Open office design

Rethinking office design

Conversations happening between cubicles
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First, a confession. Despite the hip corporate persona of Red Hat, when I first joined the company everyone had typical cubicle farm workspaces. Sure, there were hints that the company aspired to Google-like coolness: a foosball table, a game room, lots of free junk food. But in our daily office-worker lives, we were holed up in a standard maze of shared cubicles. Our idea of “open office design” was to persuade our cubemates to leave the sliding doors open.

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For six months, I labored happily in my gray box, content to talk only with my supervisor and my cubemate. So when the department director announced that after the Christmas holiday week, we'd be moving to a new “open” space downstairs, I groaned inwardly. The cubicle walls were being removed; the department VP and managers would work in the same area as everyone else; and the new space would include lots of nooks and rooms for impromptu collaboration and scheduled design-thinking sessions. As the lone quiet, left-brained web developer among a host of creatives, I was certain this sudden push for collaboration meant I'd never get any work done.

I was mistaken.

According to the 2001 office design study, Offices That Work: Balancing Communication, Flexibility and Cost (pdf), “the major reason for an office today is to bring people together: to socialize and share information; to inspire and inform each other; to provide guidance and feedback. Relatively little of the work of most office workers requires deep, individual concentration for hours at a time.” 

As a computer programmer, I was not exempt:

As the literature on computer engineers shows, this is true even for the prototypical job function requiring deep concentration. There do need to be times and places for such work in the office, but whether such places need to be assigned to one person for his or her exclusive use, or requires complete physical separation from others doing the same work, has been challenged by many corporations over the past decade.

Within a month in the new workspace, I knew more about every colleague in my department than I'd learned over the prior half-year. My own role deepened from being a ticket-resolving web monkey to a full-fledged knowledge worker and vital part of the team.

My fears about moving out of my cubicle

1. Without cubicle walls to hide behind, interruptions would be endless.

In one sense, there are more interruptions. Communication is abundant—and more frequent—when you can see your team members. But the rapid flow of information throughout the office actually reduces the email, phone calls, and traditional scheduled meetings needed, according to the study linked earlier. Surprisingly, increased visual contact actually contributes to fewer unwanted interactions. When you can glance at a coworker and see that they look engaged in a problem or irritated by a phone call, you're more likely to ask your question later than if you had walked down the hall and already poked your head into their office.

The study also notes:

Our data suggest that individual performance or productivity may be reduced in a given unit of time, while both individual performance and that of their team benefit over the life of the project. In other words, this minute’s interruption can be annoying, but over the life of the project such “interruptions” tend to be seen as contributing to overall success.

2. In an open office design, there would be nowhere to go when I needed to hold a private conversation or think intently without interruption.

A well designed open layout includes places for these tasks. When Cisco redesigned their offices to be more collaboration-friendly and reflect modern work habits, the company opted for a highly flexible design. Only administrative assistants were assigned longterm office desks; no one else has ownership over a particular workspace. Instead they choose the type of workspace they need for a few minutes, hours, or all day:

Cisco employees are increasingly mobile—and less and less working at a particular desk ... Throughout the day, employees [select] an appropriate environment to accomplish the task at hand: meeting in a group, participating in a conference call, or working alone on a spreadsheet or project plan.

The Cisco plan includes a quiet area deemed “the library” for work requiring intense concentration and quiet, as well as an etiquette policy, developed by employees along the way, which frames the use of different areas: non-private meetings with one other person should take place in smaller, open seating areas, not a closed conference room, for example.

The decision to change the Cisco office design was made after considerable thought:

Like most companies, Cisco designed its office space under the traditional assumption that employees would work in their own cubicles during regular work hours and would need assigned work spaces with their own desks, PCs, and phones. The result was that meeting rooms were often in short supply, while offices and cubicles remained vacant 65 percent of the time on average.

Nobody would consider building a manufacturing facility that they intended to use just one-third of the time,” says Mark Golan, Cisco vice president for WPR. “And yet that’s what we routinely do with workspace. We realized that assigning resources based on utilization would significantly reduce Cisco real estate costs.” [emphasis added]

3. With an open design, my superiors and coworkers would be constantly scrutinizing my activity. I'd be self-conscious as I went about my work.

