This is the problem with open-office layouts: It assumes that everyone’s time belongs to everyone else. It doesn’t. We are here to work together, sure, but most of the time, we actually work alone. That’s what work is: It is a vacillation between collaboration and solitary exploration. One isn’t useful without the other. When we are working in a group–literally when we sit around a table brainstorming, or when we are having a conversation–we don’t pretend we’re alone. That would just be weird and awkward. So when we’re alone, let’s not pretend we’re in a group.
Having been in this industry for multiple decades, I can say with confidence that the current open office mania is a fad. At Borland, we built an office for every single engineer. At Netscape, it was open space – same with the start-up you’ve never heard. At Apple, it depended on your building and the available space, but in general managers had offices with a door. At the current gig, it’s a mix with the open space religion gaining steam. Again.
As an easily distractible person, I believe the company is getting higher value out of me when there are less distractions. It doesn’t matter if I had headphones on, I am compulsively aware of what is going on around me – there’s this little voice narrating everything. This doesn’t mean I need an office all the time. I need a office when I’m having a private conversation which is a lot of the time in my current role. I need an office when I need to think hard which isn’t as often as I’d like.
Still, some of my favorite moments of the day is when I stumble on serendipity – when I’m sitting in a big open space and a random conversation from a random person alerts me to a random piece of data I would have never discovered ensconced in my office behind a door.
It’s not cost or space efficient, but I think the answer to the question “Open space or office door?” is “Both.” Everyone should have equal access to productive silence and serendipitous chaos.