A defense of the trend toward open offices #WorkplaceWednesday

There is a lot of anger and dissatisfaction in the working world toward open plan offices. For those not up on what open plan is, it is the office design with no private offices, workstations that have half-panels so that you can see through the entire floor and often it features unassigned seating. The common dislike of it is that it usually leads to a louder office that isn’t conducive to heads down work that requires a lot of concentration. Many also argue that it leads to too much idle chatter and lazing about the office since there is nothing separating you from your neighbor.

In defense of this design style, I always point out that no workplace design/strategy can work without an accompanying change in management philosophies around how work gets done. No one who does 10 hours of heads down programming should be forced to sit around people who talk on the phone all day in an open workstation. But at the same time, there is no reason to give that person a quiet, private office because their work is being performed in isolation. They should be enabled to work from home or from another quiet venue of their choice that supports their style of work. A private office is expensive, especially when everyone thinks they need one.

The biggest problem then becomes managers who refuse to let people work away from the office. There continues to be a management belief that you can only manage people that are right in front of you. My manager sits in England so I can personally attest that you don’t have to be present together daily for productivity. Yes, some people don’t work well from home because of their home environment or they don’t feel comfortable not being at the office. The open plan office can make accommodations to grant more secluded areas for work and that should be accounted for.

Additionally, there is a cultural change period that occurs when people first move to the open plan environment. It takes time for cultural norms to develop in a given office to understand when you can start a general conversation with those around you, whether you can take conference calls from just anywhere, whether parts of the office become dubbed “quiet zone,” etc. These norms eventually develop and give everyone an opportunity to work in ways that make them most comfortable.

Open offices also promote more collaboration. When I say collaboration, I don’t mean conversations. I mean that these offices encourage you to sit around people you are working with so that the simple 10 second questions can be asked when they occur that lead to quicker resolutions and solutions that would happen via email, text, phone or other indirect communications. Also, as the people you are working with change you can change your location to be around the new people that you are beginning to work with. Simply being around people encourages everyone to know each other better across small interactions ultimately making a team more familiar and comfortable with working with each other.

There are clear and obvious trade-offs of course. No single office design is perfect. Different organizations will always have different needs. The designs implemented for each should be individually tailored. But the concept itself is good, it just takes work to get right and to perform well within.

Isn’t that true of almost everything in life though?