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Communications in the Open Office

The No Jitter editorial team was talking about open office plans the other day, and we fell to reminiscing about our own past office experiences.

Our managing editor, Beth Schultz, described a trade mag she worked for, where the home office was a scene of pretty regular low-level mischief -- people throwing things, shouting, generally horsing around. I recalled my newsroom days at local papers; I never worked anywhere that had an actual fistfight, but I knew of them, and once had to get between a sports editor and a circulation manager at a small newspaper in Texas -- the sports editor was up on the balls of his feet, just waiting for the wrong thing to be said, and it almost was. The mayor of that Texas town used to sit down by my desk and spit tobacco juice into my garbage can and call me a damn Yankee in what I chose to hear as a tone of affection. And in a New England village there was a bona fide town drunk who used to while away the time at our storefront newspaper office telling us unlikely stories about his service on an aircraft carrier years before. All of it was interesting as hell -- and, always, hard to get much work done.

But for all the stories of bad behavior and questionable judgment, we actually got the weirdest mental image from our associate editor, Michelle Burbick. She described working in an office where dozens of sharp young aspiring writers like herself sat at rows of open-office workstations, working away at white papers and other projects, headphones on--in total silence, other than the clicking of the keyboards. She said visitors always remarked on how strange it was to see so many people gathered together, making essentially no noise.

It's how we work these days, if we go to an office. You IM with a person sitting 3 feet from you because you've got Elvis Costello's great "Get Happy" album on your headphones as you try and get some work done. You're listening to Elvis Costello partly because you haven't heard "King Horse" in awhile, but mostly to drown out surrounding conversations.

It's the great irony of the open office, one that was picked up on by commenters to Michelle's recent No Jitter post on Plantronics: Open offices are supposed to foster collaboration, but all anyone seems to want to do is block out everyone else, so they can get their work done. Then, to collaborate, they turn to technologies that were invented to span distances of miles, not centimeters.

In her article, Michelle points out that Plantronics is capitalizing on the challenges of the open office by offering devices that aim to ease the strain of all that aural distraction. These are the same kinds of devices that people turn to on airplanes -- things like noise cancelling headsets. A great choice for the individual, but you have to wonder how many companies would really spring for a workforce-wide deployment among knowledge workers.

Some enterprises have responded to the shifting needs of open offices, and technology vendors are following their lead. Andrew Davis, the Wainhouse Research senior partner who drives our Video track at Enterprise Connect Orlando, has been talking for a couple years now about the rising popularity of "huddle rooms" and video equipment tailored for these small-group breakout areas. And as Beth reports, it appears that video-equipped conference rooms are getting more use throughout the day, even as enterprises aren't necessarily seeing the need to deploy more such rooms. So it seems that if you provide some private space for people and equip it well, it can help the situation.

I don't know, I guess ultimately it's about giving people options: Throw them in a big room together if that's what real estate costs demand, then recognize that for every great spontaneous discussion you prompt with this arrangement, you'll have several instances of people needing to shut themselves out of the group long enough to actually get something accomplished. And then make it possible for them to get the privacy they need, whether virtually, or by stepping into a side room for a few minutes -- or by heading home and telecommuting for awhile.

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