Open plan

When my employer built its new office buildings a few years ago now, I guess the thinking during their design was to get as far away from what the old ones were like. I joined the company in early 2010 when it only had around 350 people, and even then the buildings we had were cramped. If the company was going to grow, and grow rapidly it did, it’d need more space to put everyone and all of our stuff, so we didn’t feel cramped and boxed in. So one-by-one they emptied each building of its people and its parts, squeezing all of that displaced human flesh and equipment into another oversubscribed office on campus, knocked the now empty building down, and built a huge new one in its place.

Large slabs of glass for both windows and interior partitions, exposed concrete pillars, muted colours, and straight, clean lines are the order of the day for those new campus buildings that sprung up. They look good, and on the surface it’s a clear improvement over what we had before. The glass lets lots of natural light in and lets that light spread throughout each floor. The old offices were painted with a colour scheme my brain only remembers as “browns”. The walls were paper thin, and my office happened to border the canteen, so at lunch I could hear everything.

So, old, stuffy, worn-down, cramped offices were replaced by airy, light open spaces made from concrete, metal and glass. What’s not to like, you might think. Sadly, while we used to have office rooms with doors for teams to organise themselves into, that openness conspires against it. Some of the glass is frosted between certain areas, for a modicum of privacy, but unless you’re on the executive team there are no doors between major sections of each floor. Inside those open sections with clear glass between them are rows of desks arranged antagonistically. Unless you get lucky and sit on the edge of an area, you’re invariably directly facing another human being and directly flanked by two more.

Combined, the desk arrangement and open glass areas combine to create a highly distracting environment. Distraction is rife, either from people walking around in front of you or behind you (something I seem to have a particularly innate sense for), your desk-mates nearby (especially the person directly in front of you, accidentally kicking you under the desk), or aurally. With the main part of each floor being made of few truly enclosed areas, sound travels surprisingly far. There are points on my floor where if I stand in just the right spot, I can hear people talking 20 metres away almost as if they were stood right next to me.

So headphones are a must for concentration, but there’s no professional social norm that says that if I’m wearing them, please leave me to concentrate. A few people understand it, but most don’t. Whereas if a phone rings I get to choose if I answer, if someone comes to my desk and just stands there until I take my headphones off and acknowledge them, my choice to interact and break my train of concentration is taken away from me. I can’t shut my office door, because there isn’t one now.

Headphones as office doors don’t work. Office doors as office doors do, but they were taken away for the general populace. The executive team get 1 or 2 person offices depending on what they do or who they have to work with regularly, which is great, but the ideal (at least for me) of 4-6 person team offices died when the old buildings were torn down. Ladder-climbing to get peace and quiet to concentrate and work means, at least for me, the company has taken a large step back in how it works. And yes, we’re organised into areas that segregate each team, but it’s all too easy to see, hear and be distracted by others.

Walk around the company today and chances are you’ll walk past a team where at least one person will be stood up, talking to someone else. That other person might be stood up, too, and the net result is a major distraction to everyone that can see or hear them. The number of meeting rooms is small and they’re almost always booked out, so there’s no real space for likeminded people to congregate and talk about something without distracting or disturbing others. So while the building looks nice, and I couldn’t wait to move in to the one I’m in now when it was first built, the experiment with open plan has failed for me. I don’t feel cramped and boxed in any more, but I certainly feel distracted and unable to concentrate for the long stretches needed for the kind of work I do, and almost everyone else at the company does as well.

My recent retort has been to work from home as much as I can. At home, I’m interrupted pretty much only by the need to make a fresh coffee. Mental forays into the pockets of work I’m immersed in happen when I decide, not because I was physically interrupted and forced to context switch to someone else’s issue. I asked for a company laptop so I could go and sit elsewhere for peace, but because I had to tell people where I was just in case, that peace rarely lasted. So I’ve now switched to working from home full-time, and head into the office only when I have to, when there’s no choice but to be in physical proximity.

I don’t think I could go back to an open plan working environment now, as a result. I’m lucky that technical work and management of technical work, especially in my field, can be effective remotely, making that a workable choice for my professional career in the future. I’d happily work in a small, closed office with my closest colleagues, but a large open glass space, as much as I crave sunlight and fresh air, is now too distracting.