We Don’t Always Know What’s Better for Us

When we moved our office from Cambridge to Boston in 2009, our new office was a more traditional configuration with an open “bull pen” area, and a series of one person offices around the perimeter.

We had more than enough space for everyone, so people could choose the open area or a private office. About half of us chose private offices and the other half chose to sit in the open area.

However, over time, more and more people decided to shed their office and move into the open space, to the point that we were getting cramped in the open space so we broke down some of the walls and made the open space bigger. Momentum started to build for sitting together, especially since our tendency is to work in small project groups that get reconfigured every few months. Eventually, almost no one was using a private office.

Our project teams are typically a small team of designers and developers, about three people, working very collaboratively with each other and a client, who is often co-located in our office. We work together and pair regularly, so sitting together makes a lot of sense.

After a few years, additional space opened up in our building and we had the opportunity to move and build it out the way we wanted. At the time the choice seemed clear: embrace the way people were working, creating an open space with banks of desks that matched our project teams and the preference for working that people had clearly demonstrated.

Now, almost a decade later, there is strong evidence that open offices are not as beneficial to productivity as closed offices.

Unfortunately, we aren’t always able to choose what’s best for us. From exercise, to eating healthy, to staying up late, to choosing the most productive working environment, we may not be able to properly evaluate the long term impact of our choices over the short-term gain or enjoyment of them.

Making this even harder for us, there could be other factors which influence behaviors, that you misattribute to another cause. For example, we may believe that people chose the open office space because it seemed more productive, but almost none of the private offices had windows and natural sunlight. Maybe people were gravitating to the open space because it was filled with windows and sunlight?

We do maintain a very quiet environment in our open space, and we have various lounges and meetings rooms for different ways of working. These things help keep productivity high despite the downsides of open offices.

But when we make decisions based on enjoyment and fulfillment in our work, how do we ensure that we’re not making choices that feel better now, even though they may be detrimental over the long term?