back to article Open plan offices flop – you talk less, IM more, if forced to flee a cubicle

Open plan offices don’t deliver their promised benefits of more face-to-face collaboration and instead make us misanthropic recluses and more likely to use electronic communications tools. So says a new article in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, by Harvard academics Ethan S. Bernstein, Stephen Turban. …

Anonymous Coward

My wife works at pwc. Not only do they have open plan and hot desking but they've also got rid of desk phones. So now you get people wandering around shouting into their phones because they can't get a signal.

I work from home. I enjoy being able to pick my nose in peace.

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Anonymous Coward

"I work from home."

Several houses in our small street are multi-occupancy rentals - each with a large-ish number of unrelated people in them. If my windows are open - or I am working at the garden table - there is the noise of some of those neighbours pacing up and down the street using their mobile phones. Usually accompanied by a miasma of cigarette smoke - whose discarded butts then litter the pavement and gardens.

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Anonymous Coward

So now you get people wandering around shouting into their phones because they can't get a signal.

Here, you get people wandering around shouting into their phones because they're just selfish, inconsiderate c***s.

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Anonymous Coward

Many years ago each small group of people with a similar function had an office. The desks backed onto the walls/windows - so you could communicate face-to-face easily. One wall had a whiteboard. If someone wandered in with a query - then they could either talk quietly with one person*** - or engage the whole group.

The move to cubicles made it more difficult - creating physical barriers which did nothing to deaden sound. Open plan produced almost impossible working conditions for us - especially when "hot desking" was also used..

***One user would often come into our support office to talk to me about his programs' problems. He would settle himself comfortably on the front edge of the desk of the colleague opposite me - which really annoyed her. One day he looked down ready to sit - and saw a row of drawing pins now taped to the top of the desk edge - pointed side up.

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Did he get the point?

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Open Plan is not about communication

Its about STOPPING your staff from non-work based communication.

If everyone can see you and hear you, people tend NOT to talk to people unless its about work matters.

Many people wont get up to talk to someone fearing their managers eyes on them and they need to prove their value to the company.

Sadly, IM, email etc is not the best way to talk to someone about anything work related, even pure technical conversations are best handled face to face.

But hey, at least you can more easily micromanage the lives of your wage slaves, and when they start to hate coming into work with a passion, they can always leave, after all there are millions of people who can take their places.

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Re: Open Plan is not about communication

If everyone can see you and hear you, people tend NOT to talk to people unless its about work matters.

Two-thirds of the chatter I've overheard this morning from the 30 or so people at my end of the open plan hellhole I work in has been about the footie or what they did over the weekend.

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Re: Open Plan is not about communication

The guy who sits opposite me seems to manage to spend all day having a conversation with himself. Everyone else has headphones in.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Open Plan is not about communication

Two-thirds of the chatter I've overheard this morning from the 30 or so people at my end of the open plan hellhole I work in has been about the footie or what they did over the weekend.

We have a system. If it's related to work it gets discussed in a whisper (establishing people are capable of it). If it involves wedding plans, love island, diets, how that was "literally the best night ever, I'm not even lying", or anything illustrating just how brilliant the speaker is, it is conducted at a volume level that penetrates ear defenders.

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Re: Open Plan is not about communication

Or to put it more accurately, it's about the dehumanisation of the individuals in the workforce by removing any indications of individuality they might previously have displayed.

We're in the middle of moving to hot desking, after some years of cubicles. (Sadly I've been here long enough to remember when we went from sort of open-plan to sort-of cubicles but still quite open plan, to a new building with better cubicles, and now to completely lacking in personal space. The stated objective is productivity gains by reducing our overhead (ie office rent), making the working arrangements more "flexible" (ie making it imperative that sufficient numbers work from home that our new, reduced space can accommodate everyone else - all the while stressing that no-one is being forced to work from home), and generally removing "distractions" (ie any personal effects you might have, including awards and certificates recognising your contribution to the organisation - not to mention pictures of loved ones, reference materials, tea cups, etc).

