Ryan Irelan

is building Mijingo and doing limited consulting.

Open Offices

I love and loathe open offices. They’re visually appealing but emotionally taxing.

They’re wonderful to look at, look great in photos, fairly simple to decorate nooks and seating areas (an interior designer’s dream), and less expensive to build.

But they are a burden.

There is no privacy at all. You and your actions are on display from 9 to 5.

Illness travels fast in the open air, and there are constant interruptions–even unintentional like someone just walking by that cause a momentary loss of focus as you catch a glimpse of movement in your peripheral vision.

If, like me, you’re of the easily distracted variety, you work very hard to get focused. You’ve probably created all sort of tricks and hacks to get and stay focused. For us, an open office and its distractions can create a frustrating work day.

I am an introvert who can be extroverted in certain situations. Like many others, I’m well-adapted to living this contradiction. However, my energy depletes quickly when I always have to be “on” and around people. This includes being in an open office every hour of every work day.

I can sometimes manage with headphones (noise canceling seem to work the best). But when I can’t, I have to find a small, quiet place to recharge. And there’s no better place than a car. It’s a small space, wonderfully sound proofed (cars make great recording environments), and feels safe.

In the past, I’ve often eaten lunch and then gone to my car, got in, closed the door, and then just sat in the small cocoon of privacy. There was a sense of relief as I closed the door. I’d then put on some music or a podcast and recharge my mental energy to get through the rest of the day.

Open offices also assume we sit at a desk while doing our best work. I certainly don’t. My best work is done while standing, pacing, walking, mumbling to myself while I talk through a problem, and other office culture taboos.

None of this is a problem if I’m in a private space where I can work in a way that works for me. That’s why I’ve been so much more productive and happier in the years that I’ve either worked at home or in an office with a door.

But I get it: we can’t build offices and work environments that are perfect for everyone. And they certainly can’t cater to me.

Some people love and thrive in open offices (a rare species?), others, like me, have to implement coping mechanisms to stay productive and happy.

If we do continue the open office trend, we should try to create closed, private spaces that someone can duck into for an hour of working alone, or just to sit and recharge.

I bet even the extroverts will like it.

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There’s more to read in the archive.