It goes by different names: open space office layout, open plan layout, open floor layout… and it’s everywhere. Whenever someone thinks about people working in an IT company, they’ll imagine a wide open office, filled with people sitting at their desks, brimming with activity.
The theory is simple. Tear down the walls, eliminate the closed offices and sit everyone together in the same space. This will create an environment where people will talk to each other more easily, boosting communication and collaboration. Great ideas will pop up everywhere, and everyone will be immersed in this intense creative energy, causing productivity to sky-rocket!
And then you actually spend some time working in an open space office.
Communication isn’t improved by it
Co-location in an open space layout should make everyone feel at ease to talk to each other all the time, right? You have a problem, someone nearby might help, you just get up and talk to them. Well… not quite. In my experience, most of the time people will just use a web chat for it. Or maybe an e-mail. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing – sometimes, chat or e-mail really is the best alternative. However, I feel that open space layouts can actually make some people hesitant to talk to others, specially at times when things are really quiet and the noise level is low, even when it’d be the best alternative.
All that noise
There are two types of open offices: the extremely silent ones and the extremely noisy ones. Most of the time, the same office goes through both scenarios… even a silent office can become noisy during stand up meetings or if you have 3 or 4 people discussing something.
Noisy offices are terrible if you’re like me, spending a good part of your day in web meetings. Those meetings often get invaded by all types of background noise: regular office chat, unrelated discussions, sometimes even people laughing. This makes for less productive meetings, making it difficult for others to hear what you’re saying.
The constant distractions are one of the reasons why lots of people wear headphones in open plan offices – sometimes even without anything playing on them. People constantly walking by or the noise of ongoing discussions somewhere else can break your concentration. No matter how hard you try to focus on your work, it may be difficult to simply shut off a discussion that you can hear.
The ease of communication that’s supposed to be one of the advantages of these offices can also be a source of distractions. Sure, if you need to, you can simply get up and ask someone a question. But should you always do that? You’ll be stopping whatever it is they’re doing and breaking their concentration. Some people don’t mind it, but it can really have a strong impact in others’ productivity. Sometimes, chat and e-mail may be the better option, specially in non-urgent tasks that require some time to analyze. That’ll give the other person the chance to prioritize the response, with minimal impact to their work.
Lack of privacy
This one seems to affect people differently. Some people don’t mind it at all, while for others it creates a really uncomfortable work environment. It can also create some work constraints, specially if you need to deal with sensitive information – I’ve been noticing a rise in the usage of laptop privacy filters in our offices, which is something that could be avoided entirely in a different office setup.
This also has an interesting side-effect: it can contribute to a needless shortage of meeting rooms. There are web meetings where people simply need privacy or can’t have a noisy environment around’em (important client calls, 1 on 1 meetings and so on), so you end up having meeting rooms being booked to be used by a single person.
Difficult to make it “your space”
I feel that, when working in open plan offices, your space can be difficult to personalize, which leads to a sense of disconnection with your workplace. The homogeneous look, the somewhat fixed layout, the openness… it makes it difficult to add that “extra touch” that’s yours, and which can contribute to a workplace where you feel more comfortable. This is probably just a mild annoyance for most people, though, so its value can vary. I kind of like it, though.
My experiences with the open plan office haven’t been positive. Unfortunately (at least for me), it seems the trend is for them to remain tightly linked with IT so, in the end, it’s not something we can avoid. On the plus side, there’s a new market on the rise, dedicated to furniture solutions that make open plan offices… less open.