Open space – Private space

Open spaces in the office?

I’ve started reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. Part 1 of the book, titled “Extrovert Ideal”, suggests that American society is dominated by those who project, present, and socialize well with large groups. Cain gives examples and shows that extroverts are the people most likely to influence and lead our society. As Cain relates to the business world she touches on the trend over the past decade to tear down cubicle walls and build open spaces. The rationale of business and organizational planners is that open spaces are cheaper to maintain and promote greater team unity and collaboration. Cain argues that these open spaces are not having the desired effect on collaboration and in-fact may hinder it. (She uses the results of numerous studies that I won’t restate here.) One of her main points is that inventors, artists, writers, and engineers need private spaces to create their best work. This is counter to the New Groupthink ideology that teaches creativity comes from open and collaborative places.cubicle_1_typepool

What’s that noise?

I searched for other viewpoints on this topic because I have a direct interest in how to lead and motivate groups of people that code (create something) for a living. Lindsey Kaufman writes that open offices are detrimental to productivity. I like Kaufman’s viewpoint because she gives first-hand experience of moving to an open office format. One of her main assertions is that productivity suffers as a result of noise distractions. What’s lost is the ability to concentrate on a single task and think uninterrupted for an extended period of time.

Should we dump open office spaces?

As with most things in life, I feel like office seating arrangements needs to find a balance. There is a case for open seating and group collaboration. There are times when groups do need to come together and share their ideas and work through problems. But there are also times when those who create things for a living need a private space to work their trade.

I don’t have the answers, as I’ve just begun to wrestle with this question and the viewpoints of others such as Cain and Kaufman. Knoll Work Place Research put together a nice study comparing and contrasting open work spaces to private offices.  For most companies it is not financially possible to have every employee assigned to a private office. But there are options that can be explored to find a balance for employees:

  • Work from home for private office space
  • Have a set of offices designated as private spaces around the office. Employees can reserve the spaces as they would a conference room or operate first come-first serve. I expect there would be other logistical items to work-through with this arrangement such as how long the space can be reserved.
  • The study by Knoll shows that the height of walls between stations in an open space has an impact on the productivity of workers. Lower walls open-up collaboration but can also make employees concerned about privacy and added noises.

I don’t think completely dumping open office spaces is the best answer. Companies need to develop cultures and that is difficult to do if everyone is always working privately.

If you have an opinion on this topic, I’d love to hear from you. I’m particularly interested in first-hand experiences.

Onward and upward!