Mind Your Manners: 5 Open-Office Etiquette Tips That Are Easy-to-Implement

May 27, 2019

Two male and two female employees communicating in a shared open office workspac
Erin Ollila

An open office can foster creativity and communication, while also being a major distraction for some employees. So, how do organizations who want a wide-open floor plan cater to employees who need to concentrate, while also setting up the space for creative collaboration? The answer is simple: developing rules around open-office etiquette, and following through to make sure these guidelines are actually followed.

If you want a work space that is kinetic, rather than frustrating, here are five easy-to-implement guidelines for office etiquette within an open floor plan.

Be Tidy and Organized

Does it look like a tornado swept through your open office? Visual clutter is a massive problem for professionals. While some employees may do just fine working under piles of paper and random clutter, other employees may be stressed to the max, leading to confusion and feeling unfocused. Implementing a tidy work space policy is one thing to increase productivity and decrease distractions.

Plus, if clients or other visitors, like investors, stop by for a visit, the mild work space clutter that often goes unnoticed by regular employees is going to stick out like a sore thumb to someone who sees the space for the first time. Office etiquette dictates that community spaces be tidy, organized and inviting to all, and an open office requires all employees to keep their areas clean. If your staff isn't following through in this task, implement new procedures, like an end-of-day decluttering session where all employees actually stop working 15 minutes before their shift ends, and spend that time cleaning their private or shared spaces.

Create Quiet Spaces

The journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine recently published a study with findings that showed employees have lower perceived stress and higher levels of activity in open offices. However, that doesn't negate the fact that sometimes your team will need quiet areas, whether for a client call, a private meeting or just a chance to escape the noise.

If you have enclosed areas, such as a meeting room, allow your staff to book time in there when needed for solo work if they require a quiet space to concentrate. Even a loft-style work space can convert a small area of the floor plan to a quiet space. If there are no walls, throw up some room dividers around a small work space and purchase noise-blocking headphones or a white-noise machine that employees can use in that area. Similarly, if no enclosed areas are available, reconfigure the space to have as much open-seating spaces in one area with a quiet space in the complete opposite direction.

Respect Other's Privacy and Space

Just because everyone can see each other doesn't mean your employees don't need a bit of privacy from time to time, which is important for both professional and personal matters. Professionally, open-office etiquette requires that each employee have their own work space. If they choose to bring in a Jabba the Hutt bobblehead, that's their person property and no one else should be touching it. Similarly, no one should be rifling through another person's papers unless they've been given permission to do so. Professional privacy means that no one is eavesdropping on work meetings or phone calls, and other similar circumstances.

Employees also experience personal situations at work, too. They might receive an email or text from a family member or friend that needs addressing. In today's work culture, this is commonplace, and they deserve a moment of personal privacy too, as long as no one is abusing this time.

To minimize space and privacy issues in an open office, encourage your employees to respect physical boundaries. Instead of knocking on a door — since there isn't one — they could instead send an online message or ask if now is an appropriate time to stop by for a chat. Similarly, encourage your employees with privacy concerns to use the quiet or secluded areas for their calls or conversations that shouldn't be overheard.

Reduce Strong Smells

Sorry, but putrid cheese snacks and strong perfumes don't have a place in an open-office environment. Strong smells have a way of permeating through wide-open spaces, and employees don't want to suffer around other people's smells. As part of your open-office policy on etiquette, encourage your employees to leave strong smells at home. Or, if you have an enclosed area, make that your lunch room where smelly foods can be eaten. As for perfumes, lotions and, unfortunately, body odor, employees should be spoken to privately regarding company policies.

Reducing the amount of strong smells isn't only important in open offices where anyone could be bothers, but it's also crucial for employees with allergies who have no private space to withdraw to.

Stay Home If You're Not Feeling Well

Open offices are great for collaboration because of physical proximity to your peers, but they also aid in spreading germs when one person is sick. Instead of one illness taking down your entire team, enforce a stringent sick leave policy. And, make sure everyone in the organization follows it, including the management, as company culture dictates whether or not employees will actually take the time off. Your policies should also encourage employees with mild illnesses who may consider coming in to work because they aren't sick "enough" to work from home if possible. The less illness in your open work space, the more productive and less distracted your team will be.

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