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It Doesn't Matter Whether Or Not You Like Your Open Office

Just because you find your open floor plan annoying, doesn't mean it's not creating more collaboration and better ideas.

If you’ve been following news about workplace design in the popular media, you might believe that the open workplace has run its course. The recent crescendo of negativity roughly started around the publication of Susan Cain’s book Quiet in 2012, which argued that in many corners of western society, including workplace design, extroversion has been fetishized at the expense of more solitary modes of working and learning. Since then articles questioning the effectiveness of open workplaces have appeared in Forbes, Fortune, and The New Yorker, not to mention extensive coverage and back-and-forth at Fast Company.

While there’s no shortage of bad workplaces (I’ve seen many) and no doubt that journalists are suffering in some of them, there are two big flaws with the now common claim that openness is bad.

The first flaw is that the claims are almost always based on individuals’ opinions about individual work. Arguably more important for an organization is the output of teams, departments, and the organization itself, and unless the whole is no more than the sum of the parts in your organization, individual opinions about individual work won’t add up to the whole story. As one study of computer-enabled collaboration showed in the '90s, working interactively can at times be maddening compared to solitary work but still can collectively produce more and better outputs, sometimes to the surprise of the individuals involved.

CannonDesign's Chicago office is open by the most common definition, but it's much more than just open space. Teams sit in clearly defined clusters and can use privacy enclaves when they want to be noisier or more concentrative than their team areas allow.

Individual opinions about individual work are also problematic in that they tend to focus on immediate issues, like noise, while discounting indirect problems. My own research (the same research cited in The New Yorker article), actually showed that when people were asked to track time losses, challenges associated with interaction tended on average to be more significant than those associated with distractions; hence, fixing problems with interaction could produce bigger net benefits.

In fact, we found that people in relatively open environments tended to have dramatically better interaction patterns than those in relatively enclosed workplaces—like response times that were twice as fast—while those in relatively enclosed environments had only modestly fewer distractions (in-person distractions may very well have shifted to email distractions).

The bigger flaw, though, in recent criticisms of open workplaces is the underlying idea that there’s only one choice: open or enclosed. Work is invariably a combination of individual work, collaboration, coordination, creativity, and other things, all of which can take a variety of forms, sometimes in just one person in one day. As research done by CannonDesign with 14 organizations over the past year has shown, the average employee does want fewer distractions, but they also want 35% more frequent interactions within their teams; they want more energy and buzz in the workplace than less, but they also want the flexibility to escape to a quiet place from time to time. What they definitely don’t want is one space that’s just open or just enclosed.

Thankfully workplaces can be all combinations of open and enclosed. And openness (or closed-ness, if you prefer) is only one dimension of workplace design. How spaces are clustered and how people are enabled to work across a variety of different spaces are two other dimensions that can radically affect how people work. Group spaces can, for example, be optimized to enhance productive distractions while minimizing the pointless ones, and individuals can be given a dozen types of spaces to choose from at any given moment rather than be limited to just one.

Is the open workplace over? That’s the wrong question. The question is how your organization works, how individuals and teams need to work, and how the full complexity of an organization can be supported by a multi-dimensional workplace that can be used in different ways over time.

What is over? Hopefully the artificial debate about open versus enclosed workplaces.

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  • Rick Kert

    David, My take is that another level of analysis is required to be overlapped to that of open/enclosed dilemma: territorial/non-territorial space. The point in my view, has not been enough addressed, when it is not that much to remove every single enclosed space from the working environment, but to eliminate the "assigned" tag, from the walled spaces. That flex factor is key to gain space for other uses and attached worksettings, as much as gaining shared space at urban level, when everybody stops planning in terms of individual dwelling (which by now should only be in dreamers minds). Great article, by the way...!!

  • This article mixes up a lot of ideas and buzzwords from today's "multi-tasking"-obsessed employers.

    First, having a bunch of people assigned to a project and sitting in an open area IS NOT equivalent to collaboration.

    Plus, anyone doing "knowledge" work has to get into a flow. Studies show interruptions cause break in flow, and requiring 20-25 minutes to ramp back up.

    Third, our brains cannot do two things at once. Younger brains can switch between things faster, but the quality of work in each task suffers.

    Finally, what about all the folks stuck in open offices or cubes who have to, heaven forbid, talk to a health care professional about a private matter? Or discuss a financial issue with someone who only works during the day? Isn't that grand?

    First, educate and train people who manage others on the principles of genuine effective collaboration. Then provide private spaces AND a collaboration area.

  • I always talk about the paradox between collaboration and distraction, open versus closed. You are right, it is all about managing these spaces and acknowledging what works for some does not necessarily work for others. Both is needed, and for the same employers in the same organization. Being adaptable from both the employer and employee point of view often means small, tangible little changes (i.e. changing seat positions or angles) that feed collaboration while reducing distractions. My doctorate research was based in understanding the sensory profiles of individuals and how this guide employers towards either including or excluding them from call centre work. Call centres are spaces where control and adaptations are non-existent and not tolerated... (well mostly). Been an interesting journey with bottom line benefits helping employees to work where they are best suited and employers getting benefit from performance. Win-win for all.

