"Do I look busy?" becomes more important than "Am I doing my best work?"
July 11, 2018 4:05 AM   Subscribe

A pair of studies by Ethan S. Bernstein and Stephen Turban of the Harvard Business School tracked conversations between employees before and after their office was converted to to an open plan configuration. They found that -- "... conversations by email and instant messaging (IM) increased significantly [...], while productivity declined, and, for most people, face-to-face interaction decreased."

Link to study: The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration

Abstract:
Organizations’ pursuit of increased workplace collaboration has led managers to transform traditional office spaces into ‘open’, transparency-enhancing architectures with fewer walls, doors and other spatial boundaries, yet there is scant direct empirical research on how human interaction patterns change as a result of these architectural changes. In two intervention-based field studies of corporate headquarters transitioning to more open office spaces, we empirically examined—using digital data from advanced wearable devices and from electronic communication servers—the effect of open office architectures on employees' face-to-face, email and instant messaging (IM) interaction patterns. Contrary to common belief, the volume of face-to-face interaction decreased significantly (approx. 70%) in both cases, with an associated increase in electronic interaction. In short, rather than prompting increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact instead over email and IM. This is the first study to empirically measure both face-to-face and electronic interaction before and after the adoption of open office architecture. The results inform our understanding of the impact on human behaviour of workspaces that trend towards fewer spatial boundaries.
posted by Freelance Demiurge (156 comments total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
 
rather than prompting increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact instead over email and IM.

MY LIFE. I would do just about anything if I could have a quiet enclosed space in which to work. With a door that closed. I fantasize about this all the effing time. I come in to work so early, for no other reason than for a couple of brief, wonderful hours, I am the only one there. It's the only truly productive part of my day. I DETEST OPEN PLAN. It's literally the worst part of my job.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 4:16 AM on July 11 [102 favorites]


I would love to know how this comparison would have worked in a pre-digital communications age. Communication by email would not exist and people would have to have more face-to-face to realise the intent of sending an email; does digital intrinsically default the original aims of open plan?
posted by davemee at 4:19 AM on July 11 [3 favorites]


Memos, davemee, everyone would have sent memos.
posted by odd ghost at 4:22 AM on July 11 [20 favorites]


From the associated study:

When spatial boundaries—such as walls—are removed, individuals feel more physically proximate, which, such theory suggests, should lead to more interaction... Spatial boundaries have long served a functional role at multiple levels of analysis, helping people make sense of their environment by modularizing it, clarifying who is watching and who is not, who has information and who does not, who belongs and who does not, who controls what and who does not, to whom one answers and to whom one does not...

Subsequent workplace design research... suggests that open offices can reduce certain conditions conducive to collaboration and collective intelligence, including employee satisfaction, focus, psychological privacy and other affective and behavioural responses

Such negative psychological effects of open offices conceivably may lead to less, not more, interaction between those within them, reducing collaboration and collective intelligence.

Many organizations, like our two field sites, transform their office architectures into open spaces with the intention of creating... a more vibrant work environment. What they often get—as captured by a steady stream of news articles professing the death of the open office—is an open expanse of proximal employees choosing to isolate themselves as best they can (e.g. by wearing large headphones) while appearing to be as busy as possible (since everyone can see them).


No. Shit.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 4:25 AM on July 11 [66 favorites]


This article showed me the term "psychological privacy," which I did not know before. But that is the key element, for me. In an open plan office, I no longer have the right to my own mental isolation. Anyone can walk up and interrupt me, or stand over there and watch me, whenever they want. I cannot distance myself from this awareness. It colors my entire work day. I hide in empty offices, work through lunch to be here when others are away, even come in on weekends just to be able to feel for once, I am able to work in peace.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 4:28 AM on July 11 [60 favorites]


I can think of only one time when an open-plan office has benefitted me -

On two different occasions in two different offices, I somehow happened to be the last person there for the day (either because of a pending holiday or a weather-related closure). I was getting ready to leave, everyone else had already gone home, and I realized I was all alone and no one could see me.

So on both occasions I put on The Time Warp and blasted it at top volume and danced throughout the entire office singing at the top of my lungs, and then I left.

Open plan offices are good for that. But nothing else.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:38 AM on July 11 [53 favorites]


From a management point of view, the few remaining offices-with-doors become a precious resource that employees will fight each other for. Way cheaper than giving them raises.
posted by Mogur at 4:43 AM on July 11 [21 favorites]


I think management also likes the optics of the open plan office: it gives them the illusion that people are busy (efficiency!) and interacting with each other (creativity!). Looks good when investors, press and business partners visit.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 4:52 AM on July 11 [15 favorites]


It’s weird how open everyone knows how awful open plan offices are, everyone hates working in them, they are the reason for so many Human Relations questions here and on Ask A Manager and yet they continue to persist.

I’m prettt sure it’s a cost thing. Bunch of uniform desks (that are not ergonomically suited for most people) and chairs and that’s all. No walls or doors to pay for and you can cram a lot more people per floor.

Offices (even a shared one) are the only thing I’m jealous about of people in academia, which is from what I understand is the last bastion for such things.
posted by like_neon at 4:56 AM on July 11 [26 favorites]


I think management also likes the optics of the open plan office: it gives them the illusion that people are busy (efficiency!) and interacting with each other (creativity!). Looks good when investors, press and business partners visit.

I’m in senior management and I hate it and I’m pretty sure my fellow peers hate it too. It’s annoying when clients come and we have to send an email around asking people to tidy their desks like school children.
posted by like_neon at 4:58 AM on July 11 [16 favorites]


Open plan is just how people (and management) think that an office should look in 2018 so it's going to be a hard sell to the board to spend the money on any other configuration. There's a lot of cargo-cult mentality in the tech world where management loves the trappings of Google or Facebook without thinking whether the interior decoration had anything to do with the success of those companies.
posted by octothorpe at 5:02 AM on July 11 [10 favorites]


I remember when a cube farm looked depressing, now how I pine for them.
posted by whuppy at 5:06 AM on July 11 [46 favorites]


Prior to the redesign, they accumulated 5266 min of interaction over 15 days, or roughly 5.8 h of F2F interaction per person per day. After the redesign, those same people accumulated only 1492 min of interaction over 15 days, or roughly 1.7 h per person per day.

Jesus. That's not a minor change. That's basically a collapse of workplace culture.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 5:06 AM on July 11 [51 favorites]


The office I work in looks identical to the local Google office and is actually in the same building and only one floor down from them. Our management literally hired the same architect and told them to do the same thing that they did for Google.
posted by octothorpe at 5:07 AM on July 11 [8 favorites]


Offices (even a shared one) are the only thing I’m jealous about of people in academia, which is from what I understand is the last bastion for such things.


UK wise I think the rot is in even within academia. Most of our new builds are open plan and most unis have increased staff numbers to match increased student intake so that staff have to double (or more) up, even in non-open plan. I am holding on to my office but I don't know how long that will last. They are really depressing, there seems to be a certain point at which silence becomes required because otherwise there would be non-stop chatter from one or other corner of the room, then everybody gets earphones and essentially that is when interaction completely ceases. All the conversation in the room across the corridor from me (pop'n: ~24) takes place in the small kitchen (area: 3m2).
posted by biffa at 5:18 AM on July 11 [8 favorites]


It's almost like people need BOTH privacy and areas in which to mingle.

Shocking that you can't achieve all the gains with just ONE of those.
posted by entropone at 5:19 AM on July 11 [10 favorites]


I don’t think it is really about office culture (though of course they say that) just about saving on office costs. Over the years, senior managers at my employer repeatedly allowed themselves to be captured by people who waved spreadsheets with huge savings to be derived from relocation, open plan, hot desking, etc. Anyone who had a memory knew that (a) the advertised savings were optimistic and never realised in practice, (b) the project introducing the new system always required a vast input of management time and took the organisation’s eye off the ball for an extended period, (c) there were hidden costs in reduced efficiency, lower morale and the like that wholly offset the supposed savings anyway.

But apparently senior management has no memory, or is just hypnotised by large claimed savings.
posted by Segundus at 5:20 AM on July 11 [15 favorites]


I worked somewhere that transitioned from private cubicles (6 foot high walls, small clusters of cubes together) to a totally open environment (4 foot walls, no physical barriers, etc.). It was psychologically devastating. At least one of my colleagues had to start therapy over it.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 5:21 AM on July 11 [10 favorites]


Every day I'm thankful for my job, even when I haven't read something like the linked article. I work in an office aaaaall the way at the top of the building and aaaaalll the way away from the elevator, so very few people come to interact with us or even pass by, unless they're heading for the meeting rooms across the hall.

Better yet, the office only contains two people: me and my boss/coworker. Our desks face each other, but there's about eight feet of space, four monitors, and two houseplants in between us, so we don't have to see or interact with each other if we don't want to.

About the only down side is that he's from Yorkshire with the attendant higher tolerance for the cold, and will sometimes open his window (we have windows!) when it's like fifty degrees outside. It's a very small sacrifice to make, though. If they try to move us to an open-plan office I'm going to start throwing things at people's heads.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 5:30 AM on July 11 [6 favorites]


We are moving to an open office plan 100% because of costs.
posted by tofu_crouton at 5:34 AM on July 11 [3 favorites]


I’m convinced it’s a cost thing. I was born with hearing loss and in the open office I work I have moved most of my collaborative work to slack because the background noise makes it impossible for me to have a person to person conversation.
posted by nikaspark at 5:38 AM on July 11 [10 favorites]


5.8 h of F2F interaction per person per day

What line of work is this? If I'm spending 2/3 of my workday talking to other people, I might as well just work 2 hours a day instead.

(Software engineer, introvert, cube farm with high walls. I typically have a 15-minute meeting once per week and then occasional conversations to clarify things only when necessary.)
posted by Foosnark at 5:40 AM on July 11 [2 favorites]


It strikes me as funny; my sketchy memory seems to recall that these things started when incubators started gaining attention. Nobody thought that that the remarkable success stories from incubators might've been motivated by, "Cheese Louise, let's get this project off the launch pad pronto so that we can get the hell out of here and have our own offices!"?
posted by Chitownfats at 5:44 AM on July 11 [3 favorites]


So true, at least in businesses where most of the work is individual. My previous employer actually knocked down walls to turn several smaller rooms into one large room, and replaced cubicles (granted they were old and ugly) with connected desks with no walls, just so our office could look the same as the head office (who did it to cram more desks into scarce silicon valley real estate, but mainly so *they* could look more like the parent company's offices.)

Open plan desks is cargo-cult office design.

