One morning last week, I arrived at my desk — one of the hundreds arranged in long rows throughout the Huffington Post newsroom — and instinctively took out my earbuds.
“What kind of music do you listen to?” my coworker Alex asked me.
I hadn’t had enough coffee that morning and I was confused (also I’m perpetually afraid of not liking the “right” music because I’m 26 but still in high school).
“What? Why?” I asked.
Alex explained that he always saw me with my earbuds in, so he assumed I was really into music. Oh. In reality, I often have earbuds in with nothing playing, or some random Spotify radio station I don’t really care about. I listen to the kind of music that functions as white noise to cut out the voices of the dozens of people around me.
In a big open newsroom, cutting out the sound around me is my favorite way to construct imagined private space where none exists.
Here’s the thing: The open plan, itself, is not really the problem. Office design experts now think that you need elements of an open plan as well as closed private offices to encourage people to produce their best work. The key is recognizing that employees have different working styles that require different types of spaces. Often, what the same person needs in the workplace varies from one task to the next.
The office of the future has both open and private spaces. It has spaces where two people can have a quiet conversation, spaces for people to do highly focused work and lots of open areas where creativity and innovation can thrive. The office of the future is about giving workers both flexibility and agency.
“What has happened [to the workplace] is it has gone from a real estate discussion… to becoming more of a people-centric discussion,” said Tracy Wymer, the director of workplace strategy at Knoll, the office design firm. And people, it turns out, need privacy sometimes.
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