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Open office collaboration: 9 tips for balancing office space


The good things about open office spaces – more light, easy collaboration, a team feeling, cross-pollination of ideas – are the same characteristics that lead to employee frustration. No offices, walls or doors mean higher noise levels, lack of privacy, more frequent interruptions and little control over your environment.

So, how do you balance your team’s need for creative get-togethers with quiet time to concentrate?

Here are nine ways to promote positive open office collaboration and reduce distractions.

1. Be open to remote work arrangements

Does your company still maintain policies that discourage or forbid remote work? If your open office doesn’t include quiet rooms or other areas where employees can get the peace they need to be productive, it may be time to revisit those policies.

Keep in mind that “remote” doesn’t have to mean working from home. It may mean letting employees decamp to a nearby coffee shop so they’re still close enough to quickly get into the office for impromptu meetings.

Depending on your company’s needs, an informal arrangement where employees can work from home as needed may work. Other teams may require a more formal schedule, such as half the staff working off-site Mondays and Wednesdays and the other half working from home Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Could it work for your business? Find out here: Making a flexible work arrangement work for your company 

2. Take a look at gathering spots

Copier rooms and break rooms tend to be places where everyone naturally stops to chat about projects, their weekend and company news. That’s a good thing. However, if the room stays noisy all day and bothers nearby workers, it’s time to do something more than put up signs asking people to be quiet.

Consider if your office’s natural gathering spots can be moved or walled off, or if nearby workers can be moved to quieter areas to support positive open office collaboration.

3. Look beyond your usual team set-up

Companies tend to seat all the accountants together, all the marketing folks together, etc., without regard for individual workspace needs. Thus, the noisy collaborators get mixed in with those who need to concentrate, much to everyone’s displeasure.

Consider whether Ken, your needs-quiet marketing analyst, must really work in the midst of your boisterous salespeople. Maybe Ken can be more productive and happier just around the corner where it’s quieter. 

4. Promote self-awareness

John has a booming phone voice while Dana likes to talk through her projects with teammates. As manager, it’s your job to promote enough self-awareness among your employees to make sure these natural work styles don’t frustrate others. Remind louder employees to make calls in another area or move their mini-meetings to designated collaboration areas. And, make sure your team feels comfortable speaking up if they need more quiet, or more freedom to collaborate.

Not sure how to address noisy employees? Read: 8 Quick Tips for Handling Overly Social Employees

5. Give employees more control

Lack of control of the workspace is a common complaint of open workspaces.

You can help employees feel they have more control of their environment by making it okay to post a note at their desk that lets their coworkers know they need uninterrupted time to concentrate. The note might say, “Need to focus. Project deadline at 3 p.m.”

Another option: Distribute some kind of universal marker, such as a sign, flag or light, to everyone. When employees need quiet time, they display the marker on their desks, indicating that they need privacy. This will discourage employees from “popping in” and other interruptions.

You can also allow workers to move to other areas of the building for a few hours or even days to get work done, or encourage employees frustrated by noise to take a walk outside to clear their head. You might even take the lock off the thermostat to allow employees to make their area feel more comfortable.

6. Build out your space differently

Yes, it’s probably the most expensive option, but if you have nothing but open space, it’s time to budget for adding some walls and doors back into your office.

Consider your team’s needs. Do they want a series of collaboration spaces for groups of two to five people, small quiet rooms for single workers or one big meeting room? What about an old-fashioned phone booth for personal calls? How about benches or tables and chairs outside on a deck?

7. Encourage noisy activities to move elsewhere

If a weekly team meeting disrupts those working nearby, consider moving your meeting outside or some other alternative space. Similarly, if a lunch bunch tends to congregate in a common workspace to eat, suggest they move to the designated break room. And, if they’re not eating there already, ask why. The room may not have enough chairs or no windows or otherwise needs changes that will turn it into a natural gathering spot.

Not sure how to start the conversation? Read: 9 Crucial Rules to Remember When Having Difficult Conversations with Employees 

8. Schedule quiet times

Depending on the type of work your team does, it may help to schedule quiet times. It may be a certain time each day, a single day each week, or even an entire week if the whole team needs to buckle down and get a project out the door.

To be most effective, quiet times should be planned ahead of time and communicated in advance to other teams.

9. Filter the noise, if you can’t reduce it

If noise levels are a frequent complaint and moving locations or building out new space isn’t possible, encourage employees to use headphones and add sound-absorbing materials to their workspace. Sound-absorbing materials, such as plants and carpets, don’t have to be expensive and can significantly muffle noise.

You could even buy everyone on your team noise-cancelling headphones emblazoned with the company logo. Some employees may find it helpful to listen to music to block out noise, while others may find nature sounds or white noise more helpful. Several free online services are available.

Regardless of the solutions you try, it’s critical to consult your team before implementing changes. Then, once you’ve implemented changes, after three to six months revisit whether the changes are actually helping employees improve their productivity and workplace satisfaction. 

Want more tips to help motivate your workforce? Download our free magazine, The Insperity guide to employee engagement, issue 1.