I definitely noticed more people working from home if they could. Pretty much everyone was on headphones all the time. I would go work by myself in unused conference rooms, especially to make phone calls. My suggestion was to at least add glass barriers between desks and also make a comfortable lounge area in one of our unused spaces for actual informal collaboration and communication, but not interested or outside the budget I guess. (The kitchen was nice though small, and people did hang out and socialize there, so that was a good change.)
posted by thefool at 5:45 AM on July 11 [12 favorites]


In one example from the pre-digital communications age there were girls on wheels.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 5:50 AM on July 11 [3 favorites]


We have our whole team on two long tables and overall I like being in an open plan. I think it does make it easy to work together, and headphones are generally enough defense. When I've had my own office I would sometimes go all day without talking to people, which for me is too long. Also when other people can see my screen I waste less time.
posted by ropeladder at 5:52 AM on July 11 [2 favorites]


I feel so validated by this article! My usual complaint is about volume, because 50 people in one room with no barriers is So. Loud and I find it a major effort tuning it all out. They even have ten second musical interludes that blasts the whole office when a sales rep makes a quota. But I also sit in a pod right next to our senior leadership, and these folks are constantly walking behind my chair and chatting. Knowing that the CEO and VPs must overhear my phone calls, see whatever is on my monitors at any time, and watch me scarfing my breakfast makes me feel constantly under a microscope.
posted by prewar lemonade at 5:57 AM on July 11 [14 favorites]


I work for a very large financial services outfit here in the US. We transitioned to open office on our campus about six months ago. I've noticed two things:

1. More people working from home when they can.
2. Everyone on headphones.

Number one has actually had a positive effect. On many days, our work area is sparsely populated, and the result is a nice, quiet office with minimal distractions.
posted by bwvol at 5:57 AM on July 11 [6 favorites]


Another interesting thing about everyone moving into one huge room: desk assignment was obviously status related to the one window, with senior people, people in groups perceived as more important, and people friendly or persuasive enough with the person making the desk assignments closer to it, graduated back towards the door. Since my group was politically unfavored, and I was the only one from that group in this room, but was sort of senior, I was towards the back but not all the way :)

(Prior, groups or people working together more were usually in the same room, but you could choose a room and desk placement based on preference. My boss actually took the desk closest to the door and let the rest of us have the windows, since he was always coming and going to and from meetings. One room of desks was actually open-plan with no walls, and some people chose it because they liked it. Every new hire got to go choose their own chair from the store, whether they wanted one big monitor or two smaller ones, etc. But this was all part of transition from a small kind-of-startup company to being aquired by bigger and bigger fish. )
posted by thefool at 5:57 AM on July 11 [1 favorite]


I have ADHD and as far as I’m concerned, open plan offices were specifically, exquisitely designed to drive me and my brethren completely insane. I don’t refuse to work in one: I can’t work in one. Asking me to do so would be equivalent to paying me to sit in a chair and stress-vibrate, like a tiny frightened dog, for 6 solid hours a day.

I bet you could document a very clear connection between installing open plan offices and people with ADHD and other related issues either attempting to get disability accommodations or straight-up quitting. Or those people being pushed out after their productivity tanks because you can’t focus for more than 2.5 seconds in an environment where someone *could be standing behind you breathing at any time, oh my God*.

Open plan offices don’t just suck for everyone, they’re actively discriminatory against the non-neurotypical.

My fellow millennials, let us destroy them, as we have destroyed so many things.
posted by faineg at 6:03 AM on July 11 [117 favorites]


work through lunch to be here when others are away

I wish I could do that! But a lot of people eat lunch at the office (at tables, not at their desks) and my desk is not that far from the area where they eat...
posted by madcaptenor at 6:13 AM on July 11


Open plan offices don’t just suck for everyone, they’re actively discriminatory against the non-neurotypical.

A-fucking-men.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 6:13 AM on July 11 [20 favorites]


If I wear headphones with enough volume to drown out people talking around me, I'd suffer hearing damage. And if I have to be surrounded by people talking, I'm highly inefficient, particularly when I'm doing highly technical stuff.

With the rise of open offices, I'll basically only consider positions that are 95% or more telecommuting or the rare ones where I'd get a private office. But I'm privileged enough to do so and hate that people that aren't have to suffer through the trend.

The only time I've seen value in anything like it was when operations group had a shared space of just us and no one talked much but there was a good flow of information when you'd hear someone talking about an issue they were working on and you'd realize it tied into something you knew about and they didn't.

And then things changed and that same group shared a space with marketing, who talked on the phone all day. And shortly thereafter, I left.
posted by Candleman at 6:14 AM on July 11 [7 favorites]


This is the first study to empirically measure both face-to-face and electronic interaction before and after the adoption of open office architecture.

Does anyone else find that astonishing? I've been aware of people complaining about not being able to work effectively in open-plan offices for over a decade, since my first day in one. I'm on metafilter right now because the four separate conversations I can hear are making it impossible to concentrate, and I have no idea where my manager is because his response to an open office has been to adopt a nomadic lifestyle, roaming between quiet corners and empty meeting rooms. Given how much employees' time costs companies, surely resources should've been pouring into research around this subject?

On the other hand, I once got chatting to an architect who specialised in office spaces, and was fascinated by all they had to say about the importance of various features to a good working environment. They could design a space to variously promote creativity, or concentration, or calm... and then I asked, genuinely curious, how all this had all been researched. It turned out it was all just received wisdom: they believed -- or professed to believe -- it because the currently successful firms did. They "knew" it was correct because they'd heard anecdotes and it seemed plausible (and were unconcerned that a few years ago they'd "known" different principles), but if there was actual data underlying their assertions about how workplaces affect workers, they'd never seen it. I've heard advertisers say that they think of a fun advert first, then work backwards from that to shoehorn in the pop psychology to justify it to the client; maybe I shouldn't be surprised if office design is the same.
posted by metaBugs at 6:16 AM on July 11 [24 favorites]


All those wordy theories about open office plans being about increasing collaboration make me laugh. They have obviously always been about saving money on square footage and architecture, nothing more.
posted by eustacescrubb at 6:18 AM on July 11 [40 favorites]


I would love to know how this comparison would have worked in a pre-digital communications age.

The quote I used in the title refers to an earlier study done by one the same author that showed factory workers work differently when being observed my management. It matches my own experience working on assembly lines and construction/demo with no access to electronic communications.

To be perfectly honest, a lot of it probably has to do my non-neurotypical brain.
posted by Freelance Demiurge at 6:18 AM on July 11 [1 favorite]


i like our open office
posted by stinkfoot at 6:20 AM on July 11 [10 favorites]


Another fun little benefit to open-plan spaces is that those who want to work in quiet will often reserve and hoard the available spaces with doors, like conference rooms. We have a bunch of telephone rooms (just little rooms with a speakerphone and soundproofed glass doors) and the same 3 people take up 3 of the 4 of them, and they're never on the phone. Often, you'll find a mid-level manager in a large conference room built to accommodate 12 or so people, working all day because the reservation system allows this and nobody speaks up because we want to reserve the right to do so at another time.
posted by xingcat at 6:21 AM on July 11 [19 favorites]


We're in the process of converting to an open plan, which we call "Activity Based Workspace" (ABW). Employees will no longer have their own desks and are not to leave any personal items (like family photos) behind at the end of the workday. The rank-and-file hate it, of course.

I'm doing my part by always referring to it as the "De-personalized Homeless Commodity Professional" (DHCP) workspace model whenever the subject comes up.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:26 AM on July 11 [54 favorites]


We moved to an open plan office and I believe it has brought huge benefits. As the study says, interaction with the closest 8 people increased. As a manager, losing the privacy of my office was a small price to pay. The biggest difference is how information flows - we're all now a lot more aware of what the other people are doing so we often get people chiming in with helpful pointers or solutions rather than have teams reinvent the wheel or worse embark on an incompatible path.

I feel that as a team of 25 people we're a lot more aligned in what we do while before it was like 5 teams of 5 people working in isolation.
posted by xdvesper at 6:26 AM on July 11 [3 favorites]


I'm an extrovert and I work around other extroverts. We tend to be talkative and collaborative with one another during the work day. But only on days when the attorneys down the hall are working from home. When they're here, any conversation on our floor above a whisper is met with SHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHushing and passive-aggressive emails with the bosses cc'd.

Anyway, I remember when we transitioned to our new open office plan. I work in an organization with a lot of researchers and a lot of folks from an academic background, so they brought up several research-based objections that showed the severe drawbacks to open office environment. They were told off with the line "This is the way the world of business is going. Get with the times."

Guess who delivered that line, time and time again? The COO, the CFO, and the number-crunchers.
posted by duffell at 6:27 AM on July 11 [8 favorites]


I've mostly had my own office, and I think a transition to an open plan layout would be tough. I suspect I would spend all day walking outside (or to a conference room maybe) whenever my phone rang. We also have a number of people working remotely -- if we went to an open plan, that number would jump quickly.

At least as portrayed in movies, though, reporters and detectives have always worked in big open plan rooms. I've always found that interesting, because in both cases people are discussing confidential and sensitive information all the time, and yet the workplace is set up very differently.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:28 AM on July 11 [3 favorites]


This open-plan thing had its faddish counterpart in the world of public schools in the 1970s/80s. I can't remember the justification for it--pretty much the same ad-hoc togetherness idea, I guess.

It did not work out, to no one's surprise. Too noisy. Duh.
posted by kozad at 6:29 AM on July 11 [9 favorites]


I currently work somewhere with an open plan and I'm next to a couch where people have meetings on speakerphone, impromptu parties, and have had co-workers move stuff on my desk aside without even talking to me so they could sit there while participating in a meeting behind me. The noise level in here is incredible, I don't know how anything ever gets done.
posted by Kimberly at 6:34 AM on July 11 [10 favorites]


I sit in a 3/4 circular pod with 12 other people. I used to be in the center seat and had to put up with people shouting across me all day. When some new people started and seats moved around I engineered a move to the edge but I still need to hide in meeting rooms for stuff that requires a lot of concentration. In other offices of the company they've had a couple of hotdesk offices with PCs that people can hide in for a couple of hours if they need to do something that requires confidentiality or no interruption, but what tended to happen was senior staff invoked their seniority and made them their own offices.

The worst thing is extensive use of Skype for Business/Microsoft Teams with headsets. You have a bunch of people sitting at their desks which are beside each other all on the same call, with headsets with omni mics, with other people occasionally wandering into the area and talking loudly about unrelated stuff. On top of that some people tend to shout if they have noise cancelling headsets because they can't hear their own voice. If people don't go on mute any time they're not actively saying something the result is chaos.
posted by kersplunk at 6:38 AM on July 11 [8 favorites]


From a management point of view, the few remaining offices-with-doors become a precious resource that employees will fight each other for. Way cheaper than giving them raise.

One of the reasons I've stayed as long as I have in my colossally underpaid (academic, state) job is that I have an actual office with an actual door that I can close. I don't, most of the time - I try to be open door for my undergrads as much as I can - but I can close it. It's even on my syllabus: "If the door is closed, no matter how long the music from within might be, I'm not here."
posted by joycehealy at 6:40 AM on July 11 [11 favorites]


I'll just quickly step into to say to those that like it, "open plan" can sort of work if teams working on related projects or topics are somehow kept together. If it's every person for themselves hot desking then no, it's impossible. At least in my experience.

This brings back 20 years of struggles where I knew my best work was in a closed room with a large whiteboard. I still collaborated frequently with colleagues but mostly after I'd had time to formulate some of my thoughts. And that never happened at a laptop in an open plan setting.
posted by michswiss at 6:41 AM on July 11 [6 favorites]


I have an actual office with a door, and I've still worn noise-blocking headphones to drown out a loud, chatty colleague. [I just use the headphones without music playing. They block sound and make me look unavailable.]
posted by klausman at 6:42 AM on July 11 [5 favorites]


Employees will no longer have their own desks and are not to leave any personal items (like family photos) behind at the end of the workday.

