Open-Plan Offices: Silicon Valley is right, your boss is wrong.
To summarize this person’s critique of open-plan offices:
- My boss took away cubicles (with no open line of sight) and lined us up against a wall (with no open line of sight).
- My boss took away cubicles (with little interactivity) and lined us up against a wall (with little interactivity).
- My boss took away cubicles (with understood rules of interaction) and lined us up against a wall (with no understood rules of interaction, and no guidance).
- My boss took away cubicles (which encourage personal productivity) and tried to create an open-plan environment (which encourages team productivity), but failed badly.
- All of this is the fault of open-plan offices (and not my boss).
In my job I could work from home every day, but I don’t, because team productivity is more important than any one person’s productivity. If you interview people about their personal productivity, they rarely think about the big picture, only their personal stuff. I could also have an office if I wanted, but I don’t. Again, open-plan is about team productivity (see every thing ever written about Agile). I do, however, work from home occasionally to give the others a break from my glorious wit.
A productive team creates self-governing rules. In our bullpen, if you leave your phone at your desk and it rings, when you return to your desk your phone will be in a sound-proof box. Sometimes the box will be hidden. Headphones are fine, but audible music is no-no (there are more than sufficient Nerf guns to stop that obtrusive behavior quickly). If a person in your environment is being inconsiderate, it’s not the fault of the environment, it’s the fault of the person. Blaming the environment will not solve the problem.
In a team environment, frictional conversations (the ones that just happen when people are close to each other) are very valuable. In the early 2000’s we tried a purely remote environment, and the results were not great, so when we started Pentaho, we went with a “co-locate and open-plan” approach when possible. To the extent that for the last ten years all of Pentaho’s founders (including CEO, CTO, and Chief Engineer) have never had a closed office.
Open-plan environments are not right for all teams. Any group that regularly needs phone conversations, such as Sales and Support, are not good candidates for open-plan environments. But again, it is not the fault of the environment. If an environment is being implemented wrongly or inappropriately, it is not the fault of the environment, it’s the fault of the implementor.
I’m sorry that the author of this article had a negative experience with an open plan office. But it’s not true that Silicon Valley got it wrong. Your boss got it wrong.