“Open-plan offices were devised by Satan in the deepest caverns of hell” and other similar nonsense you might read about trends in the workplace

Oh look, open floorplan offices are under scrutiny again, this time by the Harvard Business review.

Will Bennis from Locus Workspace in Prague shared a link to this article along with the following on the Coworking Google Group:

[I'm] putting this out there because I suspect what gets posted is generally filtered toward the “coworking positive”.

While cubicles are the worst, this article is about shortcomings of open-plan offices more generally.

Putting aside the obvious fact that even if open-plan offices aren’t for everyone, they’re certainly preferred by many of us, my existing bias has been that most independent workers would do better (in terms of psychological health as well as productivity and work quality) over the long run in a social work environment than in a private/enclosed office.

But articles like this make me wonder if that really is just my own bias.

Most of the findings suggested are contrary to what I would expect for independent workers, and I wonder how much the results here may be contingent on working in an organization (where being in an open plan office also corresponds to being lower in the work hierarchy and where many of the people you’re working alongside are implicit competitors).

Even though I wasn’t feeling well this morning, I penned a fairly lengthy response on my phone and think it would be worth sharing here on my own blog.

While most of my experience historically came from coworking and at Indy Hall, which is absolutely an open-floor-plan workspace, I’ve done a lot more consulting outside of the realm of coworking in the last couple of years and I’ve learned that the lessons from Indy Hall and coworking spread much further beyond the trends being forged by coworking.

Lesson 1 – There is no “better for everyone”

I’ll start with this: if you’re good for everyone, you’re great for no-one. This is a universal truth, has nothing to do with coworking or workspace.

Lesson 2 – Noise is definitely an issue. But not always how you think.

Earlier this year, noise levels came up as an opportunity for improving Indy Hall during one of our own internal research projects.

Curious for more details, I followed up with a subsequent line of questions: where so you believe the noise is coming from? Is it people on their phones, people talking to each other at their desks, people talking to each other in nearby common areas, or something else entirely?

The results of that question were evenly spread across the options (ha!) but the real answer emerged, and was far more interesting:

MANY more people than had mentioned noise issues spoke up and said, “Please don’t make Indy Hall more quiet. I come here for the noise. I love that buzz. I can’t get it anywhere else. If I wanted silence, I’d stay at home or go to the library.”

Noise isn’t for everyone. But no-noise isn’t for everyone, either. Again, refer to lesson 1.

Lesson 3 – Cultural evolution isn’t optional.

I’ve worked on several projects now with regard to open floor plan implementations in corporate settings. Every time it looks like this:

  • A company spends a boatload of money on design, consultants, architects, and furniture
  • everybody hates it, rebellion, etc (not unlike the article)
  • Alex’s phone rings with an inquisitive and frustrated, “why isn’t this working?”

My first question is, “well, what did you change?” 

The answer is ALWAYS environment.

The answer is NEVER anything related to evolving the culture, management or communication.

And that’s the problem with open floorplan offices. When the environment doesn’t match the culture, the management, and the communication, we shouldn’t be surprised that things break.

I have two concrete examples that I can share from recent conversations:

Example A – The manager who can’t keep track of her team

A manager cites that she actually likes the flexibility of choosing different areas to work, but…there’s a new problem.

“I never know where my team is. I spend half of my day hunting them down.”

From what I’ve learned, a rarely discovered issue, even though it’s a simple one.

When a new open floor plan office is designed and implemented, the teams and management need a new set of tools and techniques for communicating and leading. They need to learn how how to effectively check in and report to each other, without being a burden on each other.

Note that this is not the result of ”flatness” in an org chart, but the result of a “network” style of communication rather than a hub and spoke style.

Example B – The employee who doesn’t think they’re trusted

Several employees hate their company’s new open floor plan, citing many of the things in the Guardian article linked above.

But when I start to dig into the specifics, a common theme emerges: trust.

Or more specifically, a lack of trust.

People don’t like having people able to walk by and see what they’re doing…because they don’t know why that person is looking. So they guess. They make up reasons (and sometimes they’re right).

Often, an employee feels like their manager is hovering more…which she may or may not be.

The point is the feeling, which affects everything from productivity to retention.

Often, it’s competition among employees. “Someone’s always looking for a way to get a leg up, or take credit.” 

Again, a culture issue.In all of these cases, compared to the amount of work that went into the open floor plan, proportionally zero work has been done by management or staff to build or reinforce trust in the workplace. In some cases they do things that actively chip away at trust.

Without trust, “open” isn’t possible. And  that goes far beyond floor plans.

