Skip to Content

Alex Hillman

better coworking, better business, and better communities

Twitter Instagram

Search this Site

Type in terms like retention, culture, or tummling and press enter to search.

If you can’t find what you’re looking for by searching, don’t give up! Shoot me a message on Twitter, I might be able to point you to a post about the thing you’re looking for.

“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

5 minute read
by Alex Hillman

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.

This will help make sure you can find the most useful resources. I respect your privacy & email. Absolutely no spam, and I won't ever share your data. Pinky promise! 🤞

Hey, thanks for reading!

Alex Hillman I am always thinking about the intersection of people, relationships, trust and business. I founded Indy Hall in 2006, making us one of oldest fully independent coworking communities in the world. This site is packed with the lessons and examples I’ve learned along the way. You can find me on Twitter, too! 🐦 Say hi.