What to consider when designing the layout of an IT office?
December 14, 2011 11:11 AM   Subscribe

Goodbye cube farm! Help me redesign the layout our IT office!

I’ve recently been asked to lead an initiative to redesign the physical layout of our office floors at work. My management wants to shift from a cube farm to a layout that will better promote project team communication and collaboration. The thought is that by creating an environment that encourages open communication and collaboration, we’ll see increased productivity, code quality, reduced delivery timeframes, etc. In addition, we want to try and make the office a bit more…fun. Our fluorescent lights, tan walls and drab carpets aren’t helping to create an exciting environment

Some context: I work in the IT field and our project teams are made up of folks in many of the traditional roles (Developers, Technical Lead, Business Analyst, Functional Lead, and Project Manager).

What should we consider when designing the physical layout? What elements of your physical work environment do you like? What would you change? I’d love to hear any of your thoughts and ideas!
posted by cad to Work & Money (27 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
When you open up an office, you remove any sense of privacy that some employees might need to be efficient. Best solution would be to at least put their backs against some sort of wall/barrier so they don't feel like their screens are being policed at all times. This also means they're all facing one another, or at least towards the center of the room. Don't have hutches for any of the desks that would interfere in this line of sight, and mount the monitors via, well, monitor mounts. The longer and more flexible the better- this way screens can be shared in a very literal sense.
posted by MangyCarface at 11:16 AM on December 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

You may want to look at the kinds of research being done by the various office furniture companies. My organization recently had someone from Knoll speak at our conference and it was pretty fascinating stuff. They publish a lot of their research. The point is, there are good and bad ways to do open-plan collaborative offices, and it's not really something that your average office worker has the skills/knowledge to do properly.
posted by misskaz at 11:18 AM on December 14, 2011

Ugh, I would pick anything over an open layout, honestly. I absolutely can't deal with a complete lack of privacy, even the imagined privacy of a cubicle, all day every day. Do you have any evidence that this increased productivity will actually happen, have you looked at the research that shows the effects of an open layout (which probably is somewhat variable but this is the first google hit: "A recent research showcased on “The Secret Life of Buildings” mentioned that working in open-plan office is bad for the brain. The study revealed a 32% drop in workers well being and a reduction in their productivity by 15%.")? Or is this just an idea that management had with nothing to back it up?
posted by brainmouse at 11:25 AM on December 14, 2011

Take the cubes out and put in walls. Real ones with soundproofing and doors upon which Quiet Hours may be posted and respected, so that employees can actually reach and stay in a zone without being constantly subjected to other people's phone calls, chewing, sniffles, random thoughts, the throwing of the inevitable toys, tuna smells, and breathing.

"Excitement" is awesome...if you work in a sports bar.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:36 AM on December 14, 2011 [6 favorites]

I've worked in a few layouts and I think offices with doors is the best solution. In cubes or open plans, I always felt like I had to reserve collaboration to meetings in meeting rooms. I didn't want to drop by and hash something out because the necessary noise of collaboration was disturbing everyone else around. In places with offices and doors, I feel like it's less disturbing to sit down together and crank something out together with the door shut.

If I got to design the perfect space, everyone would have an office big enough for their workspace and a little more to leave room for a comfy chair or a small table with chairs. Also, there would be whiteboards galore.

Joel agrees.
posted by advicepig at 11:43 AM on December 14, 2011

Yes, lord, give people their own "office" and skip the "open layout". If management wants the "open office", then let them sit in the open and the developers have the offices.
posted by elle.jeezy at 11:44 AM on December 14, 2011 [6 favorites]

No corner desks! Long straight desks so that a colleague or two can easily pull up a chair and share your screen with you.
posted by utsutsu at 11:45 AM on December 14, 2011

Having been in both cube farms and open bull pens, I'd say that communication is not enhanced one iota by being in a wide open space with no privacy, no sound-proofing and no place to stare at something other than my co-workers. Granted, I'm not in IT, but I don't think that's significant. Please don't do this to your colleagues.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:03 PM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Walled offices with doors and an area nearby with sofas and a table for spontaneous meetings. Open layouts are death to productivity.
posted by cmonkey at 12:10 PM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

We have a open office, however, the cubicles are turned so as to face into the common area.

