Surviving the open-plan office

Hell is other people, according to the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. If you work in an open-plan office you may agree with that statement on the human condition.

One colleague talks too loudly on the phone, another gossips constantly and a third likes snacking at his desk. How can you be expected to work under those conditions? Easy: Everyone just has to follow a few simple rules of etiquette.

Open-plan offices have their advantages: There's plenty of space and it's easy to communicate. But not everyone finds it easy to work in that environment.

"You need to have a thick skin," says etiquette coach Gabrielle Krischel. High noise levels can make it very difficult to concentrate. Colleagues have to be especially considerate so they don't get on each other's nerves. "The more people there are working together, the more important it is to stick to the rules."

Sources of annoyance in the office include:

The telephone: Must your neighbour speak so loudly on the phone? Krischel says it's right to make it clear that's not allowed. That can be done by agreeing to a visual signal for clamorous colleagues. It could be a red card, just like referees use in football matches. "Some people are simply not aware they're speaking loudly," says Krischel.

The mobile phone: Ring tones can be very annoying. A colleague's mobile that is constantly ringing is another source of irritation in the office. Krischel advises switching your phone to vibration mode and turning off the ring tone. "And don't stroll around the office making telephone calls."

Private conversations: A colleague is having trouble with his girlfriend? How nice that everyone can keep track of the ups and downs of their relationship as they telephone each other. To avoid that embarrassing situation just step out of the office or go to another room. "Otherwise everyone will eavesdrop on what's being said," says etiquette coach Imme Vogelsang.

Disorder and grime: The office fridge is full of yoghurt cartons growing new forms of bacteria and the kitchen is stacked with dirty cups and plates. An open office can quickly get dirty when no one feels responsible. The best way to keep disorder under control is when everyone does their bit. "Some people just leave mugs in the kitchen and hope they will be cleaned and tidied away over night," says Vogelsang.


It's not asking too much for everyone to place their cutlery in the dishwasher, says Krischel. "The last person to leave turns the machine on." The same rule of keeping order applies to desktops. "Under no circumstances should desktops be allowed to get dirty," says Agnes Jarosch from Germany's Etiquette Association.

Food in the office: "Some people have no inhibitions when it comes to food," says Vogelsang. "They will bring in bags of chips or boxes of noodles and then the whole office smells." For other people in the office that's a recipe for losing their appetite. Jarosch's advice: "It's okay to eat an apple or a snack bar at your desk but a meal that smells is taboo."

The most annoying thing in an office: Sticklers for order and nagging ninnies. An empty bottle appears on a desk and somebody immediately objects: "That's against office etiquette!" People like that always have something to complain about. They too might be a source of annoyance.