The tale of two offices

I once worked in a consumer goods company which went from Individual offices to open plan.

I now work in an advertising agency where we have moved from individual offices to open desks.

What happened at these two firms is interesting. The first office (consumer goods marketing) sent out a mass email banning iPods (and any other brand of personal music device – this is seriously what the email said). Claiming that the idea of open plan was to encourage open communications, and it was rude to listen to music while working. That we couldn’t do our jobs while listening to music as it was distracting. While at the same time the directors had offices with doors.

The second office (advertising) did something much different. Firstly, all the directors have the same size desk and space as every employee. On our first day in the new office we all had a gift on our desk wrapped beautifully with a ribbon. Inside the pack was free coffee vouchers (for the cafe across the road) and a brand new iPod nano. And it had a note which said the following:

“The iPod nano – this is good for a few things. Moving to open will at times be challenging. If you feel it is getting on top of you, then feel free to bung in your iPod and listen to your favourite tunes. We’re also into the idea that we can all play part in creating our new vibe. So we’ll be asking you to supply the music each day. We’ll place a sign at the reception that says “Today’s music thanks to Ant Shannon.” Please make your playlist and get it on the dock. The iPods you’ve received also take video – get in the habit of recording the stuff you like or think about. Keep it, play it, share it.”

A massive difference in attitude, culture and resulting creative output. The culture we create in our startup or any business is a result of what we do, and we can change it at any time with a bit of effort and humanity.


75 Comments The tale of two offices

  1. gmomj

    I can see where this would be a huge turn on for the more youth oriented employee, team spirit and all that. For the older employee I would guess they either were not employed there or were more tongue in cheek over the “gosh gee an Ipod and coffee” gimmick.
    It’s cute to be sure.
    Where I work everyone is part of the team but everyone is a workhorse as well. No one gets any pats on the back but the pays allright.
    Interesting post.

  2. sunshinediary

    Yepp, that’s about how to NOT do it and how to DO it, isn’t it? Open space is So challenging and impossible without being able to create your “own little space”. nice post without any unnecessary information in there ๐Ÿ™‚ thanks!

  3. Taylor

    Incredible! I’ve worked in PR for the past two years and have never been fortunate enough to work for a company so grounded.

  4. the bizzle in the pizzle

    ipods in an open plan office are rude, no matter what you think. on the other hand, the whole concept of open plan is just on the cheap side, if its purpose isn’t to create a functional working space, i.e. if everyone has its own job and doesn’t need permanent interactions. in this case, a pair of earcuffs means just a pathetic self-defense.

    in my office – i own it, and my blog is all about it – music is used mainly in the form of loops of a single tune, to boost productivity during forcings when deadlines are ticking. i even have an older post dedicated to it. recently, it’s used to bring luck and cofidence during the longer breaks ๐Ÿ˜€ you have to read between the lines other posts to understand what i mean.

  5. Joanne

    I LOVE the idea of different people providing the music each day. What a great way to create ‘community’ and generate communication among colleagues. And if the music of the day is not to your taste, then just plug in your iPod!
    Great approach to get people on board with the change…

  6. Fernando Pacheco

    That’s really awesome. I especially like the idea of each employee sharing their playlist for the day. I’ve heard of other ad agencies nurturing a creative environment — like in an episode of Dog Whisperer, the ad agency let people bring their dogs with them to work.

    Congrats on what seems to be a fantastic career change.

    – ferNando (@fernrocks)

  7. StartVids

    I’ve been working for a company for a year now, which is on it’s way to the agency you’re currently working at-with an NYC AdTech ticket for the best seller in the office, and weekly prizes. Very motivating. Go New-School Management!


  8. CrystalSpins

    Man…I wish I had a door that I could close. I have my own cube, but lately I feel like I can’t get anything done because of the constant distractions. It would be AMAZING if I were able to listen to music during the day.

    At my last office I had the best workday ever (highly productive and fun) while we all listened to a Jack Johnson CD the entire day. I thought maybe it was Jack, but I have tried just listening to the CD since then and was not able to produce the same result.

    Thanks for sharing!


  9. Lee Swancott

    That’s an awesome idea but then I work by myself so don’t have to worry about upsetting people with my music tastes! I hope your going to update this sometime soon with the weirdest track heard so far or something similar!

  10. thecodger

    Well, I certainly know which office I’d prefer to work in! I miss the good old days when you’d go in and find free sandwiches on your chair or under your desk. And I’m not talking about a peanut butter sandwich either. I mean a real sandwich, with meat and cheese and all the fixings.

