Is An Open Office The Right Solution For Your IT Department?

An Open Office removes walls, but does it create too much noise?
An Open Office removes walls, but does it create too much noise?
Image Credit: Jaysin Trevino

Can you remember the day when if you wanted to talk with your boss you would go walking down the hall to his or her office? You’d knock on the door, get called in, enter and perhaps shut the door behind you. Well guess what – those days are just about over. Welcome to the new workplace reality: the open office. CIOs are being asked to make decisions about what office layout is going to be the best for their IT department and right now the open office is one of the leading candidates.

Advantages And Disadvantages Of An Open Office

So just exactly what is this thing that they are calling an “open office”? An open office floor plan is created when a firm has all of their employees sit side by side crammed into a room that has a sprawling sea of desks. Workstation walls that were of any height have now been done away with. I’ve had a chance to work in an open office environment before and they can be visually stunning. The room seems to go on and on and it’s literally filled with people everywhere. Generally the room is organized so that people who are working on the same things are located close to each other in order to allow them to talk about the importance of information technology.

So why make this change? Why go to the effort of implementing an open office? First off, an open office makes better use of the available space – you’ll be able to put more people into the same space. The primary motivation for the person with the CIO job is generally that an open office can be a great way to motivate collaboration and creativity. However, what a CIO needs to understand is that these benefits will most likely be experienced by workers who need to build a shared mental model of what is being worked on. A big motivator for CIOs who are thinking about moving to an open office is that they will save a great deal of money over a traditional office design.

As you can well imagine, this new open office concept is not for everyone. When you remove the walls and put everyone sitting next to each other, it’s going to make it very hard to get anything done. The reason that this becomes so hard to do is because as we sit at our desks we will be assailed by an unlimited number of sights, sounds, and even smells that can distract us. It can be hard to get and maintain our focus. Studies have shown that open office workers are interrupted much more frequently than workers who work in an office environment with walls. The person in the CIO position can take steps to help these workers by creating spaces for quiet computer work and personal phone calls.

How IT Workers Can Cope With An Open Office

IT workers who find themselves in an open office environment are going to be facing a number of challenges. The first of these is that if they are not careful, they are going to find that they are being easily distracted and are not getting their work done. This means that they are going to have to take steps in order to find ways to shut out the distraction. One such way is to get and use a good pair or noise canceling headphones. These headphones can either block or at least dull the general roar of an open office. An alternative solution would be to get a white noise generator. These devices create randomized background sound that can allow a worker to tune out the noise that is going on around them. Finally, using group messaging apps can allow workers to quickly attend virtual meetings without leaving their desks and then get back to work.

An often overlooked solution to making an open office environment more productive is to add plants to the office. They can help to personalize what may be an impersonal office and they can provide just a little bit of privacy. Plants also have the ability to boost air quality while at the same time softening echoing sounds. Studies of workplaces both with and without plants have shown that adding plants can boost productivity by up to 15%. Workers who don’t want to have to worry about other people standing behind them and reading what is on their screen can invest in privacy filters. These pieces of plastic limit the ability to read what is on a screen to only the person who is sitting directly in front of the screen.

CIOs understand that creating an open office for their IT workers can have the unintended result that their workers will become conditioned to having short attention spans because they are interrupted so often. This is why some CIOs have taken steps to implement what are being called “quiet hours” which IT staff can use for head’s down work. Workers who are busy and don’t want to be disturbed by others can do things such as wear a special hat, display a special flag, or activate a light to let others know not to bother them. If needed, portable table dividers can be used to create a personal space or installing hanging desk lamps can be used to dampen noise.

What All Of This Means For You

The one thing that all CIOs know is that the world in which we live continues to change. One of the biggest changes that is currently sweeping though IT departments is the arrival of open offices. CIOs are going to have to decide if this new way of arranging an office will either help or hinder their IT department.

This floor plan layout does away with walls and partitions and instead seats all workers at desks side by side. Some workers respond to this new arrangement and say that it helps with coordination and collaboration. However, others find it to be very distracting and struggle to get work accomplished. There are a variety of ways to deal with a loud and distracting office environment. Noise canceling headphones can be used along with white noise generators. Plants can be added to the office or portable desk dividers can be used to create personal spaces. CIOs have the ability to step in and create “quiet hours” in order to allow workers to focus on their tasks.

In addition to the cost savings, the open office has a lot going for it. Allowing your workers to associate more easily should allow information to flow more smoothly. However, CIOs need to carefully weigh the disruption that an open office would cause against the benefits that it would bring. If it would make the IT department more productive, then it may be time to introduce your department to the magic of an open office!

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World IT Department Leadership Skills™

Question For You: What would be the best way for a CIO to determine if an open office was too disruptive for his or her IT team?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

Any CIO that has been reading the newspaper, watching TV, or listening to the discussions that have been going on lately has picked up on a theme – sexual harassment in the workplace. There have been some big names that have been exposed as being harassers and they have fallen and been removed from their positions. As the CIO of an IT department, hopefully you realize that this kind of behavior is always completely unacceptable. However, it is your responsibility to make sure that it never shows up in the first place. This means that you are going to have to make sure that everyone in your department gets trained on sexual harassment correctly.