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I had a talk with the senior administrator at a company I once worked for on this subject while he was in the process of arranging the conversion of all of the software development offices there from private to semi-open. I'd been through that before and had concerns. He couldn't stop talking about how much money it would save on real estate costs. That's what he was being graded on that year, so it was a foregone conclusion. Now I have a name for that interaction. Thanks.

I didn't stay long after the switch, but it was for long enough to notice increased dissatisfaction and decreased interaction.


I second that; I'm in New Zealand, the latheh system isn't perfect but I sure as hell wouldn't want to live in the US based on the current income that I earn; no system is perfect and any system created by humans will have its flaws but to claim that the free market has the pixie dust to deliver everything anyone needs at the magical rock bottom price that all can afford simply ignores what the reality is.


Call my cynical, but I've always thought the obvious explanation for why bosses like open-plan offices is that it makes it easier to see what what their subordinates are doing, without giving them any warning that their about to be surveilled.


As a person who is a year removed from College and is 6 months into my first corporate job, I feel like I am one of the young people you say come to expect open office environments. In that regard, you are right. When I first arrived at my employer, I really liked the open office environment, as it gave the office a more relaxed feel (something that, at the time, was important to me coming right out of school). As time has gone on, however, I have drifted away from that mindset. I find spending a full workday at my open office desk almost stressful in and of itself.

Luckily, my office is set up in such a way that there are a number of free-use meeting rooms that you can step into without having to reserve them. There are enough that I have never had a problem finding one, and they offer a great alternative to me when I am trying to sit down and work exclusively on one project for an extended period. A lot of my day to day work (I am in sales) involves short quick tasks, so having an open office environment is helpful. I agree with the point that an open environment encourages cooperation and teamwork, and having coworkers readily available for help and advice has been invaluable for me.

I think for me having a readily available mix of usable space is the best. As you said in your post, there are distinct advantages and disadvantages to each side, and I think it will be hard to find a job that is perfectly suited to either type of layout exclusively.

Sandy Piderit

Hi Bob -- just wanted to point you toward engineers' recent storytelling, at:

and toward my story of working in the Peter B. Lewis building in Cleveland:

All anecdotal, of course. You may want to check out Leslie Perlow's work on time and interruptions for empirical evidence about related issues.

Wally Bock

Maybe I'm not getting it, but it seems like Lovaglia's Law is the sort of thing that academics come up with when their wise counsel isn't followed. The word that's throwing me is "important." I'm wondering who defines that. It seems like it has a lot to do with your objectives.

In the case of open systems the decision made by an administrator might be on the basis of their performance against budget when open-plan costs less than full walls and closed offices and therefore makes it more likely that they'll look good and make more money. For an administrator maximizing performance that way, ergonomic concerns might not be a consideration.

Aaron M

The "benefits" of open offices have been debated by the ergonomics community for years. Ergonomists recognize that, depending on the environment, open offices are disruptive to concentration and lower productivity.

Unfortunately, as you stated, those in management do not look at the evidence which confirms this, and they may be driven by the wrong incentives from their management team.

When managers are in charge of organizing office space, they may be incented to make the "best use of space". This is a fuzzy concept. Does "best use" mean lowest cost per worker, most people in the space, or something else? Productivity is tangible and can be measured, but often it isn't. Instead, what is measured are headcounts and budgets. Managers are then held responsible for costs, but not necessarily for productivity. It takes a very savvy manager to understand that productivity and human performance are important factors to consider when organizing the office. Unfortunately, I have yet to meet any managers who are that savvy, so I've stocked up on earplugs.

Hans-Eric Grönlund

The increase of interaction could be explained by the fact that people don't like to disturb others, and so they feel more comfortable to speak in closed spaces.
I've noticed this myself. We have mixed workspaces, some are open and some closed. I don't go to talk to someone in an open workspace unless I really have to. I rather email, a less effective form of communication.
In the past I have been an advocate of open offices, especially if everyone is a part of the same team, or work on the same project.
I now have to reconsider that standpoint. I have been taking for granted that it would be good for communication to work in the same room. I would never have guessed it could be the other way around.
Lovaglia eh? I'd better pay more attention to him.


Robert Mooney

I'm an engineer. I've worked in a mix of open, semi-open and closed environments.

In general, I agree that the open environment is distracting if you are working with a number of people, some collaborating more closely than others. When I am in the same mode as my peers, driving towards a particular goal, I've found that proximity and synchronicity actually drive me.

Closed environments offers a much better sense of autonomy and focus, and being in lock-step with my peers isn't as important. The disconnect, however, can be troublesome especially when I need to be in close contact: offices tend to be cramped and meeting areas (in my experience) are often taken or are only available for a brief period. I lose a bit of that drive when my peers aren't more visible or accessible.

I suspect there's a happy medium between both environments, where one might have an isolated quiet space, and varying degrees of (isolated) collaborative space. I'm trying to find that now myself.


A good article on offices for thinkers by Joel Spolsky:

The classic Peopleware has several chapters on office with references to literature:

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