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A podcast about a better way to work and run your business. We bring you stories and unconventional wisdom from Basecamp’s co-founders and other business owners.

EPISODE 0045

The Open Office

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The open office has gone from the dominant workplace layout to cultural pariah, with these environments seeming to produce more interruptions than collaboration. But the open office itself isn’t entirely to blame for the distractions that plague office workers. In this episode, two tech workers share their experiences in open offices—with some surprising findings.


The Full Transcript:

[00:00:00] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Shaun: [00:00:03] Welcome to Welcome to Rework, a podcast by Basecamp about the better way to work and run your business. I’m Shaun Hildner.

Wailin: [00:00:08] And I’m Wailin Wong. Today we’re talking about open offices, which might seem like a strange topic for us to weigh in on because Basecamp is a remote company. People can work from whereever they want.

Shaun: [00:00:18] Sure. But we do have a physical office in Chicago and it’s actually pretty open in terms of the layout. We have conference rooms and even more private phone booth rooms. But when we’re working at the office, most of the time we’re sitting at our desk in a big open space.

Wailin: [00:00:33] And yet, we at Basecamp have railed against open offices for years. Now, before you yell, “J’Accuse!” at us, I will say that we operate by something we call library rules. It means that in the office we’re working quietly at our desks and speaking below a normal tone of voice. If we need to have a longer conversation with someone, we hop in a conference room.

Shaun: [00:00:53] Yeah, the idea is to respect your coworkers’ focus time and not interrupt them. Because it’s not that open offices are always bad, it’s that they can be miserable places to work when they’re full of noise and other distractions.

Wailin: [00:01:04] Today on the show we hear from two people who open up about their office experiences. First up, Tommy George. He’s a developer who has worked in every conceivable kind of office. He takes us on a journey through his career. There’s fingernail clipping, a ban on headphones, and something Tommy calls, “Not remote, but very alone.”

Tommy: [00:01:30] I’m Tommy George and I’m a software engineer and web developer for the YouVersion Bible app.

Wailin: [00:01:37] Tommy’s first office experience was a six month consulting gig.

Tommy: [00:01:40] It was cubes but they were shared cubes, but it was a culture that was extremely playful. Things would fly over the edge sometimes. People would bounce in on their yoga balls or whatever those are. So, even with some cubes and a partner there was still a little bit of distraction. So that was first.

Wailin: [00:02:01] And what did you think of it when you got in there and people are throwing things and rolling around on medicine balls?

Tommy: [00:02:07] Well, it was very fun at first. It was a new culture to me and kind of exciting because it seemed fun. And I thought, oh, I’m finally breaking into—this must be what programmer life is like.

Wailin: [00:02:20] And then where did you go after that?

Tommy: [00:02:21] I think after that was a large enterprize in the, you get your cubicle alone kind of classic Office Space environment. That was interesting. It was definitely a big shift. You hear other people’s keyboards but anything other than that would really distract people. A completely, completely gross thing that a coworker there would do is like, clip his nails to bother other people. Just—

Wailin: [00:02:51] I always that was a cliché, but it’s like you really lived it.

Tommy: [00:02:53] No, it’s real. It’s real and gross.

Wailin: [00:02:55] Did you find that kind of environment conducive to doing work? Were there some benefits you saw of that very quiet space?

Tommy: [00:03:07] It definitely can be for sure. I mean, quiet space… as a remote person, I’ll definitely vouch for quiet spaces, having made that transition. But it, you know, there is that difference where collaboration just doesn’t happen as easily if you can’t as easily interrupt someone. Unless you’re just one of those people, which, that comes along later for me. But, yeah, it was good because—I mean, during that time I was studying a lot on what I was doing and so if you just needed time to sit at your desk and read through a book on PHP or something, that could happen. But, then, when you did need to collab it was a little harder. Or, not as conducive to doing the team things because you’d have to leave that area to go somewhere else to kind of collab.

Wailin: [00:03:52] Did you find it isolating at all?

