Saturday, May 21, 2016

Privacy, Productivity, and the Open Workplace

Ana from the Well-Appointed Desk blog had a recent piece motivated by an article on Facebook’s new work space in Menlo Park, California. Ana and I were both horrified by this picture:
Facebook office wp
(Image from The Independent)
As Ana said,
I find the interior space of the new Facebook office neither aesthetically appealing nor engaging for working or collaborating. It just looks cluttered, messy and noisy. The fact that no one is given any storage space nor are they encouraged to have personal items on their desk seem to only make it more disheartening and cluttered. The overly high, unfinished ceilings with cables descending down are even worse!
More to the point,
...I don’t believe that this much openness is genuinely conducive to non-distracted working and thinking. I believe it leads people to seek out other places to work, or they choose to come into work either early or stay late in an attempt to avoid distrations. I think the myth of multi-tacking needs to stop. It makes people sloppy and tired. We can multi-task for a little while but, in the end, I don’t think its effective, efficient or healthy. I don’t think we, as idea workers, can come up with our best ideas when we are constantly distracted by co-workers, bleeps, or other disturbances. Yes, its nice to have a way to bounce ideas off other people, but we need to find a better way to do it other than forcing people to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with headphones on while they madly type into their laptops and mobile devices. That’s not really collaborating, is it?
I’ve read elsewhere that there’s a generation gap in how employees perceive open workspaces. Older employees are horrified, while younger ones enjoy the camaraderie. Perhaps so. I’ve always found working in a noisy environment to be difficult, and listening to music through headphones doesn’t really help the problem. I’ve been very lucky at my organization: some years prior to my arrival, younger employees shared offices, and today younger employees are again sharing offices. When I started, we had enough space that the professional staff all had individual offices - mine was an interior private office, on a corner, with hand-me-down furniture that consisted of the leftovers after the more senior staff had picked through everything they wanted, but the key word in that was “private.” I’m now in a much nicer office, albeit next to a conference room, and the difference in my ability to concentrate between when the conference room is and is not occupied is profound. Still, I can’t complain: it’s a private office. I can stare at the screen when writing is not coming easily. I can pace around the office. I can stretch, or stare out the window, or yawn, with no sense of embarrassment. When I need to talk to someone, I can walk to another office, use the phone, or make arrangements for a meeting room. I’ve never found that collaboration is difficult. Indeed, after a few hours of solitude, it’s nice to occasionally talk to another human.

We’re supposed to believe that the open space is fine because the CEO uses it as well - the original article notes that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg just have desks in the open space. But a guy like Zuckerberg likely isn’t around much - he travels to visit parts of his empire, and I’m willing to be that, when it comes to booking the meeting rooms, all employees are equal, but Sheryl Sandberg is more equal than others.

Of course, whether this system works or not depends on a whole range of factors, from the type of employees to the nature of the work. And no doubt it’s a lot cheaper than having private offices. But, like Ana, I hope this fad fades away sooner rather than later.


Kirasha Urqhart said...

The thing is? There have been numerous reports and studies over the last couple years citing data that says these open office plans actually decrease productivity. I was reading something earlier this year (and I can't find the bookmark, so it must have been at home) that said there was something like a 15% drop in productivity in open office spaces and a 20% or 30% drop in overall employee well being. That the open plans create more stress and lead to higher staff turnover.

We switched to a more open plan layout last summer where I work and there's been a significant decrease in productivity for my team. There are two teams to one side of us that have never learned what inside voices are. And, my team has taken to having to wear headphones with or without music just to be able to almost think. Even the taller cubicle walls we used to have were better. They were six feet and cloth, which dampened the sound, and wrapped three quarters of the way around our space. But, now we have "wood-like product" walls that are only about four feet tall and wrap just far enough to separate the attached desks into separate work spaces.

If those other two teams were working, it'd be one thing. But, just in the time it's taken me to write this comment, I've heard them talking sports, movies, fashions, and television. Not marketing or product development. And, I think that's the biggest problem. The noise is distracting to others, but you're also more likely to have random conversations about non-work topics when it takes no effort to turn to your neighbor and start talking. When we had taller cubicle walls and it still required the effort of getting up and walking to the other side of the wall to have a conversation, we got more done.

Now, there are a few other problems with the company that may be factors. But, it's been commented on by several people that we've also seen a larger than normal number of people quitting in the last year, mostly in the departments that where switched to this floor plan.

Rhianon Jameson said...

I'm glad to hear I'm not just an old fuddy-duddy. I've seen articles about some of these studies. While I have no idea whether they're well-done or not, those results make sense to me. You're absolutely right about people who don't have indoor voices, or don't think anything of starting a conversation with someone who is right there; it's much easier to do so than converse with someone in an office or private cubicle.

And, for me at least, the headphones don't solve the problem. I can't concentrate with music going on inside my head (much less a podcast, where my mind feels it should concentrate on the voices in my head talking), so I'm not as productive, and the people talking aren't productive. A lousy situation all around.

I mentioned the conference room in my original post. It's a place where, understandably, people feel as though they don't need to be as quiet, where they make jokes or small talk before or after the meeting, and where anyone speaking needs to project his/her voice a little more so everyone can hear. I've learned to filter it out as best as I can, but it's amusing when people come into my office and hear the din next door. They're startled at first, then say something along the lines of "Wow, I can't believe you can get any work done with that going on!" Precisely.

I'll assert without proof that these open configurations are an example of employers being penny wise, pound foolish. They save money on office space and the cost of office construction, and they fool themselves into thinking that they're getting a full day's productivity from everyone in the bullpen.