Thoughts on Open Offices

There's been a lot of talk on twitter lately (some of it pushed by me) about open offices, interruptions at work, and generally how to avoid being multitasked to the point of lost productivity (frequently the cause of being interrupted and asked to fix too many things at once).

From an individual standpoint, there are things you can do to make sure you stay on task, but that's the subject of another post. For now, I want to focus on the external factors of interruption, and the negative impacts there. This is probably the first of several posts on the factors that lead to interruptions at the office.

First, let me talk about open offices. Many of us, especially at game companies, work in open offices. No one really knows why, except that it is less expensive to build cubicles and set up tables than it is to build actual offices. The given reason for using open offices is that they foster team collaboration, information sharing, and that they work as a way to bring the team together. By having an open office, people can (essentially) eavesdrop on each other's conversations, and offer their input to creative or technical decisions, should they want to. But the downside of an open office is that everyone can hear your conversations, whether they want to or not.

"Open offices aren't a problem" you say. "If you don't want to be disturbed, just put on your headphones. Have a standing rule that you can't be disturbed if you have headphones on, and your music will drown out the office noise." But what if you're like me and don't like the feel of headphones (they push my glasses into the side of my head). In addition, I can't think clearly on hard problems with music playing. I can only listen to music when I have a clear direction, or when I'm doing a less thought intensive task (I'm sure many people are like me in that respect). If you have the rule of "you can't be disturbed" and you're actively encouraging people to escape from office chatter, how are you say that the open office actually encourages creativity and collaboration? Instead it forces interruption unless people explicitly block it out.

Interestingly, I've not been able to find any studies on open offices fostering collaboration or productivity, and neither could the authors of Peopleware, though they could find numerous studies showing how interruptions and open offices hurt individual productivity. Though not backed by science, listen to Jason Fried's TED talk about open offices, and why "Work doesn't happen at work." Anecdotally, I'm sure you've experienced exactly what he's talking about. Fog Creek takes this to the extreme. Everyone has an office and can't be interrupted when the door is closed. It also has a no meeting culture, which I may also write a blog post on. People communicate through private chat. Bugs and support requests must go through their bug tracker.

The problem is, I think an open floor plan does encourage communication in some ways. Not through eavesdropping, but by removing psychological the barriers between you and other people. I think people are more likely to come talk to you if you're sitting at a desk on an open floor than if you're sitting in an office. Additionally, being able to just poke your head up and ask a question feels less intrusive than having to walk into someone's office. That said, this is kind of the point. If you do a Google search on the cost of even minor interruptions, you'll find that they can be extremely damaging, to productivity, to stress levels, and to quality of work.

For me, 90% of these "micro meetings," questions, etc, are better handled somewhere that would keep a record, a place that questions asked could be asked as easily, and more efficiently, and be easily ignored if someone is "in the zone" or doesn't want to be disturbed. Fog Creek recommends HipChat (which is what Fire Hose uses), but 37 Signals own Campfire also gets good reviews. These both have the added benefit of, if you have remote workers, it Is less likely that they will be excluded from the decision making process if your team is good about using chat for minor / micro discussions over open office eavesdropping.

What do other people think? Am I missing a benefit of open office plans (other than cost)? Do people feel that the interruptions of an open office aren't as bad as I make them out to be?

Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Thoughts on Open Offices

  1. Dave Weinstein says:

    I despise open office layouts. They are incredibly destructive to my productivity.

  2. Aaron says:

    Nice post!

    I agree that open offices have more cons then pros. They would work in theory I think if everyone used an inside voice and only physically interrupted you if needed. Unfortunately I have not witnessed both of these things being true in an open office setting.

    I’ve worked in an office and don’t like that either. I enjoy being in the aura of development. Working along side others jamming out work seems to make me more productive.

    I prefer offices with members of a team within it (1-4ish people).

  3. Pingback: The Interruption-less Office - Jeff On Games

  4. Pingback: Open Environments in a Closed Office - Jeff On Games