Tommy: [00:03:54] Yeah. There were definitely days, and that was a little different, where it did feel a little too quiet, or a little too alone. Especially if some of the other cube mates weren’t even around—if you heard fewer keyboard noises in the office.

Wailin: [00:04:07] At that office did you have instant messenger or chat or anything?

Tommy: [00:04:12] In their—that corporate environment, it wasn’t super part of the culture, if that makes sense. So, I could message people but it was as good as sending an email or something. They probably weren’t looking at it.

Wailin: [00:04:25] And then where did you go after that?

Tommy: [00:04:27] Well, there was two. One I’ll just kind of breeze over. I was the solo guy in the back of kind of a closet.

Wailin: [00:04:35] Well, that sounds great…

Tommy: [00:04:37] Yeah. So, it was just me. So, that’s like, not remote, but also very alone. And I was running a website for a jewelry store. But it was just me. And I was hanging out with some of the stock and things that they would sell on the internet. That was definitely isolating. Having to be on site, that kind of culture, but also, literally no interaction with anybody else in the store. No reason to really interact with anybody else. That’s the kind of the thing that probably should have been a remote job, but wasn’t.

Wailin: [00:05:06] So you had that experience, and then what came after that?

Tommy: [00:05:09] After that was the, I guess what I would call the open hallway, which was the first fully open office environment that I was in. If you wanted to go from department A to department C, you kind of walk through us. So, we had lots of foot traffic that had nothing to do with IT or Tech or Web or anything.

Wailin: [00:05:29] Was it incredibly distracting?

Tommy: [00:05:31] Given the people there, there were days that it was definitely distracting. Some of the folks in our department didn’t really grasp, I guess like, anything about interruption. So if they needed you or something like that, they were just going to stand next to you and get your attention. Eventually, because of things like that in other departments where similar, kind of, lots of foot traffic, they ended up banning whistling and headphones.

Shaun: [00:05:55] Wait. Let me actually read this memo. “To all employees, temporary workers, and contractors. We are gearing up for a busy summer and some of our positions are already in ‘Peak Mode.’ Observations have been made regarding possible work distractions and the following changes are to be implemented immediately.”

[00:06:14] Are you ready for this Wailin?

Wailin: [00:06:14] Yeah.

Shaun: [00:06:16] “No music in the departments, period. That means, radios, earphones, etc. The reason for this: 1) Temptation to sing along, thus taking your concentration off your work and disrupting others’ concentration. 2) Temptation to tap your pencil, feet, etc. Again, disrupting your own and others’ concentration. 3) No whistling in the departments. Very distracting to others.”

Wailin: [00:06:40] That’s reasonable.

Shaun: [00:06:41] “No long, in-depth group conversations regarding non-work related topics. These are time-eaters. We need to focus on our jobs, not who did what over the weekend, etc.”

[00:06:52] This is my favorite one. “No lengthy visiting or taking your breaks with other staff members if they are not on break and away from their desk. This includes visiting while waiting to get into the restroom.”

Wailin: [00:07:03] What?

Shaun: [00:07:04] Yeah, I know. “With staff seated close to copy machines, etc, you may be waiting, but the others are at their desks and should be working.”

Wailin: [00:07:11] The headphones thing is puzzling because presumably people are putting in headphones because they want to block out noise so they can focus or because they want to listen to something while they’re doing their work, right? And I don’t see what the reasoning is in taking that away.

Tommy: [00:07:28] My understanding, having been there several years was they tried to reduce the awkwardness to interrupt someone. Because you have to kind of tap them on the shoulder or stand there and wait to get their attention. Why go through all that if you can just walk up to someone and say their name. It was an environment kind of like that. If something from leadership wasn’t comfortable with something that happened or an interaction happened there would be kind of a new memo and a new policy that would come out.

[00:08:00] I do know that some of the whistling part was actually just one incident that happened. Rather than approach someone, the culture was just more like, okay, let’s just not talk to anybody. Let’s just send a broad email or a memo so that everyone knows, just like don’t do that. And then no one gets offended or no one has to be talked to directly. You know, I really don’t want to be negative at all about it, but it was just kind of that kind of thinking.

