Open Office Floor Plans: A Quiet-Lover's Nightmare

When it comes to other people’s noise, I am the Grinch.

I’ve never seriously considered living anywhere but in the suburbs, because cities are too noisy. When I was a kid, my parents would fall asleep and I’d go into their room to turn off their television, because the noise was keeping me awake. I couldn’t sleep with the windows open because of the incessant chirping of crickets (I know, they aren’t really chirping, but the sound is close enough) at night and birds in the morning. I sleep with earplugs in my own suburban home, because street noise bothers me even with the windows closed. Most of my jobs have involved a significant amount of travel - don’t even get me started on trying to sleep in hotels.

Myers-Briggs tests place me as an assertive INTP. Like most INTPs, in a work environment, I need autonomy, intellectual stimulation, challenges that I can solve (things to fix or improve), and a quiet space in which to think/work. And I want that space to be mine – personalized, comfortable, and set up just the way I like it to be. For me, that means enough space to have my piles of paperwork, photos, my special 30 ounce water glass so I don’t forget to drink enough water, a calendar….you get the picture.

For the six years immediately before I started my freelance career, I had a job that was full-time remote (work from home). I traveled a lot, but loved having the balance between face-to-face interactions and quiet productivity time. When the company I worked for was sold and I was laid off, I had to make a hard decision. Would I be willing to take a new job that would require me to commute into an office five days a week? I'd had my own office for 10 years at the company I'd worked for prior to taking the remote-based job, but knew that at any new job I'd more than likely wind up sitting in a cubicle.

I kept my options open, thinking that while commuting would be painful, and cubicle life less than ideal, it would be nice to build relationships with colleagues face-to-face. But I hadn’t reckoned with the open office floor plan. Every company I interviewed with had them. No privacy. No personal space. No quiet.

This was my last corporate workplace office. It was almost never this clean/neat/organized - but as you can see, it was definitely personalized. The doorway was to the right of the desk, on the wall with the calendar. I arranged it that way because I'm not a fan of people being able to walk up behind me while I work.

The most positive responses I’ve heard about open plan layouts have at best been excuses:

“It’s not as bad as it looks.”

“It’s quiet most of the time…”

“It’s convenient when I need to talk to so-and-so.”

"It looks really great! And there's a ping-pong table!" [insert sound of ping-pong ball flying across the room and hitting someone's Macbook]

And my favorite, “I know a lot more about my coworkers because of this layout.” (I’ll bet you do. And I’ll bet in some cases you wish you didn't….and they probably wish you didn't either.)

I've read a handful of blog posts (like this one) touting the benefits of an open floor plan office: fostering community, increasing communication and flexibility, removing hierarchy. Maybe it works that way for some extraverts, or some millennials - maybe it even works for some introverts, although I highly doubt it. In my opinion, the only reason for an open office is an organizational desire to save money.

Communication: Where do I start. There are so many potential channels for communication that do not involve interrupting someone in the middle of whatever they are doing simply because there is no partition between their computer and yours. If you’re in the same office, you can meet face to face anywhere. If you aren’t, there’s email, so many flavors of IM (Slack, Skype, Lync aka now Skype for Business), online collaboration tools like Confluence, and oh…the phone too.

Flexibility: I hear this, and I think “yeah, the flexibility for people to get laid off and not have much personal stuff they need to be escorted out of the building with.” Maybe I’m just being cynical. It could work the other way – if the company grows quickly, more people can be squeezed into the layout without any significant time or cost investment.

Hierarchy: having an “open door” policy should be good enough. Moving up the corporate ranks enough to warrant being given an office was an incentive for me – why would you want to take that away? I've never felt like the executives at any company I've worked at were unapproachable just because they sat in an office.

Privacy/Confidentiality: Almost all of my jobs have included some amount of confidential or proprietary knowledge and related projects. No matter how clean your desk is, at some point, if you’re in an open area, someone will walk behind you and see what’s on your monitor. If it’s someone else’s salary, that’s a problem. I’ve also never had a job where I haven’t had to spend at least 3 hours a day, and sometimes as many as 7, on the phone. Fine for me, if I’ve got a headset on – but no great for everyone sitting within earshot who has to listen to me when they’re trying to get their own work done.

“But We Have Designated Quiet Spaces”: Why should I have to try to book a conference room or designated quiet space (probably competing with a quite a few others who are in the same situation? I work best in my own comfortable environment – emphasis on comfortable. If I need to spend more time working in locations other than my desk, it seems counterproductive. The retroactive “quiet space” seems like a last-ditch effort companies are making to try to appease their unhappy employees without spending any money changing the layout.

I've lost out on several jobs because I'm not willing to spend two or more hours, five days a week, commuting to work in an environment where I wouldn’t be able to deliver my best results. But on the plus side, I've developed a freelance career where I can work from anywhere, at any time. All I need is a computer, an internet connection, a phone....and quiet.

How many of you have worked or are working in an office with an open floor plan? What are your thoughts – yea or nay?

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