Jef Claes

On software and life

13 May 2012

The open plan fallacy

I haven’t worked in a whole lot of places, somewhere around four, but every single one of them used an open plan to structure their workplace. From what I hear from others, it’s the standard.

There are a few things to say about the advantages of an open office layout. They should stimulate communication, create more opportunities for observing and learning from others and be more cost-effective. I’m afraid it’s the latter which is the biggest driver though.

In reality open plans really aren’t all that great. The noise alone has proven to reduce productivity by one third. When I look around, I see plenty of signs that people have a hard time getting their job done: programmers buying $500 noise-cancelling headphones in an attempt to keep the environmental noise out, project managers camping in free meeting rooms trying to focus on their number wizardry or even whole teams occupying a meeting room days before a release.

What bothers me the most is overhearing other teams, those distractions amount to nothing at all. What’s the value of me overhearing a discussion on some obscure Sharepoint problem? None. What are the benefits of listening to your team’s Friday after lunch bullshitting? Nothing. Team dynamics differ, that’s normal, but they shouldn’t disturb others.

The extreme alternative would be private offices, but I’m pretty confident that’s far from perfect as well.

What I suggest, is installing each team in their own fully isolated area, free from distractions caused by other teams. This would still do right to all the advantages of an open plan, while taking away some of its biggest bottlenecks. By installing each team in their own cocoon, you create an environment where overhearing conversations on the next feature is an added value, where you can quickly short-circuit discussions on an architectural decision or where you might even concentrate on a problem for 45 minutes straight. The only advantage which is partially gone is cost-effectiveness; there needs to be some flexible infrastructure in place, that makes it easy to swiftly adapt the environment when team compositions change.

Instead of always focusing on that short term budget win, we need to start paying attention to the big picture again: offices should enable teams, not sabotage them.

Is there anybody who genuinely loves open plan offices? If not, what alternative would you prefer?