On open plan offices

Today I read a good little piece (via Garrett Smith) on open plan / open space offices (i.e. no individual offices). A particular gem came towards the end (emphasis mine):

Frankly, whether people will admit it or not, most of the time you end up in an environment with a private office for status reasons, not business reasons, and status is not a particularly compelling argument for a specific office configuration. In fact, status has the downside of causing people in the company to work toward status instead of working toward results.

Many people call out the fact that in open plan environments concentration can be hard, and I recognise that to an extent. However I think once you get used to working in such environments concentration is perfectly feasible, and the benefits of ad-hoc communication far outweigh the negatives.

I also find the ‘status symbol’ factor of an office unnecessary and somewhat offensive. Seniority already earns good compensation, responsibility and challenge; adding ‘perks’ such as an office just creates a them-and-us barrier that belongs in the feudal system of the middle ages. However, even worse is when people are told they ‘have’ to take an office in order to advance their career (and yes I do know a guy that that happened to.)

The best addition I can make to this area from my own experience was the ThoughtWorks office in London. This was a total open-plan office (at least while I worked there), from the CEO down, with lots of meeting rooms of various sizes and also break-out (non enclosed) areas for informal discussion. Even the HR people (who probably most need an office by function since they are the ones having the most legitimately closed-door meetings) used the communal shared office pool. And when one wasn’t available, well that was a good chance for 2 people to go and get a coffee together, stretch their legs and talk privately on the way.

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6 thoughts on “On open plan offices”

  1. I think the benefits of ad-hoc communication (which I assume you mean to be “talking to co-workers over the top of your monitor”) are exaggerated. I worked for a few months in my current office space (all open) and had no clue what was going on most of the time. That didn’t change until we started the daily stand-up meeting.

  2. You’re right – if no-one’s working on the same thing or knows what anyone else is working on then open-plan is somewhat pointless, but that situation isn’t the best way for a team to function anyway.

  3. We’ve always maintained an open floor plan. It’s one of the most important ingredients of our team culture and something we’ll be extending into our new space. Even our founder is leaving his office behind for the great wide open.

    That said, distraction is a hot button issue in our office. What constitutes productive versus unproductive distraction? Are there any guidelines or rules you’ve used that help maintain open communication at ThoughtWorks or TransactTools? Or have you always just relied on it evolving organically?

  4. Distraction is an interesting one. Here at NYSE TT I find the environment pretty quiet compared with a lot of teams I was on at ThoughtWorks – the noisiest of which included music playing in the communal open area (we rotated whose iPod was on on any particular day.) I was very surprised, but the music thing was a big plus for a lot of people on the team but that probably fit the general personalities of that team anyway.

    It’s also important to make sure people have places they can go and make phone calls, whether it be private or conference call. A noisy conference call in the middle of a open area is jarring enough to be annoying, I find.

    And you’re right in that an open office alone does not open up communication channels. I think it’s important to do things like daily meetings (the stand-up meeting model works well I find), regular (weekly / 2-weekly) ‘show and tell’ style meetings to get innovation conversations happening, that kind of thing.

  5. While I generally agree that too much happens “behind closed doors” in most offices, sometimes you have to sacrifice candor and transparency. A number of examples spring to mind: salary negotiation, employee-to-boss “I’m unhappy/unchallenged/annoyed” conversations, legal/contract negotations, conversations with the wife, etc. I suppose you could allocate a few private offices for general use, and treat them as conference rooms, but as someone who has a private office, with plants, and music, and sunlight, and lots of confidential conversations, it would be pretty jarring to constantly jot back and forth to an anonymous conference room.

  6. to: Lyle – yes, I can understand the desire to have plants and sunlight, but why don’t the rest of the team deserve that? I’m not making any assumption on your environment here, but too many times I’ve seen office layouts where all the ‘window space’ is taken up by manager offices who aren’t around for the majority of the time, leaving the ‘minions’ stuck in an artificially lit, cube-hell in the middle of the building.

    I have (and have increasingly more) of closed-door conversations, and sure I need to step away from my desk and into a general-use meeting room when I have them, but I believe the benefits of being in the open-space (at this point, with what I do) far outweigh the drawback of the change of scenery.

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