Open-plan office settings aren't ideal for all employees.

In organizations across the world, workplaces are becoming more open. It could be the spread of equality-oriented management styles, or the simple fact that real estate prices have soared worldwide. For whatever reason, in many different types of organizations, employees’ desks are assembled in large, open rooms, with colleagues only separated by chest-high barriers. In the language of the Cultural Orientations Approach, these are called public-oriented spaces because of their emphasis on proximity and open, permeable boundaries.

There are upsides to this arrangement. Many managers believe that having desks assembled in close proximity to each other increases communication and collaboration among colleagues. It is also much less expensive for organizations to seat employees in clusters of desks rather than in individual offices.

But there are downsides too. For one, it is awfully noisy. From the sound of one’s next-cubicle neighbor typing on their keyboard, to having to conduct business phone calls within earshot of multiple people, public-oriented workplaces are loud. This, of course, makes it difficult for people to concentrate. Because much of the world’s economies are becoming more and more knowledge based, this is a real problem. There are no statistics on how much productivity is lost because of ambient noise disruptions, but many employees can attest that it is a challenge to focus in such environments.

Another issue presented by public-oriented workspaces is working around hierarchy preferences. In hierarchical societies, managers and executives are physically separated from those on the lower levels within an organization. Public-oriented workspaces place people in junior, middle and even executive levels together, and, if there are any private offices at all, they are reserved for those at the upper-most echelon. While sitting next to one’s superior may be ideal for equality-oriented employees, some hierarchy-oriented people may feel uncomfortable and become taciturn in their office with their boss so close. This can thwart office relationship building and the creative exchange of ideas. In addition, some mid-level managers may feel overlooked by the company if they are forced to sit with those they supervise.

So what are organizational leaders to do to accommodate employees who do not necessarily embrace public-oriented workspaces? Aside from offering earplugs to employees bothered by their colleagues’ noise, the careful arrangement of seats can be productive. If there are complaints about one employee who is particularly noisy, that individual can be moved to an outer corner of the space. Quiet-touch keyboards are another solution, as is designating a closed office space for phone calls and virtual conferences. To accommodate hierarchy-oriented employees in public-oriented workspaces, supervisors of different departments can be moved to a designated corner of the office to separate them slightly from their subordinates, which would make both sides more comfortable.

As business becomes more globalized, and real estate more expensive, the use of public-oriented workspaces grows. Many see positives to this arrangement, but some would prefer some privacy and distance from their peers and subordinates. It is up to organizational leaders and employees at all levels to work together to make the best of the situation.

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