An introvert’s defence of the open plan office

Photo by Javier Molina on Unsplash

There’s a lot of hate on open plan work environments. A Harvard Business School study in 2018 seemed to start a wave of articles and posts denouncing them as toxic, bad for mental health and productivity, and unexpectedly bad for collaboration.

As an introvert, I should be among the haters, and YES, sometimes I am. I work one day a week from home which I love for the quiet, ability to focus, and reduced human contact.

But, also as an introvert, I can recognise some aspects of the open-plan workplace that are helpful to me.

They force you to be a little bit social. I’m not great at small-talk, but I can do ‘Good morning’, and ‘How was your weekend?’ and ‘Man, it’s hot outside today!’ and I can join in a joke or conversation with team-mates. If I worked in a cubicle or private office I would not be forced to interact as often, so I likely wouldn’t. And even for introverts, this stuff is good for us.

You overhear a lot. You hear a LOT of information in an open-plan workplace. You hear what other teams are dealing with, where problems and blockers are, what might come up as the next project or improvement initiative. You might hear customer interactions, management chatter, even strategic information. All information is useful!

You can gauge how busy or focused someone is before you disturb them. When you’re all in one room together, it is much easier to tell if someone is in ‘do not disturb’ mode or is open to interruption, than if you had to phone them or peep over a cubicle. (I have actually never worked in a cubicle and have no idea what that’s like or how you navigate them).

Easy access to management. When the management team is seated close to or among their teams, they are just naturally more approachable than when they work on a separate floor or in offices. As a manager, when you sit with or near your team you are naturally attuned to and more engaged in what they are dealing with day to day, which not only helps you be a better manager, but means you have reliable first-hand information to inform decisions.

They have contributed to a more relaxed work culture and greater understanding of work-life balance. Or maybe they haven’t and it’s a correlation thing due to other forces at play at the same time. But it seems like the fact that everyone is out in the open means there is a bit more understanding of the fact that everyone needs to make a personal call every now and then, not everyone is in the office before 8.30 or after 5.30, etc.

Having said all that, it’s obviously true that open-plan offices can be stressful, especially for introverts. I’ve worked in offices before where a radio was always playing (the worst), where employees were constantly laughing, inanely chatting, arguing or wigging out, and where people routinely ate noisy or messy snacks at their desks. All terrible! Even when you’re working with nice people. So, some basics:

Essentials for well-being in an open-plan workplace

  • noise-cancelling headphones
  • break-away areas – ‘pods’ or ‘nooks’ or just a table and chairs set a bit aside from the desks, where 2 or 3 people can grab their stuff and have a quick conference or work on something together without having to navigate meeting-room-booking hell
  • allowing people to work from home or work in a different office/floor/area when they need to focus
  • respecting colleagues’ personalities and work styles
  • catering for different cultures and work-styles in different business groups. IT teams, finance teams, marketing, sales and operations groups have different work-styles. Some will be on the phone a lot. Some will need whiteboards and will have regular stand-ups. Some need quiet focus. Be mindful of where these groups sit relative to each other
  • maybe no eating at desks. Not something that can be mandated really, but have a good kitchen and breakaway area and encourage everyone to take breaks and to snack in the kitchen. That way you don’t build up a culture of everyone treating their desks like their personal living area.
  • sensible working hours. Everyone should get out on time!

TLDR:

Open-plan workspaces + good culture + breakaway areas = success!

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