It's great because sometimes because there is a great vibe and it encourages collaboration and discussion. I didn't before realize how much I missed out on while I toiled away behind an office door.

That said, it sucks sometimes because I need to get work done and those 7 people over there are discussing lunch plans or whatever. The other main problem is the tragedy of the commons over keeping the common area tidy and squared away.

Personally, I think whether an open area will work or not will depend entirely on the culture of your workplace and how much affinity your coworkers have for it.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 12:11 PM on December 14, 2011

If you go with open plan, make sure there are a couple of walled-in, doored spaces so folks can go somewhere if they need some privacy or quiet. A friend of mine worked for a non-profit whose large office was open plan. It was the quietest office I've ever visited. Silent like the study area of a university library. No one talked to each other, people left the building to make personal phone calls, and anytime anyone wanted to make a work-related phone call or have a long brainstorming session, they used the board room so that they wouldn't disturb others. It was pretty awful, and I think the open plan actually discouraged the kind of collaboration they expected it to foster because everyone felt they had to be quiet for everyone else.

We've all got walls and doors where I work, so when people are in the common areas, they yack up a storm knowing those who don't want to hear it can close their doors.
posted by looli at 12:21 PM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Purely anecdata, but every office I've worked in that switched to an open-plan cubicle-less layout either reverted to cubes or closed entirely within a year.
posted by deadmessenger at 12:36 PM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yes, lord, give people their own "office" and skip the "open layout". If management wants the "open office", then let them sit in the open and the developers have the offices.

Without fail, 100% of management I have ever heard advocate for creating "open spaces" for their workers have had their own private office. They also tend to do things like bring in some form of 'fun toy' (nerf guns, etc) and mediocre catered lunches so as to encourage their people to stay at work 60 hours a week so that they'll meet productivity goals. After the inevitable staff burnout, they then complain about how hard it is to find qualified workers.

It never occurs to them that the same group of people would likely get more work done in a normal 40 hour week if they weren't so worried about getting hit in the head by a random foam dart or smelling the aftermath of chili day at the office.

So, yeah, cubicles are bad, but completely open work areas are so much worse. Software development, in particular, requires long stretches of uninterrupted concentration and good developers are expensive. Why would you put them in a situation that is completely opposite of ideal working conditions?
posted by ndfine at 12:41 PM on December 14, 2011 [6 favorites]

So the Knoll guy that spoke at my conference said that cubicles are the worst of both worlds, because the cube walls give people the false sense of privacy, and cuts off their natural cues to keep noise down, while not actually blocking noise. He said that removing cube walls and adding white noise systems does a lot to make offices quieter and more productive, while still facilitating collaboration. You still need conference rooms and private heads-down work areas too, of course. And of course they are trying to sell new office furniture so I'm sure you can take their opinions with a grain or two of salt.
posted by misskaz at 12:47 PM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nth-in the hatred of open-layouts. That joelonsoftware link advicepig posted nailed it - one of my favorite things about my workplace is that, though I'm not in an office with a door, I can't even see people in the common hallways from my desk. In another article from the same site, he claims it takes an average of 15 minutes for developers to get into the most productive state of mind, and every little one-minute distraction can knock you out of that flow-state. I agree with him.

Visual privacy is a big thing for me, because of the orienting response. You can see this in action for yourself if you head to a busy restaurant. Open floor plans make you orient constantly, or they do that to me at least. Productivity killer. More important than a sound barrier, as I can always use headphones if there's noise.

