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The Pros and Cons of an Open Office Environment

By Molly Riddle

Dec 08 2015 at 3:47 a.m.

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At Mostly Serious, our bright and open office earns us a lot of compliments from visitors and serves as tangible proof of who we are as a team. In our downtown Springfield office at the corner of Walnut and Jefferson, our seven full-time employees share a large communal desk space in one big room. The space itself is generally great; for one, it’s so loaded with natural sunlight that we rarely turn on the overheads, and after being crammed into the back room of our last office, we finally have the room to walk or scooter around without someone else having to suck in his or her gut. Finally, with no cubicles or doors to hide behind, it’s easy for us to chat with each other throughout the day or talk shop about a project on the fly. In-person communication is as available as it could possibly be, and our closeness constantly bonds us together.

 

I will say that there are a few small drawbacks. One is that our concrete-floored space is a bit of an echo chamber. A lot of conversations held between people who are just a few feet away from each other are derailed by a constant stream of “What?” and “Huh?” and “Sorry, can you repeat that?” Needless to say, it might be worth it for us to invest in sound absorption solutions down the road. We also debate at least once a week whether the thermostat should be turned up or down to satisfy the majority rule of the office. However, those are our biggest issues, so I can say with confidence that we’re extremely content in our shared space.

 

As far as our ability to sit right next to each other day in and day out, our work culture offers up a few natural advantages. First and foremost (at the risk of sounding a little cheesy), our team is close on a personal level. The fact that we get along well helps us stand being an arm’s length away. We also devote a lot of professional time to developing a keen awareness of one another’s personalities and behaviors, which helps us understand cues and be empathetic to what each staff member might need during any given work day, whether that’s a listening ear about something unrelated to work, assistance with a task or respectful silence.

 

So while it’s true that working in an open environment is mostly harmonious for our team, it does take discipline and a little bit of self-awareness to help the team stay productive. Of course, sometimes we slip up. We occasionally talk to each other without realizing someone next to us is on a conference call. Every now and then we’ll play a too-loud YouTube video when someone else is trying not to be distracted. Sometimes we can’t resist overhearing a casual conversation and joining in even though we’re seriously toeing the line to hit a deadline. They may seem like small things, but distractions can really affect our work day when they pile up. Some statistics say it takes 15 or more minutes to re-focus on a task after getting distracted and that more than 60% of tasks are likely to be interrupted during an average workday in an open office environment. Those numbers make it seem like the odds are against our work culture, but we do have a few office rules that help separate us from that unfortunate status quo.

 

The most important rule that caters to worker focus in our office is this: if a person has headphones on, that’s a signal not to interrupt that person at all costs. It works pretty well for us, and we generally only break the rule if we need a lunch order from that person (because nothing stands in the way of us and a good midday meal, not even a strict deadline). Our department heads work to protect our creators’ time by taking phone messages for someone with headphones on or setting up meetings all on one or two days of the week so other days during the week can be entirely devoted to building projects. These practices go back to our belief in powerful bursts of productivity as opposed to the classic eight-hour workday. If we can achieve our best work in four hours of quiet focus as opposed to a few days of near-constant interruptions, we can then devote the rest of our time to growing our other passions, which might include another client project or a personal creative project.

 

As for other offices with an open environment like ours, similar methods of forced focus apply. I’ve heard of companies whose staff members use a system of objects to represent their statuses, like a green cube on top of a monitor for “I’m good to have a conversation!” or a red cube for “Please come back later.” Other people implement their own social rules, like a mandatory walk around the office at the end of every two hours but no socializing between. For companies with the space and resources, a variety of open environments is also a great solution. Mostly Serious uses a stand-up area in one corner of the office that overlooks Walnut Street below, but it would be pretty cool if we could retreat to a room full of yurts or hammocks. Maybe someday.

 

I’m of the opinion that having an open office environment is generally a good move for your company’s work culture if your employees get along well and collaborate often, but it does require self-discipline and self-awareness to allow for true productivity on both an individual and a team level. For Mostly Serious, our open-office setting is unifying and motivates us creatively, but catering to creativity and camaraderie in general is crucial to our success as a company. Your company might require a different setting due to your industry or your team’s dynamic, but if you like the idea of executing a successful open office environment, all you have to do is work together to stick to a few simple parameters—and maybe pick up a pair of good noise-cancelling headphones while you’re at it.

 

Molly Riddle is a content manager at Mostly Serious. In addition to writing marketing material and website copy for clients, she manages Mostly Serious’s social media accounts, blog and monthly publication Fresh Pressed.

 

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