Open Office or Private Office? It Depends

©. Steelcase/ Focus

A new approach from Steelcase suggests that it could be a little of both.

Whenever we write about open offices, I get serious pushback from writers of words and writers of code, who complain that they work better in private offices. My arguments that open offices are better for the exchange of ideas and for cooperative work fall on the deaf ears of people who, like Greta Garbo, just vant to be alone.

But a new study from office furniture manufacturer Steelcase, "Creativity, Work, and The Physical Environment," is actually pretty persuasive in making the case that one size does not fit all, and that different kinds of work need different conditions. Chris Congdon, director of Global Research Communications for Steelcase, tells Fast Company:

Historically, we’ve thought we design one space for people to work in that’s going to meet all their needs. But creative work doesn’t look like this at all. It’s about a fluid, iterative process, spaces for focused work, idea incubation, and ideation as a team.

Now I normally run from anyone who uses words like "ideation", defined as "the formation of ideas or concepts" or what I call "thinking", but others claim that it is different, that it is collaborative thinking, "a technique that involves both the left and right sides of the brain to allow breakthroughs from entrenched habits of thought and persistent difficult problems. It also helps participants avoid the circular thinking of channeling ideas along a constrained path that often occurs when individuals brainstorm together." OK.

One reason I am fond of open offices, which I noted in my look at the open office of the new Apple Park, is that connection to nature, to the exterior, is important. Steelcase writes these words that I certainly agree with:

Environmental cues that frame “long views” can trigger new ways of thinking: Broad vistas, high ceilings and having the ability to move through different physical perspectives can prime your brain to make new connections and see things in new ways. Exposure to nature and sunlight releases endorphins in the brain that improve your mood and diffuse your attention, supporting your ability to flow across many different ideas and imagine alternative approaches.

That’s hard to do in a private office. And at other times, you need other conditions:

Creativity requires time alone as well as time together. Intervals of physical and mental separation from a group enables individuals to connect their thoughts in new ways and allows for spontaneous insights to emerge. In later stages of the process, individual focus work is critical for building out visions and executing plans.

Ecosystem of spaces

© Steelcase

So Steelcase proposes a range of spaces that one moves among:

Focus Studio: (shown at top of post) owned or shared enclaves that allow an individual user to focus and get into flow; the space may also support a visitor for a short-term collaboration session.

Maker commons

© Steelcase/ Maker Commons

Maker Commons: open, social spaces that encourage idea generation and sharing, allowing creative experiences to flow from collaboration and focus into informal and serendipitous exchanges.

Ideation Hub

© Steelcase/ Ideation Hub

Ideation Hub: setting that supports a team’s generative collaboration sessions in enclosed and open spaces.

Duo Studio

© Steelcase/ Duo Studio

Duo Studio: a shared space for individual focus and paired co-creation; each space invites others in for a quick review and rapid iteration.

Respite Room

© Steelcase/ Respite Room

Respite Room: a private space that allows users to balance active group work with moments of solitude or relaxation to improve their wellbeing or let ideas incubate before sharing with a larger group.

The difference between some of the spaces seems subtle to me. The Ideation Lab and the Maker Commons are both big rooms where people get together, the Focus Studio and Respite Room both variations on a private office. They all have big Microsoft Hub Surface thingies on the wall because Microsoft was a co-sponsor. But the key message that comes from Steelcase’s Congdon is one that makes total sense:

Our attitude is, ‘You’re an adult, you can choose the best space for you to do whatever work you need to do.’ You’re held accountable for results, not whether I can see you at your computer. That’s a big culture shift for a lot of organizations because it’s about trust.

That’s the key concept. What works for Allison Arieff doesn’t necessarily work for John Barber, even though they both have spent their careers writing. What works one morning may not be appropriate the next afternoon. This is smart ideation thinking.