“Open office plans are a dream.” “Open office plans are a nightmare.” Which is it? I'll bet you have strong advocates on your team for either side of this argument.
For years, business experts urged companies to adopt communal workspaces in the interest of increasing energy, collaboration and transparency. Then came the naysayers. Fast Company recently called open office plans an "idea born in the mind of Satan in the deepest caverns of hell." In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, Susan Cain tells us that such arrangements undermine those people who need library quiet–free from distractions–to stay in flow. Psychologists have data to prove this model doesn't work and is anything but productive.
My experience is different. I spent much of my 40-plus-year career in traditional high-tech organizations where you could gauge your position in the hierarchy with a tape measure. How many square feet do you own; how large is your desk; how high are your walls? This approach is often isolating, emotionally draining, and treats the business like a bunch of atoms rather than an organic whole. It is joyless.
To experience our office firsthand, you would enter the cavernous basement of the downtown Ann Arbor Liberty Square parking structure, and there you'd see the 18,000 square foot wide open office of Menlo Innovations, including: 46 lightweight five-foot Southern Aluminum tables, pushed front to front and side to side. On most of them, there is one computer, and two people sitting side by side at the single computer, and because the tables are pushed together, everyone is sitting shoulder-to-shoulder or across from one another.
The space changes in small ways everyday, without anyone having to ask permission. Tables are grouped into pods and each pod has a focus of attention around a particular project or function. The pairs (which I will discuss in a future column) are in constant conversation with each other, and occasionally there are questions and conversations between pairs as they solve problems together. (We have very few rules at Menlo, but one of the strongest is that you can't wear ear buds while you are working.)
And to the CEOs out there, know that I sit out in the space with everyone else at the same style five-foot table, and I don't choose where I sit. I go where the team decides to move my table!
Of course, many high-tech companies use open-floor plans, often with the CEO sitting smack in the middle. But Menlo's layout is closer and more intensely interactive, like a particularly intimate high-school cafeteria. It is loud. To strangers it might seem chaotic. We wouldn't want it any other way.
What is our main advantage of working like this? The human energy is palpable. Curiosity and creativity don't just manifest themselves in the work: They are in the air. We are counting on the wonderful serendipity that occurs when people overhear the ideas of others. How can they not when people are constantly asking questions and sharing ideas within earshot of everyone else?
Menlo's open and collaborative workspace has succeeded over the 14 years of our history because our space is a direct reflection of the culture we've chosen: open, transparent, collaborative, high on human energy. We are enormously fluid in terms of who works with whom and on what. All of this leads to a team flexibility that most leaders can only dream about.
We know this isn't for everyone, and thus had to substantially reinvent the interview process to give new people a chance to experience our culture directly before they make the decision to join us. I will explore our unusual interview approach in a future article. Suffice it to say, that expectations must be set very early on for people joining such an intentionally and intensively collaborative culture. But also know that the vast majority (over 80 percent) of Menlonians are introverts.
If you want to transition from a traditional office plan to an open one--because you are changing spaces or just want to amp up your energy--begin by establishing new norms of collaboration and openness. Move as much work as possible out of offices and cubicles and into what collaborative spaces already exist. Spend as little time as you can in your own office (where, needless to say, the door is always open). In fact, give up your office and turn it into a conference room. Circulate among the teams instead. Pull up a desk near a cluster of folks and start working. Once the people come together, the furniture can follow.
If you are just starting your business, an open office plan can help you build an open office culture from the ground up. Be loud. Be proud. Be great.