Monday, May 05, 2014

Close-minded about the open office

It didn’t take an article in Business Week to inform me about the “dark side of open offices.” Having worked in cubicles, shared offices, and private offices of all shapes and sizes, my preference would always be the office that comes with walls that reached the ceiling and a door that closes.

Of course, expressing a preference for an office that’s an office – closed door, your own desk, etc. - reveals that you are to some degree an old fogey who doesn’t care to work at a communal desk while collaborating with colleagues who are whizzing around on skateboards. It puts you right up there with the sorts of creaky old bags who still wear pantyhose. So most of the article focused on the kinds of hip and happenin’ office spaces embraced by those who want to be associated with attributes like cool and creative (vs. dud stuff like pencil pusher, bean counter, number cruncher…).

Balancing the promise of creative office space with the need to get work done isn’t easy, says Elizabeth Dukes, a co-founder of iOffice, a Houston company that provides software and consulting for facility managers. Her new book, Wide Open Workspace, chronicles the evolution of the American office from the cubicle farms satirized in movies such as Office Space to the open plans that have become de rigueur in Silicon Valley.

Even her business has struggled to get it right. IOffice revamped a 7,000-square-foot, 1920s-era printing press building, leaving it completely open to foster collaboration and serendipitous encounters among staff. The arrangement saves on rent and allows the company to tout a greener footprint, Dukes notes. (Source: Business Week)

You know, I worked in all sorts of offices for decades and while I was a big proponent of collaboration when it made sense (i.e., not always), whether I was in an open or a closed environment, I cannot for the life of me recall one event that I’d call a “serendipitous encounter.” Perhaps if I’d shed those pantyhose…

Yet 25 employees—plus their dogs—packed into one big room can get chaotic. The company converted two closets into quiet rooms with soundproofing material on the walls and shower doors. Employees can also work from home, a library, or a coffee shop. “Some employees need that head-down type of quiet place they can reserve for phone calls or certain kinds of work,” Dukes says.

Well, I’m all in favor of take your dog to work day, but a workplace where there are a lot of dogs roaming around? Sure, there’d probably be plenty of serendipitous encounters, and dogs sure do humanize things. But there’d also be at least some ration of snarling, yelping, and – dogs being dogs – butt sniffing. Which might distract a bit from those old-school employees who occasionally need to put their head down for something other than a nap.

There is a further nod to the no doubt pantyhose wearing (and likely pocket protector using) grumblers like Carolyn Smuts, who even has an uptight, stick-in-the mud name, especially for someone in marketing. In fact, Carolyn Smuts is:

…a self-described “uptight, stick-in-the-mud” marketing director for NEAD App Development. In 2010 the tech company moved into a Huntington Beach (Calif.) warehouse decorated with life-size Darth Vader cut-outs and outfitted with a basketball court and wall-to-wall whiteboards. A surfboard manufacturer was next door.

“I worked out of there two weeks solid and got done half of what I would have accomplished at home,” says Smuts. “Even trying to answer e-mails there, somebody would hit me in the back of the head with a Nerf dart.”

Obviously, no one’s going to be setting up office space for the likes of me, but having both worked in cubicles and in a room of my own, I’ll take the room of my own, any old day. I realize that the young whippersnappers are used to having a lot of things going on in background and foreground. And that they can create their own (sort of) virtual office by putting on their headphones. But this, of course, doesn’t mean that they’re more productive because or despite of it.

Whether you think it’s important to be able to have a place where you can leave a pair of shoes, an umbrella, cough drops, tampons, and – yes! – spare pantyhose. Whether you like to be able to pin up a New Yorker cartoon (now I’m showing my age), have a framed picture of your cat, or your very own pencil and pen cup. Whether you really aren’t easily distracted or whether a pin dropping in the next building makes your crazy, there are times when you want peace and quite, when you need privacy: you need to think, you’re talking turkey with a client, you’re giving an employee a bit of feedback, you’ve had some bad personal news.

If you’re going to go with an open office environment, the only way it’s going to work is if there are plenty of conference rooms – of all sizes – and phone rooms that aren’t much larger than a phone booth, but where you can close the door and get some work done.

I can’t believe the workplace has changed that much since I was storming around in my menswear suits, Johnston & Murphy pumps, and pantyhose.


Anonymous said...

Carolyn Smuts said...

I don't wear panty hose! (Much.)

Added bonus to working from home as opposed to the hipster-approved "open office?" No need to wear my pocket protector in public.

Thanks for a fair write-up. :)

Maureen Rogers said...

Carolyn - Thanks for stopping by. Even though you don't usually wear pantyhose (you get a pass because you're from California), you're a girl after my own heart.