Open Environments in a Closed Office

I've been railing against open offices and office meetings (especially micro meetings) on my blog for the last few weeks, and I have one more thing to add to this series. I'd like to talk about creativity in a "meetingless" / "interruptionless" office. Generally, people that believe in open offices believe in the creativity of the micro-meeting, and they believe in the collaborative power of spontaneous large group meetings (hence the open office). There is some truth to the fact that a spontaneous large group meeting, or hallway discussions, can lead to some very interesting and creative decisions. But why? And how can you create a creative environment within a constraint of few to no meetings?

First, let me say that an interruptionless office does not mean that there will be no hallway discussions, discussions over coffee, lunch, donuts, etc. In fact, I've found that even in semi-closed offices, these happen more often, because people feel more at liberty to just walk around. There's no chance of them disturbing anyone directly, so when they feel the need to be creative, they'll wander the halls, go to the cafeteria, or sit in a lounge, and just talk.

Second, as I talked about in the "Meetingless" post, a Meetingless office doesn't have no meetings, it just creates a culture of most group meetings being optional, minimizes interruptions caused by meetings, creates times that are guaranteed to have no meetings, and creates alternatives to split-second, micro meetings and micro decisions that I feel are an overall team detriment.

In general, there are three things that I feel open offices achieve automatically, that a closed office needs to work on:

  1. Removing psychological barriers to communication. As I've stated before, I admit that walls create psychological barriers to communication. To remove these you need to create an atmosphere that people are approachable in and outside of their office. Team building (the next point) helps with this, but managers, and leaders have to take extra steps to make sure that they are approachable. A few suggestions are to implement skip levels, hold frequent one-on-ones (which you should be doing anyway) and to meet outside your office. Coffee shops and established open areas in the office are great for this.
  2. Foster team building.  This doesn't mean everyone has to do trust falls, but it does mean you need to make efforts to bring the team together. This can be anything from catering lunch (which is what Fog Creek does), hosting in office Happy Hours, office Board Game Night (a personal favorite), or other office parties. Just make sure people mingle.
  3. Create open spaces for work and discussion.  This may sound like it goes against everything I've said, but I do still believe in having portions of the office be open spaces. Sometimes, you want to get out of your office, sit on a couch, and relax. Maybe go with a few other team mates to look over a problem. Maybe discuss something in a smaller open environment. Make these comfortable spaces and give employees the means to work in them (laptops or otherwise portable workstations, whiteboards, lots of power and wireless) and people will.  Even more so if they know they won't disturb others by doing so.

Generally, I feel like, cost aside, closed offices create happier, more productive employees, and that the benefits of an open office can be simulated more readily than those of a closed office.

The Interruption-less Office

In a previous post, I talked a bit about why I'm not a fan of open offices, and one of the main reasons is because they are too prone to various types of interruptions that actually keep creative people from being "in the zone." In addition, the types of "meetings" that happen in open offices can actually create a culture where split second decisions and decisions between small groups are the "norm." While this is fine in smaller studios, it can become an issue as teams get larger.

First, let's look at the common types of meetings that are encouraged in an open office, or one that encourages meetings, and see how we can remove most of them.

  • Quick Questions – You know these meetings because they're always prefaced with the person interrupting you saying, "Hey, quick question…" Frequently these are anything but quick, and almost always it is not imperative that they be answered immediately. However, in an open office, the person will frequently ask you directly, which means you need to give an immediate response. These meeting can be handled in private chat rooms where the question can be either answered by someone else or answered at a more opportune moment.
  • Class A Bugs – These are bugs are actively blocking, and need to be fixed ASAP (and I'm talking actually ASAP, in that people are actively losing work). These things happen. My recommendations for this are, first, make sure that all bugs are documented and tracked. Frequently with class A bugs like this, people just report it to the person they "think" is responsible verbally. If they're wrong, you can get two people working on the same bug at the same time, which can be hugely problematic. Once the bug is documented and tracked then you can interrupt the responsible coder (or producer responsible for assigning it).
  • Micro Meetings – Micro meetings are when (usually) two people decide to discuss an issue quickly to try to come up with a solution. These actually have two forms:
    • Idea bouncing – One person has an idea they want to flesh out, or run past someone, and just wants to talk it out. Frequently, this doesn't actually require the other person, just something to talk to. (I know a designer that keeps a stuffed monkey on his desk for exactly this purpose). I'm actually okay with these types of meetings provided they do not actually interrupt someone's work
    • This Isn't Working – These meetings come about because someone feels something "isn't working" and needs to be reworked. In my experience, these meetings have several drawbacks, besides the interruptions they frequently cause. First is that they rarely involve all of the people that need to be part of the decision making process, which means that  certain people are left out of the loop and surprised by changes they didn't know were going to happen. Second, these meetings frequently cause or require snap decisions without a real good amount of thought, which can be problematic. Lastly, decisions made at these meetings can contradict other decisions that were already made and documented. Now not only do you have a change that isn't documented based on a decision process that isn't documented, but it contradicts documentation that does exist. Again, these are probably better handled in group chat rooms, so that all people invested can see the discussion, the decision, and update the documentation accordingly.
  • Micro Meeting Turned Team Creative Session – This is really what people that want open offices cite as a benefit of open offices. Start with a "This Isn't Working" micro-meeting which becomes a full fledge, whole room creative discussion about how various systems and designs should work, interrupting everyone. The results of these meetings can be great creatively, but because they're always impromptu and records are scant, decisions made can affect entire teams without their knowledge or input. These meetings have the same all the same drawbacks as micro meetings, except with the added benefit of you keep several members of your team from working (including those that aren't in the micro meeting) for several hours. These should be avoided at all costs
  • Actual Meetings – Then there are actual meetings, which I'm not against, but only in certain forms, which I'll talk about in a bit.

In general, you should be always be striving to move to an "interruption-less" and "meeting-less" office. But, there are a few types of meetings that I'm okay with, with one caveat: you should strive to have days with no meetings at all, and as many of them in a row as possible. In addition, if you can schedule meetings to overlap with other times that people are taking breaks (lunch, for example) this means you're not interrupting actual work flow. This gives people lots of time to get into the groove not only on a single day, but multiple consecutive days.

The type of meetings I'm generally okay with:

  • Review Meetings – We have to review our work. Artists need art review, coders need code review, designers need design review and the whole game needs to be reviewed as a whole. It's important, and frequently it's important to do this with groups rather than one on one (depending on the type of review). If you can get these to be outside of meetings with tools (like Review Board) that's great.
  • Creative Meetings – Large group creative meetings can be great, but they have their own place and time, and their own rules. This is the subject of another post.
  • Planning Meetings – Generally I'm okay with planning meetings, provided they're shorter. This is for sure a good candidate for a lunch meeting.

Any other types of meetings I'm missing? Do any of these meetings work better in an open office? Am I right about most of these meetings being avoidable?