Prior to the rise in popularity of the open office configuration, conference rooms were usually a dreaded place where you could disappear into a time wormhole and emerge hours later not really sure why there was a meeting in the first place. Today the pendulum has swing the other way and the conference room is now a coveted destination that offers some peace and privacy in an otherwise open office that can be full of noise and distractions. As you might expect, this means that the conference room is more in demand than ever, which can cause scheduling conflicts and tension among colleagues.
The Rise of the Open Office
While the transition to an open office plan began with the best of intentions, study after study has shown that the end results have fallen significantly short of expectations. In the beginning, companies thought that one of the main advantages of removing walls would be increased interaction and communication among employees. Removing physical barriers was meant to encourage sharing and innovation. Unfortunately, without any boundaries, there is no “off” switch when it comes to interactions.
If you are working on meeting a deadline and need a quiet space to concentrate, there is nothing to discourage a fellow employee from dropping by to share a story about their weekend or ask you a question. You can’t simply shut the door and block out any noise from people chatting on their phones or gossiping at their desks.
To combat this constant barrage of distractions, some employees have resorted to wearing headphones, which has led to the joke, “headphones are the new wall.” This solution is problematic because it essentially defeats the intended purpose of the open office and not every works well with music blaring in their ears. In some cases, headphones are simply the better of two evils.
What Does the Science Show?
A lot of what you will read about the advantages and disadvantages of the open office is based on employee feedback. This type of information can come across as anecdotal, which is why researchers have gone the extra mile to compile data and take a comprehensive look at the effects of the open office on employee morale and productivity.
In one study by the British Psychological Society, the results were damning: “Our results categorically contradict the industry-accepted wisdom that open-pan layout enhances communication between colleagues and improves occupant’s overall work environmental satisfaction.” All this has led to increased competition for limited conference room space and rising tensions among co-workers.
The Coveted Conference Room
One of the unintended consequences of moving to an open office plan is an increased demand for conference room use. With high demand and limited resources, there is bound to be trouble. It seems that the search for private space has caused colleagues to throw civility out the window and adopt the every man for himself mentality. Employers are now having to implement conference room rules for etiquette where common sense and mutual respect used to be enough to keep the peace.
When it comes to conference room offenses, here are some of the most common complaints:
- The conference room hog. Apparently, one way to find solitude in an open office plan is to simply turn the conference room into your personal office. With plenty of table space and an actual door that closes, this can be hard to resist, but this strategy is sure to create enemies.
- Occupying the room without an appointment. Just because the conference room looks empty, doesn’t mean that is up for grabs. Setting up shop when a meeting is scheduled to start in five minutes can cause problems and make the company look unprofessional, especially to any outside parties visiting for the meeting.
- Ignoring the schedule. Most businesses have had to institute a schedule that requires employees to submit usage requests to one designated person. Occupying the room outside of a scheduled block of time is another surefire way to make the workplace a little less pleasant.
- Going over the allotted time. Meetings seem to have a habit of going over time, but again, it is important to respect the schedule. Just five minutes over can cause a domino effect of delays that can bring tensions to a boiling point.
Open Office Conference Room Solutions
The simplest way to reduce tensions around the office conference room is to set clear ground rules and create an easy way for employees to schedule time to occupy the room. It might seem silly to have to take this approach when dealing with grown professionals, you have to keep in mind that these employees are working under stressful conditions that aren’t conducive to productivity or job satisfaction. They may not be on their best behavior, but communication can go a long way to preventing tensions from rising even further.
Unfortunately, conference room rules are also a short-term solution that don’t really get to the root of the problem. The absolute best way to prevent do away with conference room problems is to provide more privacy for employees so that they aren’t so desperate to escape to the one room that offers some peace and quiet. What the open office might provide in initial savings, is lost when it comes to employee productivity and turnover. While these numbers may be difficult to quantify, the experts agree: the actual disadvantages of the open office far outweigh any perceived advantages.
It might not be financially feasible to provide everyone with their own private office, but there are affordable options when it comes to installing partitions and work station units that can be configured to meet a variety of needs. Providing some barriers will reduce noise and distractions, help prevent illnesses from spreading throughout the office, improve morale and productivity and reduce tensions over the conference room. Instead of completely overhauling the entire office building, start with small changes and incorporate office furniture solutions that can help create a more pleasant work environment.