When we moved to the open floor plan, I found that I actually had more privacy than before—when I wanted it. Within cubicles, there is a sense of “pseudo-privacy,” where your neighbors pretend not to hear your phone conversations and feel awkward speaking up if they have information that would benefit you. But in an open office space, you know who is hearing your conversations, and your coworkers feel free to provide input. If you want privacy, you know to hold the conversation in a place designed for it.

In addition, I had not given ample consideration to the value of making eye-contact with colleagues. When you notice someone approaching your desk, you can gauge whether they mean to speak with you or someone else. You have the opportunity to jot down a final thought or finish a line of code, because you have an extra moment's notice. And when you're discussing a problem with a coworker, you can invite others with a glance to join the conversation.

4. With an open office, my coworkers' annoying habits would be magnified.

Anyone who has worked for a few years has shared cube walls with coworkers with not-so-endearing habits. The one who checks his voicemail on speakerphone. Or chatters loudly and nonstop on her cell phone. Or sings gospel songs. Or paints fingernails. So you can imagine my trepidation at the prospect of the removal of those (somewhat) protective barriers.

What's interesting is that when people can see their office neighbors, they are far more self-aware. (But if your coworker sings in the conference room during team meetings, you may want to lobby for a desk at the opposite end of the room.)

Unexpected problems

While none of my fears materialized, other problems did surface in our space.

1. Moving day, again?

Now that our department head and other managers could watch the interaction between different coworkers, moving us from one desk to another became an irresistible urge. While my own desk only moved thrice in two years, others seemed to be packing up again just as soon as they'd settled in. Initially we benefited from the new chemistry and collaboration. After several moves, the cons of instability took over. Perhaps we should have opted for a fully flexible, choose-your-workspace environment like Cisco.

2. Added mobility requires new technology

Cisco discovered that the needs of mobile knowledge workers are different from stationary employees. Most, if not all workplaces need power outlets to compensate for the short battery life of laptops. The company tried to provide uninterruptible power supplies throughout the building, but as the units beeped after an hour to signal low power, they were highly disruptive. Cisco is considering a pilot program allowing employees to swap out dying batteries at exchange and recharge stations.

In addition, Cisco used wireless and hardwired phone technologies to give workers the ability to check voicemail and make phone calls from any workstation.

3. Limited number of collaboration areas

We didn't anticipate the culture shift that accompanied moving into a new space would require more spaces for collaboration. Smaller areas for non-private meetings and a second closed-door conference room would have made our space a bit more usable.

4. Neighbor immigration

Our department, Brand Communications + Design, was the first to receive permission and funds for an open office design. That space included a large, open meeting area with several whiteboards and comfy chairs. As employees from other departments were invited to meet with us, they quickly noticed what vibrant and collaborative meetings sprung from the space. “Let's meet over in the Brand Comm space” became a common refrain for anyone looking to hold an informal and insightful meeting. Unfortunately, our space was not designed to host meetings for multiple departments, and creating similar spaces in those departments would have been a valued decision.

5. Shifting requirements

An open office design must be regarded as a work-in-progress. As new needs emerge, the space must be able to accommodate. At Cisco, this meant adding personal lockers for purses or lunches, and larger filing cabinets for employees whose jobs required them to store forms or records. Within the Brand Communications + Design space at Red Hat, the function of several closed-door rooms has changed over the years, serving as everything from a video recording studio to a library to a temporary office.

Real-world examples

So what does the open office look like? And how does a business—without the budget of a Google or an IDEO—build an equally collaborative environment?

The Cisco case study shows that open office environments are actually more cost-effective than more traditional types. A building with large, closed-door office rooms could convert those private rooms into door-less, team “bullpen” rooms, where several colleagues work together. A department with cubicles could remove the walls and replace them with interconnected desks and smaller meeting areas. The ideal open office project would include its future inhabitants in the design process.

There is a lot of inspiration to be found at, with pictures of office spaces from Microsoft to Apple, Twitter to Facebook, and plenty of smaller businesses as well.

Articles like “Why Office Design Matters from Harvard Business Review, and BNet's “Three New Designs for Optimizing Collaboration” provide additional ideas and case studies.

But more valuable may be talking to people who work in open environments about their experiences. You can start with the comment box below.


About the author

Rebecca Fernandez - Rebecca Fernandez is a Principal Program Manager at Red Hat, leading projects to help the company scale its open culture. She's an Open Organization Ambassador, contributed to The Open Organization book, and maintains the Open Decision Framework. She is interested in the intersection of open source principles and practices, and how they can transform organizations for the better.