Libraries - how companies do not understand open spaces

Working in a library with an open space of 400 seats is nothing unheard of, but such a huge open space at work is doomed to fail. Is it? Let's take a look at what we all can learn from hundreds of years old reading rooms.

Libraries - how companies do not understand open spaces
British Library, London

I encourage all of you to visit your nearby library and spend some time there. It is incredible how many people can focus on their deep work in total silence.

We tend to assume the biggest open space is THE worst open space, and in most cases it is true. But just maybe the issue is not in the size of open space but its lack of a proper culture?

How hundreds of people (in most students) can efficiently work in one place and yet being offered almost the same physical conditions have trouble focusing in a company open space? What we can all learn from libraries?

This article would be much spot-on before COVID as with the epoch of remote work even the biggest open spaces are quite empty nowadays, also many other companies noticed "open space is not working for us" (at last!). If you are still forced to pointlessly work from an open space with bad conditions for deep work, I feel for you, and this article is dedicated to you.

Why do corporations fail to create open spaces?

In many open spaces I have (questionable) pleasure to work in, it was impossible to focus without a pair of noise-canceling headphones. Both for their noise canceling feature and to signal others "do not disturb me", how we ended up having to wear headphones just to be able to work, in a place that should be dedicated to it?

British Museum reading room (1857) floor plan, around 400 seats available

Disconnection between physical space and a culture

The first wrong step is assuming teams and people, often randomly put in an open space will organize a work culture themselves. Having an Office Manager helps to mitigate this problem but only to some degree.

If you take a look at libraries reading room's rules, they all focus on a number of items at the desk or no food/beverage. Rules about no distractions and keeping it quiet are based on the proper manners of attendees and social ostracism in such space, and not listing hundreds of written down rules.

Wild west

Where a corporation has no rules or "processes" it is wild west also often known as a "startup culture". Of course, everybody wants a ping-pong table... especially right next to a big open space! Often it is also encouraged for teams to mark their space and areas.

Unforgiving room architecture

Open spaces are all about removing echo and putting noise-dampening barriers (ex. partition walls, plants etc.), library reading rooms work exactly opposite. They often amplify the noise by room architecture or have almost no noise barriers. If you make a noise you are guaranteed to be noticed and stared down, so you are discouraged from it from the very beginning.

Speaking = working

If we see and hear somebody at work often that person is more noticeable. So we connect speaking with being visible to others and thus being easier to recognized for our "work".

You might say - but hey! isn't work much more collaborative than studying? And in some areas, you are right, in most workplaces you have a "team" that you need to communicate with daily, but is that so much more different from studying and spending time with your group of friends or completing some collaborative assignment together?

No friction

As humans, we tend to pick the lowest effort path to complete a task. As long there is no cultural backlash on interrupting others and speaking too loud in an open space we take a path of "Let's go to Tom to ask about XYZ" as we see Tom right next to us, and he is not talking with anybody so he has to be not working. Putting on those headphones is a signal and creates small but noticeable friction, sometimes just enough to have those uninterrupted 20 minutes of work.

Bibliotheque, Sainte-Genevieve, France

Is there hope?

Leaving "team" at the door

Coworks are quite good at this - enforcing when needed some etiquette and understating that there are others working in focus around you. If you need a more collaborative session with a team - there are separate rooms and discuss as much as you want.

Focusing more on written comms

This is a great approach for many other reasons as well (starting with a whole async+remote topic). Let's start promoting more text-friendly ways of collaboration in the organization.

No calls at desk policy

If we ask people to do calls only in rooms (ask them to change space), we have a much more quiet work environment for others, and we create small but noticeable friction for calls, it might encourage people to more apply written comms (point above) in some situations. We often go with a call as there is no friction associated with it - "let's do a quick call".

Open space is also a culture

Understanding that the Office Manager is not only responsible for physical space but also for culture around the office. No less important is better planning at the beginning - an understanding of who and how will work in those rooms. Putting partition walls helps only to some degree, but often it is a bandaid of squeezing more teams and people than originally planned into one space.

Create friction if needed

Put on your headphones, or ask people to first write on slack before jumping out of blue with a "quick question". Make people think twice before utilizing their lowest effort path without any hesitation.
Consider removing noise barriers, so noise sources are clearly visible. Instead, put those partition walls or plants where you don't have influence (ex. kitchen nearby).

If everything else fails, consider sending your whole team to a library for a day or two.