Privacy and Collaboration

by Don Friedman on November 10, 2017

It seems like everywhere I turn I’m finding another article on the downside of open office layouts. In one sense this doesn’t matter to us: we’re less than a year into an eight-year lease, so we’re pretty much stuck with what we’ve got, which is a group of semi-private rooms. Despite the lack of a direct connection to our office layout, the topic at hand is interesting: do open offices hurt companies and employees more in distraction and lost productivity than they help with connectivity?

First, and I can’t emphasize this enough, worrying about productivity in an office environment is idiotic. People produce when they have work they find interesting and the context (enough time, the right tools, the proper scope of work) to do so. That doesn’t mean that environmental issues aren’t important – we just had several flickering mini-florescent bulbs replaced before the visual static drove anyone to homicide – but rather that expecting that there is some kind of direct link between the environment and measurable productivity is simplistic and futile.

Second, I’m always surprised at how little discussion there is in the open-office debates about the effect of headphones of various types. Starting in the 1970s with the Walkman cassette players, through iPods, and now to phones that double as music players, we have as a society grown comfortable with people wearing headphones and earbuds. It would have been unthinkable for engineers to listen to music through headphones when I started work in 1987; it’s now commonplace. (I listen to instrumental music when I’m writing and songs with vocals when I’m doing calcs or administrative work, but this is a classic example of a topic where personal taste is everything.) Open offices are less distracting if you’re in your own world, audio-wise.

Third, and most importantly, the open office is not exactly new. It was common for clerks to sit together in a big room in many professions, and engineering was famous for “drafting rooms” like the one in the photo above.

Finally, I’m not sure I agree with the terms of the debate, of creativity fostered by collaboration versus productivity fostered by isolation. When I’m designing, I’m usually at my most creative when I’m alone and scribbling on scrap paper. We, as an office, are often most productive when we are collaborating. The issue of distraction in open-office environments is real, but the terms in which it is discussed seem forced. As always seems to happen with these topics, the discussion ends without a conclusion, perhaps because each office, and each person within each office, needs to find their own answer.

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