Keeping Chat Tools out of the Open Office Trap

Open offices -- the darling of startups and once the "new vision" for workplace productivity -- are now shown, in many cases, to reduce people's ability to work efficiently. Many of today's team communication and collaboration tools have the same problems -- too much distraction and too much noise.

Today's team chat products provide the perfect parallel to an open office. In an office, people walk up and interrupt others at work -- even, at times, those wearing headphones. Inside a chat product, a "busy" flag should signal that a user doesn't want to be interrupted, but if it's always on people assume interruptions are OK anyways. Chat relentlessly puts everyone in the same place, dealing with unending conversations that can be just as distractive (or more) as being in a noisy office. And chat, because of its ubiquitous nature, is worse in some ways. You never feel fully productive because so much chat is irrelevant, and you could end up feeling trapped in a never-ending 24/7 meeting.

There is hope, however, in one major difference: Chat is software-based, and vendors have an opportunity to fix the collaboration process via the chat platform. This feat cannot be performed by renovating a brick-and-mortar open office.

For example, while sitting in an open office people can't make themselves unavailable to surrounding noise. With modern collaboration tools, vendors can build in the ability to leave a virtual room, mute notifications, or set policies on alerts.

Innovative vendors are coming up with new ideas and tools to help the besieged worker. Look for tools that provide the ability to:

Chat can be a boon to remote employees who previously never felt quite like they were part of the team. With chat, everyone can be in a chat room no matter where a person is in the real world. Inclusion is important, but people still need to be able to work without distraction.

Ironically, in a future of chat, the open office will be quiet. Everyone will be in a meeting in their own chat streams. That said, there will still be an audio/visual distraction factor. It's up to vendors and software designers to provide better tools and to have those tools guide workers, giving them the power to decide what they enable and disable, and how they organize themselves.