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Balancing act: Are open offices better for workers, productivity?

If you had called me at work during the last few weeks, you would have heard some interesting — and a bit alarming — noises in the background.

Deep, booming sounds. The occasional crash of something large falling to the ground. Hammers pounding away.

This was our soundtrack around the office as construction workers built a temporary wall at one end of our space and started an expansion project.

As I mentioned in a recent column, the company for which I work is growing rapidly, which means we've hired many new people during the past few months. All those new hires need somewhere to sit, and we've run out of empty cubicles. The only solution is to add more space.

Fortunately, our building had vacant space available next to our existing office, so we can easily expand. But until that work is done, our construction serenade will continue.

I don't mind much as I know it's temporary and necessary for our continued growth. That's positive.

However, it has reminded me once again how much I miss having an office and why I'm not a huge fan of open floor plans at work.

During my career as a journalist, I spent thousands of hours in an open office — a noisy one at that. I usually wasn't dealing with construction noises, but I could hear police scanners, televisions and sometimes heated conversations between reporters and editors.

I eventually developed the ability to tune out most of those sounds. They became white noise to me, and I'm guessing that if I walked into a newsroom today, it would still sound like home.

When I became managing editor of deseretnews.com, I had the opportunity to work in my own office, complete with walls that went all the way up to the ceiling, a window that provided a view of downtown Salt Lake City and a door that I could close for privacy.

I wasn't sure I'd like the office at first, but I quickly learned to love it. Especially as a manager, I appreciated the fact that I could conduct a scheduled or impromptu one-on-one meeting with a team member without having to look for an available conference room.

And if the newsroom outside ever grew distractingly loud, I could close the door for some peace and quiet.

Nice.

Since leaving that job, I've worked for two companies at which I've been back in a cubicle. That required an adjustment on my part, but in some ways it's been a good thing.

At my last job, my cubicle was near those of my team members. This allowed me to easily participate in conversations, and it made me accessible to my team at a moment's notice (assuming I wasn't in a meeting).

In my new position, my cubicle is located next to those of my fellow managers. This has been extremely helpful as I've tried to learn the ropes and collaborate with them on projects.

These are the kinds of communication benefits that proponents of the open office environment always emphasize. An office with low-walled cubicles aligned closely together in rows stimulates conversation as well as the creation and flow of ideas, they say.

Perhaps. But I'm not convinced that it always works exactly the way those proponents suggest.

If you work in an open office, you've probably noticed that many of the people sitting in the cubicles around you spend most of their days wearing headphones. While some of them may be listening to their favorite tunes, I'm sure you'd find that many of them aren't jamming to music at all. Rather, they're trying to cancel out the noise of their colleagues' free-flowing ideas.

Those low-walled cubicles can be a bit disconcerting in another way, too. For example, I am facing the manager who sits next to me almost all the time. If we're both working at our computers, he's in my peripheral vision, and I'm in his. I'll sometimes catch a glimpse of him and think he's about to say something, so I'll stop working and look at him, only to realize I was wrong. But then he notices me looking at him, so he feels like he needs to stop working and look back. Then we both realize our error, shrug and get back to business.

It's not a huge deal, but I'm not sure that's conducive to high productivity.

I also wonder if some people's desire to work from home on occasion is at least partly due to the open office trend. People have told me in the past that they like to telecommute when they really need to concentrate because they can create an atmosphere free of noise and distractions.

As I've researched other work-life topics during the past few weeks, I've run across several articles that outline these pros and cons of open offices. I'm still of two minds on the issue. I'm glad my current setup allows me to quickly ask a colleague a question or float an idea. But when the room gets noisy or I need to have a private conversation, I miss the walls and door of an office.

What do you think about this topic? Do you work in an open office? If so, do you think it's beneficial to your productivity and collaboration with colleagues? Or do you feel you'd work better if you had more privacy? Do you ever telecommute because you can't concentrate at work?

Send me an email or leave a comment online with your responses, and I'll mention some of them when I revisit this issue in a future column.

In the meantime, I'll keep working to the sounds of hammers and drills. It may be loud and occasionally startling, but at least it's the sound of progress.

Email your comments to kratzbalancingact@gmail.com or post them online at deseretnews.com. Follow me on Twitter at gkratzbalancing or on Facebook on my journalist page.