That’s just a sampling of my own research and experiences.I acknowledge my personal biases, which have been challenged a lot during this work. But I continue to discover that the root problems are consistent – and have VERY LITTLE to do with space design (there are a few exceptions, I could talk about those another time).

My challenge to to find issues with open plan workspaces that aren’t rooted in pre-existing cultural problems, or a limited (or non-existant) effort to put things like trust and communication in place long before a penny is spent on furniture or design.

Got one? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

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  • Ruchira Datta

    You don’t think introversion exists? It does exist. It is genetically based. A five-minute search would show you the weight of evidence. Your trying to ignore and dismiss people who are different from you is extremely disappointing and does not bode well for any productive conversation about this.

  • http://www.dangerouslyawesome.com alexknowshtml

    Ruchira, I’m not sure where you got the idea that I don’t think introversion exists. Not only did I not say it, but it’s a significant component of the research I’ve done.

    Introverts and extroverts both need private space (both for similar and different reasons), and I don’t deny that for a second.

    What’s the conversation you’d like to have? Because I want to have it.

  • amyhoy

    Another reason people hate open plan offices is because their coworkers take this as free reign to interrupt them any time. That’s another thing that’s not a fault of the open plan, but of bad habits.

    In Indy Hall, this is less of an issue because people aren’t your coworkers but your co-workers, and are not nearly as likely to interrupt you every 60 seconds to ask you to do their work for them.

  • http://www.dangerouslyawesome.com alexknowshtml

    Totally agreed.

    “My door is closed.” isn’t the only way to signal “I need to focus”. Some of the subtle techniques that I like to share include the use of headphones:

    • Both ears covered = I’m working. Come back later.

    • One ear covered = I’m working, but I don’t mind being interrupted. Just keep it brief.

    • No ears covered = I’m cool with talking.

    The crew at Blankspaces even made a sweet (and quick!) video:

    http://vimeo.com/6922393

  • http://andy.teamsoell.com amsoell

    Introversion has nothing to do with preferred environment. I could be the poster boy for the typical introvert, but I far prefer working in an open space with activity and buzz going on around me. Just because I don’t want to interact a lot of the time doesn’t mean I don’t want to be around community that is interacting.

  • Ben Novack

    Amy’s got a great point – in one of my past open-floorplan offices, headphones on was used as an informal signal for “don’t bother me,” to the point that one of my coworkers would pop in earbuds without even turning on any music, just to flag himself as deep-down in code.

    As for myself: Your second example up there is a huge part of what I’ve disliked about open floor plans. It’s one thing to talk about “Trust” but it’s more… primal, instinctual than that – I hate the feeling of hearing/”feeling” people walking around behind me. It makes me paranoid and twitchy, and it has nothing to do with a work context; even at coffeeshops, reading quietly, I strongly prefer to sit facing the room rather than have my back to a walkway. And if someone walks up behind me and starts talking to me while they’re still behind me, I jump about six feet into the air.

    As an extrovert who works best in a relatively noisy environment – Indy Hall levels – my strong preference is for a mostly-open floorplan in which I can still easily sit facing ‘the room’ with my back toward a wall/bookshelf/etc. I think it’s important to keep in mind that there are a lot of gradiants between individual cubicles and the kind of hyper-open floorplans that have nothing but desks upon desks as far as the eye can see in a huge, unbroken room.

  • http://www.dangerouslyawesome.com alexknowshtml

    I’m so glad you posted this, Ben.

    This is a space design problem/mistake (and one of the handful that I mentioned were for another post).

    It boggles my mind when office designers put rows of desks facing the wall. I understand that it’s often an efficient use of space, but there aren’t many experiences where it’s an effective and usable space.

    I often suggest getting around this by putting as many workspaces as possible with their backs to walls, but also by creating paths through the space that limit the odds of someone walking directly behind you like you described.

    The back-to-the-wall spots are definitely premium/preferred spots for certain people, and we’re always looking for creative ways to put the limited walls we DO have to work more effectively.

  • Ben Novack

    Sometimes I think it’s kind of a shame that offices are so much less paper-ful than they used to be. Bookshelves of reference material, filing cabinets full of archived designs, etc would make for a natural ‘building material’ to carve up space, except that now all that paper is just a corner on our hard drives or cloud storage.

