Tina Lewis Rowe

Insights, Information & Inspiration

Bullpen Offices Require More From Employees and Managers

What About Those Bullpen Offices?

Bullpen office design is based on the open offices of newsrooms and other businesses where frequent communication is necessary and privacy is unnecessary. (The layout was developed when the only way to communicate was to talk directly.)  

It has also long been used in secretarial areas where the “pool” is clustered in one big room, away from the private offices of those who give them their work. Many detective squads have that set-up as do other office-based workplaces.  The difference is that it used to be there was an illusion of space because desks were a bit larger and frankly, people were usually more courteous than is the norm in many workplaces today. It also works acceptably if there is some visual space in the overall work area and if there are at least half walls between desks.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said if he was President he would establish a bullpen style White House office, like the one he now has, pictured below. He says he can’t understand why someone would want to be shut away from the action. I’ll comment on that in a moment.


A 1981 Prediction: I recall taking an office design class in 1981 and touring a business that planned offices all over the country. They had cute little model offices in various configurations, among them an open office. As the lead designer talked about the future of office design he pointed out the expense of walls, outlets and lights and how much can be saved by having everything in one big room, with a few conference rooms.

One of the other students, who had his own office, said he wouldn’t like that because he liked having privacy, even if he only had a tiny, dinky little office. He said he liked to be able to concentrate, handle business calls in private and work with clients in a more private setting. He also said he liked to be somewhat insulated from the various personalities that would be hard to handle up-close, all day. The planner said, “Well, maybe you would be willing to pay back the company the hundreds of dollars extra they spend on your tiny, dinky little office so you can have that privacy. Hmmm?”  (Where is a chain saw when you need one?)

Right before we walked away from the model our teacher said she thought the open office concept might help if employees needed to solve problems together. A second designer–nicer than the first–said, “That’s how companies will sell it anyway.”

Problems with bullpen offices: I doubt there is anything you or I can say to change a decision about having a bullpen office if the decision-makers are convinced it’s cheaper and better.  However, since I spend a lot of time giving advice about workplace issues on the Ask the Workplace Doctor website, let me at least say that if such an open office design is used, more is required from employees and managers to ensure an effective and tolerable workplace.

Considering Mayor Bloomberg’s admirable but not altogether applicable bullpen office preference, I’ll suggest that I doubt he spends eight to ten hours sitting at his desk every day. He’s not on a timeline to design a website, do an audit, issue checks, counsel with employees, talk with clients or handle the arrangements for a conference. If someone becomes a thorn in his paw, day after dreary day, he can do something about it.

I also will bet he isn’t surrounded by coworkers who do any of the things people write to the Workplace Doctors to complain about: 

Have hygiene deficiencies of ALL kinds, hum incessantly, belch, eat smelly food, crunch ice, sigh and sigh again, pass gas several times a day and blame it on someone else, tap fingers, cry, talk about the same personal problem every day, moan in pain, giggle, pray, say one pet phrase repeatedly, slam drawers, listen to talk radio and comment, post offensive or irritating items, use profanity, wear too much perfume or after-shave, pick their teeth or their nose, gossip, complain, brag, lie, flirt, talk loudly unless they’re talking about the Mayor, in which case they whisper just loud enough for him to catch on, interrupt his private conversations, interrupt his private conversations to correct something they misunderstood in the first place, use weird voices and pretend to be various TV and action hero characters, talk to friends about him in code (“I sure wish we could get rid of the nasty odor in here.” “Yeah, let’s go to a conference room and see if it smells better there.” “LOL!”), give themselves manicures or pedicures, squirt water from a bottle into their mouths every few minutes, spit into the trash can every few minutes, cough, sniff, blow their nose or snort every few minutes, or any combination of any of these or other annoying or gross things.

Employee and manager requirements for bullpen offices. At the very best, open offices need to have enough space and privacy that people don’t prefer to work at home or find reasons to use conference rooms just to get away from noise and confusion.  Employees need to monitor themselves to ensure their work space isn’t distracting and that they are good office citizens and decent human beingsThey also need to manage their time better, since there will almost inevitably be more reasons to pause and also more need to keep refocusing. 

