Last Word: Open Offices at Facebook? Good Luck Getting Much Work Done

Take it from me: It’s a pain in the rear to work in an open office.

Yeah, I know; that brands me as a dinosaur, a relic, or someone who isn’t “with it” in today’s working world.

Open workplaces, as The Washington Post reminds us this week in an article about Facebook’s heralded new digs, are “the office of the future – open, fluid and informal … a place where change seems like a given, and the management structure implied by corner offices is a relic.”

And, as The Post adds,

The (Facebook) building stands out as an extreme example of how Silicon Valley firms intend to change the nature of work through more than software alone.”

The only people touting open workplaces

Well, that’s just what America’s workplace needs: Silicon Valley high-tech companies with scads of money foisting more of their frequently warped and out-of-touch priorities on the rest of the working world — the part that can’t afford a full-time massage therapist, on-site laundry service, or any of the other pricey perks that people get at those heralded tech firms.

But, here’s an important thing to remember when it comes to open workplaces: There are only two groups of people who really are out there touting them as a wonderful workplace innovation. They are:

  • High-ranking executives, like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Zappos’ Tony Hsiesh, who love to show how “they” also have to work in an open office space, but can head to a “closed” office space to work any time they want — and that’s usually when they want to get some real work done.

AND …

  • People who have never, ever worked in an open workspace and don’t have any idea how difficult it is to function in one.

This may also label me as a dinosaur, but I HAVE worked and managed employees in an open workspace, and I did it long before it was trendy or cool.

And, it was a royal pain the ass.

Sitting on top of each other

It was back when I was a Vice President at Pets.com during the great turn-of-the-century dotcom boom, and we were one of those Northern California Internet firms shooting up during the Tech 1.0 era. We had an open office space for the first 18 months of our brief existence, and it was when we worked out of an old warehouse and manufacturing facility in the South of Market area of San Francisco.

2eef802bf98ae0039cbc98590249db24.jpgYes, we had an open office environment, but it was out of necessity rather than trendiness or some want to “change the nature of work.” It was because we were a start-up and simply couldn’t afford to spend money on a more traditional, and pricey, San Francisco office space.

Things were so tight that we nearly sat on top of each other, and I had one of our merchandising managers on one side of me and a marketing manager on the other. Not only was there no elbow room at all, but there was little space to maneuver and zero privacy if you were on the phone.

Of course, we had those conference rooms that all the open office advocates claim are a key to getting private time in an open office environment, and sometimes, you could actually get into one to make a private phone call or have a personal conversation.

A conference room problem, too

But more often than not, you couldn’t because the conference rooms were always booked with somebody who needed them for a meeting to talk about something. In fact, the only way you could EVER get a private space was to book a conference room at least a week ahead of time.

Good luck with that. How does that work when you have a private and personal phone call you need to take right now?

My “desk” space was also a distracting place to work because I kept overhearing the merchandising guy on one side yelling at vendors he was trying to get a better price out of, and the marketing person on the other side sobbing or laughing into the phone with someone about the latest drama taking place amongst the marketing staff.

I heard way too many conversations I wish I hadn’t, and all of this made it terribly difficult to stay focused and get a lot of work done.

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Of course, people tried wearing headphones back then — The Washington Post mentions that as a strategy some people use at Facebook today to help them focus — and I did, too. The only problem was that I ended up having to take the headphones off more than I had them on because of the constant conversation coming at me from all sorts of people stopping by — and that’s just a big part of what happens in an open office environment.

Benefits? Yes, but just not enough

Don’t get me wrong: There are some benefits to an open office.

For one, the staff camaraderie is usually better because the personal walls people can throw up get knocked down pretty quickly when you are all out in the open. Plus, the lack of personal offices means that you spend a lot less time meeting with people in private, so most everybody is easier to get a hold of. It’s hard to interrupt a one-on-one meeting that didn’t happen.

Overall however, open offices are an exercise in frustration and futility — and a test lab for how to put a big dent in worker productivity. Plus, as The New Yorker notes in The Open-Office Trap, open offices have a negative impact on employee health.

I am not the first one to make this case, but really, our offices today need more, not fewer, walls. That is, unless you work in Silicon Valley.

Of course, there’s more than open office talk in the news this week. Here are some HR and workplace-related items you may have missed. This is TLNT’s weekly wrap-up of news, trends, and insights from the world of talent management. I do it so you don’t have to.

  • Silicon Valley high tech workers make a lot of money, too. Yes, people who work in Silicon Valley get a lot of great perks as we all know, but they also get paid pretty well too — as this article from Sfist.com makes pretty clear.
  • How to thwart that jerk at work. Jesus said it about the poor, but it’s true about jerks at work too — they will always be with us. But The New York Times recently highlighted a study that shows that jerks in the workplace do more than just annoy us: Their “behavior spreads a dark cloud over everyone else, and the whole organization suffers.”
  • Is Zappos really thriving without managers? I’ve expressed my doubts in the notion of holacracy, particularly the version Tony Hsieth is trying to foster at Zappos, and you can read my latest gripes about it here (the short form: no managers equals anarchy for most organizations). But, the Las Vegas Review Journal seems to think it’s pretty swell, as this recent article makes clear, so take a read and see what you think.
  • Don’t be surprised if you don’t have a holiday party at work this year. Don’t tell Tim Sackett, but The Washington Post recently reported on a SHRM survey that found that “30 percent of the HR professionals who responded said their companies do not usually have year-end parties for all employees. That’s the largest percentage recorded since the organization started doing the survey in 2009.”  But, more HR leaders are saying it’s just business as usual and doesn’t have anything to do with budget cutbacks, as has been the case during the recession.