Wailin: [00:08:26] Now, were you a headphones person? Did you have to stop wearing headphones?

Tommy: [00:08:30] I became a headphones person and I would sometimes wear headphones that weren’t even plugged into anything.

Wailin: [00:08:38] Right. Tommy: [00:08:38] Because, and I hate this, but like, there was even a time when I would count my name being mentioned by someone because I knew that this person would find answers on their own, but if I was around, I was gonna get tapped. So, I would just wait until I heard my name twice and then I would turn around because I knew the first time, they’d probably just Google something and figure it out. I don’t like that. I don’t like at all that it came to that kind of thing.

[00:09:05] So I was a headphones person and then that memo actually came out… I had given notice for like a month’s notice because I was going to transition to a new job for probably obvious reasons. And then that came out. I kind of went to some of the leadership there and was like, hey guys, I don’t know if you thought this through, and I did try to lead up or whatever you want to call it. Went to them and was like, hey, I know I’m on the way out, but to ban headphones completely. I wouldn’t stay here. I would be on the way out. But I don’t know if that had much weight since I had already put in notice.

Wailin: [00:09:44] You gave it the old college try. See if you could salvage the situation for your old coworkers.

Tommy: [00:09:51] Yeah, because there were still gonna be people there and it wasn’t a huge company, so, in a smallish kind of IT, web, everybody, all the tech folks in the same department, being that kind of culture, of course there were people that wanted to wear headphones or listen to music and don’t want to put on an open radio with some crazy music or something that everybody doesn’t want to hear. So, headphones seems to be a logical answer to that.

Wailin: [00:10:15] That brings us to Tommy’s current job, where he works remotely from Memphis, Tennessee for a company that’s based in Oklahoma.

Tommy: [00:10:21] Our office is there locally, I don’t know what you would call it, but, mostly open. But the culture has an understanding, like, we’ve done lots of little things or little systems. Some folks do a little red light for deep work time. And people recognize that. All of the management mostly will not stay in their offices just to make them available as quiet rooms. We have quiet rooms available. We, proactively, tried to—it’s like, everyone’s kind of aware that it is an open kind of environment. I think that open office or sort of open office can work but it depends on the culture and the people.

Wailin: [00:11:03] Did you ever find with the open offices that there was a unique kind of collaboration you would get from being physically collocated? That was like the big promise of the open office, I think, and now the culture has shifted on that, too. But, did you ever find kind of that spark in there that was supposed to be the potential of the open office?

Tommy: [00:11:28] I’ve totally seen how there’s a huge benefit sometimes for being able to sit around the table together and all just hammer something out. It is absolutely easier to just turn to your left and go, hey, I’m stuck on this thing. Do you know anything about this? And get a quick answer, or really quick feedback. You hear all of the kind of funny conversation. This morning I know some folks in the office were talking about some new Twitch streamer that we all thought was hilarious, and I posted in chat, and they were like, oh my gosh, so-and-so was just showing us this, or whatever. So, that doesn’t happen as much, especially if you aren’t fully remote first where everything’s in a chat room.

Wailin: [00:12:11] It sounds like where you’re working now, that the management has been quite explicit and clear about respecting people’s focus time and establishing those norms. Like, not just letting them bubble up and be unspoken, but that there’s some conscious effort to lay down some ground rules about how to work together in a way that makes everyone happy.

Tommy: [00:12:36] Yes. This has actually gone all the way through the organization. So, we tried out for a while, like, a, I think it was Wednesdays between 11 and noon or something like that was just like, everybody’s focus time. The whole org, just kind of, hey, unless you absolutely have to, don’t plan meetings during this time. This is kind of quiet time for the whole organization. I think it’s a lot about the people, and if everybody has an understanding that we’re all in an open space. Just kind of a self-awareness is super, super helpful.

