Thursday, September 6, 2018

Open Offices Stink!

I work in the information technology field. I recently spent a few days in training. There's a new implementation process being rolled out for IT employees. This process will supposedly reduce the time elapsed between the point that a change request (user request/inquiry, production breakdown, new project, etc.) is made and the point when the change request is completed. This will theoretically save the company time and money- something that upper management is always looking to do- as well as making workers more productive, also a key management goal. It's also supposed to reduce worker stress. 

One big change required is the virtual elimination of worker privacy from the environment. Most people will no longer have offices or even semi-private cubicles. Everyone except the most important executives or managers (at least three pay grades up from me) will sit at open tables.

This will allow people to share work. Sharing work is not only encouraged, it's required. No one will be allowed to analyze problems or write code by themselves or without real time peer review. Almost all work will be done by groups of two or more people. Team members will share pc's and monitors. Anything showing on "your" monitor will also show on two or three other monitors. In order to further limit "distractions", private phones linked to a particular worker will be discouraged and phased out. Instead there will be conference rooms for any phone conversations. Everyone will have multiple daily meetings where they stand up in front of their department and list their current accomplishments, remaining tasks, and areas where they might need help.

I don't doubt that some of these changes could result in more robust solutions produced sooner. And that is good. However as the old joke goes just because it takes one woman nine months to deliver a baby doesn't mean that you can hire nine women and deliver a baby in one month.

There are limits to how many people you can have working on a given problem.
Many people in this business are, like me, somewhat introverted problem solvers. We work best alone or independently. If we need help we'll ask for it. But until then, kindly leave us be. 

Square pegs won't fit into round holes. I have noticed that many extroverts (and I bet whoever came up with these changes are extreme extroverts) seem to get flustered when they encounter introverts, and often attempt to "change" them. While that personality "clash" might be okay or even humorous in a friendly, familial, or intimate situation I don't think it is productive in a hierarchical workplace scenario, where choice is limited. Introverts don't run around trying to make extroverts more introverted. Why don't extroverts return that favor?  Stop trying to change people, I say.

The true purposes of these planned workplace chances are not to raise extrovert-introvert tensions so much as they are to increase profit and control. This is an attempt to change a professional workplace into something closer to an assembly line. In an assembly line context management demands a certain amount of product produced in a given time. If that doesn't happen it's relatively easy to isolate and identify the offending input and get rid of him or her. It's easier to monitor what a given worker is doing and to limit his or her distractions. Those are all good things from a bottom line pov. 


Open offices started out with great intentions. They became a status symbol of the next generation of entrepreneurs. They were meant to level the playing field, knock down walls, introduce more natural light and keep an office feeling young. And now, we are heading into very unhealthy territory with this design trend.

When dedicated desks are sacrificed in the name of “creative flexibility,” when introverts are forced to attend more meetings at touchdown tables simply for the trendiness of meeting at touchdown tables, when a phone call echoes across 2,000 square feet, when desk sizes are reduced to fit more workers into one open room, you begin to have a privacy crisis on your hands.

On the one hand, this is a personal privacy issue. With managers and even CEOs typing away next to you, there’s pressure to appear “on” and engaged at all times. Some company workers may also feel peer pressure to work late or sacrifice work-life balance. In an open office, no one wants to be known as the first out the door. Everyone can see you leaving.

Additionally, there are few private spaces with which to deal with personal issues. If someone is upset or visibly stressed, it distracts the whole team. Some employees may fear taking creative risks if it means everyone in the office will see their experiments or failures.

On the other hand, completely open offices also present a business privacy issue. Phone calls, emails, screens, videoconferencing, meetings — all of these can be observed, noted, copied, turned into fodder for gossip and even sabotaged if you have a highly competitive team.
Open Office Plan Backfiring

If fewer people can spend their working hours playing online chess or sudoku, updating Facebook, or (ahem) working on their blog because they don't have the privacy they used to have, that's probably a good thing. No one will honestly argue for their right to goof off on company time. 


But the whole point of having a professional white collar job as opposed to working on an assembly line is to have more autonomy over my environment and trust from management that I can get the work done. If you take that away and make it crudely obvious that I'm just another (replaceable) brick in the wall I won't be happy. I won't be as productive. I may look for other employment. I will do all that I can to do things MY way. 

Not every person or every task requires ONE style of work, which is what this new process entails. Just as in physics where observing a phenomenon changes that phenomenon, people who are being constantly observed by peers and managers may change their working style and start holding on more tightly to whatever little privacy they have left, even if they aren't doing anything wrong.

Are there times when people need to be cross-trained or pushed out of their comfort zones?
Are there times when having different people review a problem can produce a quicker more elegant solution?
Are there times when some people need a reminder (gentle or otherwise) that while they're at work, they should be engaging in work related business?
Yes, yes and yes. 

But I know that for the work I do, I am FAR more productive completing tasks on my own without constantly having to listen to or interact with other people or be watched by everyone in a room. This new work style may never be embraced in full across the company. To work the way this style demands would require some serious redesign of office spaces. That probably won't happen for a few years. I've seen a lot of "Big New Ideas" come and go over the years. This too shall pass.
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