And people wonder why I'm not happy to work here.

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Anonymous Coward

Smaller and smaller space

Used to have own desk, own PC, network points, multiple monitors of different ratios and sizes and sat near my colleagues but not too near. We had desk shelves for manuals and lockable draws. The shelves acted as partitions.

Now we move to a section of desk, OK multiple monitors but they are all the same. The phone needs to be logged into, shelves are somewhere else so manuals aren't to hand and you can't leave them on the desk - it's not yours, someone else could sit there next day. Much closer together and since it's more a hot desk environment you may not always be close to your team.

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unqualified, stupid or one of those zen starting points?

The second is that we just don’t know all that much about how humans interact

Is that the collective 'we' of humanity or the ditto scientists who carried out this waste of time.

Open plan desks sounded like a great idea when my first job decided to go open from the higgldy-piggle cubicles in the mid-nineties - halfway into the first day we all knew it was a horrible mistake.

Same with those motivational posters - sounded like a great idea during the planning stage, when all you had to look at was yellowy walls - as soon as they are up it's like being confronted with the worst sort of happy patrol dystopia.

Back to the trees and or oceans lads, we're going to give this evolution thing another bash in a couple of hundred centuries.

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Re: unqualified, stupid or one of those zen starting points?

Collective We.

Haven't you noticed that the whole area of workplace design is riddled with the kind of experts Michael Gove claimed people are fed up with - 'experts' who are spouting off personal opinions and biases as if they were universal truths...

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Re: unqualified, stupid or one of those zen starting points?

Mr Bean Michael Gove (damn, strikethroughs should be the other way round) - 'people are fed up with experts' - is that his expert opinion on the matter then? The thought that some think he should be next prime minister is truly scary.

I think it's idiots who think they have expert opinion but don't claim to be experts are the ones people are fed up with - the most recent government dictates on alcohol consumption for example smell more like the waffle of 1920's american temperance league.

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Re: unqualified, stupid or one of those zen starting points?

"Is that the collective 'we' of humanity or the ditto scientists who carried out this waste of time."

Complain to HR, manglement or whoever about what almost every office dweller knows and you'll be told you're wrong. They'll tell you that "studies show" you're wrong.

The "studies" are almost certainly going to be unreferreed reports by consultants who'll charge to come out and re-plan your workspace into an open office or office furniture manufacturers who'll sell you the hardware to do that. Having something with the intellectual weight of Proc. Roy. Soc. B behind it should strengthen your arm - unless, of course you're dealing with PHBs who don't know the reputation that journal bears.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: unqualified, stupid or one of those zen starting points?

"Same with those motivational posters [...]"

I used to have a large collection of small posters which were cycled over my desk as appropriate.

A top management team came round one day - and stood there looking at

"Lack of Planning on Your Part Does Not Constitute an Emergency on My Part".

More usually it was

"'The Impossible We Do Immediately, Miracles Take A Bit Longer"

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Re: unqualified, stupid or one of those zen starting points?

"Same with those motivational posters - sounded like a great idea during the planning stage, when all you had to look at was yellowy walls - as soon as they are up it's like being confronted with the worst sort of happy patrol dystopia."

Ah, yes... the motivational posters. My favorite: "It's dumb to be too smart." I have no idea what behavior management was trying to instill in the employees when they hung up that one. For several of us, though, it was a reminder as to where the door was.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: unqualified, stupid or one of those zen starting points?

"For several of us, though, it was a reminder as to where the door was."

Possibly the Peter Principle - said that the only people fired were the very incompetent - and the very competent.

On assignment to an overseas subsidiary - I quickly cleaned up their festering system problems which the local staff were unable to solve. This was not well received in their office as it made the local staff look incompetent - which basically they were by UK standards. The local education system placed great emphasis on knowing the approved answer to fixed questions - and exam results were spectacularly good. It was not good mind training for handling IT system problems.

