I've spent almost five years working in an open office. Forget the naysayers. I've really learned to like it. In fact, I think I can even say I've loved it.
Previously, I spent about six years working as a lawyer. In those setups, I always had my own private office, sometimes with a really nice view. That was kind of neat, but once I got past the ego factor, I think the overall open office experience is far better.
Among the advantages I've experienced in my five years in this environment:
- I've developed closer relationships with many coworkers than I otherwise would have.
- I learned more about other people's jobs, which helped me to do mine better.
- I learned more quickly about what was going on in the company, by being physically present for important, impromptu conversations.
- Since I have equity in the company, I was happy to see us spending money on things that mattered (not wasting it on lavish private offices that often go unused).
- We are flat out more productive and collaborative. (Forget those so-called studies suggesting productivity suffers. Who are you going to believe, a study you've never read, or your own eyes?)
But while there are some valid criticisms, most problems aren't about the concept of an open office. Instead, they're about bad planning and leadership. It's like showing someone a broken-down car and concluding therefore that all automobiles don't work.
Done right, an open office can be a really great work environment. Here are the most common complaints, and how to fix them.
1. Complaint: "There's not enough personal space."
This is a top complaint. Sometimes it's valid. But it's almost always the result of cramming too many people into a too-small space; not the concept of an open office itself. An open office requires less space for the same number, but if you take it to silly extremes, obviously it's going to reach a point where it no longer works .
This issue is often most acute at companies that are growing fast, and have a hard time keeping up with their hiring needs. This is difficult, but it's also a "good problem," as long as leaders keep on top of it.
Solution: As your team grows, grow the space. Don't just shove more people in the same space.
2. Complaint: "There's not enough privacy."
Another valid complaint sometimes--but again most often related to either:
- having a too-small space for your number of employees, or else
- not investing in simple architectural tools to divide people's work areas, and give them a modicum of privacy.
Poorly run open offices are designed by people who forget that workers need more than their dedicated work station. They also need to have other places to go--phone rooms, meeting rooms, and all-purpose space, just for a change of scenery.
Solution: Are there at least three places where each person in your open office could go to work if needed? (Obviously not all at once.) If not, you probably need more space, and more privacy.
3. Complaint: "They're all about the bottom line."
In many companies, yes, open plan offices are largely about saving money. So what? Companies are supposed to make a profit. And if you're working at a younger company or a startup--my God, embrace the frugality. You want the company to survive, right?
Obviously there can be tradeoffs. For example, I might hesitate if the best employees don't want to work in companies that use open offices. But there's no information I've seen suggesting this is truly a problem at scale. If that were the case, companies like Apple and Alphabet would be responding. But they're not.
Solution: Like any other fixed cost, pay attention to whether there's an unidentified downside (like the aforementioned hiring issue, if it exists). Also, be transparent with employees: explain what you're doing with the money you'd otherwise spend on a fixed-space office.
4. Complaint: "They're no good for introverts."
I'm partially an introvert. Sometimes, yes, I crave alone time. And sometimes your work requires intense concentration that might be easier with a door closed.
But that doesn't mean you always need or want to be alone. The solution here is to ensure that you have quiet and private workspaces that can be used as needed--but not completely dedicated to individual employees.
Solution: Much like #1 and #2 above, make sure there are multiple places that people can work if needed.
5. Complaint: "I feel like people are sneaking up on me."
Yeah. That would be unsettling. Again however, this is mostly a function of cramming too many people into a too-small space, and not including architectural features that can offset the problem.
It's an easy fix--even just creating pathways that guide people in front of coworkers, not behind them, can help a lot. And if this becomes a really big issue, the solution is probably to introduce some kind of low-walled cubicle setup, rather than tripling the cost of space by getting everyone his or her own dedicated office.
Solution: Work on traffic flow, and use barriers--furniture, plants, whatever works--to provide a modicum of privacy.
6. Complaint: "They create haves and have-nots."
The only way this happens is if the boss gives himself or herself a private setup, and crams everyone else in an open part of office. Then, the office becomes a status symbol. But the best leaders don't do this: they work in the same situation that everyone else on their team does.
Besides, it's not like this goes away if you have private offices. My God, the jockeying that used to go on in the law offices I worked, in which offices were assigned by seniority. Every time someone left, it seemed almost the entire roster of less-senior lawyers would wind up moving offices.
Solution: Practice egalitarianism. A leader who takes half the office for himself or herself, and packs everyone else into a smaller section, is asking for trouble.
7. Complaint: "They enable boorish behavior."
I guess the notion here is that if you're in an open office, you can't easily escape from people who act boorishly. But the solution is simple: Require people to treat each other professionally and respectfully.
If they can't do that, the solution isn't to change your office. It's to get rid of them. This goes 10X so if you're talking about someone whose conduct crosses a line into sexual harassment or discrimination. Don't accommodate their proclivities. That's insulting and enabling--but it has nothing to do with whether or not your office is open concept.
Solution: Zero tolerance. Fire that guy (or woman).