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Two Cube Dwellers Argue Over Open Offices. Who's Right?

Fast Company editors Jason Feifer and Anjali Mullany sit in the same open newsroom, but their feelings about that work environment are markedly different.

[Photos by Andrew B. Myers]

Maybe you spend your workdays inside a wood-paneled, book-lined chamber with your feet propped up on a Cadillac-size desk, and an assistant who holds your calls and wouldn't dare enter without knocking. But probably not. These days, you're way more likely to toil in a huge communal room packed with rows of keyboard-tapping, phone-yakking, nose-blowing, stinky-lunch-chomping colleagues. To some, this is a fantastic development, allowing for easier collaboration and smoother workflow. For others, it signifies the death of privacy, concentration, and dignity. Who's right? A pair of Fast Company editors debate the office space that defines their days.

Jason Feifer: We both work at desks that sit out in a large, open-air pit. But we're across the floor from each other, so let me tell you what I see: The colleagues who are nearest to me are all silent, with their earphones on. I am as well; if I were to take them off, I'd be distracted by an irrelevant conversation happening 20 feet from me. I witness an inability to concentrate, lack of privacy, and absent sense of ownership—which is a problem given that I occupy this space for the bulk of my waking hours. But the business community insists this is good for me. Supposedly, by all of us being mushed together instead of provided the pleasure of private ­offices, we're to form a beating heart of collaboration. And yet, because we're sitting together, we're doing everything we can to create the sense that we're apart. It's incontrovertible proof, right here, almost every minute of my working day, that the open-office movement has the opposite of its intended effect. It's time for the business world to admit this and spare employees the condescension: Open offices may save money, but they're not for employees' benefit.

Anjali Mullany: I think the success of an open office depends in large part on what kind of work one does. Though we are both editors, we do different jobs. It would not make sense to assume that the same office layout is going to work just as well for both of us. Where I sit, we don't wear headphones very often, and my team interacts a lot. In fact, we found that the built-in barriers between our desks were an impediment because we couldn't see each other when we spoke, so we recently had them removed. We made that decision together, and the feedback from team members has been positive. Instead of IM'ing each other, we're talking in person. It's way more efficient and less maddening than having my Gchat icon flashing all day, since I already suffer from multitasking overload, thanks to email, Yammer, Campfire, social media, and multiple browser tabs. When we do wear headphones, we take it as a sign that the person doesn't want to be disturbed unless it's urgent. The system works.

JF: Despite our different jobs, we both work in small teams—as do most workers. But this is the detail that divides us: How much of our time does the team own? Work is a vacillation between collaboration and solitary exploration. One isn't useful without the other. Your team clearly owns more of your time, which I suppose means you're executing more often as a group. My teams own very little of my time. They're more amorphous, small groups assembled per project that meet briefly and as needed. Then we go back to working alone, which is when we get things done. Yet the open-office layout can't switch functions the way a door can open or close. It's designed so that everyone's time ­always belongs to everyone else. People interrupt me constantly, even when I'm wearing headphones. Nobody's giving me a secretary, which is good, because I don't know where that person would sit. But I would love some kind of barrier that announces: "Can't wait to talk, but I am busy now." I love collaborating, and I almost never say no when someone asks if I have time. But I also need time to work by myself. A lack of architecture works for you, but it harms people like me. Shouldn't the default, then, be to build nothing but private rooms? I can occupy a small one myself, your team can occupy a larger one together, and the open office goes extinct.

AM: Most open offices are dysfunctional because they're poorly designed. In ours, I do face small issues. Sometimes I need to drill down on an edit or a project in peace and quiet. In those cases, I use one of our more private nooks or conference rooms to grab some alone time. This system works, but it's not perfect. An open office has to include a variety of thoughtfully conceived work spaces in order to really function the way it's supposed to. Those spaces should be custom-built to suit the needs of an individual business. I don't need a private office, but I'd love it if we designated one room a "quiet zone" where no phone conversations or meetings were allowed. I'd also love a private phone booth close to my area for sensitive calls. We do have a phone room in our office, but it's a depressing windowless closet that isn't close to either of our desks. Plus, my cell phone doesn't get any reception there! An optimally designed open office also needs to take into consideration who needs to be near whom. I am surrounded by my team, but it doesn't seem like you necessarily are. We also need to think beyond simply "open" versus "private." What if our desks were surrounded by modular walls that we could easily slide around the office, reshaping our work spaces to suit our needs at any given moment? That could be pretty useful.

JF: That would be interesting! And I love the implicit acknowledgment that there is no "serendipity." The theory that when people are in proximity they'll jump in on each other's conversations to create new and unexpected ideas? That never happens. When we're mushed together, our primary goal is to not talk to each other. It's professional courtesy. But even with movable walls, unless those walls were soundproof and reached to the ceiling, I imagine they wouldn't overcome this same flaw. Or they'd give people the false sense of not being overheard, which would just make everyone talk louder! This tension, of talking versus ­silence, is a real problem for me in an open space. ­Outside this office, I'm a talkative guy. Total extrovert. But here, over two and a half years, I've barely gotten to know my colleagues—and it's because every time I open my mouth, I feel bad knowing that I'm definitely distracting someone. In past lives, when I've had offices, colleagues would pop in for a question, and we'd end up chatting for 30 minutes. Real ideas actually came out of those meetings. So did new relationships. Open offices discourage that. Because of this, I wonder if your "quiet room" proposal has the right proportions. Shouldn't it be flipped, so that instead of a small space of quiet and a large space of talking, we'd have mostly quiet areas and then small spaces to meet and talk in groups? Though now we're talking about a complex, segmented office with moving walls, designated spaces for certain activities, and multiple phone booths. Seems we're reaching an Occam's razor moment: Isn't the simplest idea the best one? And what's simpler than giving everyone an office?

AM: I don't think that sheer proximity to other workers automatically makes people more creative and collaborative. I do think that a lot of offices—including ours—suffer from a lack of communication, and that being moved near the right people has facilitated better communication flow for me at this job. My team is definitely more collaborative now that we're near each other sharing ideas throughout the day, and that has made me happier and less isolated at work. Perhaps you are not sitting near the right people. Personally, I often feel a bit intimidated knocking on someone's door at work—like I'm intruding. I rarely do it unless I feel really comfortable around that person. But if they are sitting near me and I can tell before I approach that they are just, say, checking ­Twitter, I feel less anxiety. Since we changed the desk arrangement at Fast Company, I've gotten to know some colleagues I didn't talk to much before. We've even started working on some new projects together. But I do agree that an open-office arrangement isn't perfect. Which is why, ultimately, I believe so strongly that work spaces need to offer as many diverse environments as possible, tailored to the needs of an individual company's employees. This requires a lot of forethought and workflow mapping, which is challenging. With so many radical changes taking place—from the rise of telecommuting to evolving conceptions of "work" ­itself—it's going to be fascinating to watch office environments continue to adapt.

A version of this article appeared in the March 2014 issue of Fast Company magazine.