The Open Office Trap

Maria Konnikova, writing for the New Yorker:

In 2011, the organizational psychologist Matthew Davis reviewed more than a hundred studies about office environments. He found that, though open offices often fostered a symbolic sense of organizational mission, making employees feel like part of a more laid-back, innovative enterprise, they were damaging to the workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction.

As an employee and manager working in an open floor plan, this rings true - both the benefits and the drawbacks. I've experienced firsthand the constant struggle to focus, and tried to mitigate the effects of constant distractions on my team. On paper, I like the idea of an open office space: I find them generally more aesthetically pleasing, and think they're rooted in a desire to express a more egalitarian workplace.

In practice, however, I find I get my best work done in solitary environments with fewer disruptions. There's something about the mere possibility of interruption in an open office that engenders a constant level of mild anxiety, wrecking my creativity and flow. I'm plagued by a nagging internal voice constantly wondering, "how long until the next person taps me on the shoulder?"

Each person on my team has developed their own tactics to work around the shortcomings of an open office: some start their morning from home to get a couple of hours' uninterrupted time each day, others will work the occasional day offsite to do some heads-down work. We all use headphones as a way to try to drown out noise, but I've found it seldom improves my focus. While these tactics help, they still feel like applying a band-aid on an injury that requires major surgery.

The New Yorker article dovetails nicely with Jason Fried's TED Talk, "Why work doesn't happen at work." His full talk is worth watching, as is the companion TED Radio Hour conversation with Guy Raz. Jason, in classic 37Signals style, sums up the whole problem in a single sentence:

This is what happens: people go to work, and they're basically trading in their work day for a series of work moments.

Fried himself showed a great deal of care in building his company's current office space. He designed plenty of unreserved private office spaces for conversations and collaboration, carefully selected materials for their ability to absorb sound, and instituted "library rules" with his employees. The office still has plenty of open space, but feels like a calming environment where employees can focus.

The interior of 37Signals HQ.

From walls of stacked felt to well-appointed and soundproofed private rooms, 37Signals' office space manages to feel open while optimizing for quiet, encouraging long uninterrupted periods of focused work.

37Signals' values and practices around how and where work gets done are a template for companies that thrive on creativity and collaboration. Employees can work from anywhere, are accountable for creating a work environment where they can be most productive, and the company still has a home base that manages to encourage both collaboration and quiet.