A discussion about the Myths of the Open Office

This is part two of the Open Office series. Read part one for a better context.

The Myth of Spontaneous Collaboration

Let’s start with this assumption:

Open Office is the wrong least bad solution for a real problem.

Open Office is usually implemented by managers with the best intentions. The goal is to improve the quality of work and break silos. But sometimes the actual result is a damage for productivity and increased stress.

The real problem is not about walls and doors but it is about communication.

Quite often people complain about not being aware of current and completed projects of other teams. These information are fundamental to cut costs, improve efficiency, share lessons learned and get employees engaged.

Why does it matter?

Let’s discuss some examples based on actual feedback I collected.

Some teams are assigned to vertical markets. Many technologies are applicable to different markets. It makes sense to be aware that another team already deployed a project that includes a particular technology and already trained people for that purpose.

Communication in that case saves time, money, headaches, stress and can have a key role to create a competitive advantage over competitors.

So an Open Office can help, right?


The most common mistake is to think that collaboration is a spontaneous process.

Collaboration is not free spontaneous

Collaboration happens when communication generates action.

When a person knows a colleague or another team is working on a project three actions are possible:

  1. acknowledge and ignore: not relevant at the moment but good to know it exists for future use
  2. offer to contribute (active collaboration): based on actual skills on the topic and time available
  3. ask for help (passive collaboration): if the person is working on early stages of a similar project and may take advantage of experiences from colleagues

For collaboration to happen the communication must be structured, targeted, clear, and relevant.

In some companies the effort to get a person from a team to work on a project of another team is so big that team leaders just give up and find other, less optimal and more expensive ways to get the result. This can happen assigning the task to less skilled people or paying for the training of another person.

Just throwing different teams in the same room and hoping collaborations happens is wishful thinking, being naive or stupid.

We all have been exposed to Internet and Social media for years know, that’s enough experience to understand that the biggest effort today is to filter signal from the noise, to find relevant information from huge amounts of useless data.

Thinking that some people may overheard a discussion about a relevant topic and start an active or passive collaboration is not a strategy.

What are the chances the right person will be listening at the right time the right discussion?

The network effect doesn’t work for all cases, network congestion is more likely to happen.

The Cost of Open Office

What is the cost of Open Office we pay to get the supposedly increase in collaboration?

Noise, interruptions, less focused work, stress, spread of disease (not kidding).

organisations that put aesthetics ahead of acoustics, with fancy atriums, open-plan layouts and lots of echo-prone glass, are likely to fall behind. Source

A thoroughly evaluation process of pro and con should be performed before getting rid of doors and walls.

When do Open Office works?

Based on the previous assumptions, Open Office may work in some very specific cases. Actually right now I can think only one case. Help me in the comments to find more ;-)

Open Office works for small teams

When a small team works on the same project or very similar projects, an Open Office allows to speed up information sharing with a great impact on productivity.

Think of it like having a focused meeting with the people involved on a project in the same room to discuss about it, but the meeting runs every day from 9 to 5.

I personally share an office with a colleague. We have different responsibilities but we work on the same projects. Sharing an office makes sense for us and improve the quality of work for both of us.

There is hope

If you’re condemned to work in an Open Office read part one of this series and prepare your own strategy to survive.

Someone very smart said that culture eats tech for breakfast.

Only a company culture can make an Open Office work. A clear strategy is necessary to make collaboration possible and frictionless.

Employees should be provided with ways to focus when needed with some flexibility (like WFH ) and rooms for private calls and to retire for a few hours of focused work.

If we can do that, the Open Office can even become a pleasant place to work and enjoy some human interaction.


Cognitive load

Three Martini Open Office Plans by Erik Dietrich