I’ve worked in an open office setup for the bulk of my professional career. This has typically meant sharing an office space with multiple co-workers and students. It has also meant working in a space that is open to the public. In 2015 there was around six or eight months where I had an office to myself, though I tended to have an open door policy.
Recently, after some internal discussions the space that I work in is no longer open to the public every single hour that I’m there. The new public hours have only been in operation for a bit over a week – but is essentially means half my time is spent with an open door and the other half the office door is shut. This week has got me thinking a lot about the value of closed doors, dedicated processing time, and carving out time for specific projects. I had forgotten how much value there is in having a door that can be closed.
I like the flexibility of being able to help people when they drop in. But I’m also really valuing the time I have carved out each day to work on longer term projects, processing that can’t be done in a public space, and the ability to have phone calls without worrying if someone is going to walk in.
When you are front line facing it can often become challenging to dedicate time to non immediate needs – the needs of patrons, rightly, come first. Having staff you can rotate off with or a dedicated space away from patrons can be a huge boon in terms of finding time to do all the other tasks associated with archives aside from research requests and public programming.
I’d be interested in hearing how others balance front line facing roles with other aspects of archival practice. I think is particularly a challenge in small shops where one person does almost everything – from accessioning to reference – and that individual needs to set their own schedule and boundaries.
Years ago I volunteered in the collections department of the Dufferin County Museum and Archives. I remember being amazed at how well the collections staff handled frequent interruptions that came with working in an open office space and being responsible for a small army of volunteers. Working in an open office situation or in a position that involves interruptions is something that is fairly common in many heritage positions. Roles that involve this type of work environment can take some time to get used to and might be something that many new heritage professionals don’t consider when applying for jobs.
You might expect an museum technician, collections manager, or archives tech position to be very focused on the organization’s holdings and not subject to so many external influences. This is true in some cases. But many heritage jobs involve multitasking, interacting with people, and sometimes working in the open. This is particularly true in smaller organizations where one person is responsible for a huge range of activities and might be jumping from cataloging artifacts to answering reference questions.
I like the interaction that comes with working in an open office and I like the fact that it can contribute to working on a wide range of projects and having more interaction with the public. But it can at times also mean it’s hard to get a chunk of quiet time to work on more detail oriented projects. Some of the strategies I’ve used to keep on track while working in an open office space include:
- Being able to select the type of work you’re going to do on any given day can be important. For example, if you know you’re going to have a day filled with interruptions pick work that is easy to put down and pick back up.
- I keep a list of ongoing projects broken into specific tasks. This helps me manage my workload but also is a spot I can leave notes for myself to remind me about project details.
- Know your working style and try to fit that into your surroundings. Quiet time in the mornings are very important to me, I often come in a bit earlier than other people so I can have a bit of time to get settled in the morning. This helps me orient myself for the day and get started in the right mind-frame.
- Communicating with coworkers can help a lot with finding the right balance of being open and accessible.
- Earphones are your friend. For music and white noise. They can also be used as a signal to others not to interrupt you.
- Having a separate space to take long phone calls or meetings is helpful. Many organizations that have moved to open offices have found that providing meeting room and conference room space is essential to open offices working long term.
Have you worked in an open office space? Did you like it? How has office layout impacted your working style?