It’s tough to complain about open office floor plans without making your colleagues feel like you’re complaining about them.
But I see it as a problem of environment not inhabitants because it’s the environment that amplifies innocent everyday existence into productivity-crushing distractions.
At the Agenda HQ all six of us sit around one giant table. I bring an apple to work almost every day and almost every day I come home with an uneaten apple. It’s not that I don’t want to eat the apple; it’s that I don’t want to audibly chomp on it while my teammates are trying work within arm’s reach.
I take my phone calls outside. I blow my nose in the bathroom. I try to avoid putting offensively smelly foods in the microwave and feel like I real jerk when I zap broccoli or brussels sprouts because we all know they smell like straight up farts.
Short of my love of cruciferous vegetables, I put a considerable effort into trying to erase myself from a space designed to make me as accessible as possible. I do this in an attempt to avoid hindering everyone else’s productivity while sacrificing my own. And I know my colleagues are extending the same decency because in most open offices, everyone is tip-toeing around everyone else.
Proponents of open office floor plans who tout the benefits of collaboration and community bonding must have never stepped foot inside an open office.
Because you’re almost guaranteed to find most people trying to get as far away from each other as possible without leaving their physical space.
Headphones in. Music up. Heads down. Hello, manufactured isolation.
I’ve also seen people build mini fortresses out of large computer monitors to help cut down on visual distractions, in essence creating a makeshift cubicle.
And when it comes time for necessary collaboration? Subsets of the office population are most likely to be found exiting the communal space to find a conference room where they can speak freely and work most effectively together.
This is counter to the design assumption that open offices are ideal because they encourage collaboration in the public space for the majority of the work day but allow breakout rooms for occasional quiet solo work.
I’m sure everyone is different but this is the exact opposite of what I need in order to excel at my job.
I need space for quiet solo work for the majority of my day with conference rooms available for occasional collaborative group work.
When I’m writing at home (as I am right now) I stand up, move around and read my words aloud over and over and over again to make sure the cadence flows and the message makes sense. I absolutely never listen to music.
When I’m in the office I sit down, remain silent and listen to Spotify 100% of the time in an attempt to create a cocoon of creativity that, in the end, I succeed only in crushing. The work I create in the presence of other people is garbage compared to what I can do in isolation.
It might sound ridiculous but I believe there is a true psychological drain associated with making yourself a tolerable open office companion.
For me this manifests as stifled creativity, strain on interpersonal relationships and below average work performance.
I feel that my colleagues should be free to speak when they want, eat what they want and move how they want because I want to be free to do the same.
But if we do so in a space others also occupy, our totally normal and acceptable behaviors become a distraction. That’s a problem with the office design, not the people.