We have this! I now long for the idea of a cubicle farm where you'd at least get your own cubicle walls. LONG for it. I saw a clip from Friends the other day where Chandler's in this tiny little cubicle with his own stuff on the wall and his own comedy stretchy chicken on his desk and it looked bloody brilliant.

I'm fairly sure that in about twenty years time this kind of workplace practice will be seen as self-evidently awful and bad for productivity, and we'll get some inspiring PowerPoint presentations about how productivity actually goes down if you treat your employees like perpetually mobile robots lacking any non-work-focused human needs, who knew!

I am currently on Metafilter because I can't concentrate on my actual work thanks to the fourteen conversations happening within earshot. I'm an introvert and it feels like I'm devoting 40% of my energy every day to trying to mentally build some kind of Other People's Presence barrier.

(My office has something like a 5:4 employee:desk ratio, which in theory evens out because of different working patterns and external meetings and travel, and in practice means that there'll no doubt be a desk somewhere in the building but good luck finding one near your colleagues after 9am. At least it's explicitly a cost-saving measure and nobody's trying to kid us it's for our own good.)
posted by Catseye at 6:43 AM on July 11 [22 favorites]


It's not at all surprising to me how quickly my browser auto fills "earplugs that...look like headphones".
posted by klausman at 6:45 AM on July 11 [5 favorites]


we're all now a lot more aware of what the other people are doing so we often get people chiming in with helpful pointers or solutions

This is one of those circles of hell.
posted by fluttering hellfire at 6:50 AM on July 11 [35 favorites]


My first real IT job we had no offices. We traveled from school to school closing tickets for a district with about 14 locations. Our cars were our offices. We shared some space in a server room for supplies. One of the reasons I left was the district kept promising us space, but never coming through. I only applied for my next job to try to incentivize them into actually delivering. I doubled my salary and got an office.

I loved my office. Then they took it away; put us in cubicles. That was pretty much my idea of hell. I went from disliking some of my coworkers to actively hating some of them. Second-guessed all the time on support calls, no ability to take a break to check CNN for a minute without someone saying something (got to where I'd only fuck off when the office narc was smoking). They announced they were going to open offices, and I started looking for a new job.

I now have two offices. I take some delight in making sure my student workers have an office. I can pay them a reasonably good wage and treat them better than corporate drones.

I never thought there could be something worse than an open office. But now they have moved to no assigned seating open floor plan.

Nope right the fuck out.
posted by cjorgensen at 6:54 AM on July 11 [10 favorites]


Open plan is only good for bosses with an office who want to be able to quickly scan the floor to see who is at their desk. The rest is pure unmitigated misery.
posted by Burhanistan at 6:55 AM on July 11 [18 favorites]


one of the things i adore about my office's new semi-open layout (/low-cubicle walls) is that anybody can just come and talk to me no matter how much i am trying to concentrate on a difficult piece of work
posted by entropone at 7:00 AM on July 11 [26 favorites]


I'm at work right now. In an open office. I'm pretty sure I'd be getting more done right now in my home office, while entertaining a two-month-old human and having cats pooping in the same room as me.

(When my partner wants to horrify me she just has to say the words "open office pooping". Fortunately we still have bathrooms with stalls at the office... for now.)
posted by madcaptenor at 7:00 AM on July 11 [14 favorites]


Since I'm currently in work I can liveblog the distractions:
  • The guy who loudly says "come on!" to nobody in particular when he finds code he doesn't like
  • The guy who's probably non-neurotypical who lets out a loud grunt when irritated
posted by kersplunk at 7:02 AM on July 11 [14 favorites]


kersplunk, do you work at my office? I think that's me. I'm sorry.
posted by madcaptenor at 7:03 AM on July 11 [19 favorites]


My office moved from a cubical farm with reasonably large and high-walled cubicals to a semi-open "pod" workplace. We went from a vibrant, collaborative group to everyone quietly trying to work with headphones on as any conversation disrupts everyone around you. I hate it. The rare times I am allowed to work from home as I get a hell of a lot more done than I do at work, but during the switch we also got new management that is fundamentally against teleworking. Most interaction now occurs through text messaging rather than talking. I used to enjoy coming in to work, now it is just depressing and stressful. I find it difficult to get things done when I constantly feel like people are peering over my shoulder.
posted by fimbulvetr at 7:03 AM on July 11 [8 favorites]


We're currently renovating our offices, and the sections they've completed have all been converted to open plan. It looks pretty stressful, even though each "core" only has about a dozen desks and they're all separated by labs and hallways. They're currently occupied by HR, admin, and other jobs that don't require clearances - I don't think they've quite figured out how to move the rest of us (who have, like, safes full of classified info and have sensitive conversations quite a lot) in to spaces like that. I'm not sure that it's possible, honestly; if they do it, we may all end up locking ourselves in closed rooms all day which may be even worse.
posted by backseatpilot at 7:04 AM on July 11


I know that here the open plan was made explicitly for cramming more people in the same space with no real regard to how people's work is affected. I'm lucky enough to be in a spot surrounded by people in my team, and all phone meetings happen in early morning before most people are in the office (collaboration with people in different timezones is a good incentive to show up a few hours early) plus, im at a corner so I only really have two neighbors, one of which has a wall between us.
posted by tealNoise at 7:07 AM on July 11 [2 favorites]


kersplunk, do you work at my office? I think that's me. I'm sorry.

If you're sorry then it's definitely not you.
posted by kersplunk at 7:13 AM on July 11 [50 favorites]


I've seen a variety of different version of this in academia (and work in one now). Within a lab, it's basically OK - my wife and I spent our five years in grad school with our desks in a shared office with between one and three other people's desks in the room (so, three to five people working in the room on a daily basis). That pretty much worked for all concerned, although I'd recommend ear defenders if you work in an environment like that and don't find music useful when you work.

The worst environment I've worked in? That'd be the two-person office attached to my then-supervisor's, who was always on the phone at high volume. I'm still good friends with the office mate, who has left that group as well, but holy hell, getting anything done in that environment just wasn't on. That, and there was a strong no-headphones culture.

The current version? That's an office that can hold up to 10 people, across three research groups (although I think the most we've had in here was 8 or 9 bodies). Strong headphone culture, as a survival strategy. Works pretty well, but I'd much rather have smaller (3-5 person) offices by research group. Quite a bit of this is an artifact of working in a building that suffers from severe Starchitect disease (it was designed from the outside in, without really any attention to what makes spaces usable by people).

The best version I've seen predates the open plan disease (research building at a university I worked at before grad school); each lab had 4 offices around a central core, each capable of holding between 1-2 to 3-4 people, depending on how closely you packed the grad students / postdocs. Faculty offices on a different floor, but maybe a minute's walk. The nice thing with that building is that they'd also thought through what people needed for research (e.g., individual testing booths, EEG facilities, stuff like that) and built it in from the original design rather than retrofitting. Then again, I know some of the very longtime faculty in that department, and I think they had a lot of say.

My graduate department just moved into a new building, and from what friends have told me, it completely fell prey to all of these issues (coupled with weird access policies and a draconian departmental administration). My wife and I are deeply glad to have graduated three years ago...
posted by Making You Bored For Science at 7:14 AM on July 11 [1 favorite]


A coworker and I successfully lobbied against an open office plan when my small nonprofit was moving... and then before we moved to the new space, I got another job which happened to have an open plan.

I hate it less than I thought I would - my old job was isolating and lonely - but I definitely think it makes me less productive. To really drill down on a thinky piece of work, I usually book one of the spare conference rooms or work from home or stay late. It's not ideal. But it doesn't drive me as nuts as I feared.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:22 AM on July 11


A few years ago I got to experience a presentation where it was explained exactly why they were sending all of our jobs to a smaller city 500 miles away, and while they saved 5% on salaries and 5% on taxes, the savings on office space was something like 90%, because office space is titanically expensive in large cities right now. That said, pretty much all of the approaches to dealing with it being expensive are worse than the original problem, open plan offices included. At my current job we all got kicked out of offices a few years ago, and I know my personal productivity plummeted and I started trying to find an unusual work schedule just to get some time where I'm the only one in the space. On the plus side, now I can tell you exactly which of my co-workers has a kid who's struggling in language arts class, which keeps getting concerned calls from their kid's principal about behavior issues, which really thinks their brother would be just perfect for various co-workers' other friends, and which is going to be in a long-distance relationship for the next few years because their significant other is going to grad school across the country.
posted by Copronymus at 7:24 AM on July 11 [7 favorites]


I find there is some correlation between managers who like open floorplans and managers who don't trust the team to operate autonomously.
posted by davejay at 7:27 AM on July 11 [18 favorites]


I am 42, in my 20 years of professional working life across 8 organisations I have never been assigned my own office.

I twice managed to finagle a private working space - both times carved out of tiny storage-with-a-window rooms that I managed to annexe under the argument of needing a edit suite that would not disturb other colleagues. I got to move permanently into the last one because our team expanded and we ran out of desk space in the main office. I got away with it for three years, occaisionally sharing when some one else needed to edit or for one-to-one catch ups with my staff. My point being that it was awesome but a bit of a cheeky move on my part. I would never expect an actual office unless I was c-suite.

I pretty much expect open office working as a default for the salaried employee, regardless of whether or not I enjoy it (newsflash - I don't!). Was there ever a time when the rank and file had private working space? I don't understand how it would even be possible to accommodate a full workforce in this manner.
posted by freya_lamb at 7:28 AM on July 11


My office is planning to transition to an open and mostly glass office layout in August on the basis that "most offices are open office now" and "you'll get used to the noise."

Bleh. On the plus side, the renovations may force the office to try work from home options, which have so far been a third rail of office politics.
posted by matrixclown at 7:37 AM on July 11


We also transitioned to activity-based working at my work, and it was 100% acknowledged to be because we couldn't get more floor space and couldn't move out of the building we were in. We did take the opportunity to use the space much more effectively, and pushed the various areas of the office hard in different directions so we have about triple the number of meeting rooms, the spaces intended for collaboration have booths and couches as well as the only proper open-plan part of the office, and the quiet area has very high walls and is arranged so that you can't really see who's in there without wandering around.

I don't know if it's working, exactly, for the reasons mentioned in the FPP, but it doesn't seem to be as bad as feared. I knew we were onto something when the social people looked at the silent space and said 'well, no-one's going to sit here'.
posted by Merus at 7:37 AM on July 11 [1 favorite]


This open-plan thing had its faddish counterpart in the world of public schools in the 1970s/80s. I can't remember the justification for it--pretty much the same ad-hoc togetherness idea, I guess.

Wait, was there an era where schoolchildren were given their own offices?
posted by good in a vacuum at 7:41 AM on July 11 [2 favorites]


We also have a "quiet room" which is supposed to be for focused work, but nobody uses it. Part of the problem here is that most of us have second monitors at our desks, but there are no second monitors in the quiet room because "it's not in the plan". But when I really need to focus I also find it useful to have many things open because I'm going back and forth between them! There are five desks in the quiet room and an external monitor is $200; I'm sure I personally have wasted more than a grand of company money due to not being able to concentrate.
posted by madcaptenor at 7:43 AM on July 11 [11 favorites]


Employees will no longer have their own desks and are not to leave any personal items (like family photos) behind at the end of the workday.

