My Kingdom For A Door

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Horror stories about the wall-less world abound. When dividers at a Manhattan placement agency were removed to foster "working together," reports Cecile Marie, 41, the 12 people in the 20-ft. by 30-ft. space started yelling across the room to one another. "We eventually brought in a psychiatrist because we were all so stressed," she says. "That's one of the reasons I left."

Now an independent coach who helps executives achieve work satisfaction and performance, Marie hears a variety of complaints about open offices. The gamut runs from increased friction with co-workers to a rise in "corporate speak" because of fear of being overheard to a decline in critical thinking. Since 1997, Marie has seen a rise in gripes: "This situation has forced some employees to resign from firms and to demand adequate space in the firms that hire them."

A frustration voiced by clients of Martella Keniry, owner of Los Angeles consultancy Organize to Optimize, which helps individuals and companies plan their physical space, is that open offices are big time wasters. "When co-workers cruise by one's cubby for a chat," she notes, "it takes the average person five to 10 minutes to get back a deep level of concentration. Multiply that by 10 times a day--a low estimate--and you have 50 to 100 minutes of wasted time." Others maintain that impromptu dialogues are the raison d'etre of the open office. At the Pasadena, Calif., quarters of idealab!, an incubator for start-up Internet companies, Gary Horwitz, vice president for real estate and facilities, notes, "The openness of the space is conducive to a free flow of communication and problem solving."

Even when corporations claim to love the open plan, observes Seppy Basili, a co-founder of marketing firm Learning Brands, eliminating private offices is not "sincere." His company, he notes, moved from one large room without enclosures to new space with five (doorless) offices for managers. "Hierarchy is a reality," he says, "and there are times when senior staff absolutely need privacy to talk to investors or discuss personnel issues."

Disregarding the need for privacy, suggests Brill, results "in a kind of masked sweatshop mentality. The cost reductions in physical plants have blinded people to the benefits of employees' being able to concentrate on their work and having necessary private moments."

Many protests against open offices, experts warn, are actually gripes about offices that are not well designed to accommodate differing kinds of work. Some companies are trying to address these problems by compensating workers for the loss of private spaces with amenities like rec rooms or homey kitchens. More to the point, they are creating at least a few places where employees can go to make a private phone call, work in peace with their teams or just hear themselves think.

"Escape routes" are what Ogilvy & Mather CEO Jerry McGee calls the conference rooms and "war rooms" created for the ad agency's new Los Angeles offices. To allow private conversations, idealab! has installed three "phone booths," 4-ft. by 5-ft. rooms, each with a stool, a countertop, a phone mounted on the wall and a glass-paneled wood-frame door. The booths will also be a feature of the company's offices in New York City, Palo Alto, Calif., Boston and London, all scheduled to open in November.

Retreats like these are on the rise in the newest high-end offices, but even the best do not have enough of them. McGee still raves about the adrenaline buzz and spontaneity of his shop. He laughs when asked where he fires people. "I take them on a long walk," he says.

Walking away is a strategy more and more workers are using. On the phone with your lover and the chat heats up? Talking to your doctor and the news gets grim? Just pick up your cell phone and amble to a hallway or right out of the building. "I can't tell you how often we've pulled up at a client's," says Santa Barbara, Calif., architect Robin Donaldson, "and found the CEO out in the parking lot making a cell-phone call. I think the proliferation of cell phones has made these open offices workable."

If you need to opt out of the collective din, you can put on headphones. At ad agency Ground Zero in Los Angeles, chairman Jim Smith reports, "everyone's computer plays music, so they wear their headphones and create their own worlds." At idealab! several people resort to this strategy. "I have no idea what they're listening to," says Horwitz.

To really solve the attention problem, many workers are taking an even more radical step: they are leaving the office. With their companies' blessing, more and more of them are working at home, at least part time. Little wonder, says researcher Brill, given how hard it is to concentrate in these places, no matter how young and hip you are. His son Zeke is a good example.

Zeke Brill, 28, director of game development for Heavy.com, a broadband entertainment company, works from home at least two days a week. Heavy.com's dramatic Manhattan office--all white with red floors in an old Garment Center office building--houses more than 30 people, ages 25 to 30, in one long room partitioned by white, translucent Plexiglas panels suspended from the ceiling. Behind his dividers, Brill sits with two other guys on his team. The video games on their monitors attract high traffic, and the live-action features filmed on the other side of the dividers occasionally erupt with gunfire. "The energy's great," Brill exclaims, "but besides managing people, I'm the programmer for most of the games, and that work requires more focus." At home he can get started earlier--no morning rituals like dressing or shaving--and between breaks for showering, eating and other mundane occupations, he can concentrate on the more technical part of his work. But he is in constant e-mail communication with his teammates and says all his best ideas come from bouncing things off them.

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