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How we can make a triumphant return to the office

Updated: Jan 15, 2021



If you have ever seen the show Mad Men - a show based on an advertising agency in the 1950s - you're familiar with the open floor plan office. Walking through "the pit," you see a long line of desks full of assistants and associates, answering phone calls and banging on typewriters. The busy and noisy environment put managers, directors, and VPs into their corner offices so they could focus and get their work done.


Fast forward to 2012, and Mark Zuckerberg designed a new Facebook headquarters in an effort to create the largest open floor plan in the world. The goal for FB's headquarters, and the many tech companies employing the same strategy, was to quite literally "break down walls" and foster collaboration between employees. But in reality, they were left with the noisy distractions from Mad Men's "pit" without the safe haven of corner offices to focus and get work done.


Now that COVID-19 has driven us all away from the office and into our own version of solitary corner offices, several companies are seeing a spike in productivity.


Could this be because people have escaped the open floor plan?


From personal experience, I worked in an open floor plan, and personally, I hated it. I would often put headphones on with no music playing just so no one would tap me on the shoulder and interrupt me. Some might call this being unfriendly, but I needed some sort of "Do Not Disturb" sign to the rest of the pit around me letting them know this was not the time for collaboration. Although it might seem harmless, with every quick question or tap on the shoulder, it can take up to 23 minutes for you to get your attention back once you’ve been interrupted.


Even before the pandemic, many recognized the downside of the distracting open floor plan, saying they can cause dysfunction.


Now there are additional reasons beyond just productivity to put an end to the madness. With everyone's focus on social distancing, many have argued that the open floor plan is dead because to the close nature of workspaces and the ease in which germs can spread.


The Happy Medium


Despite my personal distaste for the open floor plan, I also recognize its benefits. Instead of killing it entirely, we must use what we have learned from the Work From Home movement to find a happy medium between constant collaboration and focused heads down time. Instead of killing the open floor plan office, let's reset expectations on how often we should be in the office in the first place.


Once the world is ready to return to the office, we need to recognize that our best focused work happens in the comfort of our own home, free from distractions. On the flip side, our best collaborative work, and important interactions outside of work, still happen within the confines of a friendly office.


To optimize both settings, more businesses need to adopt the 3-2-2 work week, with 3 days at home, 2 days in the office, and 2 days off. This new schedule could finally find the perfect balance between working from home and maintaining an in-office culture.


Jack Dorsey, when talking about his open floor plan at Square, once said “we encourage people to stay out in the open because we believe in serendipity - and people walking by each other teaching new things." 5 days of this kind of environment had me hiding from my co-workers, but having been locked away from the outside world for the better part of a year, I am craving that kind of connection and collaboration - I just crave it in moderation. So give me 2 days in the office fostering creativity, and let me use my other 3 days to put that serendipity into action.


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