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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

What Does Open Plan Seating Accomplish?



Last week I wrote about why tearing down walls doesn’tintegrate agencies. It gave rise to my own thoughts on the subject of open plan seating.

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There are pros and cons with open plan seating.  I could take either side, but I think my preference is for most people having their own private space.  My daughter, Liz Gumbinner, who is an EVP creative director at Deutsch, says that I am old fashioned because almost every ad agency has open plan seating in one form or another.  And it has been this way for many, many years.

On the pro side, agencies save money by not constructing and having to move walls.  They tell me that clients and new business prospects like to hear the hum of the office which is far more evident when there are no walls.  Popular wisdom is that ad agencies believe open plans foster more interaction and therefore, more creativity.

Creative people have always worked in teams.  So when they work, mostly they go to some private space where they can create without interruption.  And therein lies my issue.

I believe that open plan seating originated in Japan.  As I recall, the first agency to employ open plan seating was the old Chiat/Day. When Jay Chiat did this in the 1980’s, it was quite an innovation here in the States.  Its purpose was to foster interaction between people and to generate more creativity.  His agency always pushed the boundaries of creativity and open plan was a major innovation and a reflection of that philosophy.

But the U.S. is not Japan.

Japan is a homogeneous, highly structured society.  Open plan was an effort to get workers there to talk to each other and to interact together – something which may not be necessary here in the U.S.  Whether we have walls in our offices or not, we are much more open than the Japanese.

Open plan was adopted, first by the more creatively driven agencies, and during the last decade, as the big agencies have had their leases expire and they have moved to new space, they, too are moving to open plan. What was right for Chiat/Day in the 1980’s, may not necessarily translate to all agencies.  Especially today.
I honestly believe that tearing down walls does not necessarily generate creativity or even good ideas.  It doesn’t foster interaction among people, except those immediately adjacent to each other.  Interaction is something which has to be in the DNA of a company and in its people.  

If I were an account person today, I would still not want to listen to my cohorts talking to their clients or their friends.  I would not want to hear the hum which accompanies open seating.  I would want the privacy to think, to strategize – to create.  

I am curious to know whether you think that open plan seating works for your agency and, if so, does it work for all departments?

26 comments:

  1. Paul, we went to an open seating plan for everyone (including senior account people) last year. I hate it. I cannot hear my clients when I am talking on the telephone, so I usually end up taking all calls in my mobile and walking down the halls so I can hear. I also write a lot and spend the better part of the day asking people to be quiet or unplugging all of my "devices" and going into a quiet space.
    I long for the old days!

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  2. @Anon: I am sure I would feel the same way if I were in an open bay. I hear your complaint all the time.

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  3. I am in total agreement with Anonymous. Open plan seating, while certainly cost-efficient in terms of real estate, is a disaster for senior execs - especially for new business execs like me who spend a good amount of time on the phone with C-level prospects and need privacy to do what we do. Bill Crandall

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    1. Bill: Interestingly, most of the very senior executives I know have their own offices. And if they don't (Jay Chiat didn't), they spend most of their time in a private room anyway. I find that ironic. As they say, "what is good for the goose is good for the gander."

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  4. I completely agree with you Paul. We have partial open seating in my current work environment and as a marketing director, I spend quite a bit of time writing and planning strategies. At first, I found it to be so loud that I had a hard time hearing myself think. It's been a few years now and I have learned to drown out the background noise somewhat but I've also gradually started moving my work hours later and later. I now work 10-7 and find the 5-7pm time slot to be my most productive because most everyone has gone home! - Sue

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  5. Another great posting that really resonates! While I mostly agree, however, there are some areas that I would disagree.

    I agree with you that the whole East Asian vs. U.S. culture is different. Yes, in my home-country, there certainly is less interaction. In most cases, you never talk to people who aren't part of your circle or team. It's just rude and weird to do so. The US is so vastly different in this manner, and certainly is a culture that I admire and love. (BTW, if you ever nod or say hello while walking on the street in East Asia, you will get the "what is wrong with this person" stare back at you).

