Diatribes against open-floor-plan work spaces are quite fashionable these days. Remember this Washington Post piece? Or this one by a former Fast Company senior editor?

Even one of our own Inc. contributing editors chimed in recently with 10 Reasons That Open-Space Offices Are Insanely Stupid. What's in the water?

Context, Context, Context

What I have noticed is how misdirected these arguments appear. An open plan works when designed in the context of your team's dynamics, work style, industry, and culture.

You don't create one to imitate Google or Facebook. You do it to leverage design and space to facilitate team interactions so your tribe becomes more productive. Not to mention it saves you money.

But these aren't good business reasons if you haven't defined your culture in a way in which an open plan will work.

No matter how cool open plans may be for Millennials, they don't work if your corporate values are misaligned, and team members haven't developed trust in one another to collaborate at a high level.

If co-workers are sitting around an open space fearing repercussions about being overheard by others, or having water-cooler reactions about how bad someone's idea was three feet from the person, your first priority is to fix your morale problem.

It also defeats the purpose to have collaborative space if co-workers are drowning out the world with podcasts and Bruno Mars in their ears all day.

A Case Study--Menlo Innovations

For a great anthropological case study of how open-floor plans work exceptionally well, look no further than the software development firm Menlo Innovations.

CEO Rich Sheridan, who wrote Joy, Inc.: How We Built a Workplace People Love, created a shared work process where all the programming is done by tandems who share an open work space.

These tandems work side by side at one computer, continuously collaborating on the same design for a week. They then rotate into new tandems on new projects.

This approach, Sheridan says, allows for creativity and higher engagement as well as enthusiasm. The results are "palpable."

But open space itself is not the secret sauce; it's the feeling of belonging to a community defined by a shared vision of developing (for Menlo) really good technology for a great return, and doing it in a collaborative spirit.

Because "Menlonians" share the same purpose and passion in the work they do, the noise, clutter, and lack of privacy comes with the territory and is ingrained into their DNA.

That's why Menlonians will quickly dismiss job candidates who don't have good "kindergarten skills," meaning if they don't play well with others in an open space, they're not a good fit.

Instead of asking job candidates scripted questions that will get fabricated answers,  they simulate their work environment during the interview, documented here in a 2011 Inc. cover story.

"We run straightforward collaboration exercises where candidates pair with one another, 20 minutes at a time while my team watches," says Sheridan in an article he wrote describing Menlo's culture.

Hiring for culture fit has everything to do with open work spaces working! Watch this two-minute video of Sheridan describing Menlo's collaborative open space, and get a quick tour inside the company as a bonus.

But, as the argument and the vast amount of research goes, what works for Menlo doesn't work for everyone. There's a generational difference in how work space is perceived. Millennials are fine with a mobile style of working and don't equate space with worth. 

Boomers and Gen-Xers, not so much. They prefer to vie for the corner office with a view.

Then there's the personality-type factor. People with different temperaments have different needs, and workers of any breed--introvert, extrovert, ambivert--should have some privacy to think, focus, and recharge.

The Solution to End the War

How do we end this war on open plans? We call a truce with a healthy compromise serving the best of both worlds: open spaces with lively conversations, synergy, and productive buzz, and private spaces to focus, have confidential meetings, or be alone (cue the cheer from introverts).

WorkSpace Futures, a research group within office design company Steelcase, conducted this study published in Steelcase's 360 Magazine. Donna Flynn, a design anthropologist and WorkSpace Futures' vice president, says a floor plan should be about achieving balance.

"An open plan isn't to blame any more than reverting to all private offices can be a solution. There is no single type of optimal work setting. Instead, it's about achieving the right balance between working in privacy and working together to achieve innovation and advance."

Flynn reports in Harvard Business Review that the most successful work environments "provide a range of spaces--an ecosystem--that allow people to choose where and how they get their jobs done."

More companies are embracing this concept. Groove, a marketing firm in Baltimore, has an open plan that includes a library--complete with couches, a fireplace, and a "no talking" rule--as well as other private work spaces.

Finally, as leaders assess how to design work space, it really comes down to listening to and taking the pulse of your people.

Consulting and design firm Aecom stresses the importance of asking the right questions of those who will occupy your open space. Involve them in the process and decision making. Start by asking yourselves:

  • What do we want to do with our space?
  • What do we want to get out of our people?
  • What kind of behavior do we want to encourage?
  • How can we represent our organization's values?

I declare the war against open plans over. Stick a fork in it. Done. As you research what best fits the needs of your tribe, the point is to give those you serve the right environment so that you get the best out of them.