My ex-pat predecessor had worked the same magic - but had made it look very difficult. So a problem took him a week - one day fixing - the other four days he spent on the beach.

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FAIL

Re: unqualified, stupid or one of those zen starting points?

Best "motivational" posters I've seen are here:

https://despair.com/collections/all

They have a poster for every organization, including YOURS!

// failure *is* an option!

// in fact, it may be the only option

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On connecting stuff...

Not my error, but I've seen it more than once. Shared public sector offices between different organisations. both using RFC 1918 addressing, both using OSPF area 0 (reasonable enough with smallish networks) sharing a common wiring system, but with separate hubs/switches for each organisation.

The two networks get patched together. Routing tables suddenly double in size, routing becomes extremely random, default routes go all over the place, chaos ensues.

The first time I saw it was deliberately caused by a devolved departmental "IT manager" who thought it was a good idea to have shared access to files between organisations and didn't see fit to inform anyone. As one of the networks he linked up was NHS this was spectacularly poor thinking.

The other time it was just a careless outsourced engineer who didn't know there were two organisations on the site and said to himself "funny, those two switches aren't connected to the router, I'll just patch them in".

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Anonymous Coward

Open plan offices are the singular worst thing about modern life. Some of us have mild yet gradually debilitating sensory processing disorders that mean general noise and in particular people's personal and bodily habits are impossible to filter out. Somehow I've kept mostly sane despite 20 years of working in open plan offices (at the detriment of a social life because I just cannot tolerate much further human interaction outside of work), but for me the limit will soon be reached. I can't even comprehend how anyone can concentrate on anything now in a room full of people shouting over each other and perpetually eating food and hammering keyboards and relentlessly clicking very clicky mice and waving fucking fidget toys in front of their noses. How do you function? How do you people do that? How did I ever do it? It seems cruel bordering downright evil. Truth be told I largely fake my nicely paid job now whilst spending most of the working day actively trying not to go crazy. I don't know how I'm keeping this up. Maybe I'm not. I don't know any more.

My current place is undergoing an 'expansion' which means cramming even more people into the same space. I'd say I'd just quit again and go somewhere else but there came a point where I just can't face the same big-office crap all over again. I don't function in it any more, but nobody seems to accept that is a thing. Rock and a hard place. Alas I haven't had that epiphany yet as to how else I can earn a decent living. Some people have one when they've had enough of IT, I'm still waiting for mine :/

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Anonymous Coward

"I can't even comprehend how anyone can concentrate on anything now in a room full of people shouting over each other [...]"

Our open plan area included a customer network test cell - switched on 24/7. The fans on the several arrays of 1U Cisco boxes used to scream. It makes thinking about a problem very difficult.

Bought a noise level meter - but couldn't persuade the site services to do a formal audit. So I retired.

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Anonymous Coward

Open offices, open wounds

We had one CEO who decided that open offices was the salvation of the company. He yanked everyone -- including VPs -- out of their offices and put them into rows of cubicles with partitions 20cm high, so useless. Legal people spent the entire day monopolising meeting rooms for their confidential phone calls. Everyone else wore big earphones. (The company still went downhill and he was gone before this shite could be inflicted everywhere.)

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Open offices, open wounds

"The company still went downhill and he was gone before this shite could be inflicted everywhere."

Probably with a golden parachute - to another company who he had convinced that his ideas on office organisation were the way to go. Just like his previous company too.

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It's a conspiracy

by the manufacturers of noise-cancelling headphones!

Without kidding, though, I work in an open-plan office and about 50% of the employees here have good-quality headphones with active noise-cancelling, myself included.

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One thing the story doesn't mention

is what the peasants workers thought about it. Cranking up the theoretical efficiency a couple of points is bloody stupid if staff morale plummets.

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Re: One thing the story doesn't mention

Theoretical efficiency up but actual efficiency will be down. the best office layout is one where the team (any size) can work without obstruction or distracting other teams. 200 seat high density open plan works well for call centres but a disaster for multiple small dev teams.

