April 15, 2014 by Natalie

Something There Is That Loves a Wall

Ah, open offices. They’re the preferred layout for startups and hip companies showing off their space to potential hires. They foster creativity. They create a culture of openness and collaboration.

And they make a lot of us miserable.

open office spaces

We’ve written quite a bit about culture lately, and in talks about culture, creating office spaces that people actually want to work in often arises.

When Commerce Kitchen first moved into an office after deciding we wanted an option other than telecommuting, the office was a small, open room where we sat together all day. Usually it was just Tynan and me, but sometimes the other staff came in to experience our newly created office culture.

Some of us wore headphones; sometimes we tried to agree on music we all liked to play on the speakers. And sometimes we’d chat about problems and ideas. Overall, it worked out ok.

Then we got bigger. We quickly outgrew the little space and moved to an office next door, which was one long, open room with a conference table and a media room in the back. Our paired programmers sat side by side; some of us set up standing desks against the walls.

This is when I started going crazy. The sound of the programmers talking through issues meant that I had an incredibly difficult time focusing on my tasks. I have what I call audial ADD. I don’t know if that’s a real thing or not, but when I am exposed to certain types of sounds–especially talking–my brain cannot focus. I can’t tune it out, and then I turn into a very grumpy owl.

Putting on headphones sometimes helped, but music actually decreases productivity in many cases, and I noticed this was true for me.

The bullpen is much emptier than it used to be.

The bullpen is much emptier than it used to be.

About a year after our second office, we moved into the Firehouse, which is a wonderful building with a very strange layout. Initially most of us worked in the bullpen.

It’s the biggest, most open room on the top floor of the building. We had at least seven people working out of this room, and several of our devs who do a lot of Google Hangouts chose instead to work in closed office spaces so they could hear better on calls and chats.

Over the past year and a half we’ve had an exodus from the bullpen. What initially seemed like the most desirable room in the building now receives mixed emotions. We’ve found that people really love having the option of closing a door to work for a while.

Collaboration is hugely important, but no one has a job that is 100% collaborative, and even if there were a job out there like that we would probably be miserable.

People like to solve problems independently and it’s sometimes incredibly empowering and rewarding to isolate yourself for a few hours or even a day to hammer out a project or task that you’ve been dealing with for a while.

Just like brainstorming, which isn’t actually very effective, working in constant collaboration can be draining, time consuming, and ultimately not productive.

Don’t get me wrong: productivity isn’t the only thing that matters in business. We don’t want people to be solely focused on productivity, pumping out code and creative ideas like automatons. We want people to be happy.

But most of us are happier when we feel productive. We want to contribute. We want to do it well. And we want to work in space that allows us to do so.

Our challenge now is to figure out how to create more spaces for independent and quiet work time without sacrificing the community feel and idea-bouncing that come from open spaces like the bullpen. As we grow we’ll need more sanctuaries for those of us who need quiet and privacy, but we’ll also need to give people who love working physically close to others that option as well.

While we don’t want to wall anyone in or wall anyone out for the sake of creating office competition and distrust, sometimes good fences make (for) good and happy workers.

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