What’s Your Ideal Office Environment?

A few nights ago, I had an interesting discussion with some friends about their office environments. Fortunately, most of us are happy with our offices, either because we work at home or we have our own offices. One of the stay-at-home friends had an odd situation involving a headset, but for the most part it sounded fine.

Then there was the friend who works in an open office. This is where things went downhill.

One of the core ideas of an open office is that they “encourage collaboration.” But I think it’s hard not to suspect that the company is just trying to fit more people into the same space. In reality, for anyone who needs to really focus on their work (which, unsurprisingly, is most people), they end up wearing headphones, which discourage collaboration.

This particular friend’s open office doesn’t even have cubicles. The dividers between desks are only about a foot higher than the desk.

In my career, I’ve had 3 different office situations. I started in a cubicle in the first and eventually moved up to a 2-door corner office. At my next job, I had a little office tucked away in the building (which I rather liked). And now I work from home.

I don’t necessarily think any of those is inherently better than the others. The part that concerns me when I hear people talk about subpar office environments is that it’s clear their “leaders” didn’t ask employees which setup they preferred. That seems so silly to me. Isn’t it a win-win for the company and the employee if the employee selects an environment that works best for them? Or they’re at least part of the process?

Are you happy with your office layout/environment? What do you like/dislike about it? Did you have any influence on it?

3 thoughts on “What’s Your Ideal Office Environment?”

  1. When I started out where I am now, senior staff were the only ones with offices; the rest of us had 8×8 cubes. Over the past 12 years, the cubes have gotten smaller for some departments. Now that we’ve had smaller cubes for a few years, they’re trying to cram more people in by turning some of the manager window cubes into an open 4-pack and putting open 4-packs in what used to be the open space we could use for setting up a sit-down event on our floor. The people who are in those open cubes seem to chit-chat more. When one of them comes in sneezing or coughing, it spreads like wildfire to all the others in the open with them. My position requires me to have a slightly larger cube (to fit my corner sit/stand table) and requires me to stay in my same location (within shouting distance of the director’s office) so I’m kind of in my own bubble. I don’t mind the cube situation, but open office is a no for me. They at least made the cubes have sit/stand desks. I’ve seen where there are only fixed-position tables with monitors/docking stations every few feet – no ergo adjustments possible. That would be a big issue for me.

    My husband is a senior software developer (we’re in Silicon Valley) and says he’s walked out on interviews if he sees the company is using an open office layout. He says there’s little more soul-sucking, and I can see why he’d say that.

  2. I work for a 10,000 employee software company. Back when our company was much much smaller, we made the decision that everyone should have an office with a door. There have been various studies about productivity that have found employees are up to 2x more productive in offices vs cubes/open plans. So we have a campus with 21 buildings containing about 8,000 offices. We do our best to have offices for our global employees when possible as well. About 20% of employees have to share an office with one other person. Some employees actually prefer a shared office, so we double them first. And we try to arrange those doubled offices so that employees who travel a lot are doubled with people who don’t. It’s expensive to build office buildings with individual offices, but we believe it pays for itself in productivity in only a few years.

    We also put a lot of effort into decorating, theming, and landscaping our campus to make an interesting and creative environment. My building looks like a castle, complete with dragons and a watchtower. Another building is a Chocolate Factory, and another is Wonderland themed. It’s specifically curated to make people think creatively. I’m in Accounting, so creativity isn’t as important (though my game design work has benefitted from creative ideas I get while at work)

    It may not work as well in certain industries, but it works exceptionally well in information industries. We make and support software. People writing and testing the code or investigating issues for customers need to focus and get into a flow to be efficient, which requires a good, quiet environment. People who support our customers spend a lot of time on the phone, which would make an open office very loud.

    Proponents of open offices claim that it encourages collaboration, but we haven’t had a problem with that. If you need to talk to someone, you go to their office and talk about it. And then your collaboration isn’t going to annoy the person sitting in the office next to them.

  3. Throughout most of my military and civilian career, I’ve had an office due to the fact that I supervised others. In this way, the office was for them…not so much me as it afforded them a safe space to talk and a chance for me to provide mentoring or counseling, as needed in private. Now, I’m serving in a non-supervisory position and the office space is a giant “bull pen” in which we all face our respective corners and monitors but can turn around and we all have ready access to the other three team members in this four giant cubicle area in which the only walls of the cubicles form the perimeter. In the center of the “bull pen” is a large table where we meet with some frequency to discuss future plans and current assignments. If I don’t have an office in the future, this is the most ideal situation for me.


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