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July 17, 2012, by Jim Schriefer

I Can Have My Headphones and Wear Them Too

A number of years ago, SHP hired a “stodgy” semi-retired architect (we’ll call him George for the sake of this blog) to fill the role as project manager and to teach his “craft” to a much younger and less experienced staff.  George quickly categorized people into two sets, those who wear headphones and those who do not.  George would maintain a running list of names under each category and then ask a young architect “which one do you want to be?”  It was clear from the list that those who did not wear headphones worked on projects that experienced much greater success than those projects with team members who wore them.

Our office at the time was “open” yet filled with eye-level cubicles surrounding every two workstations.  But was the office really “open”?  Did the eye-level workstations provide privacy yet support collaboration?  Was it an environment which fostered learning?  No, no and no. Privacy was created with headphones.  Collaboration amounted to “gophering” which was standing on the rail of our chairs to see over the tops of the cubicles.  Learning was dependent on who sat with you in your cubicle.  Not wearing headphones was the only variable which supported collaboration and learning, often through eaves-dropping, which led to greater project success.

Our present office is indeed open with 42" high “cubicle” walls along main aisles with a desk-level divider between neighboring workstations.  Pods of workstations are separated by open collaborative spaces.  I can see across multiple workstations and beyond without having to stand on the rails of my chair.

As a specification writer, one would think that the role would demand privacy (an office) so to focus on the nuance of numbers, standards, and all things factual of what a material or process should be.  Quite the opposite is true.  I liken my role to an air traffic controller who not only uses radar but visual and audio cues to perform their job successfully.  I direct traffic and to do so I need to see and hear people and they need to see and hear me.  It works back and forth; we collaborate, we learn from each other, and we receive help and advice from others around us who may not be part of the immediate project team.  My success is attributed to the true open office and my ability to leverage the diverse knowledge of those around me.

Several months ago I had lunch with George and he was shocked to learn that I have started to wear headphones.  Sometimes I just need to wear them to get through a difficult specification, to meet a deadline, or just because I want to listen to a new release from Lawrence Welk.  I explained to George that the new standard for judging project success is whether or not you work in an office with traditional cubicles or a true open office environment.  You see, I can have my headphones and wear them too!