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The third way of office space is beyond open

The open office movement has spawned a lot of hatred, despite its growing adoption. There is a great deal of evidence that simply taking folks out of offices doesn’t lead to happiness and insta-innovation. Instead there is a great deal of resentment, as shown in this piece by Jason Feifer from Fast Company following a move to open at Fast Company. He hits the usual notes: noise, need to wear headphones, lack of privacy. But the crux of his argument comes down to the concept of time:

This is the problem with open-office layouts: It assumes that everyone’s time belongs to everyone else. It doesn’t. We are here to work together, sure, but most of the time, we actually work alone. That’s what work is: It is a vacillation between collaboration and solitary exploration. One isn’t useful without the other. When we are working in a group–literally when we sit around a table brainstorming, or when we are having a conversation–we don’t pretend we’re alone. That would just be weird and awkward. So when we’re alone, let’s not pretend we’re in a group.

I’m not advocating for more gatekeepers. Nobody’s giving me a secretary, which is good, because I don’t know where that person would sit. And I hate that by advocating for a few minutes of time to myself, it makes me sound like I don’t enjoy collaboration — as if one must be the opposite of the other. In truth, I love helping others, and I almost never say no when someone asks if I have time. (While writing this paragraph, one colleague drew me away to brainstorm how to describe spreadable chocolate without using the word “spread” too many times. And you wonder what we do all day!) I’m just advocating for very small barriers that announce: “Can’t wait to talk to you, but I am busy right now.”

So, a few observations.

Our Personal Workspaces Are Not Designed For Coworking

Dumping everyone out of offices into a vast echoing open space — and reusing all the old desks and furnishings that were designed around a closed office arrangement — that is not a short path to happiness. Companies have to rethink the space, the ambient noise, and particularly the furniture: our desks, tables, chairs, and surrounding elements of the workplace.

Here’s Yves Behar making that case in the discussion surrounding Herman Miller’s Public Office offering:

Yves Behar, Herman Miller Public Office Landscape

[…] we found this statistic: 70% of collaboration happens at the workstation. This hit me like lightning and I wrote this on the project wall: “The majority of collaboration happens at the desk, yet desks have never been designed for interaction.” With the belief that the more people connect, the better they work, our approach began to think of every place in the office, including one’s individual desk, as a place for collaboration. We came up with the notion of “Social Desking.” Instead of being designed for one worker, we developed a system that is inviting to guests, with shared surfaces, no hierarchy implied by the use of small side chairs, and collaboration areas in close proximity.

[…] we realized that there were lots of attempts in the furniture industry to try to solve for collaboration and productivity as isolated events, attempting to patch an outdated two-space paradigm of desks vs. conference rooms. In traditional spaces, collaborative meeting space is separated from the main work area, distancing focused and social work habits and requiring extra space devoted to meetings. What we knew from experience is that the further the meeting room, the less likely collaboration would happen. Public addresses collaboration not in moments, but as a movement.

I think that Behar is getting at what I consider a third way, a way past open which he calls ‘social desking’, where personal workspaces are geared to co-work as well as solitary work. This involves rethinking the office as a shared space, that should be organized around something other than optimizing square meters per employees. Ultimately, it has to be judged by productivity and worker engagement. And the tricky part is not space, but time.

Our Time Is Not Our Own: Time Is The New Space

Feifer would like to control his own time, and he feels that he has no control of it because his physical walls are now absent. The first issue is the redesign as outlined by Behar, to make the physical environment better suited to working socially, not just open.

The second aspect of going beyond open is an apparent paradox: You should guard your time, and never do anything unimportant, because your time is not your own. Time is a shared resource, the place where we must meet to get things done socially, and where we work apart, to get our personal work done, too. That contention means time is a scarce resource. As I have been saying for years, our time is not our own: time is the new space.

Obviously, Feifer’s office culture is not based around the premise of time scarcity. So people believe that it’s perfectly ok to wander over and start jaw-boning about the Knicks game or weekend plans, disrupting Feifer while he’s writing something critical on a tight deadline. So a cultural shift is required, where the default is ‘I’m busy sitting at my desk, and I can’t talk to you right now unless you think it is incredibly important, and even then it would be better to text me to set up a time to talk, after sending a concise reason for the importance of talking about this issue in the extreme near-term. However, if it’s obvious that it is in fact critically important I will willingly stop what I am doing and work with you on it as soon as practical.’ And everyone should feel perfectly fine saying all or some of that long run-on sentence any time that an opportunity for interruption occurs.

Fast Company is going to have to work on that.

To return to the notion that time is a shared space, a common resource: a commons. None of us owns the moment we are living in: we share it. And like any shared commons it must be carefully husbanded by the group so that it is not overused. It must be managed sustainably through doctrine: everyone has to follow the core rules so that the pastures are not overgrazed, the helicopters get serviced regularly, or coworkers get enough time to make headway on their solitary work so that cowork can get the attention and cooperation needed to push the network’s productivity forward. It’s ok for people who I work with to expect to get a slice of my time, but they have to follow the doctrine of all shared resources: under no circumstances should a commons be overused by one to the detriment of all.

This is a clear argument for using social tools that can indicate what load people are carrying at the present moment, and the general practice of looking at someone’s Kanban board (or whatever) before wandering by for a brainstorming session.

So, in the third way of work we have to sidestep the trap of thinking that a one-time transition from closed to open leads to higher levels of working socially. It’s not the work of a moment, as Behar said, but the work of a movement. A lot has to change: adding pink noise instead of taking walls away, implementing workspaces that support working socially, not just reusing old gear. And enacting a new social compact — and tools to implement it — that starts with the premise that time is a shared commons, a critical resource to be guarded by all of us for all of us, so that it can be used for maximum impact.

Don’t get me wrong: people need to shmooze, sure. But companies need to enact a convention, like hanging out in the café when you’re in the mood for socializing. There’s a good reason that libraries are quiet, so make sure there are both cafés and libraries in your open office. Or people like Feifer might be taking that job across town, where they’ve gone beyond open.