Open or Closed?
It’s the great office design debate
One thing has become apparent in cities across America: We are taking our office design seriously. Take Portland, Oregon for example. A simple Google search of Creative Agencies or Tech Workplaces turns up companies that have headquartered in gorgeous light-filled spaces. Some are in converted warehouses, others in brand new industrial style spaces.
The same has happened with college dorms over the last two decades. As schools competed to attract the best students, they discovered that the design of the living spaces was a crucial tool in their kit. It’s hard for an old rundown dorm with shared showers to compete with private, apartment-style living.
As offices were designed and built with attracting and retaining talent in mind, we began to see more comfortable seating areas, the now-infamous sleeping pods, and fully stocked kitchens with happy hour craft beer on a rotating, seasonal tap. Natural light, open air, and collaborative space have become essential elements in the modern office.
We may have overcorrected. It’s a facet of our American-ness, I think. We embrace the innovative and stylish, then eventually we go too far, making the once rare and valuable now ubiquitous and unavoidable. As many business authors and thinkers have pointed out, the new spaces aren’t ideal for our introverted employees, or for stimulating the kind of deep thinking required to advance an industry or idea past the brainstorming stage.
Let’s explore some Pros, Cons, and Myths surrounding our current Open Office versus Closed Office reality. It’s a false dichotomy, certainly, and many will choose a hybrid model. Use this guide to make informative choices as you design or layout your company office.
Open and Airy
One word nearly sums it up: collaboration. Teamwork drives so much of what we accomplish in the office. It’s also a valuable camaraderie- and relationship-building element that must be embraced. Without the great collaborative efforts of your past, where would your company be?
Attracting and retaining employees is more easily done in an open office. Let’s face it, even if we’re the quiet type, those spaces are gorgeous. We all dream of kicking our feet up on the coffee table instead of sitting at a desk, right? And the colorful, contemporary designs make it easier to create and instill the environment of open minded creativity that has become so popular today.
The frenetic energy in open spaces builds over the day. It’s an unstoppable force. The mornings start serene. The early arrivers are there to take advantage of the fleeting quiet. By nine, phones are ringing, keys are clicking, and headsets are required if you’re going to be doing anything that involves concentration. By the end of the day, the energy has been burning hot and bright for nine hours. It’s enough to exhaust even the most extroverted among us.
Deep thinking suffers. There is no way around it. It’s enough trouble to muster decent focus with our phones and inboxes constantly pinging for our attention. When you’re surrounded by folks who are moving, talking, typing, or eating, you cannot possibly concentrate, uninterrupted, for the amount of time it takes to truly, deeply contemplate and think.
Innovation is not a team sport. You wouldn’t know it if you studied our efforts to brainstorm, invent, and test as a team, but the truth is that most major innovations start with a powerful, singular vision, and engendering that vision often requires solitude.
Closed and Private
Privacy isn’t just for nursing mothers or copyeditors. Many of us need privacy to read, think, or just to doodle. I don’t even like taking notes with someone around me. Until I speak them, my thoughts are my own, and I want them to remain private until I decide it’s time. Having an office door, and having employees in their own dedicated space, creates the kind of privacy that allows everyone to feel comfortable and safe at work.
Where would your team be without the one or two employees who constantly generate ideas as they plow through their workloads. The office superheroes and high performers often require a high degree of focus. If they are distracted, you likely would not know. They can perform in any environment. But do you want your best people mildly distracted or intensely engaged?
Teamwork and collaboration can suffer when everyone is behind a closed door. Open offices do a much better job of encouraging cross-departmental interactions. It’s much easier to build relationships in the office when you regularly see all the folks you share the space with.
Remember what I just said about innovation not being a team sport? Well, there is a special type of innovation that only takes place when one department or employee serendipitously talks with another department. In an open office, you create more of these serendipitous interactions, especially if you encourage your employees to talk about or publish the work they are doing.
Extroverts can be deep thinkers too. Some folks are fueled by the buzz and tenor of the people around them or the environment that engulfs them. And there are plenty of extraverts in wide open spaces that have created incredible, focused work that requires deep thinking.
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