  • Ruchira Datta

    You simply did not mention introversion at all in your post. If it’s a significant component of the research you’ve done, I’m sorry to have misapprehended you, however this was not reflected in this post. Nor was your present acknowledgment of a need for private space. Your list of reasons why someone might not like an open floorplan–issues with culture, management, or communication in the company–did not include an intrinsic personality trait. Perhaps I overreacted, however the background is that introverts are in the minority and often feel (and in many case, are) undervalued relative to their contributions. Furthermore, introverts who need dedicated private space are put in the position of seeming like they are demanding status or think they are better than others, when their needs are simply different. Saying “nothing is great for everyone” does not give any impression of valuing this group or attending to their specific needs–it sounds like the inevitable compromise will always end up with introverts the losers.

  • Ruchira Datta

    Bully for you. It’s a huge leap from a single example (yourself) to “Introversion has nothing to do with preferred environment.”

  • http://www.dangerouslyawesome.com alexknowshtml

    There’s a lot of things I didn’t mention in my post, and introversion happens to be one of them. :)

    Where I’m honestly confused is if you want to talk about introversion, or if you want to continue to attack my post and the other commenters here?

    Because if it’s the latter, then you’re right in your first comment that there isn’t going to be a productive conversation.

    But that, too, is a communication problem.

  • http://www.dangerouslyawesome.com alexknowshtml

    If you DO want to have a conversation about introversion, I’d like to add to that conversation because I think it’s really interesting.

    Have you studied ambiverts at all?

  • http://andy.teamsoell.com amsoell

    Not a huge leap at all. Fact 1: I’m an introvert. Fact 2: despite this, I like being around people and working in an busy atmosphere. I’m not saying it’s for everyone, but I am saying that your suggestion that introverts as a whole don’t work well in open office plans just isn’t true. I don’t know where the snark is coming from, so I’m just going to bow out of the conversation with that. If you are interested in a productive conversation, though, you might try coming at it a little less defensively.

  • http://andy.teamsoell.com amsoell

    I preface this by saying I have not done any extensive study on the topic (beyond what was written in Susan Cain’s Quiet) but I’m of the knee-jerk opinion that “ambiverts” don’t really exist. Aren’t they really just people who don’t really understand what an introvert is?

  • http://www.dangerouslyawesome.com alexknowshtml

    By that measure, couldn’t it just be someone who doesn’t understand what an extrovert is, either? :) I kid, I kid!

    But honestly, why wouldn’t a personality classification in the middle make sense, given that statistics are more likely to trend people towards an average?

    For a different lens and perspective, check out Adam Grant’s work on “Givers, takes, and Matchers.” It’s definitely not the same as the introvert/extrovert distinctions, but I’ve found a lot of clarity in understanding the differences better through his work.

  • amyhoy

    No other aspect of human personality is binary. No other aspect of biology is binary… not even sex (and I don’t mean psychological gender, I mean sex).

    Why would introversion/extroversion be so ultra special different?

    It’s a gradient, like everything else. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extraversion_and_introversion#Ambiversion

  • Ruchira Datta

    Introversion is not a random factor out of the infinitely many things that you didn’t mention in your post, it’s highly relevant. Yes, I know about ambiverts. In response to your comment, I apologized for misapprehending you. Then I stated very clearly where I’m coming from and why I said what I did–both due to what was or was not in your post and due to the general background that is outside of your post. In the course of this, I did talk about introversion at length. You consider this to be an “attack” (and apparently my suggesting that another commenter’s experience might not generalize to most introverts was also an “attack”). When your response to me as a member of a minority (introverts) speaking up about our concerns is to call it an “attack”, without acknowledging, reflecting, or responding to anything specific that I’ve said, then yes, that certainly constitutes a communication problem and we are in agreement that this isn’t going to be a productive conversation.

  • http://andy.teamsoell.com amsoell

    It’s definitely a spectrum, no argument there. The main indicator that I have used to talk about introversion and extroversion, though, is how an individual “recharges.” Introverts, like myself, expend energy in social situations and require time alone to “recover.” That’s not to say they don’t do well in social situations, or even enjoy them—they just need to get away after a time to “recharge.” Extroverts, on the other hand, lose steam as they spend time alone and need to be around people to feel comfortable again.

    By that measure—which I acknowledge may not be the best one—I’ve found that nearly everyone does fall in one of those two categories. Ambiverts, then, tend to be introverts who just don’t understand that enjoying being in social situations and being an introvert aren’t mutually exclusive.

  • http://www.dangerouslyawesome.com alexknowshtml

    Agreed on this not being about doing well in social situations, but rather, the flow of energy.

    What’s missing from your assessment, I think, is a more granular look at the things that cause energy to depleat/recharge.

