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Sorry, we're too busy collaborating to think

Photo: David Croxford

Office layouts? Thank you for asking. Yes, I have thought a lot about the issue and do have strong views.

Senior writer Stacy Yuen dives deep into the debate and you’ll read a lot of opinions on what works for different types of companies. Fun story, illuminating pictures and useful information, especially if you are thinking about redoing your office or reinventing your company.

I spent three decades working in traditional newsrooms, which are classic examples of collaborative offices, the kind now in vogue because they allow immediate and constant brainstorming among employees.

In my first two newsrooms after graduating from university, I worked part of the time on custom-built U-shaped desks with a senior editor inside the U and writers and other editors along the rim. It allowed for immediate collaboration on everything from the urgent and important – “I just got a tip that the mayor is going to resign. Steve, get down to City Hall NOW!” – to the mundane and annoying – “Are there two Rs in guerrilla?”

My later newsrooms had similar layouts, but with more conventional furniture. And if all of my colleagues had been perfect people (my definition of the perfect person: Someone just like my ideal self, though not the person I really am), I would love to still be working in those open newsrooms.

When my colleagues were no more than 10 feet away, we could quickly discuss and resolve an ethical dilemma and still make deadline. We could brainstorm on potential sources to find out if Liberty House was actually going to declare bankruptcy. But we also wasted time with bad jokes, tales of dates gone wrong and thinking out loud on trivial matters best resolved without disrupting anyone else’s train of thought.

Chatty people had a captive audience. Reporters conducting an interview on the phone unavoidably drew everyone nearby into their conversation. Visual distractions were everywhere. It was hell for people with ADHD, which to some degree includes us all. People said they learned to cope, but I doubt they were able to do their best work.

That’s why I love my current setup. I have an office and everyone on my staff has either individual cubicles or works in small clusters. We can think independently about what we are writing, editing, designing or planning without frequent interruptions.

Yet collaboration with anyone on the editorial team is within 15 feet. Need to figure out the best way to illustrate a story? I will walk across the hall to art directors Jen and Mary’s area and discuss it without interrupting anyone else. Dennis wants to suggest a story? He’ll swing by my office without having to interrupt Bev as she writes her latest article. Each can collaborate with each other. Need group brainstorming? We’ll call a “five-minute meeting” and all hash it out next to someone’s desk.

I am told that open offices are perfect for startups and other companies that seek constant collaboration to stay on the cutting edge and innovate all the time. By all means, go for it. But, on behalf of those of us who are innovating only part of the time, I’ll stick with my current setup.

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Hawaii Business,September