Open Space?!

The “open space” physical space architecture, a core staple of modern tech/startup culture, seems to be getting some healthy criticism , over the last few months in particular. Representative examples can be found here and here. Responses arguing the exact opposite are abundant as well.

So who is right? Is open space the worst productivity-killer ever invented? Or an essential environment for collaboration and innovation?

Fortunately, science and a some smart people can shed light on a perspective that seems closer to the truth.

On the one hand, serendipitous interactions (which I previously covered here), a true accelerant of innovation, increase when people from multiple disciplines interact. On the other hand, open-office plans seem to reduce productivity and satisfaction (though there’s some evidence suggesting otherwise).

As it is almost always the case with complex problems, and human interactions is definitely such problem, the solution is more nuanced:

  1. A physical architecture that is not aligned with the company’s culture will do more harm than good. You would not reap the benefits of an open space layout in a culture where employees feel judged based on the hours they spend in the office. Similarly, cubicles will not lead to productivity increases in a culture that champions collaboration and teamwork. Other cultural guidelines around noise, presence and use of space can have a meaningful impact as well.
  2. Regardless of the broader culture, neither “extreme open-space” nor “extreme private-spaces” seem to offer a compelling trade-off of productivity and innovation.  Both research (1, 2), and my own personal experience, suggest that optimal results require a space that has a mix of collaboration areas, quiet zones, team/project spaces and private nooks. If you’re looking for a real world example, the folks at TargetProcess wrote a great post about their new office space and how they want about designing it. For those of you who are more visually-inclined, here’s a quick teaser from the wonderful work that they did:


Open Space?!

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