[00:13:08] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Wailin: [00:13:12] Next up is a story about an open office, but there’s a twist. I talked to someone from a company that actually went from a closed layout to an open one in the year 2019.

Arnela: [00:13:28] My name is Arnela, Arnela Hajdarevic. It’s a Bosnian name, so it might be a little bit complicated to pronounce. I work as a communications specialist here at Zemana.

[00:13:39] Zemana is a software company and we design anti-malware and anti-virus solutions. Well, we have two offices. One office is in Turkey, Ankara, and our other office is here in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Wailin: [00:13:54] There are about 13 people in the Sarajevo office and another 13 in Ankara, Turkey.

[00:13:59] Can you tell me a little bit about how your office in Sarajevo was set up before you made the big change?

Arnela: [00:14:07] Well, when we first came to Sarajevo, and when we opened office here, the idea was that everyone can have their own privacy. So what we did is we had one big conference room where we held all the meetings and next to it there was a special office for the CTO and CEO and in the middle there was this one big room for the employees and everyone was sitting in their own glass cubicles. So the culture, and the mentality was, actually, while everyone was busy if we had a lot of work to do, we would just sit in our cubicles and do the job that was needed to be done. But somehow every, let’s say, approximately two hours, when you get tired, you would get up and walk to somebody’s desk and sit or stand and try to chit-chat, a little bit, talk for ten or fifteen minutes. Or we would just go together into the conference room where we had, besides meeting, we also called it like a living room where we had fun. So we had a big TV and we had a Playstation. So sometimes we went there to play video games and things like that.

Wailin: [00:15:15] And then, when did the feeling start to come that maybe people were dissatisfied with this setup or wanted to try something else?

Arnela: [00:15:26] Well, after let’s say, three years, somehow the team grew. When we had two or three newer team members, we somehow felt like, maybe they are two shy or maybe they will just stay in their cubicles and they will be too shy to come out and talk to everyone or it would somehow restrain them, which would later affect the productivity and the work itself. And everything started to change so we became a little bit tired and was started feeling too confined. And also at one point even the whole team started to divide in the sense that there were little groups. Like, we started creating these little groups which was not something we were used to. You could just feel that we weren’t satisfied anymore.

Wailin: [00:16:15] Over in Zemana’s Ankara office, the employees had recently moved to a new space that was open.

Arnela: [00:16:21] It had a lot of open space, so fresh, so new, so bright. They were much happier in this new office so we thought, maybe our problem is that we are not like them. Maybe we should change the office and then maybe things will get much better than before.

Wailin: [00:16:35] What were some of the advantages of the open office that you read about when you were doing your research that sounded really appealing?

Arnela: [00:16:45] Well, what sounded most appealing to us is that we realized that if we removed the glass and if we have this open office, first of all, when you come into the office it will look nicer, cleaner. Maybe more organized. And number two is better communication. We really want to improve communication between team members because we have two different departments. One department is for sales and marketing, the other department is technical team. Programmers. So, we somehow wanted to sync these two teams and to enable better communication between all team members.

Wailin: [00:17:22] When you were doing your research about the advantage of the open office did you also read some of the concerns about the open office? Because it’s been, as you know, quite a subject of furious debate, especially in the United States, and I don’t know if some of that has also trickled over into Europe?

Arnela: [00:17:40] Yes, of course, of course. It wasn’t an easy process. It really took, like, months. Months before we decided to actually do it. We had so many meetings, so many brainstormings, so many articles read because even though it looked appealing, many team members had concerns. There were so many cons when it comes to open offices so we went thorugh, basically, one-by-one and discussed everything together.

[00:18:11] One of my teammates said that, what if somebody, for example, wants to eat lunch in front of the computer at their own desk. So, what if they, I don’t know, chew loudly or something like that. It was these tiny details that everyone was concerned about. And we somehow talked about it a lot and in the end we just decided to take the risk and see how it works for us.

