How to Fix Open Offices

Design consultant John Ferrigan has worked with Silicon Valley companies large and small (inc­lud­­ing Google) to reshape work environments. His advice for tearing down walls.

How to Fix Open Offices
Google’s Dublin outpost offers a range of creative spaces. [Photo by Peter Wurmli/Camenzind Evolution]

Variety is key
Don’t just ditch the partitions: To be ­effective, open plans need to offer a range of ­areas. “In my experience, what needs to happen is a layered ­approach,” says Ferrigan. “There have to be spaces for those people who really need quiet to focus, whether they just find it easier to work or they’re more of an ­introvert. We need to provide spaces where everyone in the company, regardless of personality or role, will feel comfortable.”


Think about the whole, not just the parts

Ferrigan’s team ­creates “enclaves” for collaborative working but makes sure those spaces don’t disrupt people sitting nearby. And if you’re going to provide areas for private time (which you should!), don’t place them so far away that the trek isn’t worth it. “We create adjacencies,” says Ferrigan. “You’re not going to have to walk more than 10 feet to a phone booth or an enclave.”

Design with purpose

Your company needs to ask: What are our goals? “More collaboration” is a start, but “more collaboration between the product team and the sales team” is a goal that you can design your office around. “I’ll hear clients say, ‘We want to be more like Google,’ ” says Ferrigan. “I tend to challenge them and say, ‘Is that really what you want, or do you want to find out how company identity is expressed through physical space?’ ”

Establish Rules

It’s not enough to create spaces; you have to enforce boundaries. For some clients, Ferrigan’s team lays out rules about how ­areas can be used. “If you’re going to go in [a certain spot] and work,” says Ferrigan, “you can’t take a call on your phone, you can’t talk to anyone. It sounds very corporate and Big Brother to some people, but when you’re in this open plan, it is really important to have protocols.”

Get bosses out of offices

Sometimes managers do need to operate behind closed doors, but letting higher-ups spend their days inside old-fashioned private offices while employees work in the open sends a bad message. It also isolates them from the very benefits open plans promise. “Time and again,” says Ferrigan, “we’ll hear from executives who’ve come out of their office and said, ‘Wow, I’ve learned more about my own company in the last three weeks than I did in the past three years.’ ”

About the author

Anjali Mullany is the editor of Fast Company Digital.