Sunday, May 27, 2012

The open plan fallacy testimonials

I wrote an article titled 'The open plan fallacy' just two weeks ago. Earlier this week a similar article was published by the New York Times. The content of that article wasn't particularly extraordinary, but the comments were. I waded through all of them on my daily commute, and it's really hard to find one in favor of open plan offices - people seem to be enraged.

I handpicked some of the most interesting ones.
Research by Emberson (Psychological Science, 2010) demonstrate both the impairment in performance for people forced to listen to half a phone conversation and the neurological impossibility of "tuning out" these overheard conversations. The office experience has been described as trying to drive a car full of people all talking on their cell phones.
It's preferable to have to make the effort to collaborate than the effort to focus on one's work amidst a distracting open workplace. My profession, architecture, does require a high degree of collaboration, but also a need for intense, individual concentration working on complicated 3D computer models and details.. and long hours being in "the zone". My firm provides private offices for all of its staff and a variety of collaborative and recreational environments.. particularly the latter, recognizing that just by hanging out together for part of the day, individuals from different project teams and pursuits "cross-pollinate", come up with imaginative ideas, influence and inspire eachother.
Cubicles were invented as a way to shove more people into a smaller space and save money for corporations. The entire meme about "improved workplace communications" was invented by consultants as a smokescreen. Period. End of story. 
"For example, someone whose job requires intense concentration (e.g. computer programmer) needs absolute silence. Programmers who do not get this silence are likely to make mistakes."
I've been around a lot of programmers, among lots of other kinds of workers, and I'd say that 90% of the developers I saw were in a large room with others all around them. It's actually one of the least likely jobs to provide someone with an office, despite the fact that your diagnosis about what the job requires is absolutely right, in my opinion.
All it takes is a few months in the world of corporations to understand that Dilbert is really a documentary.
I currently work in an open plan office and absolutely hate it. Not having an office with a door that others need to knock on before disturbing me has led to non-stop disturbances all day long. Not to mention having to listen to nonstop chatter of those around me. It is an incredibly inefficient - and I may add, unprofessional - way to work. Any money saved on rent is surely made up for in lost productivity.
I've noticed that the person who decides on the open cube layout usually sits in an office.
Having participated in the design of office environments, where we used low cubicle walls or even no walls to support certain kinds of collaborative work, with the full involvement of the employees in that design, it was always distressing to see the 'open office' faddishly embraced by management everywhere, regardless of actual practices required for the work. Consultancies, as usual, led the way in yet another blind embrace of 'innovation'.
Why would individual 'entrepreneurs' - to take one example from this story - want or need to be able to see and hear each other whilst working? Are the activities in which they are engaged intimately linked, are the tasks often (and necessarily) performed conjointly, is their own working division of labour a concerted one? What do these entrepreneurs themselves think about such matters? (Well, as the story makes plain, they have very clear answers, voting with their headphones!) Anyway, these are the kinds of very practical questions about work activities and worker needs that should drive office design.
In my article, I advocated isolating teams instead of individuals, but most commenters seem to be heavy supporters of private offices - including walls and a door. I never experienced that in a professional environment, so I couldn't say if that would work for software development. Can you? Collaboration and communication between developers is a necessity. Fostering that just seems hard when everyone is in a separate place - definitely for young teams. While comparing office layouts, I wondered how my proposed solution would scale; how many people can you put in one team before you encounter the same undesired open plan side-effects?


  1. 7 plus or minus 2 (people per office space)

    I also agree: if you are working as a team on a product, working in a team room, can actually be very beneficial. The team room should be sort of open-plan. It should allow those conversations to ring in your ear, because they carry some context that relates to you and the work you are doing. It keeps the collaboration high and effective.

    Having a closed private office would cause huge amounts of collaboration issues. Maybe better for the individual, but not better for the Team.

    Open-plan offices where marketing and sales and other teams are all in the same space are such a huge distraction.

    For managers with development teams:
    Walk around. See anyone with headphones on?
    Stand in the middle of the area and wait. Are people aware you are there?
    Listen. Hear lots of unrelated communication?

    Any of the above questions are True?
    Act. Redecorate into team rooms.

  2. I think the concept of working in an office is outdated! I really don't see the need for most people to work in a centralised office for more than 2 days a week. The way technology has enabled us to collaborate effectively online is totally liberating.

    I can't understand why any company which employs software engineers or IT people in general would require them to work in an office at all. All this gumpf that working together in a central location enhances collaboration and builds comradely is just absolute tosh. The only thing it perpetuates is outdated work practices and ineffective management practices.

    I have been a freelancer for most of my working life, and have had to opportunity to work for numerous companies, and have experienced working in many offices, and I can honestly say that I haven't really come across any organizational environment that I have particularly enjoyed.

    I have worked in some bazaar office environments, where in a effort to eek out "productivity" from employees, they banned them from using the "internet" for any personal use. Staff were only allowed to use the internet for work related queries. The company had also emploiyed an "internet police force"! Did this foster better productivity? Hell no, staff went to strange lengths just to have access to the itnernet. i.e. browsing on their smartphones, ipads etc. Staff spent more time circumventing company policies than adhering to them.

    Open plan offices in my opinion are hell holes to work in. With distractions at every turn. I always end up putting headphones on, with music loud enough to drown out the surroundings. Try point my desk in a direction where I don't get distracted by people walking past or whatever, and try zone out as much as possible.

    If you work in an office, also the possibility of being called into a particularly pointless meeting is also increased. The chances of sitting through a half an hour meeting to contribute 10 seconds of an answer! is totally not worth the time spent.

    I agree with collaboration & intermixing with colleagues is essential, but how that is achieved needs to be dynamic.

    I now work mostly by telecommute with occasional days in an office, and I can honestly say that my collaboration with colleagues has dramatically improved. Having the freedom of what my working hours are is also great. I no longer wake up in the morning hating the first 3-4 hours of my day, because I have to commute and be in a place I really don't want to be, and mix with people who feel the same way! I work longer hours, because I really enjoy what I'm doing anyway, because I have the freedom to do it. but also on days that I feel like going to the gym, or spend a couple of hours with the kids, I can. I don't have to deal with some middle management buffoon who thinks because I am sat at my desk , I'm actually doing something! I very rarely attend "meetings" but I have frequent action talks with colleagues throughout the day.