Working environment chaos

I work at a medium sized consultancy. It is fast paced, good range of ID and UX, and I love everything about it. Except the open office layout.

I really do like all of my co-workers but what was exciting and fresh a year ago is making me crazy. There is also a lot of constant noise as you might expect, and anything that requires a lot of focus (like building a complicated tech pack or some involved UI in Illustrator) is slowed down a LOT. The zero privacy also makes you feel like you are in a fish tank. Sadly enough, I do prefer the drab cubicle that I had at a previous job to this, although this job is better in every other way.

Sometimes I try to take my laptop into a meeting room, but I don’t want to work the majority of my time there, as that wouldn’t be seen as being a “team player.” Wearing headphones 90% of the day would be bad for the same reason too. Besides these meeting rooms, we only have solo offices for our founders, so I don’t think it would be as simple as finding an empty room to make my own. I do get to travel about 10-20% of the time for research and client presentations but that is not enough to fully rejuvenate.

I’ve looked up dozens of articles about how the open office was supposed to promote creativity and collaboration, but has failed at that and caused resentment … and I can attest (as I am sure many of you have also!). It seems like the ideal space would have open areas for people to work together, but individual areas that you can focus in. I read C77 quite a bit but thought I would join and ask if anyone else has had this problem, and how they approached it.

Thank you.

We have an open layout also and deal with the same frustrations as you. Hopefully we will be changing offices soon. Not really much I can offer you as a reprieve maybe say a few Woosahhh’s. :smiley: As far as our group dealing with it, we tend to move around the office in different parts. We have couches, conference room, bean bag chill area and of course a good old stroll outside. Other helpful tips: We have a stereo for entire area with everyone getting an hr or so on their favorite channel. We also went out and bought quite a number of plants to bring life and greenery inside. I suggested a cat for the office but that didn’t go over… :laughing:

I have worked in a few open floor plans. I currently work in one. They can be very difficult. One in particular was almost impossible to work in because of the mix of jobs they had and amount of people. I have always resorted to head phones for the times I need to focus a lot. I would talk with your co-workers and find out if it really would be a problem to use head phones. I have not found anyone having a problem with it. If it helps you do your job and does not bother anyone else most companies don’t have a problem with it. I would also bring something up to your manger to help find a solution that works for the company and you. I would be shocked if the rest of the office is not suffering in the same way to.

Get some nice noise canceling headphones. I’m sure the company will be fine with it. Everyone needs to focus in from time to time. I’ve worked in both cube farms and open offices and much much more prefer the open offices. When I had the opportunity to design our space I made it open, even the conference area is open. This way everyone can hear everything if they want to. No secrets. I think the key to making it work are:

  1. music for everyone (we have 5 speakers wirelessly networked and a tablet to DJ)
  2. people are able to wear headphones to focus in
  3. allow people to work in conference rooms or from home when needed, I do it as well when I really need to focus
  4. have some phone booths, we also have easy access to the outside which is quiet here so lots of people take calls or do one on one meetings outside

That said, it is not for everyone. some people can adapt to it, others can’t.

When I worked in that kind of environment, I frequently (most of the time) found myself migrating to an isolated conference room in order to focus. It’s also really hard to get anything done when you’re on edge because you feel like you’re being watched, whether true or not. Having meetings in the open would be super distracting too - I like to meet in private to both manage the flow of project information, and also to not distract coworkers that are busy working on their own projects. I find it hard to tune out conversation if I know the subject.

Thanks all for the responses!

I will try to get more conference room time. I couldn’t put it in words, but you exactly described how being on edge from being in the open feels.

It is good to hear someone else’s side of it too. Have you heard any complaints, especially from the more reserved types of people? These all sound like good ways to compromise with an open space. All the more reason for a combination of open / private spaces also.

Headphones seem popular! I notice when I wear them that people seem even more likely to start chatting about non-design related things … but that is probably my imagination. Good suggestion to bring it up to my manager.

I had to google Woosah but I like that idea :slight_smile:

Thanks again.

The reality is hat someone will always complain. When I worked at Nike in a cube type set up, people complained, when we moved from a high wall to a low wall cube in Converse, people complained, when I was at frog and we had an open studio, people complained. Heck, in all three cases I was in with the complainers! Now that I’m in a leadership position and I happen to be in charge of the space planning, we have three different set ups. In design and marketing we have open studio, in finance we have traditional cubes, in operations we have a mix… In all three cases people complain. I’ve gone back and talked to former bosses to get advice and try to do my best to solve these issues. At the end of the day it seems that there is a percentage of people who will always complain. So what I’ve had to do is pull back and decide what kind of work place do I want to have. How do I want it to function? At the end of the day an employee might be there for a period of years but the company will be constant, so deciding how we want to set it up as a living organism, as a lasting microcosm, is more important that ensuring every single individual is 100% satisfied. The most important thing is that the overall system is intact and suits he long term cultural goals.

I’ll use an anecdote to put it more bluntly, as a speaker company we have music playing always, usually loudly. When people interview in design and marketing it is typically in the open studio conference area with music going. We want to test to make sure they can handle the environment. We had someone new start and he kept turning down the music… Not cool. So I let him know the music had to stay on. He told me he preferred it quiet to which I had to tell him that working here might not be the best idea then. We were not going to change the culture and character of the entire studio to satisfy a single person, and I asked him to try to adapt if he would like to stay on. 2 years later he is totally fine. He wears noise cancelling headphones a lot, but so do I and a lot of the team. It is a bit of an unspoken rule that when someone has a big pair of vans on you try not to disturb them. I make a point to practice what I preach. I’m out in the open studio too (I hate offices) with a connected speaker literally right next to my desk (I like the music loud, it is like a screen for me)

Conclusion, no system is perfect, individuals will always complain because it is impossible to satisfy everyone and make a cohesive culture (and stay in budget). The most important thing is to have the right system for the long term culture of the company and really only the long term leadership can steward that. I recommend not complaining and instead seeking to find personal solutions. Communicate them. Tell your boss you have a hard time concentrating so you would like to wear noise cancelling headphones, that you are not being rude, just productive. As if you can work from home 2 days a month or something. Find and propose solutions that don’t disrupt the larger culture. Make a point of having time where you joke and mix with the team. It sounds like having a dynamic and social culture is important there. Be a part of that.

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I am disabled and use speech recognition. I have been verbally assaulted multiple times because my speech is heard for 3-4 seats around. I have lost jobs because “work style is too disruptive”. speech recognition systems are confused by background music. reasonable accommodation has been refused because acoustically isolated space “would send the wrong message” or “is not a good fit with company culture”.

Almost all forms of disability are either visually or acoustically disruptive in an open work space. I believe the problem is not open offices but a general discomfort with disability.

Most designs I see here at core 77 are hostile to one or more types of disabilities. I can’t tell if it is from ignorance, indifference or arrogance. hint, give your designs to the elderly and young children, if they can’t figure it out without explaining, toss the design and start over.

P.S. “I also find it a little unnerving to have someone watching over my shoulder as I work,”

while my hands a mess, my eyes are good enough I can read most screens at 10-15 feet and ears are good enough I can follow most conversations at about the same distance. I’ve learned way too much about co-workers that way.

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Some food for thought. Open plan offices are argued, scientifically, to make employees less friendly toward one another, less creative and less productive.

^ I’ll buy that. Nothing worse for your relationships with coworkers than having to choose between needlessly blasting out your eardrums to drown them out or listening to a loud conversation you are neither interested in nor a part of. Privacy is a good thing.