Sunday, May 13, 2012

The open plan fallacy

I haven't worked in a whole lot of places, somewhere around four, but every single one of them used an open plan to structure their workplace. From what I hear from others, it's the standard.

There are a few things to say about the advantages of an open office layout. They should stimulate communication, create more opportunities for observing and learning from others and be more cost-effective. I'm afraid it's the latter which is the biggest driver though.

In reality open plans really aren't all that great. The noise alone has proven to reduce productivity by one third. When I look around, I see plenty of signs that people have a hard time getting their job done: programmers buying $500 noise-cancelling headphones in an attempt to keep the environmental noise out, project managers camping in free meeting rooms trying to focus on their number wizardry or even whole teams occupying a meeting room days before a release.

What bothers me the most is overhearing other teams, those distractions amount to nothing at all. What's the value of me overhearing a discussion on some obscure Sharepoint problem? None. What are the benefits of listening to your team's Friday after lunch bullshitting? Nothing. Team dynamics differ, that's normal, but they shouldn't disturb others.

The extreme alternative would be private offices, but I'm pretty confident that's far from perfect as well.

What I suggest, is installing each team in their own fully isolated area, free from distractions caused by other teams. This would still do right to all the advantages of an open plan, while taking away some of its biggest bottlenecks. By installing each team in their own cocoon, you create an environment where overhearing conversations on the next feature is an added value, where you can quickly short-circuit discussions on an architectural decision or where you might even concentrate on a problem for 45 minutes straight. The only advantage which is partially gone is cost-effectiveness; there needs to be some flexible infrastructure in place, that makes it easy to swiftly adapt the environment when team compositions change.

Instead of always focusing on that short term budget win, we need to start paying attention to the big picture again: offices should enable teams, not sabotage them.

Is there anybody who genuinely loves open plan offices? If not, what alternative would you prefer?


  1. I work at a small company with only 7 employees (4 developers, 1 designer, 1 CEO/sales person and 1 "project manager". Everyone except the project manager shares an open office. I hate it. I absolutely hate it.

    Almost all of our projects are one-person-projects, except the project manager checking the project status or one developer asking another developer for technical advice, little or no communication is really really necessary.

    Yet I'm constantly disturbed by background noise:

    - The project manager having discussions with the designer about things that are of no importance to me
    - The project manager having discussions with the CEO sales person about things that are of no importance to me
    - The designer making casual conversation with one of the developers about things that are of no importance to me
    - Someone talking over the phone with customers about things that are of no importance to me

    There's noise like this almost constantly and often from two of these at the same time.

    It drives me crazy when I really need to focus :-(

  2. The problem is that everyone is assumed to be superior extroverts like the MBAs that dream up this garbage. I moved across the country and started telecommuting for my work. My productivity increased by much more than 30%. The best part is that I don't feel totally drained when I "get home" which means I can devote extra time to learning new ways of doing things.

    You would think that the separation would make communication harder but the reverse is true. Now everyone knows they need to take time and be precise to avoid problems. This has meant that the accuracy of what I deliver has improved as well.

    All that said, a private space array around a common meeting area is probably the best setup I have experienced. Ours was based on cubes with off center entrances. That cut a fair amount of the noise but I think sound-proof (something with a door) would have been even better. Door open - come on in, door closed - something better be on fire ...

  3. @Jef:

    I am in favor of open spaces. (And I am not a superior extravert)
    You state that it's proven that productivity goes to one third. could you please give a reference to these studies.
    The studies I have seen so far are only looking at part of the situation.

    I agree that personal productivity might be different. Software development is teamwork. And the speed of the team is not set by the speed of the fastest developer. I don't care much about the personal productivity of a teammember.

    I do agree, that sharing an open space with teams that have nothing to do with your team, is bad. But that has nothing to do with open space.
    That is with how companies don't understand team work.

    @Kristof: to me I think it's a bigger problem that everyone in your office all works on seperate stuff. You would be a lot more productive as a team working together on something.