I re-watched 9 to 5 recently, and it's amazing how many of the worker-friendly policies implemented by Judy, Violet, and Doralee are still alien to corporate culture.

My (legal services) office moved last year and management seriously considered an open office plan. My union pushed back very hard, and they backed off. But then they wanted big floor to ceiling glass panels in each office. The compromise was to keep the panels but install privacy film. Then they reneged on the privacy film. So the union did an action. Now we have privacy film. In conclusion, I love being in a union.
posted by Mavri at 7:46 AM on July 11 [42 favorites]


Listen, though. Bosses don't choose open office plans because of the "increased face to face collaboration," they just say that phrase when asked why they're doing it.

What they're really doing it for is to minimize costs and maximize employee density.

That's it.

They do not care about the human impacts. They do not care that it's "less efficient" per employee, because A) again, they don't care about human impacts and B) they know they can make up for that drop in per-employee efficiency by packing in more employees.
posted by odinsdream at 7:47 AM on July 11 [14 favorites]


My current office bans headphones yet is mostly open office with no dividers between desks and they just gave out portable speakers to all the employees. It has nothing to do with productivity and everything to do with cost savings and the insane need to monitor everyone at all times (it’s a very butts in seats place where being present is valued over productivity/quality).
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 7:48 AM on July 11 [8 favorites]


They do not care about the human impacts. They do not care that it's "less efficient" per employee, because A) again, they don't care about human impacts and B) they know they can make up for that drop in per-employee efficiency by packing in more employees.

"They may produce less, but at least we'll be able to afford more of them" is still a funky value proposition.

Seems to me that whatever the rationalization, it's a losing bet all around - even if it looks cheaper on paper, it's a short term gain.
posted by entropone at 7:50 AM on July 11


Asking me to do so would be equivalent to paying me to sit in a chair and stress-vibrate, like a tiny frightened dog, for 6 solid hours a day.

This is basically what I do, then like one day a week everybody who sits anywhere near me will be gone for like an hour and I will frantically try to get everything done that I possibly can. But the thing that gets me about this is despite my feeling like I can't possibly work in an open plan office because of my ADD, I still somehow this way get more done than most of my coworkers. Which suggests to me that even the level of distractions are not themselves the problem, that even normal-brain people who can actually deal with the background noise just do not do well with being that exposed, only they don't have the anxiety reaction to it that causes even the occasional frantic bursts of catching up.
posted by Sequence at 7:52 AM on July 11 [3 favorites]


My current office bans headphones yet is mostly open office with no dividers between desks and they just gave out portable speakers to all the employees.

Are you sure you're not an experiment test subject?
posted by carbide at 7:54 AM on July 11 [53 favorites]


Seems to me that whatever the rationalization, it's a losing bet all around - even if it looks cheaper on paper, it's a short term gain.

Are you... unfamiliar with white men in management?
posted by odinsdream at 7:54 AM on July 11 [25 favorites]


I worked in an open office plan once that I loved, but that was because it was a dysfunctional non-profit where most people had 2-3 hours of actual work to do each day and the rest of the day we could futz around. It was in the early aughts when tech firms were buying scooters for their big open office spaces. We had scooters. We had couches. People napped. People had long conversations across vast spaces. People had loud fights and flounced out. People had extensive personal phone calls that everyone could hear. I knew everything about everyone I worked with. It was ridiculous but I had a great time.
posted by Mavri at 7:57 AM on July 11


We are moving into an open plan in the next few months, as we transition to a new site for our Houston offices. Moving into cubes was bad enough, but this is terrifying.

On top of this, as companies transition to this plan, they are able to get away with smaller real estate footprints (the real reason to move to an open office, as we know). Once they have done so, there is no way to move back to anything resembling private space without eliminating a significant portion of the workforce (30-40% if the footprint reduction is any measure). We are stuck with this for decades to come unless there is another way to place people into an office environment with both privacy and less floor space.

My company is increasing their "work from home" policy in order to accommodate some people, but we still need to be here for the majority of the time, and it will, I am sure, greatly reduce productivity. I hope we can survive.
posted by blurker at 8:05 AM on July 11


My old company was always trying to reduce the number of offices available to staff, yet requiring us to have and be in tons of meetings. The response to this issue went along familiar lines:

Mgmt: People are our MOST IMPORTANT RESOURCE!
Voice of reason at exec meeting: This is an issue that is reducing productivity and making our employees unhappy
Dude in charge: They need to suck it up, stop whining and do their job
posted by Emmy Rae at 8:06 AM on July 11 [17 favorites]


This open-plan thing had its faddish counterpart in the world of public schools in the 1970s/80s.

My high school had one of these buildings! The campus is over 100 years old and they've gradually added annex buildings to it, and one such building was built in the 70s with no walls between the classrooms. Just a big ol open space... I assume. I can't say for sure, because they had long since rigged up "temporary" walls and rows of bookcases to form ad hoc classrooms, because of course you cannot conduct a bunch of separate classes in a totally open space and expect to derive any benefit whatsoever from it.

All the outlets were on the floor, it was annoying.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:06 AM on July 11 [8 favorites]


The job I enjoyed most had 4-5 people in a small office who all liked and respected each other.

The worst job I could imagine would be 4-5 people in a small office who didn't like or respect each other.
posted by clawsoon at 8:06 AM on July 11 [1 favorite]


a building that suffers from severe Starchitect disease

Oh, hey neighbor! I can see your building from my office.
posted by backseatpilot at 8:12 AM on July 11 [2 favorites]


I work in a semi-open-plan office with low cubicle walls, but we do get our own spaces and places to put things.

I don’t like people being able to walk up behind me, nor pop by and stand at my cubicle wall, just to my side so I can see them in my peripheral vision, a cue for me to interact.

The one thing that’s nice is that the walls between people facing each other are high enough that you can’t see one another (unless you’re tall, then I think you might) and they have somehow designed a quiet open-plan office, where there’s carpeting, and white noise piped in.

I will, however, take refuge in the quiet, private areas whenever possible and polite. I use the phone rooms for calls, but sometimes enter them early to prep. I don’t reserve conference rooms just for myself unless I’m taking a call and presenting, or sometimes if I just want to work quietly for 20 minutes and I see a small room open that doesn’t have any reservations for that half-hour chunk of time.
posted by rachaelfaith at 8:21 AM on July 11 [1 favorite]


I work in the meeting room. Yes, yes I do. We were not allotted enough individual offices for our research facility, so as low-ranking person I work in the meeting room. Yea verily, that's why I'm typing this now, because there is so much chatter that I cannot concentrate on numbers. There are people having a meeting three feet from me.

I would be far more productive if I did not work in the meeting room, but there's simply nowhere else that belongs to the facility. All the offices that are big enough to accommodate two desks are already shared.
posted by Frowner at 8:26 AM on July 11 [10 favorites]



Companies spend millions to build office buildings for a single purpose: to be a place to work. And yet people working in their own homes, which aren't even designed to be workplaces, end up being more productive.

This proves something a lot of us have suspected. The average office is a miserable place to get work done. And a lot of what makes offices bad are the very qualities we associate with professionalism. The sterility of offices is supposed to suggest efficiency. But suggesting efficiency is a different thing from actually being efficient.

The atmosphere of the average workplace is to productivity what flames painted on the side of a car are to speed. And it's not just the way offices look that's bleak. The way people act is just as bad.

source
posted by theorique at 8:29 AM on July 11 [22 favorites]


Peopleware, which advocated for doors using at least some data, came out more than 30 years ago. No rational force can stop open offices.
posted by cowcowgrasstree at 8:41 AM on July 11 [2 favorites]


I'm pretty sure I'd be getting more done right now in my home office, while entertaining a two-month-old human and having cats pooping in the same room as me.

If I know anything about two-month-old humans, I know that there are lots of times when he or she will also be pooping in the same room as you too!
posted by theorique at 8:46 AM on July 11 [2 favorites]


They do not care about the human impacts. They do not care that it's "less efficient" per employee, because A) again, they don't care about human impacts and B) they know they can make up for that drop in per-employee efficiency by packing in more employees.

The only part of this that doesn't match my own personal experience is the idea that any manager would ever think to solve any problem by hiring more people instead of trying to torture the existing employees into doing the work of 3-5 people. When they moved us out of offices, headcount did not increase.
posted by Copronymus at 8:49 AM on July 11 [9 favorites]


I'm a software engineer at an organization that has almost no open workspaces to speak of. Some support staff have cubes, but basically every technical staff member has an office with a door. Some of this is due to the fact we're a research institution connected to a university, so we're slightly disconnected from the same cost/space concerns of for-profit businesses. Over the last few years, any time I've dipped my toe into the job market to see if the open work plan delusion has subsided, it seems to have only gotten worse. (One time I even posted an AskMe about it and got some very insightful answers.)

Salary-wise, my current job is quite a bit below market rate for my experience level and skill set, and at times I'm very much ready to make a change in my career, but the value of having a workspace where I can actually work ends up canceling out whatever I could gain by making a change.

And, of course, in the last few months, even my organization has started to study ways of improving space efficiency, so they're even coming for me now.
posted by tonycpsu at 8:53 AM on July 11 [5 favorites]


The only part of this that doesn't match my own personal experience is the idea that any manager would ever think to solve any problem by hiring more people instead of trying to torture the existing employees into doing the work of 3-5 people.

They don't hire more people for your group silly! They consolidate another, separate office into yours which increases headcount for a particular building. That's where the real estate savings come from.
posted by The_Vegetables at 9:24 AM on July 11 [6 favorites]


I changed jobs a year ago from one in which I had my own office, to an open plan. I’ve hated it less than I expected... but I also worked on a team previously where we all left doors open most of the time because we were coordinating operational tasks. (And my new job is the same kind of work.) If I had been in the habit of closing my door for focused work, I expect the adjustment would have been a lot harder. The thing I miss most is my bookshelves...

I do find it really frustrating how other companies are cargo-culting practices from Silicon Valley. A lot of these practices, like open offices, stem from the fact that these companies were startups! If you’re starting tiny and doubling in size every year (or month), open offices make perfect sense to minimize office costs and reorganize flexibly. If you don’t have that challenge, it’s unlikely to give you the same advantages.
posted by fencerjimmy at 9:24 AM on July 11 [1 favorite]


The worst job I could imagine would be 4-5 people in a small office who didn't like or respect each other.