    This piece is more observational than research, but I think paints a useful picture of the distinction of a functional middle ground. http://diplateevo.com/2013/06/on-ambiverts-why-distinguishing-between-extroverts-and-introverts-is-inadequate/

  • http://andy.teamsoell.com amsoell

    I don’t know… Reading that, it still feels like the author is just describing social introverts. Again, I’m not super knowledgeable on the studies, and I agree that personality—like most everything—is a spectrum. But I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with categorizing intro generalities here as edge-cases are taken into consideration when doing anything practical with the data. In my experience, people who adopt the term “ambivert” are just introverts who don’t want to be lumped in with extreme introverts.

  • angelbob

    If the open floor plan exacerbates several existing cultural problems (which seems like what you’re saying), isn’t that a problem in and of itself?

    Saying “if we had no cultural problems then this layout would be great” seems irrelevant. I mean, isn’t that true of all other common space layouts too?

    “I don’t trust all my coworkers fully” is probably an impossible problem to fix. And “my space gives no protection from untrusted coworkers” seems like a genuine and fixable problem. Above a certain size company you’re guaranteed a certain number of not-fully-trusted coworkers, simply because you can only know so much about everybody. My company, at 110 people, is clearly above that limit. So are 20-person companies, in my experience.

    I hate open floor plans. My experience agrees with the research saying they’re not only more irritating, they’re less productive (see Peopleware by deMarco and Lister). I also have observed the phenomenon in “even our CEO has a cubicle” companies for said CEO and other execs to grab space some other way, such as claiming conference rooms. But I assume open floor-plan offices are not going away, ever, because they’re cheap.

  • http://www.dangerouslyawesome.com alexknowshtml

    If the open floor plan exacerbates several existing cultural problems (which seems like what you’re saying), isn’t that a problem in and of itself?

    That’s certainly one perspective. The other is that it’s an asset: “oh shit, these problems that are certainly biting us in the ass elsewhere are no longer avoidable.”

    I agree that kind of “smoking out” of problem isn’t a solution, either.

    I guess that’s the thing. I don’t look at the floorplan as the solution, but a tool in a bigger effort.

  • deskmag

    A membership is rather cancelled when a person doesn’t like other people at a coworking space. That’s an option which most of employees don’t have, no wonder why they would prefer a private office in this case. It’s a point which was not a part of the discussed research.

    At betahaus, where we work, the operators once created a silent room as reaction to noise problems. As result, they were less people who worked at this part of betahaus. This room was quite big, probably too big. The operators re-arranged this room again, this time by setting up a normal open space surrounded by some team offices, mainly for those who work for customer support.

  • http://www.dangerouslyawesome.com alexknowshtml

    Carsten (from Deskmag) posted this on the Coworking Google Group with a little more context that I think helps it make sense:

    When we asked members of coworking spaces in our surveys what bothered them the most, the biggest problem was the noise, a range of 15% and 20%. However, the noise has almost NO negative impact on the popularity of a coworking space. When asking members how much they like their coworking spaces, there was almost no difference between members who have or or don’t have a problem with noise. A membership is rather cancelled when a person doesn’t like other people at a coworking space. That’s an option which most of employees don’t have, no wonder why they would prefer a private office in this case. It’s a point which was not a part of the discussed research.

    At betahaus, where we work, the operators once created a silent room as reaction to noise problems. As result, they were less people who worked at this part of betahaus. This room was quite big, probably too big. The operators re-arranged this room again, this time by setting up a normal open space surrounded by some team offices, mainly for those who work for customer support.

    Btw, there is also a big difference between the sound of a sea, and a jackhammer nearby. Regular noise on a low level is usually less disturbing.

  • http://www.dangerouslyawesome.com alexknowshtml

    True that!

  • amyhoy

    I don’t see the gain in trusting anecdata over studies, or logic (e.g. “no other trait in humanity is binary”).

    The “recharge” thing is not scientific, whereas other aspects of introversion-extroversion spectrum are.

  • http://andy.teamsoell.com amsoell

    Anytime you put a label on something you are—at least unwittingly—forcing things to be binary. Adding “ambiverts” to the conversation just shifts it from binary to ternary. So I’m not arguing that people are definitely one or the other, just as you aren’t arguing that people are one or another or a third. I’m really just trying to tie the introvert/extrovert into a practical application of what we’re really talking about (in this context at least) when we talk about introverts/extroverts, and that is “how do different people like to work.” Similarly, it’s a spectrum. Some people like open offices, some people prefer private ones, some people like some combination of both.

    But really, I think we’re off on a red herring here; Again, haven’t read any studies and have only my own anecdotal evidence to support the claim, but I would put good money down that there’s very little correlation between introversion/extroversion and preference for open/private offices.

