Open or Closed – Do You Work in an “Office Without Walls”?

When I was 12 years old, I was at a summer program where I met a girl named Jessi.  Once we got on the subject of schools, she told me she went to School Without Walls.  At that age, the first thing that came to mind was a conventional school building, stripped of all exterior walls.  Strangely, my mind’s eye left all of the classroom walls intact, but removed the entire facade from the building.  This was my idea of a “school without walls”.  As Jessi explained what her classes were like, I realized to my own dismay that the school did, in fact, have physical walls, but did not have metaphorical walls restricting the free flow of ideas and experiences.  Apparently they went on an exceptionally high number of field trips, sort of like if you had physically gone everywhere that Mr. Rogers visited (or perhaps Dave Atell, for the younger crowd to get the gist).

This memory came back to me when I read Lisa Bertagnoli’s article The crazy making open office plan, an article for Crain’s Chicago that explores the pros and cons of open office plans.  Although the article reads more as a personal interest piece, there are some useful points for tenants:

  • Cost – Requiring less build-out, including walls, can result in lower costs for the landlord.  If you have negotiated a tenant improvement allowance, you then have more money that you could allocate to other build-out needs.
  • Productivity – This goes both ways.  Having a clear view of your colleagues or teammates means that you can see if they are on the phone, away from their desk or otherwise occupied.  Informal work areas can also be more accessible, making impromptu collaboration easier.  However, there will also be less sound damping, so every little noise may be heard across the office space – not a big issue in a quiet industry, but can be a huge problem in a loud sales or call center environment.
  • Privacy – What privacy?  Without walls, you have very little insulation between yourself and your colleagues.  This may discourage personal activities at work – increasing productivity, but may also result in a hit to morale, unless you already have a very open communication style at your firm.

I have had the privilege of working in everything from a heavily walled environment (advertising firm in Syracuse) to a very open environment (computer science lab).  My corporate experiences after college have all been somewhere in the middle.  As a result of my own varied experiences and my work with clients across all types of spaces, I have the following additional suggestions:

  • Before you go into the market, consider what type of space you want.  If you want open space, it’s much more practical and cost-effective to find space that is already fairly open.  The cost and time to convert higly-partitioned space is high.
  • Adding walls and modifying an open space to become highly-partitioned is similarly difficult.  Knowing what you want and searching specifically for that will help you save time and energy down the road, and could result in better lease terms for you.
  • Look at how your employees, work teams or divisions collaborate in your existing space.  Is there a lot of interaction or is everyone’s work fairly siloed?
  • You can have the best of both worlds.  When I was at Microsoft, the main office space was fairly open, with low-profile cubicles distributed in clusters around the floor.  Each office also had a handful of private spaces – fully-enclosed workspaces with a desk or work surface, a phone and an ethernet cable.  With the door shut behind you, others could not hear your phone conversations or if you were indulging in some music while you worked on a document or project.

In the end, there’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to space plans.  It’s really all about finding the best fit to meet your business’s current or future space needs.

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One Response

  1. […] November 14, 2007 by Jacob Cynamon I must be on a public television kick.  After writing about open offices and Mr. Rogers, I was inspired to provide another PBS reference in the title of this post – anyone recognize the […]

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