*raises hand*
Except most of them hate me personally.
Whee.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:25 AM on July 11 [5 favorites]


a building that suffers from severe Starchitect disease

I work in one of New York's most heralded buildings, designed by Norman Foster, proudly awarded the LEED Gold certification for its environmental efficiencies, &c. The work spaces have been crammed so full that we now sit three across in an open plan designed for two – so the middle worker's keyboard spans two desks and... rocks a little in use. Meanwhile, about a third of the floor space is occupied by huge file cabinet islands, which are empty except for a few squirreled-away snacks because of course modern information workers don't each need 20 linear feet of hanging file storage. Every attempt to have them removed has been rejected by someone so high up that their name is not mentioned – just "it's not possible".
posted by Now I'm Prune Tracy! at 9:33 AM on July 11 [10 favorites]


Cube farms are all about divider height about wall height, too high it becomes maze like, too low an pan-opticon , just right you can't see your colleagues unless you stand up.
The worst are the long floor spanning trading floor type desks, which allow people to sneak up behind you and constant watching from all directions.
posted by Damienmce at 9:48 AM on July 11 [1 favorite]


The guy who loudly says "come on!" to nobody in particular when he finds code he doesn't like

An essential part of my process is to tell the code to go fuck itself, or ask it why the fuck isn't it working properly - this always leads to insight that allows me to fix the problem. At home I can do this at a normal volume; in the office I have to whisper it, which, weirdly, makes me sound really vicious.
posted by eustacescrubb at 9:52 AM on July 11 [25 favorites]


the benefit least mentioned is that PHBs can marvel at very large herds of worker drones and how subservient they are being in one glance.

offices are reserved for PHBs meeting with prospective investors/partners. afterward they meander out into open office space and are reassured by these views, simultaneously emphasizing the invisible divisions between laborers and owners.
posted by gkr at 9:53 AM on July 11 [5 favorites]


An essential part of my process is to tell the code to go fuck itself, or ask it why the fuck isn't it working properly - this always leads to insight that allows me to fix the problem.

Part of my process is to ask "who the fuck wrote this code?"

(Spoiler: it was me.)
posted by madcaptenor at 10:00 AM on July 11 [24 favorites]


I worked for 10 years in an open-plan office in a building with no ceilings, just exposed steel beams supporting a very high corrugated tin-lined roof. The owner of the company loved this building and the layout for visual aesthetic reasons, not realizing until far too late (when everyone started complaining) that it was possible to hear every noise from heavy typing on up and every word said in more than a quiet personal tone of voice, from anywhere in the building. I used to look for any excuse to go work in the "server room" - it was only a cubicle, and roofless at that just like everywhere else in the building, but at least the rack fans helped drown out the ever-present jumble of noise and voices.

Other than that I loved the job and the people, which is good because otherwise I never would have stayed there.
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:15 AM on July 11


Oh god, and don't get me started on how quickly the smell of overcooked microwave popcorn spread to every corner...
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:17 AM on July 11 [5 favorites]


idk if i will ever be able to work again but if i do, and if i end up in some open plan office hell, i will consume dairy products all day long until either i get my own office or i am fired for not being white enough to digest milk, at which point i will sue for billions.
posted by poffin boffin at 10:21 AM on July 11 [15 favorites]


I would love to know how this comparison would have worked in a pre-digital communications age.

About the only pre-digital open office setting I know of is the secretary pool. That was known for good productivity but lousy creativity - and the workers were all supposed to be some form of peers, working on roughly the same types of tasks even if they had different levels of skill.

Most of the other "open office" options were (and still are) some kinds of labor that require a group and a lot of space - machine shops might be considered an "open office" setting, but nobody expects to get serious communication done on the shop floor. Again: productivity yes, creativity no.

Before the current bizarre trend of "let's have a unique office setting!," nobody expected people to be innovative and hold conferences in the middle of a crowd.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 10:25 AM on July 11 [2 favorites]


Offices (even a shared one) are the only thing I’m jealous about of people in academia, which is from what I understand is the last bastion for such things.

UK wise I think the rot is in even within academia. Most of our new builds are open plan and most unis have increased staff numbers to match increased student intake so that staff have to double (or more) up, even in non-open plan.


In Canada (and, I believe, Australia and the US) the move is toward hiring precarious labour--low-paid faculty who are hired by the semester without a permanent contract--who often don't get a workspace at all. You come in to teach and that's it. You prepare for class and do your marking from home or in the library. You don't get acces to a computer or printer and have to use your own. You have nowhere to meet privately with students. At my institution, management does try to stick them in a shared office, but there's nothing saying they have to.

Even in a shared office, there's no privacy for meeting with students over sensitive issues. When I shared an office (sometimes with six other people), we took turns just...leaving for a bit if someone had to talk privately with their student.

I have my own office now, with walls and a door. They're so thin I can literally hear people typing next door, but I have privacy when I need it and that's very precious to me. They'll have to pry me out with a crowbar.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:33 AM on July 11 [8 favorites]


Since no one has mentioned agile or Scrum yet I'll share my thoughts. I have been in software development for 20+ years - long enough to go from a shared office as a pretty junior programmer to being in an open plan space with no office while having up to 18 direct reports. I am currently managing a dev tools team but have been an agile coach for a long time as well.

A lot of people blame agile for some of the open-plan mania and I think that's well deserved. The idea of a a shared open space makes some sense if you are talking about a highly collaborative, co-located team with shared goals. Daily standups, informal communication, overhearing stuff that you could help with, pair programming sessions, all that good stuff. However, I want to point out that:

* Agile doesn't *mandate* that everyone sit around one giant open table. In fact, real agile (may not exist; similar to real democracy or socialism) would say that you should give the team as much autonomy over their own space as possible. Maybe they want open space; maybe they don't.
* The idea of a team sitting in an open area falls apart when you expand it to a really big open area with a sea of teams adjacent to one another. If my team has a natural noisy/quiet/working/socializing rhythm, it sucks when the next team over has a different rhythm or is running a phone bank like Sales.
* Some of the value of open space is lost with distributed teams. Why bother to have 5 people sit together in an open area when the other 5 people on the team are in Ukraine or India and you have to be on video calls all the time anyway?
* No one loves managers, but it's stupid for me to try to be on a constant meeting room quest for my 10 regular one-on-one meetings, long calls with suppliers, etc. If someone's job involves private discussions (or loud ones) all the time, they should be in an office or have easy access to one.
* I am so, so glad I turned off my inner Scrooge and brought $350 Bose noise-cancelling headphones. If you are in open space and easily distracted you MUST BUY good noise-cancelling headphones. They will change your life.

Last year I went to a major agile conference and hosted a 45-minute working group called "Agile Dream House" where people worked to design their ultimate team space. No one drew a fully open plan. The best design was a area that could be shared by 2 teams (15-20 people). Highlights:

* back left and right of the rectangle were two rooms for the teams. Glass walls. In those rooms people had more or less open plans but the furniture could be reconfigured as needed.
* back middle was a thinking room with 6-8 desks present with monitors and docking stations. Anyone needing extended concentration could move in there, with teams agreeing that space is a quiet zone like an old-school library. Front wall of that is *not* glass.
* front area goes all the way across and has a lounge area as well as a meeting area with A/V capabilities. From the lounge you can see into or walk into (via usually-open doors) either of the two team spaces but not the quite room.

I loved the design. It mirrors a concept mentioned in Peopleware: that work space should mirror home space, with gradations of privacy from the entry point (lounge room/foyer/formal living area) to the team/family areas (team rooms, den) to the completely private areas (bedrooms). People visiting the team (family) can progress inward only when invited. Likewise, people needing privacy can progress inward to escape.

I would love to see someone do the math and see if this could be done without a net increase in square footage, and in a way that's configurable over time as needs change.
posted by freecellwizard at 10:43 AM on July 11 [18 favorites]


My previous employer's set-up: big open space, with two U-shaped desk units, 12 workers per unit. Six people on the inside facing out, a short divider in the middle of the desks, and six people on the outside facing in. You were either an 'insider' or an 'outsider.' Insiders could spin their chair to talk to another insider, but the other four insiders would be in on the conversation. Outsiders had a bit more breathing room, but were exposed to the elements--screen peekers, favor-askers, door-buzzer-answerers. Insiders had a degree of protection from the outside, but it was a bit-too-cozy space.

Insider-outsider counterparts across from each other became intimately familiar with the others' habits--eye/nose twitches, face-scratching, nervous fiddling. Everyone was anxious. Insiders and outsiders began decorating their space, at first subtly and strategically. 'You don't mind if I place this potted hedge-like plant here, between us, do you? Thanks.' Over time, the barriers became more elaborate and obvious. 'Oh this? Indeed, it's a scale model of the 700-foot tall Wall from Game of Thrones constructed from 5000 Lego bricks. I like your desk tent, by the way. Very outdoorsy.'

By the end of the social experiment, downsizing and despair emptied one of the desk units, leaving just one weird conclave of introverts. For some odd reason, no one moved to the empty unit. I left a few months before the now-tiny team moved to another office, a much smaller space reportedly, but with offices and cubicles. I guess management finally got the hint.
posted by prinado at 10:57 AM on July 11 [14 favorites]


Land, Labour, Capital.

Land is winning, labour is losing.
posted by clawsoon at 11:16 AM on July 11 [2 favorites]


The guy who loudly says "come on!" to nobody in particular when he finds code he doesn't like

...I may or may not have semi-loudly said "How the fuck are you null here?" this very afternoon.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 11:44 AM on July 11 [6 favorites]


The worst are the long floor spanning trading floor type desks, which allow people to sneak up behind you and constant watching from all directions.

Our building was built in the early '80s and went through a couple self-done renovations before corporate hired an architect to do a complete renno in 2010 with the goal of making us into a "flagship office". I was part of the employee group that consulted on layout, surfaces, etc. and *begged* for cubes or even just individual, podded desks. Instead we got 15' rows of desks with three people on each side, seated back-to-back. The ceilings are high and sheet metal with only minimal sound dampening. You can hear conversations from 50' away if you're not wearing headphones. But it sure looks good if your metric for success is butts/sq foot.

What's worse is that the layout doesn't even make sense from a business standpoint. We're a creative services supplier with multiple competing clients' work all happening under the same roof. The appearance of secrecy and confidentiality is important, and you don't get that with a completely open office plan.
posted by nathan_teske at 11:50 AM on July 11 [4 favorites]


The only time I worked is a big open office plan (30+ people in hot desks) we were barred from having headphones. It was so loud I took to wearing earplugs and then had to get occupation health involved to come measure the decibel level (well about safe levels) when I was told no plugs. I continued wearing plugs.

Freelance Demiurge: "The quote I used in the title refers to an earlier study done by one the same author that showed factory workers work differently when being observed my management."

One of the worst work experiences I had was with a foreman who seemingly had nothing better to do than bird dog our work. My team had been at like 135% of daily task completion for weeks and suddenly we got assigned a foreman who hated paperwork and so would "manage" individual electricians as much as he could. Which dropped our number below 100% for the first time ever for that team. Work to rule is a glorious thing.

Mr. Bad Example: "...I may or may not have semi-loudly said "How the fuck are you null here?" this very afternoon."

This is a version of rubber ducking; a technique I use all the time. Calling out misbehaving equipment is responsible for like 20% of my productivity.
posted by Mitheral at 12:29 PM on July 11 [6 favorites]


Last fall I coughed up my tiny .edu office and got moved to an open floor plan area complete with a "Low Rider" by Santana ringtone (in an empty cubicle!), someone who eats hot peppers every day for lunch, constant conversation & conference calls, and the cherry on top of it all: two bathroom doors flanking the kitchenette doorway (which leads right into my cubicle, guaranteeing interruptions "visits" several times per hour). It is literally the worst seat on the floor -- student workers refuse to sit here -- and definitely the worst working location I have ever had in my life.

News flash, floormates: the bathroom doors are not soundproof.

I never finished clearing out of my old office, and no one has used it since. So whatever the professed justification was for me to move, it was bullshit since the room's been locked since then with some of my stuff still inside.

