On working in an open office

Jan 04 2016 Published by under industry, life in the office, meeting, networking

The building that I work in is designed as an open office with flexible workstations. There are desks where you can hook up your laptop and at the end of the day you need to completely clear your desk. There are lockers and cupboard spaces to keep things. You can adjust the desks and chairs in height and they even raise high enough to become a standing desk. From a recent article in the Washington Post, it seems that not everyone is a fan of open offices, but here it works really well.

From The Washington Post article:

“As the new space intended, I’ve formed interesting, unexpected bonds with my cohorts. But my personal performance at work has hit an all-time low. Each day, my associates and I are seated at a table staring at each other, having an ongoing 12-person conversation from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It’s like being in middle school with a bunch of adults.”

I think that what makes it work here, is that it’s pretty clear when and where it is okay to talk. There are a couple desks in little fishbowls where you can work quietly. There are bigger fishbowls where you can have meetings. People step outside into the hallway or into a fishbowl to make a phone call. And so the large open office space is usually pretty quiet. And then when it’s not, I actually kind of like to hear people talk to each other about work. It has happened more than once that people overhear a conversation and then actually have something to contribute even though nobody would have thought to ask them in the first place.

The only disadvantage: there is glass everywhere. People can look on your screen at all times. And worst of all, there are virtually no places in the building where you can cry at work without being seen, except the bathroom. But after having cried, you still need to cross an entire building full of fishbowls on your way out.
Do you work in an open office? And do you like it?

7 responses so far

  • katiesci says:

    There should really be a room for private phone calls and/or crying in every work building. I love having an office, even though it's shared with someone else. In grad school I was in the lab all the time and would get distracted more easily.

  • genomicrepairman says:

    At one point I had a desk in one of those giant bullpen-style offices that was littered with desks, it wasn't even a cubical farm. That was mayhem. Then eventually we got moved into a long narrow room that had 4-5 desks on each side that faced the wall. I found that much better. Even with this I still hate taking anything longer than a two minute phone call because I hate to interrupt the silence while everyone is working.

  • chall says:

    I worked in a semi-open office, we had our own cubes (low walls though) and our own benches. Depending on rank, you either shared a space or had one alone. It was ok, but hard to focus on writing since it was never quiet. Never alone. And you were constantly interrupted by other people going by, or asking things "over the wall" - not caring if they interrupted you since "it was faster to just ask out loud for help and suggestions". At least I had my own space though.

    The way you describe, I wouldn't get things done. It's not that I need "a lot of my things around", but in order to be efficient I've realized i need something that is "my space". Not to have to apologize or roam around freely looking for a place to sit. And I say this after currently having two spaces where I should sit - in two different buildings - and asked not to keep personal things in the spaces. However, it's a designated space for me - and when I get there, it's open for me. The shared idea also makes it quite hard to focus in quiet since people talk a lot. And being on the phone.

    All in all, I think it would be beneficiary to have "quiet rooms" and also depending on personality and type of job, having spaces for that. I know that I currently work a lot in the late aftertnoon/evening since it's quiet when people leave. I also work from home in the mornings since it is quiet there. It's not ideal though.

  • gmp says:

    I did my PhD in a large shared student office that was like a cubicle farm (probably 20-30 people, from several different groups). Double-cubicles (so two people) were assigned. I was by the door, so a lot of noise, people constantly coming in and out.

    I have one word: headphones. Blasting music through them to shut everything else out. That's what made it possible to be productive. I still use headphones when I need to focus.

    I would go nuts if everything were open and glass and I had no privacy.
    I bet people's cortisol levels must be through the roof when they are continuously exposed like that...

  • Zuska says:

    Surely the open office system must violate some international human rights agreement. It is a nightmare.

  • babyattachmode says:

    After reading all your comments I'm starting to wonder why I'm not too much bothered by this working arrangement while it seems most people would hate it. I think the key is that I usually arrive early (because of a certain kid that wakes up around 5 am each morning). I can usually choose wherever I want to sit: a more sheltered quiet room if I need to read and write or an open space if I want contact with people. But I can imagine that the person who arrives latest and needs to walk around for 10 minutes trying to find a less than ideal space to sit would be a lot less happy. I hadn't really thought about that much.

  • ecologist says:

    I believe (haven't checked in any detail) that there is a fair amount of evidence that the open office arrangement does not help productivity (however you measure that), particularly does not support creativity, and that it increases stress considerably. My observations, since moving to a place where that kind of thing is relatively common, is that all these things are true. The main thing neglected in these arrangements is that we are not interchangeable parts. This is not a factory. You have to find a spot to work every day? A spot that's different from where you worked yesterday? A spot that has no connection to you? What is that supposed to contribute to someone's ability to think, work, write, and create in a way that's different from anyone else in the building? Zuska, above, described it pretty well in one word: nightmare.

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