    The Codger

  11. Brooke

    I work in an open floor plan (also an ad agency). Tall ceilings, concrete floors… the white sound in this place is nonstop. Headphones are essential for actually getting work done. But we definitely communicate…without ever leaving our seats. ๐Ÿ™‚

  12. sketchseven

    Great post โ€“ every company and culture is different, as are the products they make, but for advertising I would think anything that encourages the free flow of ideas and creativity is good. Great stuff and good thinking by your bosses.

  13. Catherine

    It’s amazing how two different companies (and types of companies) took such different approaches. You have to inspire creatiivity for people to be comfortable in an open space environment, not force it on people. Sounds like the ad agency is a great place to work!

  14. whydidshedothat

    That is very cool of the second office. Having worked in open office environments, it can get incredibly tough being around your coworkers all day. You’re exposed to their habits, good and bad, and sometimes you just want to run and hide in the stairwell for a few minutes just to have some time to yourself. Having an ipod or other device makes it bearable. When you want to talk, you can talk. When you need to tune everyone out, you can…literally.

  15. Twenty Ten Club

    Nice! It’s amazing how many companies forget it’s the thoughtful gestures that can make the world of difference.

  16. natinanorton

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed and a very interesting post on office culture!

    I had a similar experience working in an office recently. It was open plan and filled with all women (myself included). My job basically consisted of creating graphics and working on the company website and newsletter. The apparent purpose of everyone else in the office, however, was to discuss who with and where they partied the previous weekend, clothes, food, money, shoes, personal crises – your typically nightmare when you’re trying to concentrate and, you know, actually do your work. After several months of this, I finally decided to tune out of the noise and listen to some music on my headphones. The boss HATED this and, despite the fact that she hardly ever spoke to me before (other than via email), she now insisted on yelling across the office to get my attention often for no reason. Maybe she felt intimidated by the fact that I appeared to be unavailable? Maybe she just wanted me to work as little as she did? Or maybe she was upset she never got her own office so she could have her private hour long conversations with her sister in peace.

    One thing’s for sure, though. If I found an iPod nano on my desk one morning, I’d probably still be working there. ๐Ÿ™‚


  17. michaeleriksson

    It is odd, how many companies actually damage their own interests in naive attempts to protect them. I would have had a limited sympathy if the first company had risked some amount of goodwill and employee satisfaction (with the possibility of a backlash in productivity and loyalty) for an actual benefit; however, the removal of music will likely be a negative thing per se (even discounting indirect psychological/demotivational effects) by making work more boring and exposing the employees to more office noise (which, unlike music, does have a negative effect).

  18. Ahna Rebekah Hendrix

    That, is an excellent idea.

    I do not believe that any creative environment has the potential to grow when something as personal as an iPod can be restricted in a workplace. It is a slap in the face of anyone who needs to express him/herself in their own way.

    We all need to be able to escape or to just zone out and jump in.

    I think it’s awesome that your new job is so understanding and obviously in touch with their employees ~ seems like you got uber lucky ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Freedom and openness create unlimited creativity. Period.

  19. bloggingjustaboutapple

    Aaaah that is so cool! Love the iPod nano but I have an iPod touch! Why not check my blog at:

    Please leave some comments on my Post!

    Also check out my Post about Isaac Newton + Steve Jobs.


  20. jdlangtonblog

    I can see both sides of the management perspective on this. Open-plan is purported to improve communication and in that environment headphones can seem a bit antisocial. On the other hand, the background noise of the average open-plan office is not always conducive to concentration.

    The truth is, the enhanced communication and creativity I have experienced in open plan offices has generally concerned only a handful of select individuals. I am sure I could reach a consensus with those individuals over silence, a musical selection or even a cricket broadcast as ambient noise at any given time. Thus I would argue in favour of offices of 4 to 5 people over the open plan format that generally leaves me feeling like a drone (no pun intended).

    However, from a mangement perspective, buying everyone a Nano may be an effective way, albeit an expensive one, to achieve staff buy-in for a potentially disruptive change of office.

  21. Robert Bain

    A great post – something that anyone hoping to improve how employees view the company should read. isn’t it amazing how someone creative can do something in such a different way that it results in a completely different outcome. Whether opening an office, opening a business or marketing your business – some creativity can make all the difference in the world.

  22. sakakikala

    This is pretty awesome. :3
    I work in a machine shop personally, but I’m allowed to listen to my ipod touch while working, and let’s just say, it takes a LOT of the stress out of the workday!
    Running a part for the first time on this machine, its likely I could crash it if I’m not careful, but w/o music, I’m highwired and jittery, because im so afraid of crashing it. Music/podcasts calm me down enough so I’m not jittery and gets part of my mind focused on that(the part that would be normally jittery?) and the other half focused on the job.

