What office layout is best?

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Today, it seems, just about every company wants to move to open plan offices.  They’re after innovation, the Holy Grail of the 21st Century. The best design, they think, is one that fosters lots of chance encounters and opportunities for collaboration. But what about productivity?

Jim Morgan has researched that idea and tells you what he found in a marvelous post, “Close the Door on the Open Office.” Here’s what he says about workers’ reactions to the open office environment.

“Typical complaints include ‘loss of privacy (both visually and conversationally), high incidence of distractions, frequent interruptions by other employees, and problems with the ambient conditions.'”

You might think that’s OK because the goal is innovation, not productivity. But it’s still a trade-off. There are always trade-offs. Some work and some workers do better with privacy. Some do better in open space.

The idea that chance encounters drive innovation usually includes a reference to Bell Labs. It’s true that Bell Labs designed their new buildings to foster chance encounters. They did it with long corridors (people have more chance encounters) and wide corridors (people can stand aside without blocking traffic and discuss an idea). But their scientists had private offices, for concentrated work.
The important thing in Bell Labs’ design wasn’t physical. It was a policy that anyone could go talk to anyone else about a project or idea without getting their boss’s permission. It was a habit of throwing people with differing expertise and interests together at educational and social events.
If you’re looking into how the physical environment enhances or dampens creativity and innovation, I think you also have to look at organizational policies, too. 3M, Gore, Facebook, and other “idea factories” all get the job done with a mix of physical structure, work practice and culture.

Boss’s Bottom Line

There is no “best” office layout. There are only layouts that work and those that don’t in specific situations.

More Resources

From Anthonia Akitunde: Open-Office Backlash: Seeking Productivity in a Noisy World
“Like most trends before it, open offices are experiencing a bit of a backlash. Once considered a signpost of innovation and collaboration, these office layouts—which eschew architectural dividers, rows of cubicles and private offices for seating plans without walls—have come under fire in blog posts, think pieces, productivity research and Gchat conversations. It’s a backlash so pervasive, some business owners are wondering what to do about their put-upon employees.”

From Jena McGregor: 9 things you didn’t know about the office cubicle
“Nikil Saval’s new book, Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace (Doubleday, April 22), is a fascinating guide to the intellectual history of the American office. Part cultural history, part architectural analysis and part management theory — with some labor economics, gender studies and pop culture thrown in for good measure — the book is a smart look at the evolution of the place where we spend so much of our lives. It details everything from the role the skyscraper had on the modern office to the secretarial revolt that helped inspire the film ‘9 to 5.’ But the book’s discussion of those fabric-covered, three-walled partitions will be one of its most interesting parts to today’s workers. While many people now work remotely and many organizations have been rethinking the office cube, we still love to hate those corporate boxes.”

From John Tierney: From Cubicles, Cry for Quiet Pierces Office Buzz

“The walls have come tumbling down in offices everywhere, but the cubicle dwellers keep putting up new ones. They barricade themselves behind file cabinets. They fortify their partitions with towers of books and papers. Or they follow an ‘evolving law of technology etiquette,’ as articulated by Raj Udeshi at the open office he shares with fellow software entrepreneurs in downtown Manhattan.”

From Wharton: Cost Efficient, Open-space Office Designs: Ditching Desks — and Privacy
“Things you will find upon arriving for work each morning at GlaxoSmithKline in Philadelphia’s Navy Yard: A tranquility room for prayer, a rooftop perch with city views for impromptu meetings, work stations that allow for typing at a keyboard while simultaneously walking two miles an hour on the treadmill, and a fairly good chance that at some point during the day you will bump into the CEO. What you won’t find anywhere in the 208,000-square-foot space: a desk of your own.”

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