How to create an open office that is more awesome for both introverts and extroverts

By Anjali Mullany

Open office layouts can suck—but they don’t have to. Senior editor at Fast Company Anjali Mullany talks with workplace experts about how to turn your collaborative space into super-productive real estate.

Earlier this week, my colleague Jason Feifer published a funny and rousing anti-open office manifesto, decrying Fast Company’s shared workspaces and singing the praises of private offices.

Our mostly open workspace, Jason argued, is distracting and productivity killing, and it doesn’t promote collaboration! But I believe that the problem with Fast Company’s office isn’t that we have a mostly open office layout. The problem with our office is that we haven’t approached our open office layout the right way. And while I definitely don’t believe that open office plans magically create divine levels of collaboration, I don’t agree with Jason’s proposition that giving everyone in every company their own private room is a good solution.

Here are a few reasons why I don’t support Jason’s all-private-office proposal:

Private offices can encourage more maddening electronic communication—not less

My inbox is the bane of my existence—my work day would be so much faster and less stressful if I didn’t have to field so many emails and instant messages, Yammer notes and Campfire updates all day long. There are many instances when I would have preferred a quick chat to wading through a chain of emails with my colleagues. If it’s done right, getting rid of physical barriers can help cut down on email overload. For example, when GlaxoSmithKline moved its workers from cubicles and offices to open-plan work tables, ‘email traffic dropped by more than 50%, while decision making accelerated by some 25% because workers were able to meet informally instead of volleying emails from offices and cubes,’ according to the Wall Street Journal.

Open offices can foster collaboration—when they’re done right

Over the past year and a half, I found that moving more of my staff into my row got us talking in person far more frequently and productively than before. But when some of my key team members were recently moved to the next row over from me, our in-person communication dropped. For the kind of work I do, an open layout makes sense.

Like many creative people, I’m both extroverted and introverted. I put myself out there at work, talking to colleagues and working with others as a team because I believe that’s how I’m going to help my company move toward two of its stated goals: greater collaboration between print and web and more powerful and innovative news reporting. After work, however, I require serious alone-time in order to recover from a day’s worth of social interaction with so many people. I derive my best energy from myself and my close family—not from other people.

I bring all this personal information up because some people in my company have told me that they believe open office plans can’t be good for introverts, or are only beneficial to extroverts. Here’s what I’ve learned from people who actually like their open office layouts about what it takes to create open offices that are productive and enjoyable, rather than distracting and annoying.

Design toward your goals

‘Oftentimes I’ll hear clients say, ‘We want to be more like Google’—but then I tend to challenge them and say, ‘Is that really what you want? Do you want to be more like Google or do you want to find out how your brand, how your company identity is expressed through physical space?’ says One Workplace design consultant John Ferrigan, who has worked with Silicon Valley companies large and small (including Google) to reshape work environments.

Your company needs to ask itself: What are our goals? Would an open office really help us achieve them? ‘More collaboration’ is a noble goal, but ‘More collaboration between the product team and the sales team’ is a goal that you can more precisely design your office around. Identifying these types of specific goals can help you more thoughtfully organize your open office.

Adjacency is critical

Not only is diversity of workspaces important—it’s equally important where those diverse workspaces are situated in your office. Ferrigan’s team creates ‘enclaves’ in open offices for collaborative working, but stresses that it’s important that collaborative spaces don’t disrupt people sitting at desks nearby. For example, his team soundproofs breakout rooms and phone booths to help minimize disruption.

If you’re going to provide private phone rooms and private work pods, don’t place them so far away from your employees’ desks that the trek across the office isn’t worth it. ‘What we do is create adjacencies—yes, you’ll have to get up from your desk, but you’re not going to have to walk more than 10 feet to a phone booth or an enclave,’ Ferrigan says.

The library effect

At Fast Company, our desks are divided by tall cubicle-like partitions that hide our faces from one another. This ‘gives people a false sense of acoustic privacy’ says Ferrigan. ‘What we’ve found is that when a company does bring the panels down, it has what we call a ‘library effect’ where you are more aware of the people around you, you’re not going to be as boisterous on the phone, because you can see that there is someone just a couple feet away from you that could be disrupted. Bringing the panels down has actually made some offices quieter.’rsquo;

At my old job, there were no partitions between the desks, which meant it was much easier to glance at a colleague across the room and determine whether or not it was a bad time to interrupt them by the ‘I’m working’ expression on their face, or because I could see they were leaned in close to their screen, on the telephone, or typing furiously on their keyboard. But in an office with huge partitions everywhere, I can’t always tell if I’m interrupting someone or not until I’m really close to their desk.

Establish rules

It’s all well and good to provide a diverse range of spaces in your office—but unless you are clear with your employees about which spaces are meant for which uses, chaos is bound to ensue. For some clients, Ferrigan’s team creates spaces that are accompanied by clear, strict rules about how the space can be used—and by whom. Some of his clients have created ‘’coding caves,’ where they have set protocols,’ Ferrigan says. ‘If you’re going to go in there and work, you can’t take a call on your phone, you can’t talk to anyone, or have music playing. You go in there, it’s focus and head-down to get work done.’

‘It sounds very corporate and Big Brother to some people, but when you’re in this open plan, it is really important to have some sense of protocols—it gives a sense of how things are supposed to be,’ he says.

Get management out of their offices, too

At my last job, my boss spent half the day sitting at a desk in our open office, working with us side-by-side, and half the day in his private office a few feet away, drilling down on other work. It was a great system because it allowed him to understand, first hand, what his employees’ days were like—and made us employees believe he understood our workflow problems, too. Similarly, sitting with my staff as they work on their assignments has helped me understand the challenges they face each day.

‘Time and again, we’ll hear from executives who led by example, who came out of their office—some of them want to, some of them don’t—but even the ones that don’t want to, once they’ve come out of the office, they’ll say, ‘Wow. I’ve learned more about my own company in the last three weeks than I did in the past three years in my private office,’‘ Ferrigan says.

If at first you don’t succeed

Investment startup Betterment moved into its third office three months ago. All of its offices have been open offices—and each move has taught the company how to make its next office better. ‘In the first office, we had literally no private space. When we wanted to take a call, we had to go out to the stairwell,’ Joe Ziemer, communications manager, says, which led to the company building a call room in the next office. Betterment learned over the course of its moves that employees really enjoyed and made use of having a diverse range of workspaces in the office, which is why the new Betterment office features so many.

Betterment also learned about desk assignments through its many moves. Betterment’s employees sit at butcher block tables and the company discovered over time that at those tables, ‘two people together works; if you get more than two people in a row, it starts to feel a little like you’re in an office farm.’ It’s through this ongoing trial-and-error process that Betterment has learned how to make its open office environment more productive and more pleasant for workers.

One reason why I’m not ready to give up my dream of an open office that is truly productive and collaborative is that, at Fast Company, we just haven’t experimented with our setup enough yet (though we’re working on it). But there’s another reason I’m not going to stop trying to find a way to make our open office work just yet: I go to work because I want to work with other people. And the people I work with at Fast Company are pretty great.

A longer version of this article first appeared at Fast Company.