’t encroach upon them.  Don’t take or borrow things from your co-workers’ space or possession without their permission.  Even with their express permission, it’s still polite to ask every time as a courtesy.  The respect of a person’s boundaries is akin to the respect for the person themselves, which will ultimately foster more positive relationships and environments.

6. Establish Norms and Rules for the Office

Take the opportunity to discuss with your co-workers a set of rules or norms that you and your co-workers should follow to make everyone’s workplace a little better.  You can address common occurrences like whether or not you should speak to your co-workers when they are on the phone, or whether your co-workers prefer you verbally call out to them or email them instead.  You can discuss if you’re willing to be interrupted on your lunch or not.

Discuss other common disturbances like agreeing to not wear too much fragrance/lotion or use over-powering air fresheners, taking especially smelly lunches to the break room, trying to stay home when sick, or taking personal phone calls to a private space.  Laying out the groundwork for what is acceptable or unacceptable behavior saves a lot of time and frustration in the long run!

7. Utilize Conference Rooms or Quiet Work Spaces

While companies are shrinking in office size and floor space, conference rooms and quiet workspaces are not disappearing.  There are very few companies that are actively using their conference rooms for business around the clock, and most of them sit idle for large chunks of the day.

Use these rooms to your advantage, whether it be a private and quiet space to take a phone call or a place to go get some work done in absolute peace and quiet.  Just make sure you follow your company’s policy for using these rooms, though the process is usually as simple as checking if the room is booked and booking it for yourself when you want to use it.  Many companies won’t even require you to book them, so use that conference room to your heart’s content!

8. Keep Expectations Realistic

When expectations are unrealistic or too high, the result is unhappiness as the expectations cannot usually be met.  Keep your expectations in check when working in these work environments.

Realize compromises will have to be made, and you’re likely not going to be able to have the ideal work environment you could have had in a private office.  Much like living with a roommate, accept the reality of your situation and try to make the best of it.  Give it a little, take a little, work together with your co-workers to find the right balance that works best for all of you.  No, it’s not going to be perfect, but things in life rarely are.

9. Foster an Environment of Inclusivity with your Co-Workers

When reasonable, try to include your co-workers in as much as possible in the happenings of the office and other work-related events.  Introduce your co-workers to people you know that they may not know.  Keep them involved with company activity, reminding them of meetings, important work tasks, or project details that may have slipped their mind.  (It’s happened to me, I once missed a company-wide meeting because my co-workers never told me where they were going off too and I had forgotten to put it on my calendar!)

If you work with a smaller group of co-workers, a very nice gesture is to ask them if they want any food or drinks when you are planning to go out yourself.  It’s usually not an inconvenience to see if others want to join in on a to-go food order or coffee run if you were already planning to go out for it anyway.  It’s the little things like these that make people feel closer together, more thought of, and happier to be a part of their work team.

10. Create Privacy if Possible

If privacy is an issue, as it usually is in these environments, try to make your own privacy.  If allowable, rearrange office furniture or equipment to what suits your comfort levels.

For example, perhaps a room has two desks with one in front of the other.  The back desk people can see the front desk people’s computer monitors and actions at all times, much to the frustration of the front desk workers!  Why not take the two desks and put them together with the computer monitors back to back instead so everyone can have a bit more private screen space?

If full-on office rearranging is out of the question, look into putting up decorations, barriers, or other objects to block other’s views and prying eyes.  I’ve seen people use everything from potted plants to filing cabinets to miniature cubicle walls to successfully create some extra privacy for themselves!

Wrapping It All Up!

Though most workers dread open or shared office work environments, I’m hoping the above strategies will help you with being happier and more successful in these office setups.  It’s not an easy work environment to tackle, but I hope you can turn it into something that isn’t so bad after all.

That being said… if you ever feel your work environment has become too disruptive, hostile, unsafe, uncomfortable, or toxic, please remember that this is NOT normal and that you deserve so much better.  Perhaps it might be time to leave the company, request a new working space, or bring the issues to leadership or Human Resources.  You deserve the right to feel comfortable at work.

