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Open Office, Work Culture, and Productivity

Even though there is a trend toward open-space workplaces, views about the effectiveness of this design vary widely. Fast Company editors Jason Feifer and Anjali Mullany take up this debate in a FC Officecubicles interview for an article titled, “Two Cube Dwellers Argue Over Open Offices. Who's Right?” Their differing views on the matter do an excellent job of identifying the issues involved in the open-office controversy.

Jason Feifer: I witness an inability to concentrate, lack of privacy, and absent sense of ownership--which is a problem given that I occupy this space for the bulk of my waking hours. But the business community insists this is good for me. Supposedly, by all of us being mushed together instead of provided the pleasure of private ­offices, we're to form a beating heart of collaboration. And yet, because we're sitting together, we're doing everything we can to create the sense that we're apart.

Anjali Mullany: Where I sit, we don't wear headphones very often, and my team interacts a lot. In fact, we found that the built-in barriers between our desks were an impediment because we couldn't see each other when we spoke, so we recently had them removed. We made that decision together, and the feedback from team members has been positive. Instead of IM'ing each other, we're talking in person. It's way more efficient and less maddening than having my Gchat icon flashing all day, since I already suffer from multitasking overload, thanks to email, Yammer, Campfire, social media, and multiple browser tabs. When we do wear headphones, we take it as a sign that the person doesn't want to be disturbed unless it's urgent.

Despite these disagreements, it’s not one-size-fits-all. Leaders have to decide what kind of design will work best for their organizations given the culture that they want and the strategic goals of their businesses.

Rich Sheridan, in his book Joy, Inc., describes the intentional culture in Menlo Innovations that is a variation on the open-office design. The purpose of the Menlo workspace is to facilitate teamwork, information sharing, and problem-solving in order to develop the best software solutions for their customers. Prospective new hires are given some time to try out this environment before they are hired. They know that their workplace design is not a good fit for everyone and some people walk away after deciding that they don’t want to work in that kind of environment.

I can identify with the positions of both Feifer and Mullany. For some tasks I have appreciated working in an open office environment with few barriers between me and my co-workers and for some tasks I have appreciated being able to isolate myself for a few hours. I’ve had employees who would go nuts in a private office and performed best when they were in the middle of the action, constantly shifting their attention among tasks and bosses. I’ve had other employees who could be good team members but needed time to themselves and could not function well in an open office all day long.

You need to be intentional about workspace based on the culture you want to create and the performance objectives of the organization. You also need to take into consideration the differences in the ways individuals prefer to learn and work. This might mean building in options so that people can change where they work given the nature of the task and the desired outcomes. A default design of all private offices, all cubicles, or all open office, without consideration of culture, might be expedient but it will not help to maximize learning and performance.