Managers need to monitor the work environment and immediately intervene to stop problems before they can start or become worse.  There will need to be a clear understanding of the differences between team and individual work needs.

A workable alternative: Those of you who are Parks and Recreation fans may recognize this bullpen set from the 2010 season. There is the illusion of private space, even though one office leads into another. Sadly, I don’t think this is what current bullpen talk is all about.  Look at what an office planner might consider to be wasted space.


What do you think about the the idea of a Bullpen Office?

February 12th, 2012 Posted by | Life and Work | 14 comments


  1. I used to work in essentially a “bullpen” environment–a very large room filled with dozens of cubicles, with thin walls between them. I did ok, for the most part, as long as people understood that there is absolutely no privacy at all–everyone around you knew all about your business–work and otherwise. I did sometimes go into a conference room to make phone calls in privacy. The only problem that I really had was once when my cube neighbor used a speaker phone in his cube. I finally had to say something to him about that. But for the most part, my neighbors were quiet, and I did ok with my work. I do think I was somewhat lucky with my neighbors, though.

    Comment by Lisa M. | February 13, 2012

  2. Thank you for addressing this issue! This perspective desperately needs to be communicated on an executive level. Most of what I have heard revolves around dollars and cents or the perceived increase of efficiency by keeping people in the open and not allowing them to retreat into private areas where they might do who knows what! But I don’t hear anything about the potential distractions and managements challenges you mention. I don’t think I have ever seen anything written from this viewpoint. Of course this is not a subject about which I do extensive reading.

    Surely there are situations and circumstances that would be appropriate for a bullpen setup. Even if totally appropriate, your wise words of caution should be heeded. It seems to me that bullpens would work only in an environment that thrives on strong team chemistry and cooperation and where bold, courageous management is in place. With passive, weak management, a bullpen is destined to foster the horrific conditions you describe in that paragraph you put in from Ask the Workplace Doctor. That paragraph!!! Did you write that? Compile that? Quote that? Oh my God, it will give me nightmares! But so true!

    Thanks again for a unique perspective. That’s why they pay you the big bucks! 🙂

    Comment by Jeff Adams | February 13, 2012

  3. NO BULLPENS PLEASE! Until last year I worked in a cubicle that had half walls. The cubicles were off-set so no one stared at anyone else, but we still could lean back and communicate if we needed to (although we still mostly used email for convenience.) Last June the office was redesigned and we were put in a bullpen setting, which my company calls a Team Configuration. People in one department are clustered together with the manager in the middle of a U Shape. We HATE it! Everything is a distraction. Plus why do we need to see each other all day just to say we are part of a team? We asked our manager why we had to change to that terrible layout and he said the CEO read about it and thought it would be good. HE has a private office. Don’t even get me started. What is so bad is that we had no say in it at all, we just do what we’re told, or else.

    Comment by Kara L. | February 13, 2012

  4. I guess we work in something like a bullpen because our desks are up against each other in a row…4 desks x 2. But, we’re hardly ever at our desks, they’re just for having computer space. If all of us had to sit in the desks I wouldn’t like it. Doesn’t it make you wonder whether we’re taking five steps back for every one step forward?

    Comment by smartaleck | February 13, 2012

  5. Tina, we work with an open office plan. I would never call it a bullpen, which I think is an ugly name! We have to deal with the issues you mentioned all the time, but so far have been able to make it work. The biggest complaint is that clients sometimes feel that they can’t talk freely because it’s obvious that others can hear. We’ve added three conference rooms and I notice those are in use all the time. In fact, we have had to tell at least one employee that the conference room wasn’t her personal office! I agree that such an arrangement takes a special group of people and a special kind of work. When we move in the next three years, we will probably get cubicles. This article has made me think more about what we can do here to respond to some of the complaints. Thanks!