NOT SOUNDPROOF: I HEAR THE TOILET FLUSHING AGAIN. *weeps*
posted by wenestvedt at 12:31 PM on July 11 [6 favorites]


I am so, so glad I turned off my inner Scrooge and brought $350 Bose noise-cancelling headphones. If you are in open space and easily distracted you MUST BUY good noise-cancelling headphones. They will change your life.

Agreed. I finally broke down and bought the Bose noise cancelling headphones and they have been worth every penny. Now I can work (mostly) without distractions, and if people need to talk to me they know to come and stand to my side so I can see them.

I've even let a few coworkers try my headphones on, and have seen them a week or so later with their own pair. I wonder if Bose does corporate discounts...
posted by ralan at 12:45 PM on July 11 [1 favorite]


FOR REVENGE, I DRAGGED A 1993 WANG MODEL 724 CLACKY KEYBOARD OUT OF STORAGE, RAN ITS PARTS THROUGH MY DISHWASHER AT HOME, AND NOW I SHAKE THE WALLS ALL DAY WITH MY EMAILS, SHELL SCRIPTS, AND SPREADSHEETING.
posted by wenestvedt at 12:48 PM on July 11 [24 favorites]


I wonder what kind of office layout they have over at the NSA.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 1:33 PM on July 11 [1 favorite]


My current office bans headphones yet is mostly open office with no dividers between desks and they just gave out portable speakers to all the employees.

Are you sure you didn't die and end up in The Bad Place...
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 1:44 PM on July 11 [17 favorites]


I hate open offices (or even shared offices -- packing 6 or 10 people into what would have been a 1 person office) so much.

While we in the tech industry are still incredibly fortunate compared to most Americans, this has been a sad decline in working conditions. I used to have a private offices for much of the first half of my 20+ year career, but they are basically impossible to find now. And since younger colleagues have never experienced it, they don't care as much --- so there is little chance of them ever coming back.

My productivity is about half of what it was when I had an office. Which means I work longer hours (because the only time I can get any real work done is at night after everyone else goes home) and my career progression is essentially dead.

There's no real chance of this changing from what I can tell, so I generally try not to think about it too much as its just depressing. I'd give up a large % of my salary to get that office back, but no one has them anymore. (Even the companies who were kind of famous for them are changing)
posted by thefoxgod at 1:47 PM on July 11 [3 favorites]


I'm the CEO at a startup and taking notes here. We're small and currently work in an open plan office that is essentially the size of a large living room. We're open plan because this place would be completely oppressive with cubical walls and we would never be able to find anyone. All sales and investor calls happen in a separate conference room. We also put a premium on being comfortable, so we take periodic trips to Ikea to buy seating and desks that suit all of our employees.

However, we're growing. I could cram another four or five people into this room, but that would be counter-productive from a "getting things done" perspective. I instead added a second room down the hall to our lease and decided it to make it our "heads down" room. There will be a couch with a coffee table, comfy chairs with privacy screens where you can put your feet up, and a big table for larger projects that need to spread out. People can keep their desks in the main room, but will have the option to work with their feet up in the less noisy atmosphere. I'm expecting most of the dev team to take me up on this. I'll keep snacks and daily standup in our larger space to keep people connected, but I am a little worried that some knowledge silo-ing will result.

I love hearing what makes a workspace comfortable or uncomfortable, so this is a thread very relevant to my interests.
posted by Alison at 2:00 PM on July 11 [5 favorites]


Threads like this, as with ones about commuting, always remind me how tremendously lucky I am to have had the luxury of working from home for the past 8-9 years.
posted by Greg_Ace at 2:11 PM on July 11 [4 favorites]


Alison- part of what you cannot plan for is how, over time, people start to feel the oppression of never. being. alone. No one's watching porn or whatever.... you just need, from time to time, to be in a place where you can just relax unobserved. Until you never have this, you will never know it's necessary. But there are days when I simply cannot cope with the constant PRESENCE OF OTHER PEOPLE and it drives me crazy. So- I don't know what you can do about that... but at least consider, how to set up your space so that people don't feel like lab specimens under constant observation.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 2:24 PM on July 11 [31 favorites]


I also think concerns about knowledge siloing are overblown. It does happen, but in my experience, it happens due to poor management and poor use of information systems to record, curate, and disseminate the knowledge, not the fact that people can close their doors if they're doing a task that doesn't require constant chatting back and forth. Obviously not every company can afford enough space to give everyone their own enclosed workspace to retreat to, and those who take the jobs obviously know what they're getting into, but it seems to me that studies like the one in the FPP and others make a very strong case that the supposed benefits of open workplans are illusory, or at the very least, have drawbacks that also need to be accounted for.
posted by tonycpsu at 2:54 PM on July 11 [15 favorites]


I also think concerns about knowledge siloing are overblown. It does happen, but in my experience, it happens due to poor management and poor use of information systems to record, curate, and disseminate the knowledge, not the fact that people can close their doors if they're doing a task that doesn't require constant chatting back and forth.

I agree to the point of suggesting that “overblown” should be “a transparent excuse to justify pocketing some short-term savings at long-term expense”. I’ve never once seen that happen involving doors but it’s always been enabled or even encouraged by bad managers.

I will also note that I’ve never once seen an open office proponent lead by example. There’s always an excuse for why they just can’t share the benefits, much as they’d love to.
posted by adamsc at 3:32 PM on July 11 [4 favorites]


wenestvedt: FOR REVENGE, I DRAGGED A 1993 WANG MODEL 724 CLACKY KEYBOARD OUT OF STORAGE, RAN ITS PARTS THROUGH MY DISHWASHER AT HOME, AND NOW I SHAKE THE WALLS ALL DAY WITH MY EMAILS, SHELL SCRIPTS, AND SPREADSHEETING.

"I'm not trapped in here with you. You're trapped in here with me."
posted by cowcowgrasstree at 3:37 PM on July 11 [19 favorites]


As a writer in a group of 35 people moving to an open office plan in a few months, I'm scared y'all.

About 10 of the people I work with are salespeople literally on the phone for 8 hours daily. Another 8 or so are marketing people who are either in meetings all day, or loudly talking to one another all day in their cluster of desks.

Our office manager is also on phone calls all day, booking travel and ordering supplies and such. Then there's the client success team, who literally do tech support calls on the phone for upwards of 5 hours every day. Everyone on that team uses a fucking essential oils diffuser, which I can smell from a different room down the hall in our current office layout.

I have severe allergies and asthma. WTF am I to do once we move? How will I concentrate enough to publish 3000+ words daily, as I'm doing now (I manage 3 full websites with regular content updates and our company also has upwards of 100 active Facebook marketing pages)!?

I'm the only writer. And I have tinnitus in one ear, so headphones have limited value/use to me. One of my longest running jobs was in an open office plan, and productivity was laughable. People did use the open space to basically scare and intimidate each other into "who can be the biggest office martyr this month/year/decade?" and kept score by literally ringing a bell (think: desk clerk at a hotel bell) when people left early or came in late.

Literally Pavlov's dog training kennels but for humans, these open floor plans. Alison, this comment is mostly for your benefit. If you hire people who manage to work through lunch, come in early and leave late, they are probably not actually working. They are probably trying to look more irreplaceable than anyone else, or gossiping via IM or doing personal/side work at the office. I know, because that's how I stayed sane in my open office plan for more than a decade.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 4:21 PM on July 11 [10 favorites]


You know what’s awesome? Even when open-plan offices are designed to have a sufficient number of private working spaces that you can retreat to, in my experience making regular use of those gets you in trouble. In both of the open plan places I worked, I got shit during (otherwise very positive) performance reviews for not being at my desk enough. For how crabby of a person I am, I am surprisingly good at maintaining the mandated Professional Cheerfulness Facade, but I definitely lost my composure on the second instance of hearing that. I mean, to the tune of saying “that’s a bunch of bullshit” to my manager, and not, like, yelling or throwing something, but when I’m that visibly, externally frustrated at work it means that internally I am basically “the atomic bomb sequence in Terminator 2”-level infuriated.
posted by invitapriore at 5:53 PM on July 11 [10 favorites]


If you hire people who manage to work through lunch, come in early and leave late, they are probably not actually working. They are probably trying to look more irreplaceable than anyone else, or gossiping via IM or doing personal/side work at the office. I know, because that's how I stayed sane in my open office plan for more than a decade.

Hard seconded.
posted by invitapriore at 5:54 PM on July 11 [5 favorites]


Also, I think knowledge siloing is more likely in open-plan settings. It discourages a culture of active and iterative documentation, since you can always just talk to the people around you, right? So instead of being globally accessible via a team wiki or similar, you see knowledge flowing along networks of which coworkers like to talk to each other, which is especially poisonous when a tech lead has their own clique and doesn’t make an effort to develop a relationship with the whole team.
posted by invitapriore at 5:59 PM on July 11 [12 favorites]


Alison, consider adding some space where people can make private phone calls (this can be a tiny room), or have a confidential small meeting (just two or three bodies), or do their Christmas shopping on a laptop without worrying about someone eyeballing their screen. Small meeting rooms should have a glass door or wall or whatever so no one feels cornered in there; the "phonebooth" can be opaque for privacy.

Last fall I toured a building that was overhauled in my city, and the very close quarters are mitigated by having a lot of these spaces that grant privacy (albeit transient privacy) for workers who otherwise are in each other's bidness all damn day.

Then get out there and demonstrate how acceptable these spaces are by using them yourself!
posted by wenestvedt at 7:26 PM on July 11 [3 favorites]


Does anyone else find that [first direct empirical measurement claim] astonishing?

I did but then realized by their definition they are basically counting forms of measurement like asking people how much they interacted each day or having a researcher sit and record observations as not in that category, as you can get recall errors or other issues. The novelty is basically that they stuck sensors on volunteers. Seems to confirm what I've read in other studies by other measurements.
posted by mark k at 8:43 PM on July 11 [1 favorite]


The biggest difference is how information flows - we're all now a lot more aware of what the other people are doing so we often get people chiming in with helpful pointers or solutions rather than have teams reinvent the wheel or worse embark on an incompatible path.

I believe this deserves some addressing, and my feeling is this is a classic manager's illusion. The moments of informal spontaneous collaboration are highly visible and noticeable. The times when someone's having difficulty concentrating because two people on either side of them are carrying on a conversation about unrelated work are much less visible.

What I would recommend from observing my own open-plan office is this: every pair of headphones on heads is a vote against the arrangement. Every pair of noise-cancelling headphones counts double—I guarantee people aren't shelling out the bucks so they can better appreciate the dynamic range of their music.
posted by traveler_ at 10:02 PM on July 11 [20 favorites]


Alison: "We're open plan because this place would be completely oppressive with cubical walls and we would never be able to find anyone."

Even 42" high partitions make a huge difference in how usable a space is while not cutting down on the sight lines. And they make them with windows in the top section. The short divider absorbs some of the noise making the space less boomy/echoy, it stops stuff from falling off the back of your desk, it defines personal space, and it give people some where to hang post its, children's pictures and or art, calendars etc. and it hides things like trash cans, recycling bins, and cord clutter.
posted by Mitheral at 10:36 PM on July 11 [7 favorites]


We've just transitioned to open plan "agile" seating where we have no assigned seats, but are also expected to stick within our "neighbourhoods". We can't decorate, we were given caddies about the size of a cleaning bucket to lug our stuff from our lockers to our, sorry, THE desks, and it's like trying to work on a highway. It's either ragingly noisy, or so quiet that I can hear people 15 meters away on a phone call. I can hear the caller quite clearly too, and they're not on speaker phone.

