I take issue with the deliberately inflammatory headline that Google is to blame for destroying the workplace since open office style workplaces were around long before Google, but the topic is worth debating.
I have a variety of issues regarding the open office trend. Let’s start with the fact that the folks often making the space decision are managers who already don’t spend much time at their desk because they are, by necessity, in meetings all day. They’re already in a quiet and private conference room where they can focus on the task at hand. They (we) don’t intimately understand the daily tax of constantly being interrupted because they (we) are not living it on a daily basis.
These same managers are often ones who are staring at the bottom line with the best intentions. With the increasingly painful rents in technology hotbeds like Palo Alto, San Francisco, and New York city, it just makes good financial sense to reduce the square footage per employee which means less walled offices because they consume valuable square footage. Don’t worry about the sardine factor, this smaller space will help create a more connected workforce and drive greater collaboration and innovation.
I appreciate the math because I’ve done it, but I get twitchy when fiscal responsibility is used a justification for maximizing productivity. This, my friends, is called a rationalization — a defense mechanism in which controversial behavior are explained in a seemingly rational manner to avoid the true explanation.
It is also bullshit.
In the past five years, the teams I’ve seen work at impressive speed are the ones who self-organized themselves elsewhere. They found a dark corner of the building, they cleared out a large conference room, or they found an unused floor of a building and made it their own. While this might strike you as a case for shared common open space, it’s not. It’s an argument for common space that is not shared because these teams have work to do and don’t want a constant set of irrelevant interruptions. This is why I’m in favor of pod-like set-ups where teams working on similar technology and projects have their own enclosed space. I believe this is the type of set-up that encourages the most efficient forms of collaboration.
A question: when do you do your best work? What are your ideal conditions? They vary by your personality type and whether you’re a introvert or a extravert or a stable or a volatile. If you’re a software engineer, your craft is code and you’re at maximum productivity when you have long uninterrupted minutes and each unexpected visual and auditory interruption is a unique opportunity to completely lose your train of thoughts, context, and hard to recover mental momentum.
The advantages of open space are undeniable: low friction access to the team encourages valuable serendipity, a lack of hard wall offices reduces perceptions of organization hierarchy, and there is an immeasurable subtle joy being able to look across the room and realize this is my tribe.
It’s a business and there are good fiscally responsible reasons as well as culturally ones to move to an open space, but who is doing the math on productivity? Who understands the compounding productivity interest earned with each consecutive uninterrupted minute of work? It is there in those hard to capture collective minutes where your best work is happening.