    Next to that, that you don't care about anything your ceo and sales say, is a seperate problem.
    I can understand you want to stay technical, but in smaller companies, it's usually good to know more about the business.

    1. Thanks for your comment.

      The reference:

      Don't get me wrong, I'm all for putting a team together in the same room. I'm not advocating private offices here, I'm advocating sane and thoughtful open spaces which help the team, instead of work against it.
      I wonder how many people you can put in one team in the same room before the undesired side-effects get in the way though.

      I do not completely agree with the advice you give to Kristof. Depending on the size of the problems/projects, it might make no sense at all to work it with multiple people. Pairing regularly seems to be a good idea though. Plus, I also guess it depends on what the CEO and sales are talking about? ;)

    2. @Yves - Our project are very small. Most of them take a developer one week to finish (sometimes two weeks). I don't think it's advantageous to work with two or more developers on such projects.

      As to the background noise of the CEO: we have team meetings once every 1 or 2 weeks to discuss the status of business. I don't no hear him chatting on the phone about whether customer X has had time to review his quotation of how customer Y needs to configure Outlook to receive his mails from our hosting.

  4. @Jef: lots of companies try to work for too many clients/projects at the same time. Company Productivity is much better when you have multiple people working together.
    I agree that you can't work on all projects with 36 people. But all one-man projects sounds very bad too me.

    about the CEO and the sales, yes it depends, (as always) but in general, it's good to know what is happening.

  5. I agree entirely with teams in their own cocoon. That is the way to spark ideas.

    Open-plan is discriminatory to people with a hearing issue. The background noise can be overwhelming and hearing-aids cannot cope alone. A boost is needed in the form of a hearing loop.

    The problem was that a cone-shaped zone behind the client picked up activity from another team. The hearing loop was deemed inappropriate by the Floor Manager as the other team was apt to leap up and shout "Yippee!" whenever they won an order. Basically they could not afford to upset clients. He could use the loop in meetings but not on the phone.

    Background noise is overwhelming people everywhere. Every time people with ordingary hearing like yourself air the issue, it helps hearing-assisted people enormously. So heartfelt thanks. Please keep writing about it.

  6. Many of the "claims" from companies trying to justify open plan office design need to be challenged as they are assumptions rather than fact. So lets look at these common assumptions:

    1. Open plan offices improve communication. Where is the empirical evidence for this? There isn't any because it's an assumption. Good communication in the business environment is dependent on many things and open offices are not one of them. There are numerous examples of teams with excellent and highly productive communication operating out of very cocooned closed offices. Good communication has far more to do with people skills and your approach to work and work problems than the environment you're in. Claiming that open plan offices are going to improve communication is akin to suggesting parents experiencing difficulty communication with their teenage children remove all the bedroom walls in the house. It's nonsense! There's far more evidence to suggest that open plan offices cause noise problems and have a negative impact on communication. In my own situation, I know that many people have had to tell customers they will phone them back and then have gone outside to phone on their mobile, sometimes from their car or they've found a meeting room that's free.
    2. The company needs to be more efficient with space because each square metre is $$$. Yes this is true. However let's look at this more closely. There's an assumption here that open plan office are more space efficient, yet this is not necessarily so. The pod type work stations often used by open plan offices often have a large amount of wasted space. This has certainly been the case in almost all the open plan offices I've seen.
    The other assumption is that space is the only cost to consider. If you look around at many of the top performing and creative companies you will see they're more interested in ensuring they have a work environment that will attract and retain high performing and creative people. The right environment will do far more for productivity and will far outweigh any monetary savings there may possibly be in packing people into open offices. People, work teams and their needs differ enormously across most large organisations and the one size fits all or limited approach of open plan is not the answer.

    Does open plan office work for some people and some teams? Yes, because that's how they work. Does it work for the majority? No!
    I would encourage people to stand up and challenge the open plan office strategy more often. It is a mistake based on oversimplified assumptions. Good office design is like good program design, vehicle design or house design, it must take into account the users needs. The more you understand these needs and the closer you get to this the better it will be.