Open Plan, Closed Mind

Open plan office

We all love open plan offices. Except for wait -- we don't.

Senior managers, this one's for you.

Employees want to be engaged, but their work environment is preventing them from achieving that aim

If you agonize over the fact that your teams are not as engaged in their work as they should be -- or as you'd like them to be -- perhaps it's because they rarely get the opportunity to fully immerse themselves in their work.

Let's give your employees the benefit of the doubt and state that they generally want to be engaged, but their work environment is preventing them from achieving that aim.

Most jobs nowadays require a combination of effective communication with co-workers and deep concentration, alone, on complex topics. Great ideas stem from both team interaction and individual thinking, but the actual implementation of the work -- creating a presentation, updating a contract, processing a sale -- requires focus, not a constant exchange of ideas.

Let's talk about effective communication in an open plan office. Although it may be "effective" for one team member to shout a piece of information across to a second team member, thereby making the delivery of that message slightly faster than in a traditional office with closed doors, that first guy just interrupted not just the second guy, but the entire team.

Focus gone. Let's all start again.

Employees who are disengaged are far more likely to distract their colleagues

Creative sparks don't just happen in an instant. Lines of code have a flow to them. Effective sales strategies are initially thought up, not talked up. As soon as somebody shouts something unrelated across the room, these moments of deep concentration are set back by a few minutes.

And then it happens again. And again.

It's awful for productivity and morale. And it sets off a negative feedback loop, since employees who are disengaged are far more likely to distract their colleagues.

There are exceptions of course. In situations where everybody needs to know the same piece of information immediately, open plans are awesome. Some examples: "Guys, team meeting in 15 minutes!", "We have a new customer on the phone - who's going to take the call?", "There's a fire!"

My problem is with the brain-dead decision to implement them without a thought to the alternatives.

We know of course that open plan offices are cheaper on paper. However, this needs to be set against the huge costs associated with low morale and productivity (lower sales, higher staff turnover, absenteeism etc.).

But I guess my problem is not just with the existence of open plan offices and the problems they generate. It's with the brain-dead decision to implement them without a thought to the alternatives.

Arguably it's not even a decision but rather a compulsion.

In a Quora post on the most overrated aspects of modern life, Stephen Parkins compares open plan offices to a cult.

"Unless you're working in an old building, it's the default (almost compulsory) configuration for an office, and not enough thought gets put into what is actually the best configuration."

He goes on to point out how employees have developed ways of "cocooning themselves", with headphones especially. The fact that employees have to fight back, if only to preserve their own sanity, serves to illustrate how ineffective these working arrangements are.

Why is there such a closed mind towards closed doors?

Why this compulsion towards open plan offices everywhere? Why is there such a closed mind towards closed doors?

I ask because I genuinely don't know the answer. It can't just be about cost. My suspicion is that it comes from a herd mentality, or a unique kind of groupthink on an industrial scale.

Senior managers need to ask themselves the following simple (but not easy) questions:

  • Who within the team is best served by an open plan office and who is not?
  • What forms of interaction do we want to encourage, and with what frequency?
  • What are the positive and negative effects on team cohesion and productivity, as a result of different combinations?
  • How can we mitigate the negative effects, for any given choice?

Then finally, after some well-deliberated thought to the above in a peaceful place (e.g. in a coffee shop, at home, anywhere but the open plan office):

  • Which office configuration is best suited to the team?

And if the answer to that last question is "an open plan office", then that's great. At least you now know why you're doing things the way you do, rather than because you are part of a brain-dead herd.

Anyway, back to my desk now. I have some important interruptions to make.

Laters.

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