Open plan offices

As far as I can tell, here are the top 3 reasons for having open plan offices:
1. Cheap.
2. Increases team communication.
3. Makes employees work harder because they’re being watched.

Here’s what I think.

1. Yeah, probably. But so is putting everyone behind big sweatshop-style benches in one big factory warehouse. Where do you draw the line? Actually if you’re a manager, forget I said that, because I’ve probably just given you the idea for a new sweatshop-plan office.

2. This is the sort of important team communication I receive every day in my open plan office. It’s pretty typical of every open plan office I’ve ever worked at.

“Hey, you have a doily on your desk!”
“What do you reckon you’d do if you had a BA majoring in Political Science?”
“Hmm…working hard, eh?” (note – not sarcasm!)
“Did you get my email?”
“Can I use your stapler?”
“How does that flapping plant thing work?”
“Did you know that we’re both ailurophiles?”

How this is conducive to me doing more work, I have no idea. The number one complaint about open plan offices seems to be “background noise”. I can generally tune that out over time, but it’s the direct interruptions that you can’t tune out. If anything, it encourages people to slack off for a chat because if you don’t then you’re being anti-social and probably “not a team player”.

3. If your employees are that untrustworthy that they need constant supervision to do their work, maybe you need new employees. Seriously, if someone wants to slack off, they will find a way to slack off, regardless of how open plan their office is. Even in the strictest companies there’ll always be one person taking personal calls and emailing jokes to all their friends all day long, or wandering around with a cold cup of coffee in their hand asking people if they’re “working hard or hardly working”.

There’s no study I’ve ever heard of that’s proven that people in offices do less work. The truth is, some managers don’t think employees are really working unless they can see it happening in front of their eyes, all the time. Maybe it’s like some kind of security blanket thing, I don’t know.

Personally I’m okay with my open plan office at the moment. It’s certainly not the worst one I’ve ever had to work in. But we’ll be moving soon and I fear for the layout of our new office. Here’s hoping I don’t end up reliving my hallway desk days.

2 thoughts on “Open plan offices

  1. The only real reason for “open office plans” is the first one you listed – it is less expensive than most alternatives. The other reasons are just used to try and help justify the first.

    It’s part of the tradeoff businesses make – effectiveness versus cost.

    (And in my opinion, it’s a poor tradeoff for knowledge workers almost all the time.)

    I’m glad you are okay with your current plan, and that it’s not the worst. I worry that the standards on “what is a sufficient office environment” keep getting lower and lower as time passes.


  2. Hi Joe,

    I worry about the same thing. If the only reason I’m happy with my current office is because I’ve never known anything better, well surely it’s like that story about the two whingy kids.

    The kids’ family was poor and could only afford to give the kids half an apple for dinner and they had to sleep in the same bed. The kids kept whinging that they were hungry and the bed was too small, so the parents kept inviting more kids over to stay until they only had a 10th of an apple for dinner and had to share the bed with 8 other kids. Then all the friends went home and the kids were so happy with their half an apple and small bed that they didn’t complain anymore.

    Sounds like a potential morale-building exercise.

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