More on Open Offices

After my talk with Mike on Leadership, we got into a discussion about open vs. closed office spaces. Mike is in favor of the open office while I (obviously) am not. Mike's assertion (which I actually agree with) is that you can create an interuptionless culture in an open office space, and still get the benefits of an open space that removes the psychological barriers to communication. In addition, Mike asserts that, if a person knows they're going to have to have lots of uninterrupted time, they can always work from home (not necessarily true, but I'll give him the benefit here).

These are two just fundamentally different approaches: one that favors open communication, and creative collaboration, versus one that favors individual productivity, potentially at the expense of team productivity. However I believe that closed offices are better for two reasons.

First, I believe flow and interruptionless work are important to personal productivity and job satisfaction. This doesn't mean that I believe that everyone should always go uninterrupted all the time, but that a culture that minimizes these by default is important.

Second, because I believe it is easier to foster an open culture in a closed office than to foster a closed culture in an open office. What this means is that I think that you can work very hard to foster a culture of few interruptions and respecting people's time and space in an open office, but that when it comes down to it, the open office itself works against this. In contrast, while a closed office makes open culture harder, but does not necessarily work against an open culture, especially if said office provides open spaces as well.

With all of this said, Mike also pointed out one very key point:

Most likely, neither Mike nor I are ever going to be in a position to actually be able to plan out an office.

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4 Responses to More on Open Offices

  1. Dave says:

    Remote staff are very often in the position of being in a closed office in an open office culture.

    You miss a lot of the casual interaction, but if there are mechanisms in place to foster online communication, it can work.

    • Jeff says:

      This is true, but from experience I can say if a company does not have remote work as part of its culture, and rely on the open office environment to function, remote workers are frequently quickly turned into second class citizens.

  2. Chad says:

    I saw a video on the 37signals office, and how they designed it. They have an open floorplan, with some phone booth sized small rooms their employees can jump into to have privacy for phone calls. Why not extend that idea to small offices, instead of phone booths? Work in the open until you need flow, then pick up your gear and go to the office. Granted not everyone can pick up their gear easily, but taking a laptop into the office and remoting to your big horking PC might be doable.

    • Jeff says:

      This is similar to thoughts I have, but in reverse. Supply everyone with a default office, then supply open work areas for them to go to when they want to be in an open office environment (which happens, more frequently than you might think). This way, you get the added benefit of people can actually personalize their office space, something that I think is oft overlooked as a huge benefit of actual offices.