Philadelphia Business Journal is a staple of my RSS feed, but today’s follow-up article on open plan offices is the first time I felt compelled to leave a comment. Unfortunately they only allow comments through a Facebook or Yahoo! account, neither of which I want to associate with my professional identity or grant any “rights” to my professional content. Hello, Linkedin support please! Here’s the article followed by the comment I’d planned to make:
The author (Jared Shelly, @PHLBizJShell) takes exception with his readers’ responses, saying this: Perhaps it all depends on your co-workers and office culture. If you have co-workers that want to dissect last night’s episode of The Voice for 45 minutes while you try to work, an open office design can certainly be a hinderance. But if your co-workers are mature about it, an open-office can get people talking and be the springboard for new ideas and creativity.
It also depends on your profession and your team’s location. If your job is low concentration and high interruption, and if your team is co-located, then open plans might work for you. I am a contract software engineer usually working on global teams; I dread contracts where I must be on site and work in open plans.
Having long periods of interruption-free time to concentrate on code is a necessity. I first saw the negative effects of open plans on “flow” documented in the classic Peopleware (DeMarco and Lister). That book–printed in 1987—explicitly discusses open plans; this is not a new idea, but it is a fad whose reappearance today is more about saving money than boosting productivity.
When I do collaborate, much of that time is spent in teleconferences and screen shares with New York, Chicago, and London. This can be very distracting to those around me who aren’t also on the call/share and who probably aren’t involved in my project at all. Imagine overhearing half of a nerdy, sometimes-heated conversation during an hours-long elevator ride; that’s open plan with programmers practicing team or peer programming.
One thing has changed (for the worse) since Peopleware was published: We’ve become a culture of interruption thanks to mobile phones and mobile social media. My reflex to a ringing phone has always been to silence rather than answer it. Now it’s less and less socially acceptable to respond to a text or email or selfie notification when the time is right rather than right now. I’m sure this is giving the fad of open plan a big boost. The Millenial temper tantrum of no boundaries between the personal and the private is being taken as a desirable end state instead of just teething pains with new technologies.