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Open offices and closed doors


Most of the tech companies today (except for maybe Microsoft) have open offices. A typical employee in any tech company today works at a desk that is among many other desks all on one large open floor, usually with headphones on to prevent distractions from on-going discussions around them, and just a tap on the shoulder away if someone needs anything from them.

And they are working on laptops with multiple tabs on their browser open for email, Slack, Workplace and Hangouts, where they are a notification away from other colleagues that do not want to make the effort of walking up to them and tapping on the shoulder.

The entire experience of working in the office is designed to promote convenience and collaboration. It is extremely convenient to reach anyone else whose input an employee needs to get their work done and enhance collaboration by making room for serendipitous impromptu discussions and brainstorms.

While I like the idea of being able to walk up to someone when I have a bright idea and start brainstorming with them on it, I don't always appreciate it when someone does it to me when I'm in the middle of my own creative work. And I'm sure a lot of people around me feel the same way - as evidenced by the headphones.

Collaboration is definitely a plus here. But, it comes at a huge cost when paired with convenience, which is also fostered by the open office design.

It is extremely convenient to send someone a chat and get an answer to a question that we have for them. It might take that person two minutes to answer, before getting back to their own work.

But, when that happens ten times a day (25-30 times a day is not uncommon), then employees end up spending more time responding to emails and chats and talking to people that tap on their shoulder for quick discussions than they do creating work of value. And every time such an interruption occurs, it is extremely hard to get back to the flow they were in as the context switching hurts this process. On average, it takes a person twenty minutes to get back in full flow of what they were doing after a context switch for a minute's interruption. Multiply that by 25-30 times a day and I'm surprised that any meaningful work ever gets done in open offices.

A closed door (both physically and digitally), on the other hand, allows me to quickly make progress on deep creative work like thinking up new features and writing blog posts and ensure they meet a high quality bar.

I have designated email and chat times at work, and they are not even opened outside of these times. And I'm not surprised that this hasn't had any detrimental effect on my collaboration levels. People that work with me have just come to expect non-immediate responses and work around it.

And I get more done as a result.

Are you closing the door when you work?

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