Came across this post on open floor plans via Gabe at Macdrifter. The article is about labs, but I think it’s applicable to offices in general. Our new office has a major problem with not having enough quiet space. We moved from an office with lots of offices and meeting rooms to an office with fewer offices per employee and many fewer meeting rooms. The other side of that exchange? More “open space” and the serendipitous collaboration that theoretically results.
Open offices can work. Open offices can be beneficial. But there has to be a place you can go have a meeting, or go make a phone call, or go get some quiet work done. I’d worked in an office for 5 years before we moved into our new building, where I ended up trading an office for a cube. I don’t mind that (well, that much).
What I do mind is the inability to lock out the world and get work done when I’m on a deadline. With an office, or at a minimum, with a door, the act of shutting the door is a sign “Hey, I’m busy, it has to be really important.” It’s a simple mechanism to increase the friction required to interrupt you. And, as we all know, it works.
Cubes and desks don’t facilitate that. You are at your desk, you are fair game to interrupt.
Open offices aren’t inherently bad. They can and do foster collaboration. They can encourage the type of interactions that drive innovation. There’s a great presentation by my basketball comrade Bill Aulet about designing office space for innovation, and I think he’s right: you want a particular type of office for collaboration, innovation, and invention.
There’s also the famous discussion by Joel Spolsky on the need for private offices for developers. The gist: developers need the ability to work privately as they think through and work through the complicated tasks they’ve been tasked with solving. You can likely extrapolate that to many job roles.
As they say, everything in moderation. If you’re in an office where you require collaboration on a daily basis, and private work is the exception, an open office may be perfect. If you’re in an office where you’ve got a team on two week sprints and tight deadlines, the last thing you want is people having conversations and interrupting the entire team. There’s a balance.
And almost every open office space I’ve seen misses the mark. Our current office space did. There aren’t enough quiet places to go and close a door and get work done. The biggest thing I’ve done for my productivity in the past few weeks was use my seniority to claim a better cube and position white boards as movable walls. Now, people can’t actually tell if I’m at my desk, so they’re less likely to walk up and interrupt me, and will use email or IM (both media that I can ignore) to query me. If I need to work with a team, I can go to a space to collaborate. If you asked me to redesign our office space, I’d invert the ratio of open space to private space. I’d give people a place to work privately by default, and allow them many rooms to come together and collaborate. But, hindsight, 20/20 …
In the end, this is the most telling thing about open offices:
But no matter what, there's one area that never does seem to turn into a big, open, collaborative share-space: wherever the higher-level executives work. Funny how that happens.
Ain’t that the truth.