Unfortunately this leads to perceived favouritism when different job functions end up with very different facilities and obviously requires an adequate thinking ability from management to avoid anyone taking the proverbial.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: One thing the story doesn't mention

There was an efficiency study into the effect of office lighting. So an experiment commenced with observers taking notes. As the lighting level was reduced - at each stage efficiency improved.

Then they turned it back to the original level - and efficiency improved again.

The lighting level was irrelevant - the workers were responding to the observers apparently taking a benign interest in them and their work.

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Anonymous Coward

I'm at odds

Anon cause part of this comment involves where I currently work.

I'm a very quiet person so like to keep to myself. If people talk to me first I'll talk to them but I never go out of my way to talk to people, too self conscious. I've learnt over the years however, isolating yourself doesn't help. So having separate offices is sometimes nice because people like me can keep to themselves but also shit if you're stuck in there with the odd few arseholes and the realisation you're isolating yourself more which is never good for confidence.

At least if you're in an open office, everyone has to deal with those arseholes so maybe they won't be such arseholes. I've also realised although I'm not a fan of talking to people, I like to people watch.

So I'm at odds. I like keeping to myself so being in an office on my own is nice at times but it also gets boring and you do feel like you're isolating yourself. Forcing me out into an open office has probably been better for me. An old place I used to work, although we originally thought an open office was a bad idea, it does look so much better now. It's still not great, it was VERY noisy but before that, they were stuck in what appeared to be 60s-70 style cubicles. Not like in the film Office Space. But like old style cabinets of the metal or wooden kind. These would be their dividers but also their storage. It made the hole building look like it was stuck in the 60s, with the mentality with it the way the men behaved. Making that building an open office changed that somewhat for the better. But still not perfect.

Open offices aren't perfect by any means. They annoy me as all the hipsters have brought the idea in, thinking they are all cool and hip. Ignoring the fact they existed years ago and never really worked then. So much for looking back on history and trying to learn from it. They really do appear to not see this existed before. They are crap if you have annoying people in your area but then, although also annoying, this can be were hot desking works as it means you don't have to sit next to the same knob each day.

In the current place I'm at we are all forced to hot desk, even the Chief Exec. What I don't understand is this. We had to sign a GDPR form recently saying we'd done the training and understood our responsibilities but this is on the form:

Individuals who have access to personal data are required to:

• Ensure that information is not discussed openly within the organisation for others to overhear, or in any general conversations.

That isn't possible when you're in an open office. I hear ALL conversations all day about "personal data" that according to GDPR I shouldn't be hearing. It's not the others fault, they have no where to go to have those conversations. And most need to use their laptops while having that conversations. So each and every day, someone near me is technically breaching GDPR. How's that going to work out in the long run then?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: I'm at odds

"I hear ALL conversations all day about "personal data" that according to GDPR I shouldn't be hearing. It's not the others fault, they have no where to go to have those conversations. And most need to use their laptops while having that conversations. So each and every day, someone near me is technically breaching GDPR. How's that going to work out in the long run then?"

At some point someone will do the right thing, and report them. There will be an investigation, fines, and positive change.

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Hell is other people

I work in an open plan office, and the noise from other people drives me round the bend.

I've got a reasonably good decibel-o-meter app on my phone, so I tried measuring the sound levels when there are a few conversations going on around me. I also tried sampling the sound level when we had a fire alarm test.

The fire alarm was only 3dB louder than typical background noise. It's no wonder I'm grumpy, have a headache and that my productivity stinks.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Hell is other people

> The fire alarm was only 3dB louder than typical background noise. It's no wonder I'm grumpy, have a headache and that my productivity stinks.

Out of curiosity, I just measured the noise levels in my office with a phone app.

At the moment, with one person talking on the phone, the volume level is around 30db, which the app reckons is a "quiet whisper". Earlier, when three people were talking together, it shot up to 80db, which it reported as "traffic/vacuum cleaner".

