Close the “open office”

On the surface it sounds like a good idea. Everyone can immediately access another for information or assistance, synergy flows freely because everyone is feeling each others…synergy.

Ok on the surface it doesn’t sound like a good idea.

In reality, cube walls cost more than big long tables and take up more interior office real estate. What might fit 15-20 people with a tight cube layout could fit 25-30 with 4 long tables. Plus, if you know anyone can easily see your screen you’re less likely to drift off down some Youtube Rabbit hole. Let the employees peer pressure each other into higher productivity.

But there are anti-productivity patterns lurking just beneath the surface upsetting the apple cart.

When I hear someone ask someone else in my area a question that isn’t relevant to my work, I’m annoyed that I have to hear it because it’s a distraction and unless I’m wearing headphones (a different kind of distraction at times) I lose focus. This in turn makes me apprehensive about asking a question to another person because I know I’m annoying everyone else. I’ll send an email, or send an instant message, or if it were possible I’d even call the other persons desk phone, just to avoid broadcasting my ignorance or intention to acquire information to an entire room of people. Feels like I’m being spied on. I can’t control what rumors regarding my position or reputation might be spread should a chatty Kathy over hear my conversation. Feels like I’m being recorded.

The study confirms what employees already knew: It’s hard to concentrate in a crowd and it’s hard to be on display in front of your coworkers all day.

20 years in IT has perhaps made me paranoid, I can admit that. I admit it knowing I’m by no means the only one wishing they could just… ask for and provide help without getting the side eye from aspiring middle managers passing by.

How much fun is it to sit next to someone on a phone call or acting as a presenter in a webEx at the airport? It’s not. Their conversation has nothing to do with you, but like FoxNews or Headline News sounding off in the background, you have to hear it anyways. Now imagine having to concentrate on a complicated fix to an app or server with that going on right next to you. Sucks.

If you have to wear headphones to focus on your job, it’s not an open office. If you have to continually ignore conversations taking place around you to focus on your job, it’s not an open office. If you have to schedule meetings in a room because you don’t want to broadcast your conversation to 10 people, it’s not an open office.

I’m not advocating a return to “cube land” where everyone sits in a confined box, but instead a layout where there are localized groups are surrounded by something that provides a sense of immediate distance privacy. It’s easier to ignore a conversation, if needed, when you know it doesn’t pertain to you because it’s not in your area. It also builds a better sense of teamwork and “we’re all in this together”-ness. Most if not all conversations had in this localized environment are pertinent to your work. You can ask questions and not knowing is ok, because it’s likely someone else in your group has asked the same one before. No shame in it.