Portion out meeting rooms with lots of whiteboards and adequate table space for collaboration. I find being able to draw diagrams during conversation a big help. If you're having trouble keeping everyone communicating, or want to keep that fun feeling of "we're bouncing ideas off one another!" it's probably better to do a regularly scheduled office meeting without a set agenda (but with a set time limit!) for the whole team to get together and hash things out.

For contrast, I visited an IT office a while back that had the absolute worst floor plan I've seen: blocks of 4 cubicles, arranged in a square, with each of the 4 developers faced into the corners, their backs and monitors pointed toward the center. No full-height dividers, just those dinky half-height ones where you can always see the face of the next person over. Rows and rows of these, with the 'hallways' running right through the middle. Everyone was hunched over like gargoyles, looking over their shoulders at every sound.

Afterthought: natural light. I have big windows that provide plenty of natural light. Love it.
posted by mrgoat at 1:04 PM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

A friend who was studying environmental psychology once told me that seeing nature or green spaces (like a park, or just a bunch of trees or plants) markedly increased people's sense of well-being and productivity, and that even seeing a picture of nature or green spaces was a decent substitute.
posted by chickenmagazine at 1:14 PM on December 14, 2011

As you can see here, open offices are done wrong more often than right. Probably because to do them right doesn't often net you cost savings.

Steelcase does great research in this field, as do other major manufacturers. A few key elements:

* People need safety while working. So don't orient them with backs to entry doors, regular approach paths or colleagues they commonly work with. Instead align desks so that they face or are sideways to these elements.
* Sound problems come from both noise generation and echoes. Your ideal space will have plenty of absorptive material, particularly on ceiling and floor and a bit of height. White noise generators are not all created equal. You'll probably want one and it should be a good quality system.
* You need lots of closed spaces that are clearly available to everyone. That means cabin/phonebooth type spaces for one person to get work done and take private calls, small meeting spaces for four to six to get together as well as your regular conference rooms.
* Collaboration happens at the water cooler, or the kitchenette, or the break room. Honestly, if the goal is more interactive and creativity a bit of color, management policies that don't discourage folks from getting up from their desks and chatting while they do so, and a nice break area with a view where activities won't disturb other work will go a long way.
* Did I mention lots of places for folks to retreat and close the door? I'll say it again. If someone feels they need to lock themselves in a small room with the door closed for six hours a day to get their job done you need a place to accommodate this. Most open office plans that fail either don't have these spaces, or don't create an environment where it is okay for folks to use them.
* A corollary to the above is that unless you are getting more space in the bargain, everyone's regular workstation needs to get smaller. If you currently have 10x8 cubicals then you could reduce to 6x8 and put in a closed room space for every two workers or so.
* A corollary to this is that management needs to be okay with the new "open office" concept requiring the construction of new walls and rooms, with associated ventilation, lighting, etc. costs as well as new flexible high quality furniture that better manages more stuff in less personal space than you have now.

Bottom line: there are interior designers who are expert in this stuff. As you can hopefully see from the above, there are lots of reasons to hire them.

Good luck!
posted by meinvt at 1:31 PM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Have you been in fact hiring "open communication and collaboration" type people?
posted by rhizome at 2:30 PM on December 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

My answer wasn't very helpful on the terms of "better promote project team communication and collaboration". To that end, multiple conference rooms with the appropriate display technology, whiteboards that capture input, and comfortable chairs - enough conference areas to accommodate multiple teams working several hours at a time without stepping on each others' toes or disturbing the rest of the staff.

I don't know if you're an IT services shop or actually development, but if it's the former you need a stellar document/link/reference/customer info management system and if it's the latter you need all that and stellar source control. Those things and privacy make for high-quality work. Staring at the network guy all day does not.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:56 PM on December 14, 2011

Nthing open floor plans are the pits. It's a measure of respect for people's work to give them the privacy and room to focus on doing it.

