A long time ago I worked in the IT department of a large company. I thought I was lucky because in the year I was working there management decided that we moved from a really old office building to a brand new, modern open-plan office. The people were in shock. Some even revolted. I can honestly say that I learned a lot that year. Huge open-plan offices boost distraction and kill productivity. How can we cope with them?
Before we moved into the open-plan office we worked in an old apartment complex that was originally meant to house people in training. I had even been there as a kid in the 80’s because my sister – at that time – was one of those people in training. She occupied one of the cosy apartments with a friend.
Over time the trainees in the building had been replaced by IT personnel. All the small apartments had become tiny offices filled with IT people, computers and all kinds of tech gear. So were all the other spaces in the building. I clearly remember once opening the door of one of the old toilets only to find a huge stack of discarded computers. Why? Did they try to flush them down the toilet?
I felt sorry for the people that were working in the scruffy old building
They were kind of cosy
When I started working there I felt sorry for the people that were working in the scruffy old building. But after a while I noticed that they actually liked their small ‘apartment offices’. Most were occupied by two or three people and I guess they were kind of cosy. The employees had decorated their own walls with things they liked and the desks were filled with family pictures and all kinds of personal stuff.
I also occupied one of the apartments, together with a colleague. Focusing on my work was no problem at all. I could even close the door if I wanted to to block out noise and prevent other people from coming in and distracting me.
people had created their own tiny kingdoms in the small offices
The disadvantages of the old office building
However, after a while I started experiencing some disadvantages of the old office building. My role was related to human resources management and one of my tasks was to do the personnel planning and divide the workload equally among the employees. That was hard!
First of all, it was almost impossible to reach all the people I needed. I walked up and down those stairs peeking into the offices to see if they were there. Somehow it felt like many were ‘in hiding’ and the old building had a lot of great hiding places.
Another thing I noticed was that many people had created their own tiny kingdoms in the small offices. Kingdoms that had their own laws. Kingdoms that had walls around them that I was not able to break down.
I must admit that I failed to recognize the advantages of the old building. I was even looking forward to moving to the new place. Little did I know…
I could almost hear the voice of David Attenborough in the background
We moved into the open-plan office
But then it was moving day… And we all moved into a beautiful new building. A building that had a huge open-plan office inside. The people moved out of their cosy little apartments into this large open-plan office.
After the move I watched the people in the open-plan office. The first weeks it was like I was watching a wildlife documentary movie about penguins that had just moved to the desert. The people felt lost and out of place. So did I. I could almost hear the voice of David Attenborough in the background “The mammals just entered their new world and now need to get used to their surroundings.” They were not able to focus and do their work. I felt sorry for them.
After a while most people settled down and got used to their new dwellings. Sometimes they moved some furniture to create (a nest?) a place to focus and work. But some kept fighting the open-plan office. They could not settle down and became desperate. Some old kings – that lost their kingdom – became rebellious. A few men even exchanged the restroom signs to claim their territory because they believed their brand new toilets were smaller then the women’s.
Almost like a small mammal that is in an open field without shelter
Build a little nest where we can feel safe
What I learned from this is that – first of all – humans are extremely adaptable. But – to be able to do work – we also need a place to focus. Which is hard in a huge open-plan office. When you are sitting out in the open all day you feel vulnerable. Almost like a small mammal that is in an open field without shelter. You are constantly distracted by people that are passing by. That is why – if we insist on working in an open-plan office – we need to build a little nest. We need to create our own place to focus. A place where we can feel cosy and safe. A place where we can do focused work without being distracted.
Another solution may be to just stop using those huge open-plan offices. They boost distraction and kill productivity.