Open Office Purgatory

I don’t mean to sound religious, but if I were to envision a place where members of the workforce might go to be punished, it would be an office with an “open” layout. As an introvert, who can’t tolerate eyes on her for long periods of time without feeling those eyes sucking the life out of her, few things in the workplace sound worse.

Cubicles, which lack a door, seem sufficiently open to me. After all, no one has to knock to come in, and it’s not like you can do anything under-handed in the relative “privacy” of a cubicle. But at least you have a couple of barriers around you, so you have a sense of personal space.

I saw an article recently on, posted by David Chao, which recommends a “hybrid” open office layout. The hybrid model would allow for privacy amid all the openness: “…Create spaces that allow people to blow off steam, connect with their colleagues, and take a break without impacting employees who are still working. The location of these spaces is critical…Think of your office in zones, from silent to rambunctious, and make sure that the transitions and buffers between those spaces work well, and make sense. Don’t forget to extend functionality like audio and video conferencing beyond discrete rooms to facilitate those impromptu meetings. After all, remote workers should feel like they’re part of the team and have ideas to contribute even if they’re not physically in the office, or even technically talking about ‘work.’”

My company is about to move to a new building, and I’m concerned. I know, thank goodness, that it’s not an open layout, but the cubicles look smaller, and there’s at least one model of cubicle that seems only semi-private with what amounts to two people sharing one cubicle. The only saving grace is that the people are kind of back-to-back, so they don’t have to constantly look at each other. I’m crossing my fingers (knock on wood) that I have one of the more private models, rather than the roommate variety. It’s good that they at least allow for people to not have to face each other in the shared cubicle. I can imagine in a face-to-face set-up feeling the way many of us do on the New York City subways in which passengers sit on benches across from each other, with strangers looking at you across the aisle the whole time. Many people wear sunglasses into the subway, presumably to avoid the discomfort of not knowing where to look, or if they’re creepy, to be able to stare without anyone knowing that they’re staring. I’d hate to grapple with that kind of awkwardness in my “own” cubicle.

The problem with the true open layout, in which there are no barriers at all between workers, is that it interferes with introspection. How do you have a rich inner life when eyes are constantly on you? And when there is constant chatter and outward noise and commotion?

Maybe the open layout isn’t great for professions that require solitary work with a great deal of self-thought (rather than collaboration), like my job as a writer and editor. Or, contrary to popular belief, most creativity-based professions. It’s important to have meeting rooms, or comfortable lounge areas, where people can gather both formally and informally to discuss and bounce ideas off each other, but for any creative endeavor, whether marketing and advertising writing or those of us writing for publications (which surprisingly does sometimes require creativity), the need for self-only time is paramount. You can work with others to develop ideas, but there comes a time when each person needs to sit and come up with the ideas she wants to share in the first place. Or the time when the ideas that are hammered out as a group need to be brought into fruition, with each individual taking a piece of the assignment.

If your employees’ work depends heavily on new ideas and visualizing new concepts such as new products, an open layout may not provide the self-only time they need to get inside their own head and develop something new and innovative.

People often laugh at the personalities and lives led by bohemians or innovative people. They often do strange things, like have out-of-the-ordinary sleep patterns, or, like me, space out a lot. Another thing creatives and innovative types often do is spend a lot of time alone. That’s sometimes misconstrued as being anti-social or selfish, but it’s usually just a search for peaceful surroundings.

Years ago, when I was writing an article on how to create an innovative workplace, I read that workers tended to be the most creative in spaces in which the walls were blank. I’m guessing that the ideal level of blankness also can extend to the non-visual aspects of the workspace. When your employees’ surroundings are visually and aurally subdued—and they’re creative people—they’ll fill the blanks in with new ideas—some of which may be profitable for your company.

Has your company tried an open office layout yet? Is it something you would consider? How do you ensure employees who need to do solitary work are able to concentrate and be inward-looking amid all the commotion?

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