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If every wall in the office came down tomorrow, could your staff coexist?

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Question: "Our CEO wants input about a fairly radical idea for reorganizing our office space. Because she thinks everyone’s gotten too insulated, which leads to secrecy, territoriality, gossip, and a lack of understanding of what other people do in their jobs, she wants to abandon all the offices and have everyone in one giant room with very low cubicle walls. Does anyone work in a setup like this? What do you think the effects would really be?” — Dale, Contract Service Specialist

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

ADM August 20, 2013 at 10:34 am

I worked in this type of setting in a newsroom for about 8 years. I thought it was great for openness, communication, collaboration, but doesn’t solve personality problems; however, this open setting will force addressing those personality problems more quickly.

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Theresa August 15, 2013 at 9:11 pm

If you have any influence at all, go with multi-level walls. Have the walls between those who don’t have an aisle be high walls and the walls along the “aisles” be low. It allows people to have some privacy and noise block but also allows for the visual contact.

Personally, I don’t think your office has a cubicle problem. It has a culture that supports and rewards the gossips. It wouldn’t happen no matter what the physical cube/office stucture is if that behavior wasn’t some how rewarded.

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Joyce August 15, 2013 at 8:29 pm

I mostly agree with Lori. To go from one to the other will have some difficulties (about 3-months of complaining). We just had some that had to get use to going from high cubicle walls to low. It’s not easy if you are an introvert and part of your job is working with reports. I had a migraine for week until i learned to tune out the noise. It might make it easier if there is a glass room (I’ve worked in one), with library type cubbies that you can go into when you’re working on something that needs complete focus (no phones) that you can sign up for use (no hogging allowed). We’ve also had glass (fishbowl) conference rooms, so even though you can see in/out there is still some form of privacy for those who are meeting. The arrangement definitely has it’s advantages and disadvantages but I’ve found that it really works well when you have a good manager that encouranges and supports teamwork, and they are also part of the mix. People who are naturally loud will need to tone it down a notch or you’re going to have folks trying to talk over each other when they are on the phone.

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Lori H. August 15, 2013 at 7:05 pm

I worked in this type of environment at my last job for 17 years. I would say that this type of arrangement will be great for extroverts – those that get “recharged” from constant communication and socialization. For those that are introverts – those who work best in peace and quiet, it will be a nightmare (as it was for me).

I think the “open office” is great for the types of jobs that require constant communication and collaboration. It creates synergy. But, as an admin, this type of environment is absolutely the worst. I would be on the phone with customers, have to put them on hold, and ask the parties standing around talking loudly to please go to another place in the office to continue their conversation.

I also had to complete fairly complicated tasks as part of my job, such as financial calculations and advanced reports. I was located by the only entrance/exit, so all day long I was interrupted by people coming and going. To boot, I was in the middle of the office in a cubicle with only a wall behind me and a counter in front of me. As a result, I was considered “always available,” no matter what kind of deadline I was under.

I can see the benefit of an open workspace; however, I think it should be “tailored” so that some workers would have needed privacy in order to do their jobs.

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Yolanda August 15, 2013 at 5:47 pm

In my working career, I have worked in various workspaces/cubicles with either no partitions or different height walls. In my current position as Admin Specialist, the entire department has 3 1/2 foot partitions separating the cubicles. My biggest complaint, next to lack of privacy, is that everyone can hear everyone’s phone and in-person conversations. It can become so distracting when working on tasks that requires concentration. After five years, I have gotten used it the openness of my work area, but I would definitely prefer taller partitions to take away the distractions.

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Mark August 15, 2013 at 5:03 pm

I have never worked in that kind of layout, but I have read multiple articles about it. While the number one complaint is lack of privacy, the number one benefit is substantially improved communication. People talk to others that they previously seldom even saw none-the-less had conversations with. The lack of walls makes it easier for impromptu meetings. It also makes it feel that everyone really is one big giant unit, rather than a collection of multiple smaller fifedoms. People even report that they are far more productive, since, without office walls or high cubicles, there is nothing to stop others from seeing what they are doing, They spend less time on personal phone calls, texting, and personal internet usage.

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Suzanne August 15, 2013 at 4:44 pm

I’ve worked in various work-area set-ups and I prefer a cubical no matter how small vs. an open area due to as Michelle succinctly captured “louder atmosphere, more distractions”. Decades ago we used to call them Bull Pens. We found rather than people understanding and appreciating what other people did for work. People felt they were working harder than other people had to work, etc… And it definitely didn’t cut down on office gossip.

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Rita August 15, 2013 at 4:42 pm

Welcome to cubicle-land! I work for a state government office, and we’ve always had cubicles. The only difference, in the past few years, is the size of each cubicle is getting smaller and smaller. There are many downsides to this arrangement. The most important thing to remember is there is NO privacy. We see customers (clients) at our desks, and are sometimes dealing with confidential information and/or emotional issues. This can be very hard to manage, without spreading your customer’s life history throughout the very large area the cubicles are positioned in. Not only other counselors/job coaches can hear this information, other customers/job seekers can as well. Noise level is also a problem. And, as our cubicles surround the customers’ resource area (computers they can use for job search, resume creating, etc.), we are exposed to constant interruptions from customers wanting help on their computer, while you’re trying to write up case notes before we forget what was said and before our next appointment.
I think there are better ways to encourage a greater understanding of others’ jobs, without encouraging secrecy, territoriality, etc.

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Michelle August 15, 2013 at 4:22 pm

Our office is set up with actual rooms with about 4 people per room. Within that area we all have desks without cubicles or walls. It makes it easy to communicate and I really like it. I love that I don’t feel boxed in. It does, however, make for a louder atmosphere, more distractions, and less privacy. Good luck!

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V. August 15, 2013 at 4:21 pm

Many offices are going this route, mainly due to the cost of leased space. We’ve moved to the same model and we reduced the footprint of each cube. It’s often called straight desking. Each person has a small desk; low wall; no upper bookshelf and no large lateral file. Each desk has adjustable chair; a small wall divider (whiteboard material) and each person has a rolling pedistal file with a cushion on top as a guest seat (collaboration).

While it does work, be aware of who you seat in such an area. Do you have a call center? If so, ensure you have added noise reduction to your ceiling. In our area, we had the IT department remove the “speaker phone” ability. You can be on a conference call quietly, however if you think you will be chatting too loudly you take your conference call in a smaller designated space we call “just in time”. You can’t stay in the room all day as it’s a shared resource.

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V. August 15, 2013 at 4:23 pm

As Angela stated, we added wireless ability on this floor and have various seating options other than a standard workstation. Some people like sitting in the cafe area while others prefer sitting on a couch.

We also do what is called “hoteling”. Hoteling is a reserved desk for those that are not in the office more than 50%

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Angela August 15, 2013 at 4:21 pm

We moved to a ‘mobile’ work environment similar to this several years ago. Desks have low dividers between them, but you can stand on the floor and see every head on the whole wing. We also incorporated wireless everywhere, soft seating areas, and ‘phone booth’ work space so that people could work in various settings and not be glued to their desks. This did foster a greater sense of collaberation…but there was a change curve when it was first rolled out. We had to set expectations for how to work in the new environement (keep the noise level down to respect others), etc. It’s a much more open environment and I love it!

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