Rather maybe focus on how the intersections work -- if hallway X is well trafficked and hits hallway Y, what's at that intersection? If nothing - could that be an area for a breakroom, table, copier, lobby-area, maybe a big table that people could just use to either spread their work out on when they need a change of scene or a place to collaborate with others when they want to do so by choice and necessity? Are there ways to address the physical space to increase social warmth and teamwork without doing so at the expense of people's focus and privacy? What about a coffee station with actual mugs and free, decent coffee?

Collaboration is a function of desire--seeking out, and to me, open floor plans make me want to hide.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:06 PM on December 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

The Joel link mentioned above cites a Microsoft study and that study broke workers down into 4 groups:
- Travellers: People, such as sales who spend most of their time out of the office. When they are in the office they often need and want to catch up with people and talk. These people might not be bothered by the distractions of an open layout because they are seldom there. They do need a small space or a shared office so that they can work undisturbed.
- Orchestrators: Such as program managers. They need to get an overview of what is going on, they need to move around having individual conversations and they need meeting spaces which let people talk whilst not disturbing others. Since they are often managing the department they may need private space to carry out interviews/appraisements, etc.
- Concentrators: For example testers and developers. They are both concentrating information together and concentrating hard on what they are doing. They need somewhere quiet where they can work alone or with one or two collaborators.
- Providers: For example people staffing help desks. They will often be on the phone or engaged with people who come to see them. They need to be able to do this without disturbing others.
posted by rongorongo at 3:59 PM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

If your project teams always contain the same people, maybe what you need are suites. Each person on the team has a little office and they all open onto a common area for that team. Make the doors glass so the occupants can see if there's a gathering cropping up.
posted by lakeroon at 4:46 PM on December 14, 2011

We moved cubicles to put the helpdesk phones near the 2nd level staff, so they can share information and projects. There's a common work space for working on computers, which also gets used for demonstrations. There's space so people with laptops can come in and get stuff installed or repaired. The programmers are in a quieter space. There's not enough conference/meeting room space for when people really do need that collaborative atmosphere. There should be a kitchen, and maybe a couple gathering spots where people can chat; it's really important for people to connect. Putting a couple chairs and maybe a table near the big printer/copier would be good; people congregate there naturally.

For me, natural light, and a view, even if it's just sky, are really important. I like to know what the weather is, etc. My office has too much overhead light, I like it a little mellower. Would be nice to be able to switch off individual lights overhead.
posted by theora55 at 5:58 PM on December 14, 2011

You need lots of closed spaces that are clearly available to everyone. That means cabin/phonebooth type spaces for one person to get work done and take private calls, small meeting spaces for four to six to get together as well as your regular conference rooms.

This for sure. If you can't get everyone their own office, then at least some private spaces for individuals and small grope is essential.
posted by fixer at 6:28 PM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Groups. Damn you autocorrect!
posted by fixer at 6:31 PM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

On an average day in the office, it's common for me to spend 2-3 hours on teleconferences using a speakerphone. This may be a big higher than average, but it's not at all uncommon if you're doing any sort of consulting or working with distributed / remote teams, or coordinating with client personnel, etc.

I can't imagine doing that in an open plan office. Or rather, I can imagine one person doing it, but it's going to be awful when there are 4 or 5. Even if they give up using speakerphones and switch to headsets or traditional telephones (which would be a pain if you want to have multiple local people on the call), I could still see that just being awfully noisy.

Unless everyone in the open part of the office is on the same team, working on the same project, that sounds like a recipe for unproductivity at best, homicide at worst.

Open plan office stuff is not trivial. I'd be very, very cautious about it. Cubes suck, but there are a lot of things worse than cubes; pit offices can easily be one of them. Keep in mind that a lot of companies switched from open desk-pits to cubes for a reason, and it was perceived as an upgrade at the time because it gave enhanced privacy.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:41 PM on December 14, 2011

Joel Spolsky pulls a lot of his office ideas from Peopleware by DeMarco and Lister. It's an important book, and it has some stats to back those ideas up.
posted by underflow at 10:13 PM on December 19, 2011

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