If the company refuses to resolve any major issues such as harassment or safety issues in the workplace, that company is simply a terrible company you’re better off not working for.  In many cases, they are just opening the door for litigation against them.  No one should need to tolerate such behavior and a company that “brushes” incidents under the rug are none the better.  Please don’t allow yourself to become victim to such an environment, do what you must to make things better for yourself, you deserve it.

Yours Truly,
– Mr. Happy Work

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Evelyn Hernandez
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Evelyn Hernandez

I agree communication is key, but the noise cancelling headphones tip is also great.

Nicole
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Nicole

Headphones and coming in early is what has always worked best for me. I love your other tips, I’ll have to give them a go the next time I’m working in that kind of environment.

JOHN MULINDI
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JOHN MULINDI

I think the concept of open or shared office works well only if everyone works per the rules. Thanks for sharing these tips.

Carrie Lewis
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Carrie Lewis

Thanks Mr. Happy Work! I do share an office and these are GREAT suggestions. Your article even inspired me to get a better set of earphones! I want to be productive and sometimes, shared spaces can be so so distracting.

Jennifer Dagi
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Jennifer Dagi

I love my private life so much and I hate it when people interfere especially coworkers. I would choose a private office any day!

Hip Mama's Place (@HipMamasPlace)
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I know someone who just opened a business like this – a share office space. I have never personally been in one or experienced working with shared spaces but these are good tips!

Becca Holloman
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Becca Holloman

An open office environment can be very distracting and at some times downright annoying. These are some really great tips!

aisasami
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aisasami

Japan favors open offices. You can see a whole team of a company stuffed in one floor of an office, with all the desks next to each other. I fortunately work for a small company and can use an empty room for work.

kumamonjeng
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Great tips for any new staff who just joined a company! I wish I came across this post when I just started work, that way I wouldn’t have bumped into so many issues.

Lisa Rios
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Lisa Rios

Communication IS key! You totally want to talk and interact with those around you, especially if something is wrong for you personally.

theworldthroughascholz
Guest

I could only guess what this must be like, but I do like these tips. I could even use them with my kids! haha. But really, this can be carried into a lot of areas in your life. Thank you so much.

Chai
Guest

These are some really good tips. I like that all of these things can be applied to a hard shared office situation too. More companies are doing these types of setups now…

♥ Live ♥ Laugh ♥ Learn ♥
Guest

I had a shared office once and it surprisingly amazing!
My “room mate” and I had worked at the company for years and had our own offices until we moved to a different space and it was 2 people to an office. We knew we wouldn’t work out with anyone else so we put in the request to share and it worked out! It helps when you are friends and know how to work together before hand. Luckily, we had the same taste in music and we both need to have background noise. It can be difficult sometimes when you are both on the phone at the same time but other than that, it was my favorite thing about working there!

Preet
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Preet

I love sharing office space with my co-workers. It makes me feel happy and I can often make some new friends. For me, there is no problem with sharing the space and it’s no problem for my co-workers either.

Elizabeth O
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Elizabeth O

This is great advice for surviving a open office. It can be really difficult especially when you need your own space. Great tips.

Nancie
Guest

I’m not a fan of open work spaces. I will definitely invest in a set of headphone if I find myself working in this kind of setup. Great tips.

Adepoju Grace
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Adepoju Grace

Investing in good headphones is key. It can really make all the difference.

Heather
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Heather

Ugh, I HATE this concept! I was always so grateful to have even the privacy of a cubicle when I was in the corporate world. But nothing in the world beat having a door! LOL

annerbananer1
Guest

I have never worked in an open office set-up but it sounds like kind of a nightmare. I get super distracted by noise, so your headphones idea would be perfect for me.

travelwriter73
Guest

Hey I just went from my own office. Then open space with 26 other people. And now back to a shared office of 2. What do I prefer? The shared office of 2! Enough for company-but not noisy. I really dont get ipen planned offices at all. We all talk too much, its noisy and also – we get each others illnesses! Its truly a false economy of cost savings. Honestly never been so sick as when I shared office space open plan. Great tips for ‘living with it’. But dont stay! Its also subconsciously stressful too being in open plan.

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