In my first job out of college, as an intern, I had an office with four walls and a door. Lowest person on the totem pole, yet I still had a door I could close. I went to the office every day to do my work, because that’s where work happened. There was no laptop to take home, no email to catch up on in the evening, no access to everything from anywhere on a computer that fits in my pocket. Work, not just meetings, but productive, deep thinking work, got done at work. This was my experience for most of my early career.
And then I had a cubicle.
My early experiences with cubicles weren’t bad. I had an assigned cube with my name plate on the side and full height partitions on which I could pin mementos. While not an office, it was a space I could call my own with a modicum of privacy. I now had laptops and Blackberries that made me accessible and on-call, but work still got done at work.
And then I had a hot desk in an open plan office.
Open plan offices are exactly what they sound like. They are big open spaces full of long tables with phones, power, and network jacks and few, if any, offices. It’s like turning up at a dinner party with fifty or so of your closest friends, taking any open seat at the table, and then trying to enjoy a nice quiet meal while the group seated next to you has a loud and heated debate over the plausibility of lightsabers. Open plan is great for impromptu meetings and networking with colleagues. But today, if I have deep thinking work to do, projects or plans that need my attention and focus, the office is one of the last places I’d want to go. For introverts like myself, these environments, which cater to extroverts, are a special kind of hell. I’m not alone in thinking that open plan has destroyed the workplace. All of the sudden, work doesn’t get done at work anymore.
Why Work Doesn’t Get Done At Work.
Thankfully, over my 20-year career, I’ve also witnessed a revolution in the way people work. The ubiquity of the Internet and mobile access to everything from everywhere means that I know almost no one who works every day, 9-5, in an office anymore. Working from home, working on the train, working from Starbucks, these are the norm. And, especially as a working parent, I value the flexibility this new way of working provides. In isolation, the shift toward open plan is a death sentence to workplace productivity and a license to get the biggest noise cancelling headphones one can afford. It’s only when employers embrace the mobile, flexible working revolution in parallel (as has been my experience) that the system makes sense. I leverage the open plan office for its strengths, meetings and networking. Uninterrupted time working on projects happens elsewhere.
So despite all its flaws, would I trade my open plan office and flexible working for an office with a door and the expectation I’m behind it every day? Nope.
I’ll stick with open plan and a flexible schedule that allows me to make sure all the puzzle pieces of my life fit together. I’ll gladly keep turning up at the dinner table and join in the conversation, offering my own opinions about the existence of lightsabers.