Saturday, November 23, 2013

Open plan offices are killing your people (which is the company btw)

I’m happy to see lots of people supporting and stating the obvious about this topic. Though I thought I’d add my 2c to the demise of this all to common evil of open offices.

They are typically favoured by individuals who like to interrupt others, and also by those who look to short term visible costs. Open offices are likely the single biggest cause in companies of:

  1. The lost of human happiness
  2. The lost of team/individual effectiveness
  3. The lack of success of companies and projects

I rank them in that order for importance as well, as that’s the order I’ve typically experienced them being absent in successful projects. I believe the mental state of the members of the team, and the collective teams health is a core (if not the primary) factor in successful outcomes.

It’s good to see the academic community supporting (with research) what many have felt and known to be true for so long [1],

I’ve spent many years in different office environments, when I haven’t had the luxury of working from home (where I’m most productive, by far) so have experienced a range of the options. I’ve turned down several very senior positions throughout my career, and common factor in each one was the company had - and actually supported the use of - open plan offices.

While hard to quantify, I wonder how many companies looking for good people are making them run for the hills as soon as they see the work environment.

So lets debunk the common arguments I’ve heard for open plan offices:

The arguments I've seen for them:

  1. They increase interaction
  2. They promote an open culture in the company
  3. They are cheaper

1. Increase of interaction

Lets start with the research :

"Our results categorically contradict the industry-accepted wisdom that open-plan layout enhances communication between colleagues and improves occupants' overall work environmental satisfaction," the researchers concluded [2].

While we are social creatures, we need our own space and to not feel the need to constantly defend it. If we are busy defending, we can’t relax and get on with focusing on what we are supposed to be doing. Books like "Quite: The power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking" is a good read for this, for the introverts amongst us.

The common perception of interaction is physical interaction, people talking to each other. But more common and less visually detectable is digital interaction. Given the technological connections that have been present for many years, having a number of gChats going, Skype open, ninchat, etc is not uncommon.

Personally this is a large part of how I work, and it’s very good interaction, it has two main benefits. Firstly I can set a status of DnD (Do not Disturb) to communicate to others I’m focusing or in flow, the other visual clue if I’m in an office is wearing headphones. Secondly I can just logout to manage individuals who can’t manage their own boundaries or respect others (see extrovert ...).

2. The promote an open culture in the company

Far from it, they actually decreases healthy interaction by increasing defensiveness between individuals, along with stress & resentment of having to tolerate the environment.

There are a bunch of links at the bottom that cover this topic, so I’ll not cover that aspect in this blog post.

3. They are cheaper

My first thought it is “define cheaper” … personally I think longer term and a bigger picture than a few months. Though what is typically meant by HR and logistical people, is you can get more people in per square foot. Much the same way industrial farming abuses animals … and look how that turns out for quality and happiness.

I would estimate from personal experience I’m around 50% less productive in an open plan office (and that’s being really generous). Even with the argument of “You do pretty well, what are you complaining about” it’s worth remembering that this isn’t about what a person produces, it’s about the difference in what they can do in a good environment vs a bad one.

a.k.a. “If you think I’m good now, you should see me when I’m able to concentrate…..

So using the 50% experienced-thumb-in-the-air rule, lets see what happens with 10 people in an office. I’m going to go from personal experience relative to the Vancouver, BC market, and using The median pay (for the whole team) is $55,000 for a technically focused company. Being roughly half a million just on salary (before employer costs).

$250,000 a year down the drain.

$10,000 extra a month to move to an office with some offices and good ergonomics (and people working from home if they want) and you actually end up saving $130,000 a year and have much happier people. 

Also, I don’t believe people can operate at 100% all the time, or that that should. Taking a break and some time to check out lolcats before the next task is important (mandatory I believe…..).

Talking of happier people, I’ve not factored in sick leave and attrition due to poor environment as well. Even having to call the days people take off to be able to tolerate a typical work environment “mental health days” should tell you something.

So no, open plan offices are not cheaper, at all.

So what to do

As with just about all things in life, it’s about balance. I’m not advocating silent corridors of closed doors, as that is absurd as the open plan office are in the first place. It’s just the other end of the spectrum.

As Gensler’s survey[3] mentions :

It takes collaboration to quickly move ideas in a competitive knowledge economy. Fluidly shifting between focus and collaboration is how work flows today.

They use the term “balanced workplace” which is the key, you need both sides of the coin. How you achieve that is the trick.

Achieving that means looking at all the dynamics and interactions,  just because people aren't physically talking doesn't mean they aren’t interacting and communicating. 

I communicate with my team a lot though and Skype, as it has more context, is more convenient and ultimately is more respectful of their choice to be focused or opt in to communicating. Also when I forget something I don't have to ask again, I go and search. Though I enjoy collaborate meetings and time around the whiteboard solving problems just as much, but there is a time and place for both.

I appreciate this is an alien concept to individuals who thrive on personal interaction, and attempt to undermine - inadvertently for the most part - introverts abilities to focus as they think they are being rude or ignoring them. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve explained to sales people how jarring it is for a developer being pulled out of flow for a question that could of waited.

I believe a mixture of areas in a work environment is ideal. 

So there can be the library quiet areas where people can focus and the interrupters have to respect that. The flip side being is that people can’t hide in there all day! In the absence of being able to do that in a physical way (separate spaces), have periods of the day that are for focus work, and others that are for social. Enforcing that will seem draconian and unnatural to begin with, though it will evolve over time to something that works for all. The initial effort is just to correct the balance.

For all the individuals who are harbouring the thoughts of “if I can’t see them how do I know they are working”. Firstly, get some therapy for trust issues …….. secondly if that is the case your hiring criteria is the issue, and ultimately it’s about the outcome and quality of their work. Not that they are treated like battery hens on a clock under a watchful eye.

The members of my team could be on the moon, in their pyjamas working at 3am if they like …. if that’s what works for them, when they need to focus to get things done - awesome - I'm happy they figure out their formula for getting things done.

And when the time calls we communicate as a group as we need to, when we need to.

I say:

Hire professionals, describe the challenge and direction, then trust them, get out of their way  and focus on facilitating and support the outcome of the project. Being mindful of their environment physically and digitally while working is part of the facilitation balance.

Getting this right is the balance I think is key, try to focus on and promote.



You don’t have to look far to get the information and research to argue against anyone who tries to cast you into the open …….

[1] Workspace satisfaction: The privacy-communication trade-off in open-plan offices

[2] Privacy and Communication in an Open-Plan Office -A Case Study

[3] Gensler's 2013 Workplace Survey: Balance in Any Environment

The supposed benefits of open-plan offices do not outweigh the costs

Rubbish, chatter, squatters: The open office dark side

24 Reasons Your Open-Plan Office Sucks

Sick Building Syndrome

Images from :