Open-office layouts are all the rage and have been for quite some time. I remember in 2006 when Microsoft was testing it out in Redmond. It looked cool and seemed like it would contribute to collaboration. What did I see happen? More headphones came out, more people started working in other areas, or working from home. I was a huge supporter of open-office layouts and loved to be able to turn around and just ask someone a question rather than emailing them, or IM’ing them and wait a response. There is a problem with that, which is rarely raised.
The person with the most authority, enjoys the layout the most
They can just walk up to anyone and ask a question, and out of that perceived authority, the subordinate responds with a smile and helps. It is a hierarchy and the management beats on their chest like a wild gorilla to express the pride of what they have created with THEIR team. The don’t consider that THEIR team, hates being interrupted, wants to finish the actual work they have to do, but out of fear of losing their job or offending their superior, they are nice and always respond to the team member or manager that interrupts them.
Open-Office layouts are the worst for building conversational UI
With all of the push for conversation UI, the open office creates a new problem to solve, audio levels. Try testing a conversational ui with news radio playing throughout the office, or you are sitting next to the loudest person in the office who just talks to himself with his headphones on. The worst experience is when the wake word you are using is the person sitting next you. “Hey Alexa, do you want to grab coffee. Alexa, are you coming to the meeting?” It sounds a little humorous in writing, but as a developer it is really annoying.
Privacy dies and trust soon follows
One of the reasons, often not mentioned but usually true, is to keep people from hiding who are not working. Management likes to know what you are doing and can easily wander around and see if you are doing your job or surfing Facebook or writing a blog post about how management needs to change. This attempt to “expose” the lazy, has a horrible side-effect, it creates a sense of distrust with the hard workers and destroys their morale. How do you build trust with employees? Easily, trust them. It is when the break that trust then you have a decision to make. If you start with trust, give them the privacy to say hi to their friends on Facebook, to let them write about something they like, or even let them work on a side project, that may eventually be your company’s new flagship product.
Here is my suggestion, provide an open layout area, that people can go hang out in and collaborate, but give them their own private space where they can work, they can make their own, and they have a sense of belonging. Trust them to do good work, don’t anticipate they are going to let you down. It goes back to that quote, “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you are right”. Trust first, and hire trustworthy employees. You will know soon who is working simply by watching what they deliver. Pay attention to their posture, their smiles, the amount of time they laugh in the office. That will create a highly productive team, not an overlord who wanders around an open area to see if you are doing your job, even if that is not happening, that perception is everything.
Give them their own private space… and let them collaborate when they want, don’t force it.
Also published on Medium.