    It also keeps me from killing my omni co-workers whom love to make fun of my being vegan. >_> If I can’t hear em, I don’t know what they are saying. ๐Ÿ™‚

  23. musingsb0utn0thing

    wow. that’s a great way to inspire creativity. =) keep sharing the love for music and all creatives =)

  24. Pingback: The tale of two offices « My Buddy

  25. lilabyrd

    How nice! Wow what a novel approach…. treat the employees like grown up adults! I’ve worked for both types and the second type worked the best for me. Congrats on making Fresh Pressed too! Enjoyed your post. :}

  26. Andy

    Great post, thanks.

    Naturally, the approach taken by the ad agency is a much better example of leadership and the difference in employee attitude and workplace culture would be noticeable. But comparing the “creative output” of the two offices (and I’m not sure how you did that) would be quite a complex process with a lot of variables.

    Alsoโ€”though probably not the main point of your postโ€”take a look at this study. Listening to iPods might make us feel better, but it’s likely to decrease cognitive performance. [Science]

    Do you think the improvement in mood and culture in the second workplace would outweigh any decrease in productivity (e.g. recall ability) caused by listening to music?

  27. Bindu Menon

    things we take for granted! have workd in advertising for a good 15 years before i dared to venture into the client’s side. did not last for more than a year. Nothing creative ever came from following strict rules and a list of dos and dont does

  28. jasmineluv86

    Wow! Really cool.. The atmosphere you create at ur place of work reflects productivity it also depends on the field!

    Check out my blog… Still trying to find my bite until then am having fun, kinda new to this..


  29. Gareth

    Might i suggest the Countdown theme tune (British Quiz show for those who dont know) You could keep it looping until the deadline and have its twiddling finale announce the close.
    That will keep those minds of your good for nothing slackers you employee on their business!

  30. michaeleriksson

    I can only speak for myself, but if I hear even a tune I love on repeat, it grows old very fast—and there are many successful tunes that would literarally drive me to a “Stop this music before I smash the cd player [or whatever the source is]!’ mood (rather than higher productivity) even after half-a-dozen repetitions.

    You may also want to consider that it makes an enormous difference, psychologically, whether the listener is himself in control of the music (e.g. through an iPod) or whether he is forced to listen to someone elses choices.

    (Your statement about rudeness is your subjective opinion, which I do not share.)

  31. dushyantmk

    Protectionism and just passing on orders without excuses is what most companies do without realizing that if an employee feels unfairly treated, he/she will walk away at the first opportunity they will get.

    I think your current company understands the value of its asset which is the team of people working together.

    Best of luck mate!

  32. dushyantmk

    And more!

    My employer has ordered us not to share the meal at lunch time in the canteen.

    Everyone must stand-up at the time prayers are played in the office music system.

    No Headphones!

    and blah blah!

  33. A. M. Leal

    You wrote: “A massive difference in attitude, culture and resulting creative output. The culture we create in our startup or any business is a result of what we do, and we can change it at any time with a bit of effort and humanity.”

    This in-and-of itself is the grassroots of your message. Thanks for sharing ๐Ÿ™‚

  34. Pingback: Walkinโ€™ The Blog: Opening Up vs Shutting Down « In-HOWse

  35. Enrique

    I’ve worked with both closed office and open office. As a designer I like having a closed office. The communication was difficult, but it did allow for my private conversation with staff to get the job done. Open offices are great for “company culture” and by its design, forces individuals to lose individuality and become “part of the group” or “group think.” Which is great happy go lucky lifestyle. However, all conversations are privy to others, all day. Now I have to hear the admin asst. giving design solutions to how to cook soup. A lot of waste of time and conversation. Also, since nothing is private, little conversation is done between supervisors and staff. So problems keep going without solutions.
    The internet is an open society. But that doesn’t mean all the time and in every place wherever I work.

  36. La Femme Froggita

    I think this is really neat, and very telling. The difference between my old job and my current one is that while one pretended to encourage an easy going atmosphere, it ultimately was frowned upon. They also had a lot of double standards. What I love about the company I work for now is that they encourage a “free” environment. As long as you get your job done, the flexibility seems endless. My boss has worked with me on everything from my personal crisis (which might result in missing a day or getting there late) as well as being very supportive of the always inconvenient school schedules. Now if only I could get them to gift us all an ipod… ๐Ÿ˜‰

  37. hoodoojuju

    I was talking with a friend the other day about managing people. I have, after some years, come up with my own formula for success: 1. Hire well. 2. Be clear about your expectations. 3. Offer support as needed. 4. Don’t be a douche. 5. Make it fun whenever possible. 6. Let the little stuff slide.

    Sounds like office #2 has this down pat.

Leave a Reply