If you leave something out on your desk at night, you'll get an email from the facilities boss. Possibly you'll have the bitch herself stalk over to you and shake her finger at you because apparently that's acceptable. They check each morning to see what's been left where - apparently they can track who's been sitting where by checking which laptop has been plugged into which desk.

We can't eat at our desks (small snacks are okay) but they tore out the canteen and the only place we can eat is the open plan "Hub" one floor up which is designed for about 50 people, and there's 150 of us here. The canteen is being refurbished too, so add in the sounds of jackhammers and workmen. We're four months in and have two to go, assuming nothing bad happens and everything comes in on budget and on time.

Of course, because everything went in so quickly, bits started failing immediately. The bathrooms on each level randomly fail in new and interesting ways. They fixed the fancy sensor tap on my level, but drilled through a pipe up on 2. The lift is being fixed last and traps people. It got me for about 5 minutes today, but also stopped a little too high later this afternoon and I fell out of it when I didn't see and miss-stepped. One of the questions on the GPTW survey was "Do you feel safe?". We don't.

People are leaving. The company culture was good and now it's shit. And I'm so tired every day from trying to deal with this shit that I can't even. And when I dare show anything less than a Stepford level of delight at the bounty that has been bestowed upon me, I'm the one accused of bringing down morale.

I loved this job and now I intend to quit in about two months when I pay off the last of my debt. I don't have anything to go to and I don't care. I just need to get out of this place while I still have some of my soul intact.
posted by ninazer0 at 3:35 AM on July 12 [17 favorites]


I do enjoy my new office with a door and a floor to ceiling window. Our company kept getting evicted out of smaller offices by Aurbnb rental developments and condos, so our boss moved the company into a real office building, the same one my grandpa worked in.

I have to work one to one on the phone with people in other states, while reviewing and explaining technical reports to them, I hated being in a cubicle, how could you make phone calls? Half my work is personal phone calls. Now, the only ones looking at me are the pigeons roosting on the ledge 9 stories up. We have huge windows into our offices, but I even taped a poster of our latest research report up at eye level. I will probably be made to take it down, but

My desk is in the middle of the room, with a adjacent standing desk (one I just built myself, those things are faddish) with a third monitor / remote keyboard and mouse. So I can switch to sitting during the middle of the day when my feet get tired, without moving anything

I also use the third monitor on the standing desk, I turn it around for presenting to bosses or teaching interns.

Everyone knows I like my door closed, but for my bosses, that's why intercom desk phones were invented. Those things are pretty good for paging select teams, having ad hoc meetings, or calling everyone to all staff meetings or mandatory birthday cake time.

I do dig my desk phone, it allows me to free the mobile phone for other things, and paging groups of people is very useful. I think the younger staff are afraid of them, don t know how to use them. it s great to have a piece of tech that the 60 year olds have to explain to the digital natives.

Most people in the office will use shared documents or online chat for iterative group work, so the paging system doesn't get abused like I think it could. But it is available for urgent questions, and people keep the interruptions polite. Again, most of the staff are young and don t use the paging system

I have a closet for changing out of muddy field clothes/ bike clothes, and a large bookshelf, the middle of which doubles as a standing maker desk for fiddling with field gear / messing with electronics

If they ever put me back in a fing cubicle, I'm gonna haveta stash strange things in the drop ceiling again. No one wants that.
posted by eustatic at 6:06 AM on July 12 [2 favorites]


You know what’s awesome? Even when open-plan offices are designed to have a sufficient number of private working spaces that you can retreat to, in my experience making regular use of those gets you in trouble.

I didn't personally get into trouble but some upper managers did complain that when they walk through the floor, it seems empty most of the time. Never mind that that's because we're either in constant meetings or hiding somewhere quiet trying to get some work done, they want to see lots of worker bees buzzing away when they do their walk-throughs.
posted by octothorpe at 7:05 AM on July 12 [2 favorites]


they tore out the canteen and the only place we can eat is the open plan "Hub" one floor up which is designed for about 50 people, and there's 150 of us here.

Oh, God, this.

The job I am leaving moved from a building that was far too big to a building that was far too small. I think that the groups that have maintained the most coherence are the ones that have either been forced to or have been able to eat lunch together on a regular basis. You would think that management would understand this. They don't.

(The worst part is, the way the company has grown, we don't have 'hot desks' for everyone. We have desks that are owned by the people who have been here for ages, which new employees are permitted to use as hot desks when those other employees are gone. It's a disaster.)

I instead added a second room down the hall to our lease and decided it to make it our "heads down" room.

Would you have enough room to give everyone dedicated cubicles instead?
posted by steady-state strawberry at 7:28 AM on July 12 [4 favorites]


I didn't personally get into trouble but some upper managers did complain that when they walk through the floor, it seems empty most of the time. Never mind that that's because we're either in constant meetings or hiding somewhere quiet trying to get some work done, they want to see lots of worker bees buzzing away when they do their walk-throughs.

I wonder: how much of "having an office" is theater designed to assure nervous managers that people are at their desks and therefore getting work done?

It may be that contemporary knowledge work will be ultimately be able to disrupt this: a trail of git commits, or documents produced, or electronic communication performed, is absolute proof that work was done, even if the employee was not at his or her desk or even in the same building or the same country.

Old habits die hard. Very hard.
posted by theorique at 8:11 AM on July 12 [1 favorite]


If you hire people who manage to work through lunch, come in early and leave late, they are probably not actually working. They are probably trying to look more irreplaceable than anyone else, or gossiping via IM or doing personal/side work at the office. I know, because that's how I stayed sane in my open office plan for more than a decade.

That tracks.

I'm currently working at a job I really enjoy, and there's a ton of work to do...and I have a routine that I've carried over from other jobs, which is arriving late (because I'm up early getting work done at home), taking a lunch (because I'm constantly working and need the break) and leaving early (to beat the long commute up front and get back to working at home sooner.)

During my first few weeks, however, I didn't have enough to do, and I found myself atypically arriving early, working through lunch, and staying late. Once I realized why I was doing it (I was insecure because I wasn't busy) I dug up some real business problems nobody else wanted to solve, and once I was busy, I fell right back into my old routine, because I had a lot to do and the confidence that comes from knowing your work is valuable no matter what visible hours you keep.
posted by davejay at 8:12 AM on July 12 [1 favorite]


consider adding some space where people can make private phone calls

Oh my GOD, I wish I could do this.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:13 AM on July 12 [2 favorites]


I don't work in an open office, thankfully, but I do share a room with one other coworker. I don't mind his company, except when he HAS A PHONE CALL BECAUSE HE IS A PERSON WHO SPEAKS MORE LOUDLY ON THE PHONE.

Mostly I'm just jazzed because this is the first job I've had where I'm sitting next to a window.
posted by Fleebnork at 9:50 AM on July 12


Reading the comments here, I'm blown away. If this is how organizations are run, is it a matter of being more competitive in an industry, or merely less incompetent? I suppose they work out to be about the same?

I shake my head at how decisions that deliver such a huge productivity hit get made over and over across industries and organizations.

I enjoy reading and thinking about organizational management and how to run companies better, not that I'm any kind of expert; I just enjoy the topic. I currently work for a small enough organization that I can connect the dots between high-level operational decisions and how employees doing the day-to-day work are affected. The organization I work for is incredibly far from being well-run, I think that's why I take such a big interest in the topic: I have a self-interest in finding a better way, even if I'm not usually empowered to make it happen.

I just don't understand why it's so hard to make good, logical, sound, positive decisions. Why do organizations seemingly prefer to make poor decisions that make them less attractive, competitive, productive, profitable? Why isn't it working out that better run organizations with a process for good decision-making are much more profitable and competitive, and thus other orgs want to learn from these positive role models?

I think I know the answer to these questions (being promoted to one's level of incompetence, and thus being surrounded by managers and execs who are incompetent at their jobs), but I still have a hard time believing it works out this way. The well-run companies should be so obviously running laps around their competition if this kind of incompetent decision-making is the norm.

Maybe I am case in point:
Q: Why am I still at my organization?
A: Because the other orgs are worse.
._.
posted by Goblin Barbarian at 10:02 AM on July 12 [4 favorites]


In tech at least, almost every place is like this, so it's hopeless to try switch jobs to get better seating. It's funny because in my area, net tech unemployment is below zero according to a recruiter I know, but workers don't really have a way to put pressure on companies to have better seating.
posted by freecellwizard at 11:35 AM on July 12 [1 favorite]


In tech at least, almost every place is like this, so it's hopeless to try switch jobs to get better seating.

When I changed jobs in 2014 I went from open office to a cube... for two weeks. I showed up and was told "here's your cube... oh, and by the way, we're moving to the other side of the building in a couple weeks, where we will have an open floor plan."

I also had to put together my own little storage cabinet from IKEA. I work for a company with enough employees to populate a small country so surely this should have been somebody else's job.
posted by madcaptenor at 11:47 AM on July 12


I also had to put together my own little storage cabinet from IKEA.
Off topic: I would love it if my desk job required me to assemble small furniture like once a month.

Any sensible plan needs to separate the phone people from the non-phone people. I can ask someone to be quieter or go to a meeting room, but not when they are taking work calls. I'd be open to moving my regular calls to a different desk if I sat in a quiet area.
posted by soelo at 12:03 PM on July 12 [2 favorites]


I was just at NeoCon, a very large and venerable design conference / tradeshow that had several floors devoted to solutions to open plan offices. It was interesting to see companies who pitched the original open plan office ideas and associated products now selling new products to 'fix' the problem they created.

If you are wondering, the forerunners in the race to combat lack of privacy are 1. variously sized phone booths (aka isolation booths) that block your frontal views, but leave you visible from the side (where the glass door is); 2. half-domes of rigid felt hanging from the ceiling at nose height for you to duck under to take your important calls in all the privacy afforded by not being able to see any one around you, while your entire body from the neck down is visible to everyone else; and 3. modified pod cubicles, but curvy rather than square, that seat 2-6 people for meetings.

I wish I was kidding, but I am not.
posted by ananci at 12:26 PM on July 12 [12 favorites]


i don't understand this need to disrupt the concept of "rooms with doors that close" and frankly i refuse to consider doing so
posted by poffin boffin at 12:35 PM on July 12 [4 favorites]


Unicorn on the cob: my wife is an asthmatic, so I know what to tell you:

"I am an asthmatic, and I would request, as an accommodation of my disability, that the essential oil dispersers be shut down and removed, so that I can breathe. If that is somehow now possible, I will need my own location away from them to work. This is a matter of health and safety."

Many places will hear the sounds of HR and Legal twitching with horror if they think they might need to deal with an ADA case, so you really need to punch them in the gihoolies at Moment One.

I am currently in an 'office' for a 'modern tech company' that is mostly open-plan, and even most of the offices and conference rooms have glass-fronts with sliding doors. It's horrific. I've moved some equipment to give myself a little privacy in the cover of "I need to learn these devices", but that won't work forever.

