Has Any Great Idea Ever Been Developed at the Water Cooler?

The fact that open-plan offices have become the norm in the software industry is a mystery to me. I know very few engineers working in these environments that appreciate them and all the quantitative evidence that I am aware of seems to favor good ol’ walls. Open spaces are often promoted as environments that “foster collaboration and innovation”. It is here, I think, that the root of my disagreement can be found: I think we need to consider more carefully what the real sources of innovation are in an organization.

The school of thought that favors open-plan offices is probably derived from the idea that the main factor in innovation is the exchange of ideas between employees. Like in the famous parable of the blind men touching an elephant, everyone sees one part of the puzzle and it is by combining these elements that a complete vision can be formed. Walls are communication barriers and by eliminating walls, employees that would not normally have a reason to interact are more likely to exchange ideas with each other. I disagree with this vision on several levels.

How can we support communication?

The metaphor of the blind men and the elephant does raise a valid point: Your employees do need to exchange ideas as no one has the complete picture. Let us therefore first consider the question of whether the open-plan office supports communication between employees.

While open-plan offices might lead to more chance encounters between people that don’t usually talk, my observations so far lead me to doubt that there is any positive effect on communication in general.

From my anecdotal evidence, I can cite examples of teams that were so annoyed by the noise level of their open-plan environment that they decided to do all of their communication through Slack even when sitting next to each other. No wonder some employees feel like they might as well be fully remote! On the other hand, I found that closed spaces helped with open discussions. Sometimes it’s easier to “just throw an idea out there” if you don’t need to be worried about who else might overhear your remark.

It seems that more rigorous investigations into this question have come to similar conclusions. Some studies suggest that a switch to an open plan office reduces face-to-face communication by 70%. (See for example here and here).

Where does innovation come from?

Now, putting aside the question of whether or not open-plan offices support team communication, I would also question the assumption that the quantity of communication is the decisive factor when it comes to innovation. I can’t remember any great ideas ever having come out of a traditional “brainstorming session” let alone out of a conversation at the coffee machine. Here’s a pattern that I found more often underpinning innovation:

  • Person A spends a significant amount of time deeply understanding the problem and the dimensions involved. They spend time formulating the problem statement and the different dimensions against which any solution needs to be measured. They also study and collect existing approaches for solving the problem with strengths and weaknesses.
  • Person B spends time to fully understand person A’s analysis. They offer a different way of phrasing the problem, opening up a new part of the solution space. They also share experiences they had with one of the candidate solutions.
  • Person C follows up the analysis and notes a specific quirk of the environment in which the solution has to be placed (e.g. existing infrastructure) which opens up potential shortcuts.
  • In bringing all of these analyses together, an idea emerges that offers as many upsides as possible and as few downsides as possible whilst integrating into the existing environment.

A central element in each of these steps is the deep understanding of the problem and the structured exploration of the solution space. These are activities that require focus, a pen, and a piece of paper in hand. Open-plan offices are detrimental to exactly this kind of activity. (See for example here).

It is also true that communication is essential to this process. It is, however, not the quantity of the communication that counts but the quality.

In an open space, would it be possible that someone chimes in “I have overheard your conversation and your problem reminds me of something I did a couple of years ago…”? Certainly. Though I don’t think this is very likely. The external person likely did not spend the required time analyzing the problem that would be necessary to make a meaningful contribution. And anyway, probably they will have their noise-canceling headphones over their ears to be able to focus on their work.

Concluding Thoughts

I’m writing this in 2021, a moment in time in which many people reevaluate the future role of the office with the recent effect of the COVID-19 pandemic in mind. The office is not only a place where work happens but also a social space and therefore the above discussion does not include all the necessary dimensions to draw conclusions. However, I also don’t find it surprising that many engineers have concluded that the office has become a place that is counterproductive to some of the activities most central to their work.

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