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The New Open Office Environment

Open-plan offices are more prevalent than ever, with low partitions and glass walls becoming the norm in tech companies, real estate agencies, law practices, publishing houses, accounting firms and a myriad of other businesses.

At times, the noise level in these workplaces can be extremely high and may prove distracting for some workers. On the other hand, if the majority of workers are glued to their cubes, wearing noise-canceling headphones or earbuds, the silence can be a little eerie. So, can you have a lively, open environment and still get work done?

Wearing headphones helps some employees immerse themselves in their work. They act as a do-not-disturb sign to their coworkers, creating the sense of solitude necessary to complete their projects. In that sense, productivity may increase. However, by focusing primarily on the work in front of them, these employees may be missing out on important things going on around them.

Employees who wear headphones are, in a sense, isolating themselves from others in their organization. Although important job-related information will usually get through, informal conversations that may include relevant news won’t be overheard, such as company successes or individual achievements, and these create a sense of shared purpose and community. Missing these tidbits of conversation may contribute to a worker feeling — and being — left out of the loop. And that can impede career advancement.

The ambient office experience of social chit-chat, discussions and random conversations are a big part of what make up a company’s personality. Engaging in the buzz of activity is important, not just so an employee can keep up with the daily news, but so they can contribute to the company culture. Without that engagement, they might miss out on opportunities to develop and grow.

In many offices, collaboration is an integral part of the work process. Conceptualizing and creating innovative solutions are often best accomplished through a team effort. And collaboration does not have to be confined to formal meetings. Often the experience is more casual — exchanging resources and generating ideas through spontaneous interaction.

So, where’s the sweet spot between being inner-directed and outer-focused? Perhaps it’s just a matter of finding the right balance. A good strategy may be to wear headphones only when the noise level prevents the concentration required for being productive. But, take them off and make a concerted effort to connect with coworkers the rest of the time.

Companies should also get involved by cultivating environments that encourage collaboration and interaction while also creating quiet spaces for employees who need them.