Eventually, I expect to go mad, either from the open-plan offices or some of the co-workers. (One guy apparently thought it would be fun to steal my cane, and told me so, and asked me what I'd do; I told him I'd make a new one and leave that new one in his gullet when I came for my first one. He stopped thinking it was fun.)
posted by mephron at 12:41 PM on July 12 [1 favorite]


I just don't understand why it's so hard to make good, logical, sound, positive decisions. Why do organizations seemingly prefer to make poor decisions that make them less attractive, competitive, productive, profitable?

Because managers' fundamental job isn't to make their employees happy, or productive, or even make the company money. It is to ensure that they appear to be doing these things to their bosses, who are even less connected to reality than they are. In tern, executives' fundamental job is to convince the board that they are improving the company when they wander through from time to time.

Open plan offices are visible and trendy. Maintaining morale by doing nothing is neither. There is little reason or incentive for a manager to prefer the latter to the former.
posted by thegears at 1:43 PM on July 12 [4 favorites]


I'm a manager. I look at the people who work for me as follows:

1. They are trading their precious seconds on earth to do what I ask them, I care a lot about that and make sure they are happy, because even mind-boggling amounts of money isn't as precious as your time remaining to live.
2. I consider the level of effort it takes for you to appear at work, and the level of effort it takes for you to do certain kinds of work, and make sure the work I ask you to do is in alignment with what you do best as most as possible, and when I'm asking you to do work that presses upon your anxieties and whatnot then I check in to make sure that you are doing okay.

So yeah, that's how I roll. Too bad I work in Texas and none of the jobs I have are currently remote. I'm working on that. And oh yeah, I've raised enough hell about our open office plan that the facilities director won't talk to me anymore. So I feel like I'm doing my part in the world to be a good person and my hope is that I inspire other managers to suck less at being decent human beings.
posted by nikaspark at 2:36 PM on July 12 [12 favorites]


I got a job a few years back as a software developer working in a great, echoey, dark cramped open plan office. No separation between me and the people on either side of me, only a short riser between me and the person across the desk space from me, a wide aisle behind me.

It held the whole company.

A few people were senior enough to share offices (though that was not entirely a blessing, one such office held 5 people though it was probably designed for 1). You could hear a cold/flu starting in one place then spreading through the office. I once was in the middle of a heated four person conference, two behind me and two on the other side of the desk (that is, past the riser), I got up to get out of the middle only to have one of them say "Oh, you don't have to move, we'll be done in a minute." They weren't. I eventually packed up and left for the day.

We moved eventually to a much nicer (though still open plan) office. Windows everywhere and dev/ops/customer service/sales in different areas, but still no privacy. 3 stations per long table going from window to aisle, with the same kind of short riser between facing people (though after everyone complained they got taller than the planned 6 inch ones ) and as devs we mostly had two monitors to serve as further screens.

When we first got there I ended up on an aisle and it was awful, someone would walk by frequently and people would stand behind me and chat or hover, so it was rather distracting. Eventually I managed to snag a seat next to a window and it was kind of in the corner and relatively quiet - mostly people who came nearby came to talk to me. I got much more work done.

Still people got phone calls and we all got to listen to them, and the person across from me did quite enjoy just half standing and delivering problems to me. There were meeting rooms and phone rooms and a couple weird semi-cubicles that people used for phone calls.

Eventually I transitioned to work remotely and became probably three times as productive. I could make my own hours (within reason) and things were quiet and no one was standing behind/beside me and chatting or staring at my screens.
posted by Death and Gravity at 3:57 PM on July 12 [1 favorite]


They are trading their precious seconds on earth to do what I ask them, I care a lot about that and make sure they are happy, because even mind-boggling amounts of money isn't as precious as your time remaining to live.

I have had one manager ever who actually seemed to hold, and make decisions according to, this perspective, and that was my favorite manager of all time, and, incidentally, it was that period where I felt most straightforwardly productive while also not feeling like my job was my life!

Like all humane and effective perspectives, I am not optimistic that this approach will ever become popular among the managerial class in general, but thanks for staking out the territory.
posted by invitapriore at 4:58 PM on July 12 [3 favorites]


We've just transitioned to open plan "agile" seating where we have no assigned seats, but are also expected to stick within our "neighbourhoods". We can't decorate, we were given caddies about the size of a cleaning bucket to lug our stuff from our lockers to our, sorry, THE desks, and it's like trying to work on a highway. It's either ragingly noisy, or so quiet that I can hear people 15 meters away on a phone call. I can hear the caller quite clearly too, and they're not on speaker phone.

I had to check your profile to see if we worked together, I've just had the same experience with our new building. Except my team is 11 floors away from the lunchroom because they mis-judged how much space they'd need and had to get additional space. Like you, I'm quitting as soon as feasible and I like(d) my work.

The especial hell of our new building is that we now have flexible working spaces, whereas our old building was just rows of desks, which was noisy enough. In the new environment, people from other teams come down to the flexible workspaces by my desk, and have loud meetings, so I'm getting even more noise.
posted by Pink Frost at 5:13 PM on July 12 [1 favorite]


3. modified pod cubicles, but curvy rather than square, that seat 2-6 people for meetings.

That sounds great for a bar but awful for work.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:28 PM on July 12 [6 favorites]


I had to check your profile to see if we worked together, I've just had the same experience with our new building.

Our Wellington office has just been refurbed so there's a slim chance that we do work for the same company. Analytics?
posted by ninazer0 at 1:25 AM on July 13


Open plan is coming for academia, too. I know of three different research groups in my field who have had to fight like hell to keep closed doors; one of them lost and then had to retrofit with glass enclosures.

I’ve personally always been very lucky in the offices I’ve had, at least after I finished grad school (where they didn’t seem to see any problem with “we’ve assigned seven of you to this room with five desks”). But much as I’d like to make a better space for my post docs and grad students, the major problem is the lack of windows— and I don’t exactly have the grant funds to drill a big hole in the middle of this stupid concrete box we are all in. How can you make a window in an interior office?

The sad thing is that functional interactive spaces really do help with creative work (I worked in one for three years). But that’s as an add on to individual or at least small group offices. And the interactive spaces have to be chopped up enough to provide some sound isolation, or all you get is non creative shouting. Most places do not have the funds for this.
posted by nat at 2:41 AM on July 13 [3 favorites]


What kills me is around here is the premise that managers deserve (and get) offices with doors; and yet they are NEVER in their offices. They are always at meetings, over at the other building, out at training or other types of vendor-related sessions, etc.

And yet I have to endure loud talkers, screaming ringtones, blasting air vents, smelly fish microwavers, hallway lingerers and their obnoxious conversations on the other side of my cube wall, and every other distraction, trying to do complex work requiring concentration and critical thinking. It just. drives. me. nuts.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 5:11 AM on July 13 [9 favorites]


My office is open plan for me and my peers, with our desks in the middle. Project leaders have offices (some of them have to share) and regularly have telephone calls and conference calls. Despite my desk being as far away as possible from the offices, I still can hear every word of most calls.

I sit across from two people who are working on a super-stressful litigation support project, and regularly have conversations that just radiate stress 600 feet away. Part of the issue is that one coworker is a bad listener and needs to have everything said to her about 8 times before it actually registers with her. The other part is the person she’s talking to doesn’t bother to hide his irritation with having to repeat himself, and doesn’t understand the concept of indoor voice.

I hate them both by now, Bad Listener about twice as much as Frustrated Loud Talker, because both the length and the volume of the conversations could be greatly reduced if she would just fucking listen the first time. Or try sending email, so she can read his response multiple times without annoying everyone else.

And there is no way that any of their conversations will be helpful to me in the future, since it’s for Client A, and I have worked for Client B, and for office politics reasons, no one can work for both Client A and Client B.

I’m supposed to be doing careful, complicated analytical work at breakneck speed under these conditions.

The real kicker is that the firm would greatly like to reduce the amount of office space they have to rent, and my job can be done 100% remotely. But for other office politics reasons, saving space by letting people regularly work remotely is a non-starter.

It’s headphones for as long as I can, all day. Listening to angry rap is my primary coping method right now.
posted by creepygirl at 10:19 PM on July 13 [1 favorite]


We're moving to open offices next year, in a custom built building. This morning someone who works for me sent me a link to an article that summarized the same study albeit with slightly more vulgarity.

AFAICT the gap between what our top management sees and the general worker sees is as big as it's ever been in the 10 years I've been in this department. Facilities gives guided tours of buildings that have moved to that plan and our VPs have interviewed workers there who tell them it's in between good and great. Design drawings and chats with executives and trust of the facility "experts" all tell them the same thing: There's always grumbling with change but it's going to be great, way better than what we have now.

Rank and file seems to be sharing horror story after horror story. A lot of them have worked in that situation, or have friends who worked in some of the showpiece buildings, or go out drinking with the same people who claim it's OK when senior management ambushes them. Everyone knows how to google; heck, everyone knows how to look up studies and distinguish them from self-congratulatory case studies by consultants. So they know the score.

The facilities project managers, who are pretty friggin' opaque in communicating risks with the project, have gotten worried enough they hired "change management" types to give a two hour all hands dog and pony show about how it'd be great and help everyone understand the issue. This is a classic of out of touch management that I haven't seen in years--respond to disagreements by believing your employees (in this case mostly people with advanced degrees) just don't understand why something is a great idea.

I was happily out of the office that day so I missed it, but I've heard about it and morale seems to have gone down further now that people see what's happening is exactly what they feared, and have other confirm that it's the same for everyone at every open office everywhere.

The top 5% or so get their own offices. The very top all theatrically declined, except my direct boss. He's the only one at that level who's not shy about saying this is all a mistake, so I figured he'd give his up too to try and help morale. So I ask and his response his response was "hell no." Only damn time I've laughed about this damn whole damn process.
posted by mark k at 11:31 PM on July 13 [2 favorites]


My workplace (in academia) is in a constant state of low-level warfare about office set-ups. Last year they moved about 50% of our faculty into hot-desk open plan spaces (no assigned desks, even), and another 20-30% into assigned desk open plan space. I am one of the few people who got to keep an office... for now. And losing it is a threat that is constantly held over my head, sometimes explicitly. The dean even told some of my colleagues that if they didn't stop complaining about their movement to open plan, he'd take my office away, and then they'd be responsible for my misery as well.

At the same time, they have taken away all our meeting rooms and tea rooms in the past year, so there is literally nowhere for people to meet and talk, except in the offices of those few of us who still have them, or in front of all the other poor people trying to work. As you can imagine, this works out especially great for students who want private conversations with their instructors.

Fortunately faculty are allowed to just work at home whenever they like, and so everyone does. (Except for those of us trying to prove that we really do need to keep our offices). This means the building is usually extremely empty, which has also tanked collaboration. Non-faculty, which includes our programmers, are not allowed to work off-site, and our local administrative Nazi stalks the corridors making sure that they are in their assigned spaces at all times. Yet programmers, not being faculty, don't get an office to themselves: they share with at least one other person, who is often not a programmer, but rather the kind of administrative assistant who is on the phone and having (in-office) meetings all day. Yet when the programmers find an empty room or sit outside so they can concentrate, they get written up for not following policy and being out of their office during 9-5. We literally just had someone resign over this (and related issues).

In conclusion, GAH.
posted by lollusc at 6:44 AM on July 14 [1 favorite]


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