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The Secret about Open Offices


Ssshhh! Don’t tell anyone . . .

“I was told that I could listen, to the radio at a reasonable volume from 9 to 11… well, I… I told Bill that if, if Sandra’s going to listen to her headphones while she’s, while she’s filing then I should be able to listen to the radio while I’m collating so I don’t see why I should have to turn it down because I enjoy, listening, at a reasonable volume, from 9 to 11…”

Milton, Office Space

Whether at work, on an airplane, or at movie, we’ve all experienced what Milton was feeling. Disruptions can derail your train of thought. So why are most companies opting for an open-plan offices?

It’s not to increase collaboration, save time, foster creativity or build camaraderie. The real reason companies choose an open-office plan is simple.

Open-plan offices save money.

But if these open-plan offices are making employees feel like Milton, are they really worth cutting the cost? Several companies believe so. GlaxoSmithKlein contributes $50 million in revenue growth to an open-plan office. And Citrix has dropped real estate costs from 6.5% to 4% of the company’s budget since scrapping traditional office plans.

But do you want your own office?

I did. My first job out of college, I was as an intern at my alma mater. My desk was situated in an open area, where folks had to pass through to leave or enter the building. Other employees would congregate in this area. And the printer was perfectly positioned a few feet away to offer plenty of run-ins.

It doesn’t sound as bad as it was. But I hated the space. I would of done anything for a door. Because when I was really trying to focus to get work done, it was impossible. The distractions and interruptions drove me mental.

I wanted my own office.

Fast-forward to my next real job. I got my office. It was a corner office far away from everyone. Perfect, it even had a door, a window, and space to move around. At first, I loved it. But then I remembered you should be careful for what you wish for.

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I never saw other employees. Never got up to ask questions. Sent emails and chats to people that were only a few feet away. And began to be less motivated to do work.

You’ve Worked in the Open Before

I began to realize I’ve always worked in an open space. In my previous job, I worked in press boxes and at score tables. There isn’t a much better example of an open-office plan than working in front of thousands of people.

And in college, I took exams and filled blue books with hundreds of fellow students right next to me. I took the SAT with lots of my peers by my side, and wrote in cursive with my desk surrounded by girls with cooties. School was a real open-plan office. I’m guessing you’ve worked at a coffee shop or in front of other people too.

The only difference between your open-plan office and a classroom is the level of quiet. When you took a test, there was peace and quiet. When you type an email, one employee is eating, the other is on the phone, and others are chatting.

Treat Your Open-Plan Office Like a Library

“Yeah, if you could just be quiet now. That would be great.”— Bill Lumbergh

Lumbergh wasn’t totally wrong. In fact, he might of even been right about one thing. In order for an open-plan office to work, you need peace and quiet.

Co-founder of 37 Signals and author of Remote: Office Not Required, Jason Fried knows a thing or two about how to make an open-plan office work. He points out, “everyone knows how to behave in a library. You keep quiet or whisper. You respect people’s personal space.” Fried can speak from experience. Watch how his company works.

Open-plan offices make a lot sense. And not just as a cost cutting measure. But what many of us fail to realize is how much we need uninterrupted stretches time. Because that is where the magic happens. Where the actual work gets done.

Respect the people around you. Use other rooms. Talk in kindergarden voices. Take a walking meeting. Don’t interrupt others unless you absolutely have to.

And treat your office like a library. But don’t tell anyone, it’s a secret.

This article also appears on Medium and is published here with the permission of the author
Title photo credit: flickr

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No fluff or "pie in the sky inspiration." Just real stories.