Monday, March 11, 2019

Signal-to-Noise: The Workspace Application

I have seen people who think open spaces rock, and people declaring them “the worst possible layout.”

Some people like offices (find them “essential”) and others hate them.

I met people who liked their cubicles, while most find them soulless and dehumanizing.

Most collocated teams like sitting in “pods” but some don’t.

I have a theory rather than a great design. My theory begins “it depends.” It only becomes interested when we get to “depends on what”.

So, there is information in every space. Visual, audible, olfactory, etc. 
  • Some of that space is on your screen when you’re working at the computer.
  • Some is posters, drawings, whiteboards.
  • Some is discussion happening nearby.
  • Some is via information radiators. 
If you take away the information, then it’s harder to be both focused and aware. Starved of information, we will be less productive and do less valuable work. Think of being the one remote person trying to keep up on the changes to a project and the culture of your org without email/slack/etc. Or the dev org without customer feedback. Information matters.

That’s half the picture. The other is noise. 

Noise is just information that isn’t relevant to the work you’re trying to do or the group in which you’re maintaining membership.

Signal:Noise. Yep, that old chestnut.

But here you go: if you’re in an open space, and you’re sitting among people who are not part of your taskload, who don’t share your goals and outcomes, then being there in all the noise is unsatisfactory. 

Likewise, if people are in groups, but you sit in a group that isn’t your group, S:N sucks.

Being in an office or cubicle isn’t so bad (and can be beloved) if you do solo work most of the time, and your tasks are pretty well isolated from that of all the other people in the space. But if you’re positively interdependent with other people, then walls and doors just get in the way. 

This suggests something obvious: form should follow function; as you work, so should you sit. 

There is one other thing: you need a place for your humanity too: pictures of the family and pets, photos from your favorite vacations, posters from concerts, mementos of good times. Because you’re a human. In an impersonal space, one can feel detached from their non-work life. That kind of dis-integration is not all that healthy for most people. 

Long post, I know.
But I believe these things.
And so I don’t tell anyone what the “right” arrangement is. 

Note: this is republished from an email conversation I had a while back.

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