  • Graeme Walker

    I’m currently hanging out in a coworking space in Brighton UK and being driven slightly mad by the extreme heavy typist across the room. The openness of the space seems to amplify the thunder-fingers. I can’t concentrate, all my attention is pointed to thinking about this guy’s impending RSI.

    In the making/coworking space I ran (www.coachwerks.info), there were a couple of golden rules around noise that seemed to work: the first is that people who didn’t want noise took priority. If everyone’s happy listening to Enya, fine, but if a single person wanted to knuckle down in quiet – everyone else needed to get earphones on. The second rule separated work noise from leisure noise – work noise is fine at any time. We’ve had people with power sanders next door to people working on their album, next door to stone carvers all of which are insanely noisy in their own way, but its their work, that’s what they’re paying for, so its fine. The second rule is that everyone in the space agreed to negotiate sensitively about the noise they made.

    I appreciate this refers to a slightly different kind of space to an open plan office environment, but listening to thunder-fingers makes me wonder if there’s a better way to make it easier to deal with noise in all kinds of spaces.

  • http://www.dangerouslyawesome.com alexknowshtml

    Have you talked to this loud-typer about it?

  • Graeme Walker

    As I am using this space for free today, I think it would be unfair to claim rights over this guy’s fingers. I feel I have no authority to interrupt his business, for which he no doubt pays handsomly to undertake on the desk over there. Instead I went for a walk and he was gone when I returned.

    I wonder why no one else notices or minds. If this is his place of work and he can’t help his heavy hands, perhaps no one feels any right to complain – after all, its just his work noise. Or maybe they just don’t notice. My partner was here the other day and said she “zoned” the noise out, which is something I can’t (or won’t) do.

    I also wonder if I would feel comfortable asking him to reduce his finger noise if I was a paying customer today. If I had to be here every day (I don’t), I reckon I would.

    There is a shortage of quiet space in Brighton.

  • http://www.dangerouslyawesome.com alexknowshtml

    When people come to us (the staff) at Indy Hall about noise issues, our first question is almost always: ‘Do you know that person’s name?”

    The answer is almost always no. At that point, we remind them that most people aren’t even aware of the fact that what they’re doing is disturbing anyone around them, and further, they don’t know who they’re disturbing.

    If you walked over and said “yo, your clackity keyboard is driving me nuts”, he’d be right to look at you crooked.

    BUT if you walked over and said hello, introduced yourself, learn his name and what he does, and had a few minutes of conversation, it’d be a lot less awkward for both of you to then say “Hey…I don’t know if anyone’s ever asked you this, but did you know that your keyboard is noisy?”

    We had this EXACT issue with a member at Indy Hall, and I pushed a couple of the members who came to me about it to talk to him. It turns out that nobody had EVER told him that his keyboard was annoying. Who knows how many of his previously anxious coworkers could have been saved if someone had the balls to walk up to him, be genuinely friendly, and then talk to him about the problem?

    I was just in the UK doing some work with coworking spaces and I understand that the culture in the UK is more passive than in some others. But I’m going to suggest that your choice to avoid a conversation is the part of this situation that you can change, not his jackhammer-fingers.

  • Graeme Walker

    You’re right. The UK culture is more passive/reserved – in both directions.

    I very much doubt that he knows his keyboard is annoying – I can’t imagine that anyone has ever told him. I actually know his name, have shared space with him a few times, and am on reasonably friendly terms. He’s a nice guy. With loud hands. As I said, if it came to pass that I had to be here long term and paid to use it, I’d for sure have the conversation. I can see the argument for doing it regardless of my tenure, even though I’m rarely here.

    Out of interest – at Indy Hall, did the loud typist quieten? How was it resolved?

    Where were you at in the UK?

  • http://www.dangerouslyawesome.com alexknowshtml

    Yup, he totally quieted down. He picked up a new keyboard (one of the mac-style ones that are a lot softer in general) and made a conscious effort not to slam on the keys. :)

    I was in London for a couple of days, then Edinburgh for a few days. Didn’t get to Brighton, but I got to hang out with Jon and Anna from The Skiff the following week in Barcelona during the Coworking Europe conference the following week.

    Next trip I hope to visit!

  • Graeme Walker

    Yeah, my man is already on a mac keyboard (it makes it worse!) – I’ll let you know…

    Was in the Skiff earlier. Jon and I are going on a reccy to Newhaven next month (http://is.gd/nkTRQK) which is full of awesome industrial space. And a port.