Is an open plan office good for productivity?

Work space
Awkward work space

We’re starting to research new office space, prior to moving in Summer 2011. During the five years we’ve been in our current location, working practices and expectations of staff/clients have changed. Previously I’ve always favored an open plan, newsroom feel to an office since it aids communication, collaboration, training, team spirit, and transparency. It’s also an efficient use of space, and I’ve always had an innate rejection of cubeville.

However the level of distraction that an open plan creates can take some getting used to. Some staff feel uncomfortable making non-private calls within earshot of others. Some people earwig into every conversation even if it’s not relevant to them (and then end up behind on their own work). Some people are frankly just too loud, and others simply retreat into their headphones. Other disadvantages include reduced confidentiality, security and also heating/cooling issues.

Despite these drawbacks, I love the atmosphere of a fully charged open plan layout. It has a vibrancy and drive which is hard to match. You can feel the momentum and productivity as everyone cracks through their day, with moments of levity to let of steam. It shows that stuff is happening and that you need to be part of it.

However, over the last five years, the level of distraction has increased. We get more email. We now have Twitter and Facebook, as well as SMS and IM. Response timeframes have condensed. Noise levels have increased with streaming video. And perhaps in sharing more of our lives online, we personally want a little more privacy in real life. Add to this a sense that our ability to focus on a single task for long periods is diminishing amid our addiction to checking all these channels in search of something new.

So people do create their own privacy by listening to music at work. They try to offset the ‘noise’ by finding quiet corners or meeting rooms. And as we scope out our new office space, we need to take that into account. No doubt open plan layouts have significant advantages, but when you want to be creative or to focus, you need a quiet zone too. To achieve that we’re mapping out the activities which our teams engage in – solo and group, process and creative – and creating distinct areas for each. I’m not going so far as making it a hotdesk culture, but we need to recognize the impact our environment has on our creativity and productivity. The layout must work with you, not against you.

What do you like about your office? What would you avoid if you had to re-do it today?