Uncharted Waters

Oct 4 2017   3:50PM GMT

Are Open Offices Overrated?

Justin Rohrman Justin Rohrman Profile: Justin Rohrman

Home Office

I have worked in offices for about half of my career, and from my home office for the other half. In the early 2000s, cubical farms were still very popular. I remember working at a company that had multiple floors of fairly well thought out cubical pods. They boasted that everyone in the company, up to the CEO, worked in a cubicle that you could walk by any time. The CEO was of course rarely in the building, but his cubicle was there if you wanted to see it. For posterity at least.

Today, many companies have flipped to open offices and boast productivity improvements. I suspect there is exactly zero data on the productivity change between offices with doors, or cubicle farms, or an open office, but there are plenty of anecdotes. Like most office process, open offices were designed for a particular time and place.

Is the concept still useful?

My first experience with an open office was with a startup that was attempting to shift from a distributed model, where we have employees all over the US working from their house, to one where we have small offices in a handful of cities. Our space was the second floor of a retail shop. The development group was small, so we crammed our desks into one room so that everyone would be able to talk when we needed. The main goal was to fit 6 desks into the room. Things were cramped, and we averaged one day a week except during our quarterly all-company meetings where we were there everyday for a week.

My next open office experiences were fairly similar, but with accommodations that were a little better than sitting on top of a store. The basics were always that we have an awkward space available with not enough power plugs, there are floor to ceiling columns randomly throughout the room breaking up potentially useful space, and the development team and all their accessories need to be in that one room.

The development team would spend a day arranging desks and finding out how well that didn’t work. Then we would spend a second half day rearranging furniture and deciding who should sit next to who, who should get the desk next to the window, and who would get the spot where they would bump into their neighbor every time they rolled their chair back.

Much like agile, or scrum, or test automation, or whatever software development fad you can think of, we took something that was designed by people to solve a specific problem and mashed it into our process without thinking. We saw the words ‘open space’ and then stopped reading. The original open space concepts had designers. Someone to consider how people work in a space, how they move around, what someone might need, and who they might need access to based on the work they do. Software companies have stripped a lot of that nuance out.

So, are open space offices over rated? I don’t think so. We see a lot of polarization around the idea because people are being forced into bullpens with zero consideration to how they work. Or even if they can turn their chair without bumping elbows with a neighbor. I have worked in some very productive open space offices and had a lot of fun in them. The productivity gained from removing walls is probably negligible, but it is nice to sit all together in a group and feel like a team. Given the choice between an office and a open space, I’d choose the space. Especially if it caps out at around 5 people or so.

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  • PACK44
    Sadly, I'm now in one.  After 4 decades in high tech...most with major computer companies.  I've had cubes, floor/ceiling offices and WFH offices.  But these 'open offices' are NOT conducive to thinking, talking on phone or being creative and able to FOCUS. Many impromptu drive by 'pit' meetngs also interfere and interrupt. Hey...it took some elementary schools YEARS to finally realize 'open classrooms' were just not cutting it.  Guess corporate/commerical America hasn't got that text yet. MAYBE they work for SW engineers and Agile/Scrum teams....maybe.
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