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The secret to getting work done in an open office

Employees hate them, but bosses love them, so open office plans likely are here to stay. Here’s how you can still get some work done.

The secret to getting work done in an open office
[Photo: monkeybusinessimages/iStock]

Open plan offices are bad for getting things done. They’re noisy and distractive, and employees can find it hard to focus. The idea that they promoted collaboration was recently debunked by Harvard University researchers, who found they do exactly the opposite. In their study, participants who were changed to an open plan office spent 72% less time interacting face-to-face and they sent 56% more emails and 67% more instant messages.

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Unfortunately, they’re probably not going away anytime soon. In 2017, about 70% of U.S. offices were open plan, according to a report in the Chicago Tribune, with some companies like Netflix and Hubspot even doing away with private offices for their CEOs.


Related: Here’s the final nail in the coffin of open plan offices


Why employers like open office plans

“There are no advantages for employees, but there are definite advantages for employers,” says Jason Fried, CEO and cofounder of the project management software platform Basecamp. “The economic reality is you have to sign a long-term lease for commercial lease–five to 10 years–and you don’t know how big you’ll be or what you’ll need in seven or even three years. Flexible spaces make sense because you can add more desks.”

You can also pack more people into an open space. “You can nudge desks together, you can squish people in a few feet,” says Fried. “I’m not suggesting these are good ideas, but they’re practical and workable. If everyone needs private offices, you’re going to need a lot more space, which means a lot more rent. That’s expensive.”

Open plans are also cheaper to execute, says Fried. “The people who make the decisions about how the office is designed are usually the ones that make the financial decisions,” he says.


Related: The Subtle Sexism Of Your Open Plan Office

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Managers aren’t bothered by open plan offices because they don’t need to protect their own time and attention as much, adds David Heinemeier Hansson, Basecamp cofounder and CTO. “Few managers have a schedule that allows, or even requires, long hours of uninterrupted time dedicated to a single creative pursuit,” he writes in a blog post. “And it’s these managers who are in charge of designing office layouts and signing leases. It’s also these managers who are responsible for booking photo shoots of the FUN-FUN office, giving tours to investors, and fielding interviews with journalists. The open office is an excellent backdrop for all those activities.”

Heinemeier Hansson’s personal distaste for the open plan office goes back to the days when he was programmer. “It was a tyranny of interruption, distraction, and stress,” he writes. “The quality of my work suffered immensely, and so did my mental well-being.”

So, why does Basecamp have an open plan office?

“When we launched, we didn’t know we’d eventually have 50 people,” says Fried. “Open plan offers flexibility, but you have to come up with strategies to make flexible spaces work for employees. You cannot throw people into a big space and expect it to be fine. When we decided to have an open plan office we made some choices.”


Related: How can you focus in an open office?


How to make open plans work

While some offices cope by encouraging the use of noise-canceling headphones, “Do Not Disturb” signs and quiet pods, Fried and Heinemeier Hansson did the opposite and came up with “library rules.”

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“Libraries are really open plan offices,” says Fried. “Everybody knows how to behave in a library. They’re reading, studying, and thinking. We treat the office like a library, making quiet the norm.”

Open plan offices can work when you treat your office like a library instead of a chaotic kitchen of work, he says. Basecamp employees keep their voices down. If they need to talk, they grab a room, which is lined with felt and soundproof materials to help deflect sound and reduce any echo. The company also has private soundproof phone booths where you can use your phone at full volume.

Basecamp also made changes to its culture to enable library rules. “There are no phones at desks because phones ring,” says Fried. “We have no incoming calls; we handle communication via email, which helps things stay quiet. If we were a company that required a phone bank, we would need to build a separate space.”

Where people sit is another consideration. “You can’t mix sales, which is naturally a loud process, with developers, designers, or writers,” says Fried. “They go at a different pace. Different jobs require different environments. People who need to make noises are special; we’ve made focus the primary default.”

By making choices and implementing strategies, Basecamp employees can be focused and undistracted even though spaces are all out in the open. “You don’t have to feel like you have to hide to find quiet; quiet is the default here,” says Fried. “Noise is the exception, and it’s in isolated spaces.”

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