Do I have your attention? I'll come clean — I don't actually have very strong feelings about open office floor plans, but with so many people waxing hyperbolic about them, I felt that it was time someone weighed in with a contrarian opinion and matching hyperbole.
DHH's article above titled “The open-plan office is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea” reduces the open-office decision to the idea that open offices look good to managers signing leases. The idea is that managers would like to parade visitors through a “fun” environment that looks good as a backdrop for media interviews. These managers—so the thinking goes—don't care what impact open offices have on employees’ work lives because managers don't live with the decision directly; they simply reap the media benefits. What with their corner offices and travel-heavy schedules. This argument is highly reductive and doesn't honestly portray the multitude of reasons that companies choose to have open offices. I think I understand one of those reasons.
Disdain for open offices is becoming technocrats’ newest and laziest trope. A lot of digital ink has been spilt cataloguing the ways in which they're the demise of modern work. And a lot of digital ink has been split torturing this ink-spilling expression for the digital age. Let's not dwell on that; let's talk open-office floor plans.
Within companies around the world, there exists a relatively small, but very vocal minority of people who despise the open-office floor plan. Let me just say this to you — your antipathy is completely valid. There are plenty of great reasons not to like open-office floor plans. They're loud, not conducive to deep work and thinking, they breed anxiety, and most importantly they're absolutely full of distractions that preclude productivity. I work for a company with an open-office floor plan and at any time of day, if I'm not listening to music or white noise to drown it out, I could probably listen into three to five different conversations. We've even turned these conversations into a series of Slack channels spanning multiple floors and offices: #heardinsf, #heardon3rd, and #said-it-on-2nd. Hands-down these channels are the best thing about our open-office floor plans.
My recent personal favorite
![How long have you been working on this modal?](/img/Screen Shot 2018-07-14 at 12.25.48 PM.png)
But with that said, no business has ever failed because of their decision to have an open floor plan. I'd like to say “full stop” here, but I'd also like you to continue with the ostensibly false premise that I'm not a complete asshole. The thing is, open-office floor plans are pervasive for a very good reason: they're cheap, and saving money is good. In order to explain why they're so cheap I should probably have some knowledge of commercial real estate (I have none), but I'll do it anyway because the gray matter that affords me a modicum of critical thinking would like to have a moment.
Let's look at the two most common alternatives to open-office floor plans. I'll spend a little bit of time on one—denegrating it—and a bit more time on the other reflecting on what it means for your company's balance sheet.
Alternate Floor Plans
- Cubicles — 😱I'd like to say, “‘nuff said”, but I suspect that a lot of the people recently castigating companies for their open-office floor plans have never worked in a cubicle farm. Do they not realize that cubicles are the next-most-likely choice to an open-office plan? Let me just say this: cubicle farms, muted by the monotone hum of white noise piped in through A.C. vents from recessed ceilings … are one of the world's greatest soul-crushers. I've never been more unhappy professionally than when the majoirty of my time was spent in such an environment. I suspect Office Space would not have been a success without it's cubicle farm setting. It's the only setting that properly fits the crushed-soul Office Space narrative. That feeling resonated with people. Let's go ahead and, sort of, move on to the next topic.
- Custom floor plans — They're great. They're fantastic. They're the best. Office managers have the opportunity to design a space that works for you and your company, taking into account all of your quirks and excentricities. The problem is, they're really fucking expensive. And I'm not talking about the buildout (also really expensive); I'm talking about what it means for your commercial lease.
Imagine you're in real estate for a moment. You have a space that lends itself to various business types that are compaitble with open-office plans, and it'll easily fetch $40,000/mo. Now let's imagine that a prospective lessee would like to build out a custom floor plan in your open space. They may occupy it for one to three years, as they're a fast-growing company, but eventually when they leave — you're left with their lousy floor plan. Do you still charge $40,000/mo? No. You charge more. A lot more. Because in all likelihood, the next company interested in leasing your space will be about as inclined to keep the previous tenant's floor plan as Peter Gibbons was in filling out another TPS report. Your company's quirks and excentricities may as well be a TPS report to landlords.
Chances are, for a large enough space, the price difference between a custom and open floor plan would both pay your annual salary and keep a keg of millenial juice (cold brew) on tap year-round. So maybe that open-office floor plan you hate is saving your job's ass. But who am I to say? Pop in some noise-cancelling headphones, lobby for quiet spaces/times, and figure out how to make your open-office work. I would argue that nearly every issue people have with open offices can be fixed, or at least mitigated to a large degree by brainstorming what works for your company's unique needs. Unless your company is insanely profitable—in which case, I hope you get that custom floor plan so you can stare down your nose at the rest of us plebes sharing space and making sensible business decisions—you probably have no place building out a custom office floor plan. The money saved might just materialize as your next pay raise. Buy yourself a better pair of headphones; or take a writing class to hone your management-lobbying skills for that quiet space. I don't really care — just please stop parroting this trope du jour unless you you're offering a better, afforable alternative.