However, one person's voice is louder and at a higher pitch than the rest, making it much more effective at drilling through the music in my headphones, which is intended to wall out at least some of the distractions while still making it possible to hear calls for attention (and as an added bonus, not leave me with tinnitus when used for up to 8 hours a day, 5 days a week).

I don't begrudge at all the fact that they're talking - vocal communication is a fundamental part of their jobs, and it's a happy, relaxed work environment. However, I long since got into the habit of starting late and finishing late; once the headcount drops at the end of the working day, it becomes a lot easier for me to concentrate and both the quantity and quality of my work markedly improve.

Admittedly, I could potentially move to another office, but people often come into this room because there's too much commotion elsewhere...

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Hell is other people

"The fire alarm was only 3dB louder than typical background noise"

Are there no mandatory workplace safety limits on noise in your country?

It sure sounds like the environment meets the normal standards for mandatory hearing protection for all workers... and no taking them off to use a phone or talk to people.

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DeMarco & Lister coding wars

DeMarco & Lister ran "coding war" challenges for a few years and got very consistent results. Turns out the key predictor of programmer productivity in the study wasn't what language they user, or IDE or framework,it was the environment and specifically if they were able to focus on their work, especially a quiet office. Decent write up at https://bradpierce.wordpress.com/2015/12/23/the-best-performing-coders-have-larger-quieter-more-private-workspaces/

Their book "Peopleware" should be required reading. Tagline: most technical projects fail for sociological rather than technical reasons.

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Re: DeMarco & Lister coding wars

I've been suggesting Peopleware for years. It may not phase some open-office proponents, though. I have an old friend who travels the U.S. talking about office design and while he's read that book (or, at least, claims to have read it), he still pushes for open offices.

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Re: DeMarco & Lister coding wars

Peopleware was required reading on my software engineering degree!

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Flawed experiment design?

"a 'sciometric badge' that was worn around the neck"

If I sit at my computer monitor and talk to people around me, the "sociometric badge' will only see me apparently talking into my computer screen. And likewise the people I'm taking with. With cubicles, you have to leave your computer and find someone to talk to... unless "cubicle invasion" is a thing where you are. See Dilbert cartoon (of course): Friday January 12, 1996.

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What execs and HR can't seem to understand...

Shocking observation: there are essentially two types of people: extroverted/gregarious and introverted.

Executives and HR tend to attract the gregarious people. They are convinced that there's something wrong with introverted people and one of their missions in life is to fix those poor souls. Office parties, picnics, barbeques, and, of course, open floor plans.

Notwithstanding their stated commitment to "the inclusive workplace", they cannot fathom that many people (especially in IT) don't enjoy open workspaces and are distracted by the additional audible and visual queues - which in many cases hurts productivity and quality.

Millions are spent converting offices from cubicle farms to open floorplans, and any negative feedback is seen as an attack on the wisdom of spending all that money on their commitment to better the world.

Which, of course, it is.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: What execs and HR can't seem to understand...

"[...] they cannot fathom that many people (especially in IT) don't enjoy open workspaces and are distracted by the additional audible and visual queues [...]"

It is the gregarious types who are distracted. They can't resist getting themselves to where "the action" is.

There are also introverts who have extrovert behaviour traits - and presumably vice versa.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: What execs and HR can't seem to understand...

It is the gregarious types who are distracted. They can't resist getting themselves to where "the action" is.

There are also introverts who have extrovert behaviour traits - and presumably vice versa.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

And there are a number of neuropsychological conditions that affect tolerance for and effect of distraction, completely independent of the behaviour of those with neurotypical brains.

In some places, workplace disability / human rights regulations may mandate accommodation for those people adversely affected.

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Re: What execs and HR can't seem to understand...

I'm a distinctly non-gregarious, Introvert with no extrovert (or extravert) behaviour traits, and I find it difficult to work in a noisy environment. It has been suggested I might be "on the spectrum", but actual medical and mental health professionals tend to disagree.

