Open Office Plans vs Concentration — You Can Only Choose One
The Open Office Concept
Where does the concept for open floor plans come from? Constraining the question to the field of knowledge work, it has been said that these big open spaces were popularized by Facebook, Google and Apple at the start of the 2000s as these companies were starting to expand rapidly. 
The main idea is that such a space would foster serendipitous communication between employees and the exchange of ideas. Another less mentioned, but still important factor for this decision is less ideological — these spaces are cheaper than traditional offices. It’s much easier to fit more people into the same space without having to create separate offices and have one big room for everyone instead.
Moreover, additional places for new hires need to be readily available whenever required. For instance, my company was recently reorganizing the office and needed to increase the number of seats. To do that, they shrank the size of our desks and could now fit 4 people in the place where they could fit 3 previously. This flexibility is probably the only advantage of open offices — as an employer you have the flexibility to set up workstations for new employees on-demand with relatively little cost.
So, what is the problem with open offices?
Distractions are plentiful
One reason why I’m not a fan of open floor spaces is the ease with which you can get distracted. People pass by you, somebody is talking on their phone, there is a heated discussion 5 desks away — the possibilities are endless.
To mute the surroundings many of us (me included) put on noise-cancelling headphones to help us get in the zone. However, one could argue that this defeats the purpose of the open office: Wasn’t the goal to create a collaborative culture where people communicate freely face to face? Studies confirm this and show that the use of email and IM rises in open offices at the expense of face-to-face communication, contrary to the very idea of these spaces.
Furthermore, visual distractions are also plentiful: My seat overlooks a huge portion of the open space and every time people breeze by, I instinctively take a glance to see what’s going on. This is why I spend most of my time working from empty meeting rooms or the quiet room. That way I don’t have to constantly tunnel vision on my monitor to avoid getting side-tracked by other people and without blasting Lo-Fi Hip Hop the whole day.
Another source of distraction are interruptions from other people. This is especially valid for senior engineers and, as a graduate, I’m certainly guilty of doing this myself. It is just so easy to go up to the person and ask a “quick question” when they are 2 meters away. However, Software Engineering, as well as other knowledge work, requires deep concentration and the person might have spent a lot of time working through a difficult problem and getting in the groove of things. Your question might only take a couple of minutes to get answered, but it might take them 10 to 15 minutes just getting back to where they were before the interruption. That is why I prefer to send a quick Slack message to the person beforehand. If they are not too busy, they will respond and help you and if they are indeed occupied they will let you know.
Health and Wellbeing
“In 90 per cent of research, the outcome of working in an open-plan office was seen as negative, with open-plan offices causing high levels of stress, conflict, high blood pressure, and a high staff turnover.”
This is a quote from a study by Dr Vinesh Oomen regarding the impact of open offices on the physical and mental health of employees. Therein are mentioned also the noise and productivity issues that we already discussed above. Additionally, it is noted that this floor plan is damaging for the employer as well since it leads to unhappy employees and high turnover.
Lack of Privacy
A big pet peeve of employees (me included) is the lack of privacy. This is one explanation of why people are dissatisfied with working in such an office. Depending on where exactly you are seated, any number of people — ranging from the receptionist to the CEO — will walk past and see what you are up to at that exact minute. This puts a tremendous amount of stress on people to always look busy. For example, during one of my internships, my screen was facing towards the hallway and I felt guilty every time I was choosing my music or when I was watching a Youtube video from some conference. Some other interns’ workstations were facing the wall and they had a much more relaxing time at work where they didn’t feel constantly micro-managed or trying to show that they were “actually working”.
Phone Booths and Meeting Rooms
Some might say: “This is why we have phone booths and meeting rooms- people can go there, focus and do their work”. This sounds ridiculous to me — most knowledge work is founded on the ability to focus for long periods, not on having sporadic bursts of concentration. I want to be in the zone throughout the whole working day, that is what I’m hired for. Phone booths are uncomfortable and tiny, not to mention the glass door which offers countless distractions. Furthermore, why are meeting rooms covered in glass windows? Why is it important to see through? I just don’t get it.
The point I have been trying to make so far is that open offices and concentration don’t go hand-in-hand. The ability to focus for extended periods is what defines knowledge work and Software Engineering in particular. We, as engineers, need to be in a flow state throughout the day to produce work that truly matters. This is the central idea of the book “Deep Work” by Cal Newport, which resonated with me a lot as I went through it. Our attention is precious and limited, we need to preserve it and point it at our obstacles to overcome them quickly and effectively
Open offices hijack our attention through a myriad of distractions and make it hard for us to focus on the one important thing — our work.
This has been my personal experience working in open offices and some of the challenges I have struggled with. Share your opinion on office layout below — in what space do you like to work? I’d love to hear it.
: John Rampton. (May 15 2018). Facebook’s Utopia, Our Nightmare: Open Offices Are Destroying Productivity
: Ethan S. Bernstein and Stephen Turban. (July 2 2018). The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration
: Vinesh Oommen. (January 13 2009). Why your office could be making you sick
: Jungsoo Kim and Richard de Dear. (December 2013). Workspace satisfaction: The privacy-communication trade-off in open-plan offices