  • Insightful! A workspace should add to the productivity of the organization, be a combination of open and closed space that facilitates collaboration, serendipitous interaction and creativity without infringing on the basic "right to privacy".

  • Collaboration is great, but it should happen when someone wants it to happen. It depends on people. Just because someone sits in an office doesn't mean you can't talk to that person. Just bang on the door and roll in.

    The problem with open offices is that the distraction is constant. There's no way to get away from it. The only way to deal with it is by using headphones to block out the noise, but than what's the point of being in an open office? It's actually more difficult to talk to someone who is wearing headphones with music blaring in them than someone who is not and is sitting in an office (which should have a glass wall so that people can see if you're on the phone or really busy).

    Collaboration is great for managers because most of your job involves talking to people, but for those of us who have to produce tangible assets that require precise concentration (like coders, designers, writers, etc) open office is an absolute nightmare.

  • Great article David! We are an acoustical products company and based on an uptick we are seeing from our small business customers, we are finding that both points of view may hold merit. Offices without walls or partial walls struggle with sound which can interrupt concentration. But rather than going back to individual office spaces, companies are finding work around with acoustic panels which can hang from ceilings and on walls. They add to ambiance with custom images and lower stress-inducing noise levels.

  • You imply, "trust me, I'm a professional" - Beware of foxes building chicken coops. Others have pointed out the fallacy of the "either/or" foundation behind most office designs. Very few people do just one thing in one way. There are absolutely no office jobs - none - that don't involve some level of focused concentration AND some level of interaction with others. The challenge, you see, is like flying an airplane - flying is's the transitions that will kill you (transitiong from a ground vehicle to an airborne one and back again). Transition from one work mode to another is where people lose attention, performance and satisfaction. It's possible to accommodate the multi-modal way of working that everyone employs and facilitate quick and easy transition between work modes - and back again...... requires "both-and" thinking not either/or

  • There's your challenge, Dave: Come up with a system that delivers the best parts of both. I'm guessing that as a Senior Vice President who proudly touts New Yorker articles, you yourself get the best of both worlds -- private, individual time when you want it, collaboration when you want it. So, in reality, a real solution needs to be a little more complex than your single-bit thinking and the "this or that" result. It lacks the shades of gray that most people need for true productivity and enjoyment.

  • For me this is an old fashioned Point of View. To alleviate symtoms instead of solving the problem cannot be the right solution. "creating more collaboration and better ideas" is not a question about the working space. It is a question about your mindset and your knowledge about modern ways to work collaborative. If you want to - and know how to - it isn't important if you work old school in an open or enclosed office or new school remote via the Internet from CoWorking Spaces & HomeOffices. Collaborative work depends largely upon you and not on your workspace.

  • Your argument presumes people work in teams, where interaction is an asset. But many don't. In fact, engineering and R&D demands long periods of intense concentration to implement complex and fault intolerant mathematical or logical code. There, the distraction arising from the ambient noise of open offices is decidedly a liability, not an asset.

    If as the economists claim, the magic elixir of 21st century business is increasing each worker's productivity, doesn't the distraction of ambient office noise fly in the face of performing ever better those complex non-repetitive tasks that aren't automatable? Aren't we assuming that an ounce of interaction is worth a pound of concentration? If so I must ask, sez who?

  • I have ADHD. The last time I had a job where some offices were private and others were shared, I played the ADA card to get myself a private office. So you might assume I hate open offices. You'd be wrong.

    In open offices, people develop an awareness of hour their noise affects others. (Don't see that in cubes, which I do detest.) So distractions just aren't that bad. And I find that having folks around is good not just for collaboration, but for self-discipline. If I need to be alone (usually because I need to do self-editing by reading aloud) I spend a couple of hours in some private space.

    RC helicopters were an issue in my last open office job. Next time I bring a rubber band gun.

  • Your second point is predicated on the straw-man that people lamenting open-office layouts are seriously suggesting a closed-only solution (Jason Feifer's article is clearly hyperbole, not without great points). We've constantly been saying that a "somewhere in the middle" solution with options for those who prefer both is where we should be looking. Your research that suggests time lost from distractions is less than time lost from communication issues misses the point that communication issues can be addressed; those are a matter of process and best practice. Distractions, on the other hand are physiological and pretty much unavoidable.

    "in-person distractions may very well have shifted to email distractions" This willfully ignores the distinction that in-person distractions are unavoidable, short of telling the person to "Go away" (which still is a distraction), whereas I can choose when to pull up my email.

    A+ trolling with the headline. And this commenting system is awful.