I just can't work if it's too noisy. I can't block noise out, as I have hearing problems (probably a form of industrial deafness) that makes filtering noise difficult, resulting in whatever I am trying to listen to and whatever is going on around me both being unintelligible. It doesn't help that I really don't like dealing with people, and some of the people around me are particularly annoying, so when I can hear what they're saying I start to get angry. And now with hot-desking, I can't even be sure one of these idiots won't be sitting next to me at some point, being particularly annoying. I don't have the option of working from home, nor am I particularly interested in it as a long term solution.

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Re: What execs and HR can't seem to understand...

Seems I'm not neurotypical for an IT person. A lot of the complaints about offices I'm reading here just don't affect me and I like working co-operatively in teams. Yet I am generally an introvert and will shun socialising with the same people. I also vehemently protest about constant unnecessary meetings.

For me, using a cubicle to isolate people from each other is inhuman and treating them like machines. I will never find them acceptable and I really struggle to understand why people might like working in them. If I ever see it anywhere I would consider blowing the whistle to the authorities about abuse of staff.

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Pint

Re: What execs and HR can't seem to understand...

"In some places, workplace disability / human rights regulations may mandate accommodation for those people adversely affected."

In the USA, anyone with a challenge like AS/ASD, ADHD, SPD, et cetera would be able to apply for a "reasonable accommodation" under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) if the open office environment presents a hindrance to perform one's job adequately.

Noise-cancelling headphones would be almost certain to be seen as a reasonable accommodation (perhaps not by the employer, but they don't get to define "reasonable"), but cubicles, enclosed offices, and working remotely are also options that (especially larger) companies may be required to offer.

Many companies even have insurance to cover equipment like NC-headphones.

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Cubicle Life

I was at a job interview early 1990s and all was going well until Itsy & Bitsy glove puppets appeared over the partition behind the HR droid. Still have nightmares about tribes of Sylvanian families appearing on my desk carrying post-it notes for my attention.

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Thumb Up

6Ft cubes

I worked in an office with lovely 6Ft tall cubicles. (One of the best things about that gig.) They got in some consultant (Moron) who told them what they needed to do was cut down all the cubes to 3Ft, the company of course started planning to implement the change, and announced it to the staff, as a fantastic new productivity increasing corporate innovation.

This resulted in open revolt. Senior people started openly looking for work elsewhere.

Strangely this resulted in the decision being reversed, and the cubes remained 6Ft tall. Just goes to show that sometimes if you fight management you can win.

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Anonymous Coward

To draw on my full misanthrope, based on my time at Google open plan offices go beyond merely reducing collaboration to reducing individual productivity. Unless you're particularly skilled at working while the latest small cluster of children forgets that their product is just one of a dozen or so being worked on in the immediate vicinity and decides to treat their particular launch day as the opportunity for drones and music. Naturally without any sort of managerial intervention, because confrontation is not the Googly way. Repeat ad infinitum.

Besides anything else, it's Google. Whatever it is, their product will have been cancelled in favour of two identikit products within 12 months.

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Problem is, when your stuck in a room with nine other people more than three meetings becomes such a racket that I have to walk out just to hear myself think.

No privacy to talk openly or freely, these open spaces are idiotic.

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Flaw in their methodology?

The methodology this article describes, suggests that perhaps it doesn't account for people simply shouting across the floor to communicate with others who are now in visual range.

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Gimp

Mixed mode

In my experience semi open plan works well. If you are sited with your "team" the low partition wall idea seems to work well. But only if the team is somewhat isolated from the rest.

That doesn't necessarily mean high cubicle walls, just enough space so that you have room to breathe. But them means you stuff as many rats into the can :(

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Productivity and Open Plan Office

My level of productivity and number of people working around me is inversely related. Thanks boss for the flexibility, now I rent and work in my own tiny workshop not so far from my head office so that I can escape the productivity drop in that open plan office and get my job done promptly.

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