The challenge of open plan offices and the importance of quiet

Portrait of a Gentleman in His Study — Lorenzo Lotto

Portrait of a Gentleman in His Study — Lorenzo Lotto

Two interesting pieces in blogs I follow. First, Clare O’Farrell’s extended discussion of open-plan offices at her personal blog Refracted Input; and then Mark Carrigan asking ‘were universities ever quiet?‘ at The Sociological Imagination.

I too would be horrified by a move to open-plan, due to a whole range of reasons Clare identified. But I have just spent the last several weeks at a research center at NYU where there is a very different way of working to what I’ve become accustomed to in the past. The offices are on the 19th floor of Metrotech 1 in Brooklyn, and the basic design is to have offices around the periphery, with lots of cubicle desks clustered around the central area which has the elevators. It’s a big building, and the offices are clearly arranged in hierarchical order, not just to do with size, but also who has the best views. To be fair, most are pretty impressive, but the view towards Manhattan wins.

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View towards Manhattan from CUSP’s Brooklyn office

Even those of us in offices – Warwick has an office for whichever of us is visiting at that time – tend to keep doors open unless we’re on the phone. The security was good enough that I felt comfortable leaving the door open when I left for a few moments, even with laptop on display. I quite liked the atmosphere there, had more conversations than I would have done otherwise, and managed to get a lot of work done. But part of the reason for the relative quiet was that there are no undergraduates in this center, and the postgraduates are clustered on the other side of the floor. For a research-intensive environment such as this I can see something of the appeal. But ultimately I agree with both Mark and Clare – for writing, nothing beats a secluded space, with noise controlled and solitude.

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