    And yes, open layouts simply cause more noise. No privacy, and it becomes an obstacle as people come for questions, bothering my work every 10 minutes, and sometimes, people sitting around me start being part of the conversations, where I have to then start explaining what the matter is, and so forth. I think half of my day is lost answering such questions and impromptu encounters.

    And yes, in my experience, even with open layouts, all secrets and let's-only-keep-this-among-ourselves conversations happen in private rooms. No information is ever disclosed just because of open layouts.

    On the contrary, open layouts do make it more interactive. Whether it's these impromptu meetings or not, even seeing the faces makes it simply easier to converse. People love overhearing and eavesdropping. Even if you talk to one person, if the rest of the people around that person eavesdrops, they get a better understanding of who you are (hopefully positive), what you're working on, how the agency is doing, and what the challenges/issues are. More importantly, it's how co-workmanship is made. It's how jokes are spread. It's how culture cultivates itself. Simple - think of closed spaces as web banners, open spaces as social media where conversations are made. Literally.

    I work in a layout where there are partial rows of rooms on the upper-floor. These people are outsiders. Once stuck inside, they never come out. No one visits them unless they have real important business, or are really close (for years) to them (yeah, and those who are close tend to always have important business they work on together). They don't interact with the rest of the agency. And for anyone who don't know them, knocking on the door to simply say "hi" is not an easy thing to do, unless they have more important things to say then that.

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    1. DK: Thanks for your perspective. It is really an interesting and enlightening point of view.

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  6. Interesting. Suits often whine about this issue, though your title poses a question about 'creativity.' Planners and creative teams have myriad places to go if they wish to avoid distractions. Last I checked, teams aren't told they can't work offsite if a brief of particular interest or importance warrants it. And I'm not convinced 'noise' inhibits creativity anyway. Take the English market. Without doubt amongst the elite if referring to traditional creative, and television in particular. Having worked there, I can assure you that some of the finest work there is conjured up in noisy, smoky pubs.

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    1. Although most account people don't like being referred to as "suits" because it is pejorative, good account people can be very creative no matter what they are called. Noise doesn't inhibit creativity, but it does inhibit concentration.

      Look above at Bill's comment. It is very difficult to concentrate and talk to a client, especially if the conversation is critical. Many advertising people, including creatives and planners, have shared with me that talking to a client in a open plan setting can be difficult.

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    2. Huh, excuse me? I simply disagree with your premise Paul.

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    3. @Unknown: I would love to know what your disagreement is so we can add it to the discussion. My premise was to lay out some of the pros and cons and see what people think.

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  7. Having worked in a number of open-plan environments, i can see why some feel it's most conducive to extemporaneous collaboration. It certainly can be, but usually little thought is afforded those who cannot concentrate on their work well in a noisy environment when a group decides to stop nearby and discuss something in an animated fashion (and advertising is an industry that's rife with animated discussion). I have had some client calls that have suffered from the ambient noise of open environments. Often there is no alternative quiet spot for them--or if there are, they are in constant use.

    I work in a two-person space that is semi-open. When needing to sit and write for an hour, uninterrupted, I can ignore the reflex to answer my ringing phone, but I cannot block out a large-voiced colleague who likes to visit my neighbor. When he does so, he is fond of bouncing a tennis ball against our shared wall for upwards 40 minutes. It might be a nervous tick of his, but now when I see him coming, I am wont to pick up my work and try to find a quiet corner; these are hard to come by in this environment. Is it any wonder that my supervisor often claims she gets more done from home, and does so, several days weekly? Unfortunately, that's not an option for my position.

    Perhaps agencies that move to open plans should consider some "community rules" that groups of two or more should move their conversation to a spot that sequesters their voices a bit--or make more temporary quiet spaces available for those that need to concentrate. I've never felt wearing headphones in the office was polite or professional, but I'm entertaining them now.

