Open spaces at work, open problems for me (and maybe others)

Today, I read a blog post titled I Hate Open Floorplans, It Makes Roger Come Out... from a fellow software engineer, and his story about working in an office that has an open floor plan. Seeing that I had a disappointing experience this week at work due to our offices also being an entirely open space, I really felt the need to write a little bit about this topic myself.

Since I've been a working professional, all my jobs have been with small startups, and as such, the offices I worked at were small spaces with no private rooms, so everyone was sitting nearby each other. With my current job, we recently moved to a much bigger space, but it was still an open floor plan and we're all sitting relatively close to each other.

I can see why a lot of office managers and directors prefer to have open spaces like this. It doesn't take much organization since they can place desks just about anywhere, you don't have to worry too much at the present moment when it comes to 'scaling up the business' since any new employees can be easily placed somewhere on the open floor later, employees are free to roam about if there's more space, and so on. Those are valid points, although they mostly provide value to the company, not necessarily to the employees. There are also other benefits for managers and directors, like the higher-ups being able to feel "in touch" with their subordinates, or that it fosters creativity between groups of employees, or that it allows for "continuous collaboration". Whether these "benefits" are true or not, it all depends on who you ask.

I typically don't mind sitting in an open space like this with smart people who are also fun. It has helped at time for me, and I've also been able to help others even if they aren't asking directly for assistance. But I am not a fan of open floor plans at all. When I'm in the office, I like to focus on work - that is what I'm paid for, after all. And there are plenty of days when due to these open floor plans, I simply can't get any good work done due to a myriad of distractions. On certain days I'll be lucky if my lack of focus allows me to produce something of good use. I've experienced unintentional distractions, like chatty coworkers talking about their personal lives in a very audible manner or simply talking all day long, apparently forgetting there are people nearby trying to work, as well as fully intentional distractions, like one particular instance I experienced a few days ago. That provided the perfect example of what I've had to deal with plenty of times before, not just in this job but previous ones as well.

One of my coworkers has the horrible habit of playing music from his laptop without wearing headphones quite often. Now, he's a really nice person and I truly like him as a person, but when he does this, it just makes me label him as one of the most unprofessional and disrespectful coworkers I've ever had to work with. Whenever he starts playing his music, I usually put on headphones and try to drown his noise out, mostly because I try to avoid unnecessary confrontation. But on this day, I didn't want to be forced to wear headphones, so I told him "I really wish I didn't have to wear headphones today..." His response? Slam on the keyboard to mute his speakers, rip off the power and monitor cables connected to his laptop, and get up to go to the other side of the office so he could blast his music from away from me.

No apologies, no words, nothing - just a very childish and disrespectful reaction from an employee who should be setting an example since he's been at the company longer than everyone else. It initially made me feel horrible, because no one complained, but I realized I wasn't being unreasonable here. I let him know about it, and let others know about it as well. The reasoning behind this is that this particular employee has been with the company quite a while, and when the company just had 4 or 5 employees, everyone not only tolerated stuff like loud music playing, but it was encouraged and viewed as a normal part of the day. However, the company has grown threefold since the beginning of last year. Newer employees either don't mind the music, don't care about it, or don't want to say anything for fear of getting a similar outburst like I had.

Besides the obvious cultural issues that were at play here (which will hopefully be worked on by everyone, especially including myself), things like this just counteracts any benefits that might come from having an open space. I talked about this situation with some other software engineers after it happened, all of them who work in offices with open floor plans, and for the most part they don't particularly enjoy open spaces at work either. They've had similar situations to the one I had, and one even pointed out that working in an open floor plan is almost like working alone, in the sense that everyone has their headphones on and not talking to each other anyway. He said it fostered an environment where people were afraid to talk to others if they had headphones for fear that they were bothering them - preventing the exact thing that open spaces at work were supposed to help with.

So what is a software engineer to do? I know that we can't all have private offices, especially in a smaller startup that can't afford private space for all or even a fraction of their workers. There's also the case for those who love the open floor plans at work. Since I'm sure open spaces will continue to be the standard in startups for these and many other reasons, I think there's a few things that can be done in workplaces with open floor plans to accomodate people who don't dig it too much:

  • Carve out some private spaces at the office for those who want or need them: Unless you work in a small room where the only room with a door is the bathroom, most likely there are some separate offices or rooms where people can go work for a few hours (or all day) uninterrupted. As long as this space is delineated as a safe, quiet place and people respect it as such, this works perfectly when trying to concentrate on those tasks that need the extra concentration. And hopefully the only other spare room in your office doesn't belong to the boss - they should be sitting out in the open with the rest of the crew too.
  • Work from home, a cafe, or somewhere that you won't be interrupted unnecessarily: In today's day and age, when software engineers have all their work online, it's a shame that there are still places where having asses in seats at the office is expected. Companies should trust their employees enough to let them work remotely from home and not require them to be there most of the time if they don't need to. Of course, people with families or roommates at home might be more distracted at home than at work, but going to a cafe, a library, or somewhere else works just as well. It's weird that although public places will always have constant chattering, I find it tolerable most of the time - Maybe it's because there's less unnecessary interruptions from others or something among those lines.
  • Talk to your coworkers about distractions, but always follow Wheaton's Law: Sometimes all it takes is talking with your coworkers to let them know that what they're doing and how it's interrupting you. I've found that most of the times your coworkers don't realize that what they're doing is bothering others, and if they're as nice as you think they are, and you're not being a dick about the situation, they will try their best to modify their behavior. Unfortunately, sometimes this can make you seem like overly sensitive or disgruntled, or can even lead to people making snide, snarky comments indirectly (as it happened to me this week, sadly enough). But those people just aren't following Wheaton's Law. If you feel you can't talk in a professional manner with them, just don't waste your time with those who think or act that way.

Hopefully in the future, office managers can not only work with other managers, but also with the employees who will spend the majority of their weekday waking hours there, to get a better sense on how to accomodate a group of workers with differing preferences. Many words have been written about how people are a company's most valuable asset. Sadly, our environments are often forgotten about, which will continue leading to this asset to be much less valuable. One day I hope that I will be allowed to be as productive as I can be without having to worry about exterior circumstances.

Written by

Dennis Martinez

Show Comments