I have argued in the past that there are a lot of evidence-based disadvantages to working in an open office, as there are many more interruptions, distractions, and other stressors --- and of course less privacy. And there are quite a few studies that show when people move from closed to open office designs, they don't like it all and their productivity sometimes drops. I had an experience a few weeks back, however, that has me questioning the limits of this research -- and believing that if an organization has the right norms, leadership, and especially collective trust (and have the right people and right skills to truly do cooperative work), that open offices can be a splendid thing.
This all struck me a few weeks back when I went to visit David Kelley at IDEO to chat about some ideas we were hatching for the Stanford d.school (which David, a Stanford professor, co-founded along with IDEO... David was the strongest driving force behind both ventures). I had the usual delightful conversation with IDEO's receptionist (Joanie was working that afternoon) and went upstairs to what is best described as IDEO's "management floor," where IDEO's CFO, head of marketing, Chairman (David Kelley), General Manager (Tom Kelley), and CEO (Tim Brown) all work. As I turned the corner to the main floor, sitting right where the receptionist on the floor would sit (if they had one, they don't) was none other than CEO Tim Brown. I frankly took a double-take, as (in many organizations) he was sitting in just the place that would be reserved for an assistant, and frankly, would be seen as one of the lowest status places to sit because of the constant interruptions and because there was no gatekeeper to keep colleagues and random visitors like me from walking-up and talking to him. I assumed this was a mistake or something, but became more puzzled when I realized that there was some stray group (including Chris Flink, head of IDEO's New York office) in what I thought was Tim's office. After I met with David (who was charming and fun as always), I saw that Tim was still there, and I asked him why he wasn't in his office. He said it wasn't his office any longer and that he had moved to what I would call the "receptionist's position," which made him -- as he later explained it -- "the most public person on the floor."
I called him a week or so later to ask more about this approach. He told me that most of IDEO's senior people had moved out of their offices and now when there was a need for more private conversations, there were a lot of small conference available (i.e., their old offices) that everyone could use. He then explained that after working for IDEO for many years -- including as head of their London and San Francisco offices -- after he became CEO five or six years ago and was given his own office (albeit a pretty small one with glass that limited his privacy) he found it "vaguely embarrassing and frustrating to be in an office." After awhile, he and others moved to a different approach, where they were out in the open and there was more casual and exchange and fewer barriers. I also asked Tim what happens when visits IDEO's other offices -- at places like London, Chicago, New York, Shanghai, and San Francisco. He said that -- although he spends time in conference rooms in meetings with IDEO people and clients (especially when confidential matters are discussed), he takes a desk in the middle of the action because "When I am there to visit and get to know the people and how they work, I can't learn much sitting in a private office."
We also had a conversation about what he does when he needs a quite place to work, after all, he did write a great book last year called Change By Design. He said that he has plenty of quiet time to think, especially when he travels, and that to write a book, well that was something that he did at home on nights and weekends!
To me, the upshot of all this is NOT everyone should move to an open office and every CEO should be in the middle of the social swarm like Tim. Rather, the lesson is that what Tim and other senior people at IDEO do works when you have the right kind of culture and leadership, when the work requires interdependence and knowledge sharing, and people have developed the right skills and routines to work effectively when they are out in the open and on display to everyone else. I think it is especially important to develop strong norms around courtesy, about how loud to talk, when to avoid interrupting others, and so on, and to make it safe for anyone in the setting to gently remind others when they are violating such norms. I have noticed, for example, that it took some years to develop these kinds of norms at the Stanford d.school (the one "open place" that I work at a fair amount), and we are now -- on the whole -- quite considerate and respectful. The great thing about IDEO, of course, is that they have the kind of culture and skilled people who can make openness work.
P.S. In fact, if you are interested in Tim's perspective on the kind of people they strive to hire and develop, check out this recent interview that Morten Hansen (of Collaboration fame) did with Tim Brown on "T-Shaped People."