Library Rules: How to make an open office plan work

We have an open office plan at work, as does just about everybody these days. While acknowledging the organizational benefits of open offices (lower costs, essentially), Jason Fried (CEO of Basecamp) shares some thoughts on how to implement such a plan thoughtfully, with respect for the people who’ll actually work in such a space—he considers not just the organization as a user, but also the organization’s employees.

There are two prongs to Basecamp’s open office approach.

First, embrace the model open office plan, tested and improved over centuries—the library:

Libraries are full of people working, reading, thinking, studying, writing, contemplating, designing, etc. Yet they’re silent. People are heads down doing independent work. In our opinion, this is the model business, the model office.

Embrace Library Rules. Open offices work all around the world every day. They’re called libraries! And the more you treat your office as a library of work — rather than a chaotic kitchen of work — the better an open floor plan is going to work. Making an open floor plan work is a cultural decision.

Library Rules means keeping to yourself, keeping your voice down in hushed tones, not distracting one another. If you do need to talk to someone at normal volumes, grab a room.

Fried extends this logic to chat rooms, too, asserting that “real-time chat rooms/channels are basically open offices”. I feel this: just as in a noisy office, there’s an impulse with chat rooms to listen in to all the conversations going on, to chime in whenever you can. Fortunately, I’ve found it a bit easier/more socially acceptable to ignore what’s going on in a chat room—people can’t see you ignoring that space.

The second aspect of Basecamp’s open office approach is to allow people to opt out:

We did the best job we could designing an open office (and a culture) that allows everyone to work in focused peace and quiet every day. But even that’s not good enough, which is why no one is ever required to come into our office.

This last point is what successful open office plans, or any office plans, come down to: offer the space (and tools) your team needs to do good work, then trust them to do so as suits them best—and get out of the way.

10:45 am on December 27, 2018