Open Offices: Myths and the Cruel Reality

Having read the article that you may find in the end of this post, I really started wondering about this “awesome” idea of open offices and working spaces. It has been and still is kind of a trend here in Greece as well, having open spaces within an office, facilitating contact, idea exchange, openness and many many more beneficial aspects for any company that adopts this approach.

The examples of such offices abroad are numerous, with Google, Facebook and other “sexy” companies, creating open spaces where the programmers/developers work together, having also access to “toys” of the office, like skateboards, bicycles and other nice things like the ones we used to see only in movies of the near future of 2050 or later. I have to admit that I really like the approach and I was kind of jealous when I first saw these approaches, when I compared them to my small desk in my first job. I imagined people that create like crazy, that get things done and develop amazing ideas all the time. It’s like imagining some version of “Minority Report” interface, with iMacs all over the place.

Lux-Office-e1375985895938

When time came for me to move into a new office in a previous employer, it was all about the same kind of fun. We planned the office layout and we even took a really nice and enthusiastic trip to a well-known furniture store to pick up the desks and the things we would put in the office, like plants, paintings, etc. I went there knowing that in the new office, everything would be open and relaxed, with no traditional barriers among the colleagues in the office. The thing is that this “no barriers” concept, actually meant no barriers at all! I was surprised that when I took a low office divider from the shelf, so that I could pin up there all my post-its and notes, some “frowning” took place, along with a short lecture on the need for no barriers among us, as well as the need for eye contact.

I reluctantly said OK and decided to go for a smaller divider and see if and how I could install it so that it would not block communication. Strolling the office furniture down the aisle, I contemplated on ways to have a second’s time to pick my nose, or clean my teeth or just scratch my… face(!) without anyone taking notice. By the time we went back to the office and set everything up, I felt like I was almost naked sitting in my office. The lucky thing was that I was in a small room with three desks inside it, so I kind of had some privacy in comparison to the big working space in the middle of our office building, that held ten people in it. As times changed and as things got re-organized, I ended up in this big space as well, dealing with some of the problems I was unaware or indifferent of in the beginning.

First of all, not being the first there, I did not get to choose where I sat, so the only spot that was left was facing all the others, while at the same time was beside the kitchen door and next to the main entrance, with the screen of my PC being exposed to anyone entering the office or getting a glass of water. So, to begin with, I could not even take a quick tour through websites that I liked during my break (yeah, Facebook too!). I was under the constant  impression that people looked at my screen (cause they actually did!). And all of that, cause we had to be open and communicate (eye contact and all) with everyone in the office. Just as if a small divider behind me, would ruin the Feng Shui or sth.

cubicle-playlist

Some weeks into my new office, the noise coming from others became an issue. Either by discussing on their phones with their mother, brother, companion, whatever or with “short” talks about work-related topics that turned into half-hour open meetings. After bringing it up as an issue, we fixed many of the problems, and the ones that were not fixed were solved through a nice pair of noise cancelling, super-bass headset. It allowed me to listen to my music throughout the day without annoying the others or being annoyed by them. The thing there was that listening to music all day long, I started either daydreaming, or getting a headache, getting less and less work done. From my point of view, when I started thinking about tactics like headsets or plain and simple, smothering a colleague with a pillow, communication and openess went out of the window.

Reading the article in the end of my post, I really felt sympathetic of the situation of the author. I also understood why I came down with 2-3 flues per year, being in the same room with another nine people (some had children, meaning that they carried all sorts of yearly, up-to-date, killer infections). Thinking of all of this, I think that I will stay somewhere in the middle of the debate. I don’t like open offices as much as I don’t appreciate cubicles. But I cannot be ignorant of the fact that privacy in the workplace boosts performance and satisfaction and also of the fact that people have diverse personalities that make it difficult to combine many of them in the same space. It’s like throwing coloured transparent circles of different sizes, on a pile. Looking at them from above, you see that the area that coincides in all circles, becomes less and less as new circles are added. It’s the same thing with the personalities of the people in a room. And the common ground is the similarities that can be used as an interface for them to co-exist. All the space outside this area, is hostile territory for all kinds of conflicts!

If it was up to me to choose, I would adopt an approach with separate offices with some view of other offices (with glass windows), with each office having 3-4 desks inside. And to complement this, I would add some spaces where the colleagues can meet for brainstorming or any kind of common activity. Plain and simple! To take it a step further, working from home would not be a bad idea either, maybe even a couple times per week. It has actually been demonstrated that techniques like working from home, are gaining ground nowadays.

And finally, there’s always a different side of the story that comes from San Fransisco (of course), where people in a company with a fairly open office, worked for a whole month, wearing no clothes… Yes, they did! Take a look and read through what they learned from it, HERE

The inspiration for this article came from reading this really really interesting piece of journalism

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Some scientific data, taken from here:

  • Dr Vinesh Oommen completed a literature review and concluded, “In 90 per cent of the research, the outcome of working in an open-plan office was seen as negative, with open-plan offices causing high levels of stress, conflict, high blood pressure, and a high staff turnover.” He goes on to note that research shows that influenza virus is more quickly passed as well.
  • Dr. Craig Knight suggests that traditional office environments may increase individual wellbeing by 32% and office productivity by 15% (The Secret Life of Buildings)
  • Professors Anne-Laure Fayard and John Weeks point out in their article, “Who Moved My Cube” (Harvard Business Review, July 2011), “Some studies show that employees in open-plan spaces, knowing that they may be overheard or interrupted, have shorter and more-superficial discussions than they otherwise would.
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