Wailin: [00:18:34] In terms of some of the top concerns that you were hearing from your coworkers, before you made the big change physically to the space, did you say, okay, we’ll come up with a plan, a policy, or a set of policies that will make sure that we all know what the expectations are for how to behave in the new space?

Arnela: [00:18:55] We agreed that when it comes to music, for example, we should just be a little bit more observant. Maybe not sing that much or that often. Maybe to turn the volume down, because sometimes even when we have headphones you can still hear somebody else’s music. So, we agreed that we should be more considerate when it comes to this part. It’s much easier for us because we are a small team. And then if somebody forgets about this, or turns the volume up too high, we just tell them, excuse me, I’m working with something, can you please just be a little bit more silent. And then it’s not a problem.

[00:19:30] Now, I also read some articles where I know in USA, for example, where there are bigger companies with many workers, I know that a problem can be distraction. This was one of the, let’s say, the biggest cons when it comes to open office idea. Luckily for us, we are a small team and when we are working, you can really, sometimes, actually often, even hear the fly. You know how they say? So, somehow it’s all going very smoothly. There’s no pressure and for now, it really worked well for us.

Wailin: [00:20:10] The office hired handymen to dismantle all the glass cubicle walls.

Arnela: [00:20:15] We have two lines of desks so that, for example, somebody who is sitting behind me is not looking into my PC, his back is against my back.

Wailin: [00:20:23] What have been some of the biggest benefits you’ve seen since you’ve made this switch?

Arnela: [00:20:27] Well, honestly, in the appearance of the office, because it looks now like we have much more space. We have a lot of light now, because when we had glass cubicles, it all looked so boring. So, when we removed all of this, when we smashed the glass, removed everything, the light from the windows started to come in more. And also, communication improved because now, for example, before when we had scrum meetings we would all have to gather, go into the conference room, sit down, all of this took so much time. Now when we have scrum meeting, we just turn around with our chairs, you know. We just turn around, form a circle, quickly do the scrum meeting, brain storming, and then you go back to work.

[00:21:14] I know that sometimes in some companies open offices do not improve productivity. They actually sometimes even block it, but in our case, it really helped. Because sometimes when you are sitting in that cubicle, sometimes when you have to go and finish some task together with your colleague, sometimes you’re too lazy to even get up and go to their desk. I’m not saying that every company should do it but for the space that we have at the moment, for the size of it, and for the size of the team, for now, it was okay. We didn’t have too many problems, let’s say.

Wailin: [00:21:52] Yeah, it sounds like the culture at your company and perhaps this is set by your CEO on down, it sounds like there is set up a culture of respecting people’s focus time and people’s attention.

Arnela: [00:22:04] Yes. Yes. Because we have a lot of our team members who have this problem with distraction, we talked about this a long time ago. So, we have a lot of respect towards someone’s… when you see that someone is really working, really focused, you will not disturb them in any way. Unless something is really urgent, you can come politely to them or we use Slack. So, sometimes we also communicate in Slack. So, it’s really… actually it has to do with the mentality of the company. Somehow our team is, let’s say, we’re all similar. We know how to—we got used to each other by now and this is why it works. For bigger companies, I’m not sure that the open office is always a good idea, honestly. But for us, because of the mentality that we have, I think that’s why. Sometimes, of course, we get into quarrels. Sometimes miscommunication was often a problem. But in the end, we can all just sit down and talk normally and really the most important thing is to resolve a problem when we see it.

[00:23:11] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Shaun: [00:23:11] Rework is produced by Wailin Wong and me, Shaun Hildner. Our theme music is Broken By Design by Clip Art.

[00:23:28] You can find show notes and a transcript for this episode at Rework.fm. You can also find us on Twitter @reworkpodcast or leave us a voicemail at (708) 628-7850.

Wailin: [00:23:53] And yet, we at Basecamp have railed against. Haha, railed.

Shaun: [00:24:03] I don’t think that joke’s as good as you think it is.

Wailin: [00:24:05] Really? I’m surprised we don’t make it more often.

Shaun: [00:24:09] We should.