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  8. Nice thought, Alicia. Companies with open plans should have "community rules". It is a great idea. However, common courtesy in an office should prevail even if there are no rules.

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    1. I'm not a big proponent of rules-making, per se; it's just that with our get-along intentions (which are almost always good), you'll find few that speak up when there is a problem, and plenty who don't understand what an "inside voice" is!

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  9. You make interesting points in your post but you're missing one very key ingredient. Generation Y. To remain an attractive workplace for new and emerging talent many companies (not just agencies trying to save money), including an old client of mine (Google Coke Workplace of the Future) are going through complete headquarter redesigns to suit their needs. You'll notice, the people commenting who don't like it are all Xers and Boomers. Now if I could only have a secretary.

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    1. And yet Boomers and Gen X are (mostly) running the agencies that make the decision to go open plan. Curious that.

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    2. It's almost as if they realize that catering only to their own generation's predispositions won't grow their business.

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  10. @Chris. Thanks for your comment. You make a good and interesting point. You are pretty much right. I may just be from the wrong generation!

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  11. I run the account service department in the agency and we are open plan. As the manager, I honestly prefer to sit with the team so I can be up to date on what is happening. I can provide help if someone is struggling on the phone or can quickly correct any out of order behaviour. We bounce ideas of each other all of the time when working and in down time can chat away.

    Of course, that being said the idiots that run our agency recently installed two foosball tables on either side of my team. Pure genius.

    Now I am as likely to be found hiding out in a meeting room as I am sitting at my desk contemplating violence.

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    1. @anonymous: Well, there has to be some common sense...

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  12. On the distribution side of the advertising coin I find the open space work flow great. I love that people can overhear what's going on with clients and issues with systems so that when someone is out of the office or on vacation anyone could jump in and help. I agree that some positions like sales benefit from having an office as they are on the phone with clients more and need the quiet space. I also find that in the last 13 years I've been in the industry there is less and less phone time and more IM, texting, email communication that isn't hindered by open floor plan designs.

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    1. @anonymous: I have previously written posts about texting and emailing - there is way too much impersonal communications. I am not sure what the distribution side of advertising is - I presume you mean sales and media. For me, personally, I don't like people listening to my conversations and I don't like listening to other people, even those who work for me. And I am old school enough to not want everyone to know my business; if I want help I always ask for it.

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  13. The ironic thing if you have ever worked in these types of offices is that people either don't talk to each other at all and they become quite email centric, in order to foster privacy and some sense of peace. Or worse -- people start wearing headphones to gain some internal peace and focus...completely obliterating the benefit of open plan. The real benefit is to companies in terms of real estate expense. The truth is on any given day, you probably have half the people there -- some at clients, some travelling, some sick, etc. -- why pay high per square foot fees in midtown if you can avoid it? And with profit margins ever thinner, there may be some wisdom to this, even if your clients ask you each time if you are "having a party over there" because you work in open environment. Best idea -- a mix of open plan and closed offices and workspaces.

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    1. Well said. The wonderful irony is that when Jay Chiat did his virtual office, he believed that fewer than half the employees would ever come in; the other half would choose to stay home or work together at some off-site place. But they all came in. The discovery was that people like to go to the office! I wonder if anyone has ever done an attendance study to determine if more people show up in the old fashioned closed offices or to open plan. At any rate, people with head phones on are not social and I wonder if they are actually more productive.

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  14. Activity based space. People who need enclosure get it and those who need open space get that. Those who need each at different times have access to privacy when needed. Variety & Flexability. A one size fits all solution, however democratic, fails to realize the nature of how things, and people, work.

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  15. One of my followers sent me this link to an article about open plan office. It is eye opening and should be read by every CEO, COO and CFO, and certainly by human resources. http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/currency/2014/01/the-open-office-trap.html#!

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I would welcome your comments, suggestions or anything you would like to share with me or my readers.

 
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