Open Office Floor Plans: Fueling Animosity

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I was chatting with a buddy of mine from a mid size software company recently, and he mentioned that they had converted to an open floor plan model a few years ago. Open floor plans are so hot right now that I was really interested in hearing his experience.

Initially The Open Floor Plan Was Awesome

He said that when they initially launched the open floor plan model, it was awesome. They had a giant open space with designers on one side of the room and developers on the other side of the room with ample space between. The designers would get rowdy from time to time, laughing and joking around, but it didn’t phase the developers because they had their quiet peaceful side of the room to work in. All was well in the world. Both teams were more productive than ever.

They had great interdepartmental relationships, folks in both departments worked really well together, and even had great personal relationships. They had lots of happy smiley coworkers all over the place, who enjoyed coming in to the office.

After Time Passed And They Experienced Rapid Growth, The Open Floor Plan Started To Suck

Then the company grew. And grew some more. and grew even more.

All of a sudden, team members were packed in to the room like sardines. The developers were starting to resent the designers for being rowdy while they were trying to code, because the peace keeping buffer zone was gone. The designers were starting to resent the developers because they were complaining about “all of the noise” being made by the design team while they were collaborating, and feeding off of one another’s creative energy by sharing stories about side projects.

Random Side Convos Fuel Design Team Innovation and Creativity 

You’d be surprised how much creativity comes out of regular old conversations and laughter. Some of our design team’s best ideas have come out of random conversation.

“I spent the weekend at my kid’s basketball tournament, he is basically a free throw rockstar. Oh, by the way, did you see this new basketball stat tracking app? The gestures are freaking awesome, let me show you.”

If the random convo about the basketball tourney hadn’t taken place, the discovery of the gestures wouldn’t have happened, and the innovative integration of those gestures in the team’s latest app project wouldn’t have happened either.

Folks can’t be creative and innovative when they are all covered in cones of silence. Design teams require a very different work place culture than developers, one that’s open to constant open collaboration and creativity.

I’m not saying you need a water slide in the middle of the office and daily breaks to hold hands and sing campfire songs, I’m just saying that design teams need an environment in which they can create and innovate and collaborate freely.

Random Side Convos Make Developers Want To Brutally Destroy People

Now the flip side. Developers who are working on on projects in new languages (or intricate projects in languages they can code in their sleep) basically want to murder loud people.

You miss a semi colon because someone distracts you with their obnoxiously loud laughter, and your whole string of code fails. Then you spend an hour trying to figure out why on earth your hours of work crashed and burned.

When you finally do, you’re filled with rage and want to duct tape all of the designers mouths shut, and throw them in a pit of silence for all of eternity.

Rapidly Escalating Resentment = Not Cool

So back to my buddy’s story. Things got worse and worse. The previously happy go lucky, collaborative teams who had great interdepartmental relationships and great personal relationships disintegrated within a matter of months.

Developers were complaining about volume, designers felt like the devs were jealous of their awesome team culture, devs thought the designers were being disrespectful by not following their need for silence, designers thought the devs were being uptight and disrespectful by complaining about their personalities.

The crazy part that was NOTHING HAD CHANGED, other than that the two teams with drastically different team cultures had been smashed into a room that no longer gave them space to work the way they needed to work to be the most productive.

Failed Attempts To Fix Things

The initial solution his company came up with was to tell the dev team to wear noise canceling headphones. The developers expressed feeling that the company didn’t care about them as much as they cared about the designers. They also felt the designers were being disrespectful jerks, and that they should just shut up and act like normal corporate employees and that then everything would be fine. They thought it was stupid that they were being forced to compensate for their coworkers obnoxiousness.

When that didn’t work the company told the design team they could no longer discuss things out loud, it all needed to be done through chat so as not to disturb the dev team. At that point design team expressed feeling like they’d been slapped in the face and then suffocated. They expressed feeling that all of the creative energy had been abruptly sucked out of their workplace. They also felt they were being told that they were unprofessional for working the way they’d been working for years and that their awesome workplace culture had been stripped away.

Angry Resentment Abounds

So in a nutshell, at that point every single member of both teams were angry and frustrated and hated everything. My buddy said that suddenly meetings turned into arena’s for battle. Every team member on both sides went in ready to wage war. Where there used to be easy collaboration folks started digging their heels in and not willingly compromising on anything at all.

The workplace culture completely tanked, and really talented members of both the design team and the dev team started applying for other jobs. And the craziest part was, folks went from genuinely enjoying one another on a personal basis, to glaring at one another across the room and ignoring one another in the break room. Nothing personal had occurred, all of the animosity was stemming from the two teams just having vastly different workspace needs.

So how do you keep this from happening at your company?

The key is to give teams that require different workplace cultures appropriate workspaces to do their thing.

Split Open Office Floor Plans – Provide a Focus Workspace & a Collaborate Workspace

I’m going to label this concept the split open office floor plan. You provide a “Focus” workspace for folks who need silence to accomplish what they need to do. You provide a “Collaborate” workspace for folks who need to chat and laugh and get a little rowdy while they work to achieve maximum levels of productivity and creativity. Give team members the option to bounce between workplaces as needed. Maybe a designer needs a day to focus on a specific solution, and they’re feeling easily distracted instead of fueled by interaction, let them go chill in the focus room. Maybe a dev is ready to tear out hair because of all of the silence, let them go work in the collaborate room.

Everything Is Awesome… Seriously, It Worked Wonders In Our Company

You’ll wind up with better products, higher levels of employee workplace culture satisfaction and killer interdepartmental collaboration. I know this for a fact because our company used the split open floor plan model for years, and it worked beautifully. The design team had space to be rowdy, the dev team had space to be silent, and both teams were genuinely happy and productive.

If your company is experiencing rapid growth, keep an eye on your seating arrangements. They can truly make the difference between people loving their jobs and looking forward to going in to work in the morning, and despising their jobs and wanting to strangle folks all day long.

What Happened With My Buddy’s Company? 

I shared our killer split open office layout arrangement with him, and he said he was going to take it back to his senior staff immediately. He didn’t want to lose any more talent to something as silly as a poor seating arrangements. He mentioned that it was going to cost the company a ridiculous amount of money to hire and train replacements for the employees they had lost. It was definitely going to cost far more than rearranging seating in the office would have cost them.

Fix It. 

So did your company convert to an open floor plan when it became hot? At the end of the day your goal should be giving your teams the optimal work environments that they require to achieve the highest level of productivity and success. There’s no reason to let something as small as seating arrangements tank your company’s productivity, workplace culture and employee satisfaction. Fix it and get on with making awesome products.

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