Can you optimise open offices for better productivity and idea generation? Is it even worth asking that question? Really? Over the past few weeks I have been interviewing tens of independent technology consultants, asking them what it's like to walk into a new 'gig' and start working with a whole new team on a new problem. While I expected some heavy sighs regarding the difficulty with new people and social dynamics I was surprised that it was not offered. Turns out, most of us are pretty professional these days and manage to work very well with external people.
What was resoundingly the feedback was that actually the principal difficulty came with convincing the existing teams to see things differently. Consultants seemed to suggest they had walked into echo chambers where normative assumptions about the marketplace and the technology roadmap had been made ahead of time. Even where there was a strong startup culture geared on prototyping and iteration, the framework for the 'new ideas' were somewhat curtailed to the team's ultimate ontological assumptions. This was frustrating because outside Consultants were eager to show another way but being rather a minority, fought a losing battle.
So when you have articles like the one quoted below that seem to think that open offices are the way to go for idea generation, that's when I sigh. That as a paradigm for working, the only way to foster better idea generation is to allocate and spread people around your open office perfectly when actually the best way to generate ideas I would posit is to make sure you recycle ideas and that means doing away with fixed places, fixed staff and fixed philosophies as your principal concern. Rather you should look at the people who exist in your company in the first place. Why hire thousands of people just to arrange the non-productive ones closer to the productive ones or the creatives next to the organised. By leveraging consultants, who are actually cheaper if engaged directly (Not through an agency) and bring the added value of fresh perspective, your firm can have all the attributes of a creative winner with the productivity as well. The problem is not how you organise humans you insist on hiring and keeping regardless of performance but why you subscribe to such a model in the first place!
Case in point is InVision the web/app prototype service used by most product designers today. The entire company has no office. Everyone who works for them can chose where they want to work, whether that is at home, in the park, in their local cafe or in a co-working space. They have objectives and they hit them.
Any office in my opinion has the potential to be an echo chamber.
Of course I caveat this by admitting wholeheartedly that many practical considerations and professional lag time mean that of course we should not all immediately adopt an InVision model. That in some cases there could be a perfectly needed base of operation for core staff to arrange themselves which could engender a better company culture, rapport and work ethic. However what I would like to see are less articles framing idea generation as something that happens by moving fixed human assets around the 'obviously-must-have-office' and a discussion around the movement of people at the periphery of the core company and the immense potential of their 'outsider's eye' to the idea generation and product development process independently of funky offices.
Yet people hate open offices. To some it's an obvious ploy by companies to cram more people into tighter quarters and save money. For others, it's just plain distracting, disruptive, and stressful. One review of more than 100 studies found that despite some benefits, open offices hurt workers' attention spans, productivity, and creativity. The problem might be that we simply aren't doing open offices right.