    Comment by Careerist | February 13, 2012

  6. I don’t like having every conversation overheard and I don’t like being so close to people. I can smell deodorant, hairspray, etc. we’re so close! We don’t have any reason to talk to each other during the day, so there was no need to do it this way.

    Comment by angelfire3219 | February 13, 2012

  7. I don’t mind working in a bullpen because I get along really well with my coworkers and we have a good time during a workday. To me, work is fun because of my workmates. I wouldn’t like to be cooped up in a cubicle. If I didn’t like my coworkers or if I needed privacy, that would be different.

    Comment by D.W. | February 13, 2012

  8. Hi Tina! I work in an office that looks something like the Mayor’s, only smaller..eleven workspaces in sort of an s shaped pattern.

    Pros: We all do the same kind of work (corporate security investigations)so we tend to talk back and forth to each other a lot, which is easy this way. Our manager has her own office because of privacy concerns for her, but we would probably not like to have her in “our” space.

    Cons: Some people cause some of the problems you mention and no one will come right out and complain about it. Also, some people are slobs, which is just unpleasant to look at. Of course, I’d like a cubicle or an office, who wouldn’t? Most of the time when people quit and go someplace else they brag about having a private work space. But, for our needs this works OK for the few years most of us will be here.

    Comment by Ron | February 14, 2012

  9. Here is my feeling…we’ve ruined work for most people who have a good work ethic and we’ve taken away most of the pride people used to feel about their jobs, so why not just cram them in an office like cattle and call it a bullpen to make it even more accurate?

    Comment by WLM | February 14, 2012

  10. I challenge anyone to show me that people who work where phones are used a lot do better work. No one does as well on a sales call or a serious discussion over the phone when there is a witness sitting next to you. In Call Centers, which I know a lot about, people sit with their fingers in their ears so they aren’t thrown off by the person next to them.

    Comment by Graybeard | February 18, 2012

  11. I agree with “WLM” that most big businesses have ruined work and they wonder why they don’t get better work done. Bad workers get to be that way all the time and good workers get punished if they don’t make up for what the bad workers are leaving. The more you gripe, the more protection you get. The more you try to get along, the more they figure you’ll take anything without complaining. If everyone is doing OK and work is going good, the manager changes everything and tells the employees when they show up on Monday. I can hardly wait to see the changes tomorrow. It’s been fifteen years of this with only a few years of good managers who knew how to manage people and work.

    Comment by lbi1234 | February 19, 2012

  12. It’s interesting reading this article from a 911 dispatch center perspective. We are in essentially a “bullpen” out of necessity, we have to talk to each other all the time, and having cubicles would hinder our operations. We do have policies which state that excessive perfume is prohibited, and we have had employees who needed reminding that deodorant is a requirement, but mostly we do all right. We have supervisor offices for those conversations which need to be private. We also have a deck with a barbeque on it, so we do have an escape if we need a break for a few minutes.

    Comm center and workspace design is interesting to me; I’ve seen comm centers designed with “clusters” of consoles, and I’ve seen them designed with cubicles. I think that whomever designs any workspace should carefully consider the function, and let that drive the design, not be driven solely by the bottom line.

    Comment by Jennifer | March 25, 2012

  13. I can see both sides of the argument regarding ‘bullpen’-type office layouts. I think it can actually encourage people to be courteous and probably improves communication between employees, especially those who need to constantly communicate as part of a work project, for example.

    Cubicles do have their advantages, one being you don’t have distractions and you can get in the ‘zone’!

    Comment by Marianne | January 10, 2013

  14. Bullpen = Noise! Interruptions! Drama! Distraction! Annoyance! Arrrgh! Why are libraries quiet? Why is there no talking during tests? Between meetings, phone calls, and other similar interactions, workers need to be able to focus, think and produce. A large percentage of personalities do this best when visual and audible distractions are minimized. There is a high cost to lost productivity which I suspect is even greater than the cost of walls! Hire trustworthy employees and then trust them! Provide adequate meeting space for team interaction. This is not rocket science!!!

    Comment by BH16940 | July 26, 2013

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