Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Open Floorplans? Commit and do it right or don't do it at all!

I've only worked in closed floorplan offices for a little while and that was because the actual building was designed for housing. It was an old building and after some point it made more sense for the owner to lease it for business use than housing. So, we would be around 6-8 people per room with aligned desks, and no vertical desk panels and no carpet either. I can't say i would complain. The generated noise was kept low; we weren't so many after all, the level of visual distractions were also very low, the room only had a single entrance so no passthrough traffic occurred and the single, large, window had a curtain of sorts.

I only stayed there for 6 months or so, then the company moved to new offices which where totally open it was strange for everyone.  Immediately some rules where set: people should maintain their voice level low; dress code for everyone (at  minimum smart casual). Fortunately the whole floor was carpeted and desks had desk panels; albeit made from MDF wood. The windows stretched from end-to-end and we were positioned on the 4th floor. This meant that external visual distractions were kept at minimum and while people were moving about constantly the office was spacious enough that it didn't attract attention. It also helped that the desks were oriented vertically and positioned far from the main path ways. Still, having ~60 people in the same space generated enough noise so that a constant hum existed.

In my next workplace, again a small company of 10 I began with a small office and then we moved to a open floor office. They were right next to a constant-traffic highway, with sound insulation being mediocre at best. The windows were again across the wall but unfortunately they stretched from the floor all the way up to the ceiling so even though we werre on the 2nd floor; traffic was continually in our line of sight. A carpet was not installed and the desk panels were 30% a fabric, 20% sandblasted-like see-though plastic and the rest aluminum. For me it was horrible.The constant visual distractions by the traffic as well as any in the workplace itself with the constant noise from the traffic made it a perpetual nightmare. Although some people tried to keep their voices low others would just blast through the room with booming voices. Not having carpets, sound insulating desk panels or wall covers made sure that i could hear a coworker's keyboard from 5 meters away - and we didn't use any mechanichal ones.

The worst part of the open workplan though is that it strips away the feeling of privacy and seclusion, the latter being a very important element for most of us. Unfortunately it introduces a feeling of constant availability. You see the person across the room and it is very easy to assume that you can speak to him, to ask him a question or just attract his attention. There is no visual barrier and this extends to our behaviour as well. Keeping myself in the "zone" was an uphill battle.

After reading I thought that i should share my experience on the subject with perhaps with some Do's and Don't's. The main idea for me is that an open floorplan is feasable - and probably welcome - but only if commit yourself into doing it right!

Generally speaking the visual distractions must absolutely be kept at minimum. This means window blinds, keeping desks as far from pathways as possible, vertical desk panels, constant contiguous lighting. Pathways to any and all exits should have vertical screens; we don't have to be distracted everytime somebody comes in or goes out. This is particularly important as the workforce increases; toilet/coffee/cigarette/phone runs increase in parallel.

For window covers, although window blinds are easier to maintain and clean, i would strongly suggest to install fabric curtains. They filter light in a homogeneous fashion and they also work as vertical sound dampeners for both external noises as well as internal.

Carpets. Carpets everywhere! It makes a huge difference in dampening voices, clicks and other (mainly sharp) noises and you don't have to install something expensive either.

If you absolutely have to be near high-traffic areas invest into sound insulation. This is not optional, constant noise can -and eventually will- drive you crazy!

Wood is a brilliant, natural, soundprofing material that is also very pleasing to the eye. Don't install MDF desks, panels and other furniture if you have the option.

People shouldn't just walk around the office all the time. If managers need to talk to people they should also use the phone even if the other person is two desks away. This helps for both visual and audible distractions as we usually don't yell at the phone. If you make this a habit and combine it with sound-insulated desk panels the sound is almost guaranteed to not travel very far.

Don't force IM usage for anything over 2 sentences. IM's are a poor medium for discussions. For me they are actually frustrating since you usually don't convey your full thoughts on a subject, plus the imposed waiting game for replys is a drag.

Don't force headphones. I don't want to constantly have someting covering my ears and/or listen to music. I'm not a DJ and I don't work in an airport!

Do group divisions and/or teams. Sales and Marketing are probably talking all the time, they could also be in a different room, building or even country for all I care. They definitely don't belong in the same room full of developers.

If management is not also included in this setting, don't do it. Lead by example and have the CEO work in the same space with everybody else.

Finally, just because I am sitting right there and you can see me, it does not mean that I am available and/or you can intrude just because you have to say something. This is not an inherent problem of open floorplans but they enable it. Respect the other person and unless there is a fire on hesitate to distract him.