The Open Office Debate: I Love To Hate It!


I have noticed a considerable amount of chatter recently related to open work spaces (see here, here, here, here, here, and here), and the debate about whether they really help or hinder productivity and creativity.  Personally, I can’t stand open work spaces…all the time.  And here is where I think the debate is missing the mark: It may not be the best at all times, or for all things.

To explain this a little more clearly, I refer to another ongoing debate.  This second debate is about the “10,000 hours of practice makes you an expert” rule.  This is another one that has some staunch supporters on both sides including the likes of Malcolm Gladwell and Daniel Goleman (see here, here, here, and here).  In this debate, however, there is a poignant point presented: it’s not just about the number of hours, it’s about the quality of the time spent.  In other words, if you practice the same wrong thing for 10,000 hours, you will potentially be very good at doing the wrong thing, but still not at expert level of doing what you need to be doing.

Using this same logic, let’s look at the open office.  Is the open office the right setup at all times, for all work, or for all people?  I would like to believe that most of us would emphatically say no. I like the open workspace at times when I need to work with others off and on, say when I am working with SMEs to design and develop materials for learning programs, or discussing ideas for restructuring roles or teams.  However, when I need to concentrate and write material, reports, or other mentally intensive and focused work, the open work environment is completely distracting.

Now, I’m sure I will receive some backlash from this, but I want to use other examples from the high-tech industry as well.  At my current organization, we have many engineers and designers/developers working on networking infrastructure and coding.  They use an Agile methodology for much of what they do, as well as using DevOps methodology.  Both of these require a considerable amount of collaboration at times.  However, I still see plenty of these roles who retreat to their cubicles with the lights turned down low, headphones on, and in some cases even a shade of some sort over the top of their cube to create their own environment.  The reason is simply creation of an environment where we can concentrate.

We work best in small bursts of concentration of a minimum of about 45 minutes to a maximum of about 90 minutes.  After that, our mind tends to begin losing concentration and focus.  This means that while it may not be necessary to stay closed off to everyone all the time, there are times where we need a private, quiet space to escape to.  Working from home or a coffee shop often provides this type of environment, because while it is open, we do not know most people and therefore feel isolated and able to concentrate with the ability to look away from our computer or other work for a few minutes as necessary.  At work, this concept breaks down because we generally know most of the people around us, which creates a more social environment that can contribute to a drop in productivity and creativity at times.  So, as stated in the beginning the debate misses this mark.  Open work environments may not be the worst thing in the world, but they are not always the best.  The quality is what counts, and as always that depends on other circumstances and means different things at different times.

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