Ellie Strejlau

My Ideal Coworking Space

What returning to communal offices looks like to me after being almost completely remote for the last 5 years.
569 words — Approx. 3 minutes
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Because folks are getting vaccinated, more and more people are starting to commute back into offices for work. I’ve noticed the train station becoming more crowded and more people getting on and off the trains at my (above ground) station. In New York State (where I live), masks are no longer mandatory for people who are vaccinated. My company is even talking about allowing those of us who are vaccinated to go back to the office for team meetings, and I’m looking forward to it. I’ve never met my new colleagues in person. I started working at Goldbelly on March 1 of this year. Prior to that, I was working primarily remotely and had only met my previous colleagues a handful of times, at annual company gatherings. Working remotely for 5 years meant I didn’t need to worry about being distracted by conversation around me.

Open office layouts suck

I’ll be right up front: open office layouts are the worst. It might be great for collaboration, but it’s terrible for productivity, focus, and privacy. I’ll briefly give you two of my experiences.

One of the worst times I’ve ever had to work in an open office was a time when I worked in a news room. I sat adjacent to a video editor who had an absurdly loud voice and talked for most of the day on phone calls or meetings from his desk. It was so loud that I was starting to have panic attacks and needed to wear noise cancelling earbuds with only pink noise playing through them. I finally got relief when the office was rearranged and all of the programmers sat in a huddled space together, separated from the rest of the floor with sound-absorbing cubicle walls.

I also had a very pleasant time working in an open office setting, but it was still terrible for my productivity. I was seated around friends working for a consulting company and we were laid out in desk rows positioned 2 face to face and 4 wide. We were also far enough away from other desk groups that we could have siloed conversation. We were also not usually on the same project together, so the conversation was usually not related to work and could be very distracting.

My ideal solution

In a recent episode of our podcast, we discussed the idea of pods or cul-de-sacs of desks. According to the Allen curve, the closer in proximity people are to each other, the more communication happens. In our discussion, we realized that open offices can work, but it might be a good idea to separate teams so there’s not too much distraction going on. I drew up an example of what I mean in the image below.

A diagram of desks in groups of 6 separated by walls or room separators.

In this layout, people in the same small pod or team are placed in close proximity and separated from unrelated work. If retrofitting an open office, the most cost effective solution might be to buy room separators, preferably ones that absorb sound. Most open offices I’ve been in also still have conference rooms where people from different groups or the larger team may gather, and companies can institute snack shrines so there isn’t complete separation.

What do you think? What is your ideal situation to return to a coworking space? Would you prefer to stay remote?

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