Open-plan offices have been taking a lot of heat from such reputable sources as The Washington Post, The New Yorker, and The Onion.

Why the heat? According to research cited by these articles, open-plan offices lead to increases in distractions, interruptions, illness, and stress, and reductions in productivity, creative thinking, satisfaction, concentration, and motivation.

That all sounds bad, so why do companies continue to introduce and maintain open-plan offices?

Open-plan offices offer some benefits. It’s a lot easier to interact with your colleagues. There’s an increased sense of camaraderie and familiarity. Many times, companies have put a small group of people into a “war room” to get a critical project done quickly. The open-plan office is seen as a way of getting the war room effect all the time.

Of course, there is also the cost savings. Open-plan offices can fit more people per square foot than offices or cubicles, so you need less office space to house the same number of people. You also save on the cost of cubicles.

During my career, I’ve worked in many different environments. I’ve been in private offices, cube farms, open-plan offices, and worked from home. I’ve even been in a hybrid configuration: an open-plan bullpen in the midst of a cube farm.

There are pros and cons to all of these working arrangements. Private offices and working from home provide a lot of distraction-free concentration time, but can be isolating. Open-plan offices can be distracting and stressful, but the additional collaboration is powerful. I have pretty much nothing good to say about cube farms.

I am not really a social person, but I prefer the open-plan office to all of the other options if it is done right.

What do I mean by “done right”?

  • What’s successful about war rooms? The people are all working on the same thing. Putting a group of people together that are working on completely different projects makes no sense. All they do is confuse and distract each other.

  • The people must all be working in a similar fashion. Putting software developers working on an application next to salespeople who are selling the application is not good. Yes, they’re on the same project, but the salespeople are on the phone all day talking, and the developers are trying to concentrate on building the software.

  • Meetings and discussions that don’t involve everyone must move out of the space. It’s very difficult to get any focused work done when there is a meeting going on around you.

  • There needs to be some private space for people to go when they need some deep thinking time or to carry on a private conversation.

Given all of the above, I think the biggest contribution to the success of an open-plan office for me is pair programming.

When all of the developers and designers are pairing, there’s more conversation and noise going on in the space, but it feels less distracting because you are having your own conversation with your pair. It’s easier to focus on the person you’re talking to and mostly ignore the other noise going on around you.

People are less likely to interrupt a pair that are engaged in their task.

In addition, you have the opportunity to see or hear when another pair is in need of assistance, and you can offer them help that saves them hours of work.

Sometimes individual productivity, as measured by the above-mentioned studies, is sub-optimal overall. If I can help my co-workers out with a problem before they spend hours struggling, it might be worth the productivity hit to me individually. If the less experienced members of the team have immediate and direct access to the more experienced, how much faster will they improve and grow, thereby making the entire team better?

Simply putting everyone in your company in one room to save money is not healthy. But a project team working together in an open space with everyone pairing is extremely effective.

As is often the case, context is everything. There is no one right answer that works for all teams in all situations. But don’t simply throw out the idea of an open-plan office without understanding your people and your context.