The Access Paradox

Open-plan offices seem to be very popular. Part of the rationale for open-plan offices is that they aid teamwork and communications.

It’s surprising, then, how many people who work in them, dislike them.

Recently I was reviewing the work of an audit into a department where all its members work in a single open-plan office. One of the main emergent concerns in the feedback is how little they know about what is going on in the rest of the organisation.

The Atlantic Software Guild conducted some research into the productivity of software writers, and they discovered huge variations between the productivity between different organisations. These variation came to light in their Code Wars experiment, as reported in de Marco and Lister’s book, Peopleware. They concluded that the most critical factors to productivity were not the experience of the programmers, nor the particular software tools they used, but rather their working environment. The worst-performing organisations were those with high-distraction, open-plan environments. And it reduced comparative productivity with other organisations by as much as a factor of 10.

Such is the potential for uncontrolled distractions to each worker in such a workplace that they develop task-oriented behaviours to keep themselves focused on their own work. They develop little rituals to protect themselves from distraction. They compensate for the high-interruption environment. This might be, for example, in putting on headphones. This, in turn, leads to less spoken communication, because the conversation that occurs in that office is likely to be indiscriminate; it could be for anybody when a visitor walks in.

Here’s the kicker: Code Wars was conducted in the 1980s!

We don’t seem to have learned much over the last few decades, do we?

What are your experiences? Leave your comments below.