Open plan offices are one of the great ambivalent gifts of Silicon Valley, along with guys who think wearing a black turtleneck makes you a tech genius. They’re loved by owners and senior managers for their supposed ability to foster cooperation and collaboration, while bringing different areas of the company together.
At Facebook HQ, Mark Zuckerberg famously sits out amongst the team in the world’s largest open-plan office. And wouldn’t it be great if all we needed to make everyone work as one happy, harmonious unit was to knock all the walls down?
Sadly, if you’ve ever actually worked - or rather, tried to work - in an open plan office, you know that it doesn’t always work that way. Open plan offices are loved by managers and owners - but those people don’t have to spend all day trying to function in them. And they’re loved by people like developers whose work benefits greatly from an extra set of eyes.
Sales staff, on the other hand, have a different set of requirements when it comes to office space.
What’s wrong with open plan offices, and how can we fix it?
They Don’t Make Sales More Collaborative…
Open plan offices are supposed to make everyone get along. People will stroll past your desk and give you helpful pointers. Sounds great… right? But the majority of jobs don’t actually require that much collaboration, and they certainly don’t require the whole company to be at every meeting.
If you really need to talk with other people, it’s not hard. The list of communication technologies is ever-growing and the requirement to be physically present is ever-decreasing as a result. Many people have never even ‘met’ some of their most regular colleagues, trusted contractors or valued clients. If you really need to collaborate with someone, you’ll probably wind up messaging them anyway - open office or not.
... And Anyway, You Need Productivity, Not Collaboration…
The emphasis on collaboration is bad for sales, because sales staff need to be on the phone, conversing with leads - that’s who they need to be collaborating with, not people from distant departments who happen to wander by.
In fact, sales is a goal-oriented, metric-driven, task-focused… how many more ways can I say it? It’s about getting things done and hitting the numbers. There are ‘soft skills’ involved, sure, but we’re not hanging out here. What we want is more sales to better, more loyal customers. Overwhelmingly, even in the age of email and a plethora of messaging apps, that’s done on the phone.
That’s nothing collaboration can help: it’s a productivity issue. And open plan offices and productivity do not mix well at all. Sure, you might make solid bonds with your co-workers - but what does the commission look like on that? Open-plan offices feel like they drive your productivity down to all-time lows - because they do.
...And Open Plans Kill Your Verbal Reasoning and Communication…
Of all the gears open plan offices will stick, it’s your verbal ones that suffer the most. When you’re writing or saying something and hearing music with lyrics, other people’s conversations, other sales calls and a sea of background chatter, your brain is subconsciously sorting, assessing and considering all those verbal messages and every single one is stealing crucial verbal processing power.
It’s like running apps in the background on a phone or PC. The fix is to kill those apps and free up processor power: the ideal setting to make sales calls from is either a private room or a small one with only a handful of people in it, all of whom are doing similar work.
...Which Sucks If You’re, You Know, Selling...
If you’re doing something that requires concentrated verbal thinking, like having an important conversation with a lead, you need to be able to focus on that and just that. There’s just no spare mental space for background chatter. Salespeople have limited resources to work with, and one of those is lead availability. You can’t make calls all day - usually, your leads will be available only in certain windows of opportunity and when they arrive you need to be on the phone, with the pedal to the metal, selling.
Open plan environments don’t promote intensity of effort or concentration.
...So What Can We Do About This?
If you happen not to be in charge of designing your workplace, there are ways to make open plan offices more survivable.
Mixed-space offices are, as the name implies, a mixture of different types of spaces. Rather than one big open box, a mixed-space office will have some wide, open space, with some smaller, closed off group rooms and some cubicles, cubby holes or enclosed office space. These types of offices mean that people can find spaces appropriate to what they’re doing at that time, or to what their particular job requires. Sales teams can take over a couple of small rooms and operate out of them, with some privacy and a sharp reduction in background chatter.
But that only works if everyone in the office, especially supervisors, are on board with the idea. If your office doesn’t have a dedicated space, try making one. Take over a corner or a table during the few hours when you need to be making your calls.
The development of open plan offices has forced the evolution of ‘stay-away signals’ to isolate people who are actually working around the non-stop background chatter. Where people might once have left their office doors closed, indicating that they were hard at work on something that actually required concentration and shouldn’t be disturbed, in modern offices the standard is earphones.
Noise-cancelling earphones might work fine if you’re a graphic designer or you’re checking up on how the servers are doing, but they’re never going to deliver for salespeople. Where they can come in useful is when they’re teamed with using different spaces. You can evolve a strategy whereby you use a closed room or one end of the open office to do your actual selling, but transfer back into the larger area and use ‘stay-away’ signaling when it’s time to take care of your clerical work, like logging calls or writing sales notes.
It might not be in your power to return to traditional offices. It might not be in anyone’s - traditional office space is space-hungry, one reason why owners and managers love open-plan, and there never was enough of it to go around. But if you have a say in it, opt for either small rooms with only a few people, or solo offices, even small ones. Most salespeople prefer small rooms:
I think small rooms with 3-4 people are so much better for sales people than huge open plan quiet offices. Just a thought-enjoying the role!— Laura Summers (@LauraSummersNow) December 1, 2010
So Should We Really Bring Back the Cubicle?
Um… no. Cubicles have almost all the problems associated with open plan - even with high cubicle sides you can still hear everything that goes on and you still suffer from that psychological lack of audio privacy that kills productivity. But you also get a sense of isolation; cubicles are the least productive, most hated type of office layout.
Instead, consider what Bridgespan Group employees discovered when they actually asked employees what they wanted. Rather than rushing to one extreme or the other, getting employees involved at the planning stage resulted in a plethora of working spaces - ranging from the very public to the very private. (The company’s pretty pleased with the results.)