Since I graduated from college in 2007, actually even before that during my internships, I had only ever worked in an open office with varying styles of cubes. But in moving to Amazon NYC, I switched to an office with actual rooms. My team isn’t jammed into a row of trading style benches. It’s spread out across three team rooms with actual walls, windows, and doors. And having this has completely changed how I work. It’s time to give up the open offices for good.
My first job was in a big open office. At least we had half cubes that offered some level of privacy when sitting, though not much. Standing though, one could still see across the entirety of the office. From there, I moved through even more open offices. Next, I worked in a massive open office with trader-style desks that were more like benches lined up than any type of personal space. From there, it was back to a huge open space that at least had some semblance of space, but everyone was so crammed together there wasn’t much collaboration. Finally, my new office actually has closed off dedicated rooms that have changed everything for me and how I get work done.
In my new office, I’m just next door to the rest of my team’s rooms and can easily head over to talk in person when needed. When I’ve got calls, or just need to get some work done, I can close the door briefly, and thanks to plenty of windows and glass, my team can know to come back in a bit. With their own rooms, team members enjoy the same privacy and ability to talk to each other when needed, minimizing distractions. While it’s still a bit cramped thanks to team growth, it will soon be resolved and will without a doubt be the best space I’ve ever worked in. I can’t go back to an open office.
Open offices and cubicles were ironically designed to encourage communication and prevent individuals and teams like senior managers from being cut off and remote from the teams. Open offices were supposed to reduce barriers to leadership and within teams, allowing a more free flow of ideas and communication. Without walls, people were supposed to feel freer to go and discuss ideas with colleagues more regularly. However, the oppose actually occurred, especially as the original ideals were discarded and people were crammed closer and closer together in offices.
When people are put too closely together and all privacy is discarded, it’s actually far less likely that people will talk. When jammed along a single trading desk without any realistic concept of personal space, people don’t talk or share information because they fear interrupting others. The more people together, the less likely communication becomes as the number of potential people to disrupt increases. Rather than pairing up and having spontaneous design discussions, people throw on their noise canceling headphones or head to common areas like cafes or unused conference rooms just to get a little space. These are common symptoms of over-used office space.
Even with space, the open office plan just doesn’t work. People become worried about bosses walking behind them – actually an intentional part of the design that harkens back to the industrial age – and are less willing to experiment and show creativity. The supposed benefit of having more communication and transparency just doesn’t work because everyone is afraid they’ll be overheard or seen by the entire office. The open office concept was originally designed as part of Taylorism, a management style embraced in the early 1900s to squeeze out every second of productivity and efficiency in factory work, which was then brought into offices in the 40s and 50s seeking further productivity gains. Long rows of white collar workers could specialize on tasks, gaining efficiency gains through repeated tasks and reduction of skilled tasks. It worked well in these settings, but completely fails in today’s world where even white collar office work requires some creativity and a tremendous amount of communication.
Conversely, closed offices were shunned around this time. The “corner office” became synonymous with disconnected bosses who couldn’t be bothered to share space or give time to their employees. However, after moving into one of these closed offices, I can say it’s massively changed how I work for the better. A closed office doesn’t just give the option of privacy, it allows a mixture of both private time and shared communal team time, on an individual’s schedule. In the morning when I tend to be most productive on my own, I can keep the door closed and focus deep on crossing off my todo list. If someone needs something or there’s an issue, they know to knock. In the afternoon when I’m more suited to communal work, the team can huddle together and whiteboard solutions and talk through design concerns, all while not bothering anyone else, so there’s a high level of transparency and participation.
Closed offices even get the quieter team members to participate in discussions. Rather than being afraid of the boss or someone walking around behind them, they have their own private space to search for help when needed without judgment. They can also ask others near them for help without feeling like the entire company is judging them for whatever question they need to ask. Even more senior members are more likely to ask for help or admit they don’t know something because of the setup. These are massively valuable changes in team organization and structure, especially for a software development team where idea sharing, creative solutions, and diversity of knowledge are so important.
Closed offices also mean conference rooms and communal spaces aren’t taken for less useful purposes. With an office I can close the door on, it’s possible to take calls in the room most of the time without disturbing anyone so I don’t need a room. I can also do one on ones there when desired, though it is often nice to get out to an area that encourages open honesty – which a shared area like a café certainly doesn’t. It also helps team members as they can conduct design and code reviews together without feeling like they’re disturbing others and don’t need to feel the need to move to a café just to have their own space thanks to much better use of space.
It’s honestly hard to believe what a difference having an actual office makes after over a decade spent in open offices. While many companies are starting to realize the benefits and move away from open offices, the vast majority still cling to cubicles and shared desks rather than giving their employees any actual privacy or private space. Now that I’ve experienced a real closed office space, I don’t think I can ever go back. The benefits of being able to decide if I want to have personal time or shared communal time are massive, and have a huge effect on my productivity. Now that I know how much more I can get done by actually having my own space, I’m never going back to the open office.