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Open Floorplans Aren't the Field of Dreams

I have seen a lot of talk recently that open floor plans kill collaboration. That is true, it can. I'm an introverted programmer. I like to get heads down solving hard problems for hours. I still favor open floorplans. Why?

I have had the privilege of going in and out of a lot of software shops in the last few years, and to lead several before that. I see some fairly predictable patterns. What does it look like when those articles are right and open spaces kill collaboration? The first thing I notice on the floor is that it sounds like a library. You see, everybody wants to be thoughtful and considerate, not bothering or interrupting the work of others. People whisper softly when they have to talk. People tolerate unexpected noise and interruption with a laugh and problem solve how best to get back on task. If the noise goes on, the bystanders do not want to complain. However, their concentration is disturbed so they throw on headphones at the first sign of noise. If it goes on long enough, they may ask to relocate to home.

Not wanting to negatively impact their team, when people want to work together on something, they run to a conference room and leave the open space. That's the exact opposite of the goal! They are retreating to private office-like environments so that they can collaborate. Of course, it is a pain to relocate your efforts and conference room space is generally limited, so collaboration is minimized so it does not become a roadblock.

Here is a truth that is so basic, no study should have to explain it. Collaboration is noisy and distracting! It involves talking, laughing, debating, shuffling furniture, gesturing, and interrupting, often from many directions at once. Offices give us a way to contain that so that it does not spill out. Open floor plans seem to make it a nuisance. So why on earth would I advocate for them?

Well, my first question to you would be, have you seen great collaboration in an open floor plan? No, I'm not saying it like I'd ask if you'd ever seen a leprechaun. They exist. I'm asking, what is different in those environments where it is working? Well, if collaboration is a smaller proportion of our time than individual work, everything I said above would be the defining outcome.

However, if collaboration is the majority of your work, suddenly everything flips. As people talk and work, the room is always noisy, somewhere between a buzz and a roar. Is that distracting? Not usually, because you are making noise collaborating also. In fact, the buzz in the air becomes a tangible gauge of a team actively working, a shared momentum. People still want to be polite and not interfere with others, but the goal changes. Rather than trying to not interfere with others' thoughts, it becomes about trying to not interfere with others' conversations.

In the first environment, programmers show up to a status meeting ("team standup?"), collect their tickets, and then disperse to work on their individually assigned tasks. In the second environment, the team actively attacks each of their work items together. They can move things around, scribble on walls, try things out where their tools are and generally focus on just moving the ball forward together.

When quiet is needed, that is when people relocate. It is necessary less often than you think. The extra headache of finding and relocating to another space happens when quiet is actually necessary. It is a little bit of a hassle. That causes solo work to be minimized rather than collaborative work.

Again, I'm an introvert. Doesn't that sound horrible to me? It might have, at one point. Realistically, like most programmers I know, I can talk about code all day. I have a passion around it. Having a problem to solve and a few people to discuss it with stirs up that passion, injects energy, and makes time fly. When I'm tired, I take a break. That's what breaks are for.

Did the open workspace create that collaboration? Of course not. If you build it, maybe it will come. Maybe you will see that it is not there. An open workspace can suppress collaboration or support it. It magnifies your team dynamics. If your open workspace is killing your collaboration, you do have a problem to fix. All the hubbub is right about that. The fix just is not about the workspace.

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