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Technology Might Kill the Open Office (and That’s Good News)

Topics: Work Culture
open office
Seattle Municipal Archives/Flickr

Yes, Mad Men is over, but when you look at those early seasons, what’s the first thing you see when you walk in the doors of Sterling Cooper? It’s those ordered rows of desks in the typing pool. Look again — do those desks seem familiar? If you work in an open office, there’s a good reason why.

In today’s open-plan office, privacy is in short supply. The best you can hope for is a cubicle wall or two to shield you from your neighbor. Have you ever had a door to shut at work? If so, you’ve been lucky. Many of us have spent our formative working years in a cube farm, and the open office is nothing more than the next iteration of the mid-century worker corral.

But that might be about to change.

The Rise of the Remote Machines (i.e., You)

It’s no surprise to anyone trying to carry on some kind of thoughtful work at a computer that the open office is not only loud, it’s the least productive place to get anything done. Sure, you can “collaborate” with Cheryl over there, but you can also hear when she’s talking to her sister on the phone about her strange rash, as well as being witness to every single time that Dave sips his coffee in that weird way that’s driving you crazy.

While companies like Apple are doubling down and building new elaborate donut-shaped corporate campuses for its 12,000 employees, others, like Automattic (the parent company to WordPress), have made their staff 100 percent remote. (Nobody liked their San Francisco commute, anyway, so they stopped paying that rent check every month and moved everyone offsite.) Forbes wrote last year that there were at least 125 companies in the U.S. with primarily remote workers.

How Do We Work Together … Apart?

One word: internet. It’s not too hard to imagine your workplace as just one quiet hub in your house, instead of one loud desk in Crazytown, U.S.A. (a.k.a., that cube farm). With easy collaboration software like Slack or Basecamp, plus video conferencing and remote meeting software like JoinMe or GoToMeeting, it’s positively simple to contribute meaningfully without everyone sitting in the same office (or even ZIP code). The keys are a) personal accountability and b) the willingness to be an open communicator. If you can handle both of those things, then strap on your adult pants, because you can work remotely!

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Someone Didn’t Get the Memo

Still, there are backsliders on the whole remote office thing. IBM, a remote work pioneer, recently decided to bring all of its employees out of the wilderness of a thousand coffee shops and move them into many central (i.e., major metropolitan) offices around the world. If you didn’t live in the city where you were now assigned to work, it was move or find a new job.

So what can we say to the employers who think creativity is limited to sharing the same oxygen? Well, you can’t have it both ways, really. You can’t find the solace of thoughtful spaces and merge them with the frenetic pace of a big war room table. There’s a reason why those Mad Men creative spaces had doors that shut (and often couches to recline on) — creativity. If you’re asking someone to focus, don’t give the guy next to them a drum to beat.

Tell Us What You Think

What do you think of open offices? We want to hear from you. Tell us your thoughts in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.

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