Today, when considering a place to plant yourself as a business or an employee, you'll inevitably run up against the question of whether open office floor plans--with their enormous, shared, cubicle-free layouts--hinder or boost collaboration and creativity.
Open office spaces have well-established benefits: increased collaboration and bonding among co-workers, easier communication, and an increase in idea cross-pollination.
Yet there are also downsides (both perceived and very real) to open floor plans too: they may increase the spread of illness and block employee's ability to be productive due to unavoidable sensory distractions, like a standing meeting nearby or someone walking by with brightly colored balloons. These are serious drawbacks not only for creating productive spaces, but for helping inspire employees to do their best work.
As a Facebook employee who works in one of the world's largest open offices called Building 20, I believe open offices can absolutely yield more productivity, collaborative work, and creativity, but only if done well.
At Facebook, utilizing open space well is exactly what the company seems to be doing, as Facebook employees are reportedly the happiest and most satisfied with their work, compared to peers at companies like Apple, Google, Yahoo, Amazon, and Tesla.
How exactly does Facebook make its massive, single-building office space work to bolster productivity, collaboration, and creativity?
1. Focus on mobility.
Each Facebook employee is given a laptop, not a desktop computer.
The major perk of a laptop as a primary work machine is the ability to detach from your desk any time; either for projecting work in a meeting room or for hiding away in a nook of the building to focus.
Of course, all that mobility isn't any good if there are no spaces dedicated to quietly dreaming up ideas or for holding group meetings. In Facebook's Building 20 there are countless meeting rooms for one-on-one meetings or sessions of 20 or more people, in addition to small "libraries" tucked throughout the campus, typically above the hustle of desks and walking paths. Each library is a dedicated quiet space where employees can kick back on a comfortable chair to plug-in and focus on ideas, read a donated book, or just relax for a few minutes away from otherwise biting distractions and stressors.
The ability to freely move and work anywhere on campus makes it possible to proactively avoid space-related distractions or constraints. Mobility also enables employees to avoid burning out by working in the same area day-in and day-out.
2. Allow for flexible scheduling.
In addition to physical mobility at the office, many Facebook employees have the flexibility to control their work schedule, within reason.
Early mornings and late evenings tend to be quietest times in the office, for example. So if you're an early bird or late night owl and want some time to work uninterrupted, you would have the flexibility to work whichever hours allow you to do just that.
Additionally, for many teams there's the ability to work from home on an as-needed basis (particularly if you're feeling under the weather). New parents get four months paid maternity or paternity leave, and because Wednesdays are typically reserved for non-meeting work (in what many employees have dubbed "Work from home Wednesdays"), camping out in a quiet corner of the campus for the bulk of a Wednesday becomes a convenient option to get work done.
And when it's time to come back to collaborate with team members, your dedicated desk is there waiting for you.
3. Empower individual boundaries.
Sensory distractions can be a major downside to open office floor plans, particularly when a few thousand employees are sharing the same work floor.
To help employees manage their individual boundaries and block-out visual and auditory distractions, Facebook provides large, 27-inch monitors for each desk as well as noise-cancelling headphones upon request.
While the large monitor helps block out visual distractions, the noise cancelling headphones can be used to block out auditory ones. But more than that: Both the monitor and noise-cancelling headphones provide a clear cue to co-workers and any passers-by that you're "in the zone" and shouldn't be bothered in that moment.
Both options provide a quick and efficient way to block out both uncontrollable and potential distractions.
4. Encourage serendipitous encounters.
The inverse to individual boundaries is also undoubtedly the largest benefit employees get from open office spaces: the increased likelihood of serendipitous encounters.
In small micro-kitchens scattered throughout our campus, nearly 3,000 of us occasionally stop throughout the day to grab coffee or water and snacks. In these moments we're likely to run into team members or other peers, each who inevitably capture our attention for a brief chat. The same encounters happen in the large cafe at one end of the building, where the majority of employees gather each day for lunch.
The result of these random, brief encounters is typically a friendly hello, a probe into what each person is working on, or guidance on how to tackle a problem or move an idea forward. In any case, serendipitous encounters fueled by shared communal spaces lead to something creatively inspiring, motivational, or generally good for morale.