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Strangely, open offices with cubicles can be more expensive than building drywall walls to make closed offices. And the much-vaunted flexibility of cubicles is way, way overrated. In my experience, cubicles sit in the same place for years. Any benefit of re-using them is lost. Also if the company is growing, new ones get bought all the time, so old ones aren't re-used anyway.

Its obvious on the face of it: re-usable walls and shelving are going to be more expensive than simple stick construction. You have to be re-using it constantly (reformatting office space every month or quarter) to make it pay. And then you're tanking everybody's productivity.

I think open-office is some brain virus that keeps infecting managers everywhere. We need some kind of vaccine to combat it.




>We need some kind of vaccine to combat it.

The vaccine is a startup that is 10x (or even just 2x) better than everyone else because they use private offices.

Since that hypothetical business hasn't yet proven that idea, all the articles from journalists writing about "open offices bad" are just preaching to the choir.

Even the common cited reason for open offices being "saves real estate costs" is questionable. As an example, look at Mark Zuckerberg's old Harvard photos when building Facebook.[1] Look specifically at the 8th and 16th photos.[2][3]

See how everybody is literally in an "open office" crowded around a kitchen table?

In Mark's mind, that collaboration "works" for him and helped make Facebook successful. Therefore, it should also work for future hires. This is why cash-rich Facebook that has money to build private offices equal to lawyers' suites eschews that and opts to build an open plan instead. The new 2015 headquarters is expansion of that "2005 Harvard open office" on a grander scale.[4]

Mark Z works still works in that open warehouse concept instead of a private suite.[5]

I see very little commentary from HN that directly deals with executives who really believe in their hearts it's a superior way to work.

[1] http://piximus.net/celebrities/mark-zuckerberg-harvard-photo...

[2] http://piximus.net/media/35747/mark-zuckerberg-harvard-photo...

[3] http://piximus.net/media/35747/mark-zuckerberg-harvard-photo...

[4] http://www.kwiknews.my/news/facebook-takes-the-open-office-c...

[5] deep link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l--zev_37QA&feature=youtu.be...


FogCreek / StackOverflow might be an example of this. https://stackoverflow.blog/2015/01/why-we-still-believe-in-p...


First, Stackoverflow was not successful because it was built by programmers in private offices. It was successful because Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood had popular blogs followed by a large population of programmers sick of ExpertExchange. Stackoverflow is a demonstration of guerilla-SEO via a ready-made audience to make a site instantly popular.

Fog Creek has(had) 3 major products:

- FogBugz: profitable but less of a success than Atlassian

- Trello: not profitable (sold to Atlassian)

- Stackoverflow/StackExchange : not profitable yet [1]

According to the open-office "distractions/interuptions" theory of killing productivity, the Atlassian programmers should have been severely handicapped and as a result JIRA should have evolved at a snails pace. Instead, the opposite happened and Atlassian JIRA released more features than FogBugz. Both FogBugz and Trello lost to Atlassian.

That Joel Spolsky post about private offices gets repeatedly cited in threads about its benefits but I recommend people not mention it. It undermines their point. It's ineffective at convincing executives. However, it's very effective at making other programmers reading it nod in agreement (aka "preaching to the choir").

Don't link ineffective articles devoid of business evidence that happens to confirm your desires. Instead, study the way some executives actually think. Too many programmers dismiss companies' rationale for open offices merely as "saves square footage costs" or "it's a way to spy on employees because of distrust". Yes, some of that may be true but others also have different reasons. (Take a look at the Mark Zuckerberg video I linked and listen to what he's saying about his desk in the open floor plan. Is he trying to recreate that elbow-to-elbow collaboration he had at the Harvard kitchen table or is he just trying to spy on people? Would that Joel Spolsky article convince Mark Z to build private offices? No? Why not?)

[1] https://www.joelonsoftware.com/2015/01/20/stack-exchange-rai...


>> We need some kind of vaccine to combat it. > The vaccine is a startup that is 10x (or even just 2x) better than everyone else because they use private offices.

At Trello everyone is either remote or has a private office. I'm not sure how to prove that they're 2x (I'd say it's too vague to be provable), but they've managed to do well without taking large amounts of investment, which speaks well of their productivity.


>they've managed to do well

I think you're inadvertently undermining your point. Trello wasn't profitable.[1] They were "cash-flow break even" which is also another way of saying they still had not earned enough "free cash flow" to pay back their past internal investments that got them where they currently are.

Trello has private offices.

Atlassian has open offices.[2] They are also profitable.[3]

Atlassian was the one who bought Trello. Trello didn't buy Atlassian. Trello did not perform 2x better than Atlassian JIRA. (E.g. the ideal narrative would have been, "because Trello programmers have less interruptions than Atlassian programmers, their productivity was proven to be 2x superior and they made Atlassian JIRA obsolete.")

If you want to change the hearts & minds of people like Mark Z, the Trello example is not a case study to use.

[1] http://www.forbes.com/sites/alexkonrad/2016/05/23/trello-get...

[2] http://blogs.gartner.com/tom_murphy/2012/02/25/atlassian-eve...

[3] http://www.zdnet.com/article/atlassian-records-20m-profit-in...


Wouldn't you also need to include things like, time from founding, revenue per employee, growth rate, return on investment, etc. to evaluate whether Atlassian or Trello has been the more productive business?


The GP's point still stands: closed offices _may_ make for more productive employees (for some classes of employees), but it is not obvious that they translate into a more productive _business_.

Instead of using Trello, you could compare Atlassian against Fog Creek. Fog Creek was founded two years before Atlassian, and both companies are more or less in the same space - they make productivity tools for developers. And yet it's hard not to look at Atlassian as the more successful business so far.


An "open office" for 5-7 persons is different from an open office for 30+ people. In fact, I think an "open office" for 5-7 persons (e.g. the typical software development team) is quite ideal.


I disagree. I've worked in 1,2,3,5-7 and 30+ ppl offices and my view is that 1 is superior in every way, 2 is possible (but it's quite easy to talk away hours if you have common interests), 3 starts to be quite disturbing (especially since it's now possible for three completely different discussions taking place at the same time) and the difference between 5-7 and 30+ is minimal since it's the 5-7 ppl closest to you in a 30+ office that are the most disturbing anyway, the rest are just white noise.


There is a weird call out to this work environment in The Social Network, where Zuckerberg is talking to a visitor, but has to keep shooing him away from the programmers on the couches, huddled around the kitchen table, saying "Don't interrupt him! He's in the zone!"

So, recognition of need for deep concentration and focus, but in an environment totally inimical to those.


They may work when people have enough work diciplin to not interrupt with irrelevant things. Which it looks like they can manage in the pictures. But when you have a constant stream of people interrupting with things that should just have been an email or slack message, it kills productivity.


Email and slack are interruptive.


> Email and slack are interruptive.

Only if you "decide" to be informed immediately when an email/message comes.


While it works to decide to check email only 2-3 times a day, it doesn't work so well with IM. IM discussions are typically much faster and there's a big risk you miss out on giving your POV before everyone has moved on, if you only check it every now and then.


If everyone moved on, was it really important to give your input anyway?

With IM you can turn it off if you need to focus, and turn it on when you are doing busy work anyway.


I have no popup or sounds when I get an email, and when slack is in dnd, it might as well not be open. My point though, is that I control if I want to be interrupted.


I agree. I used to design voice and data networks for call centers and I would always be part of the planning phase. A lot of times I would have to go with call center owners when they would go inspect cubicles they found and potentially wanted to buy, so as to answer any questions about how they will be connected to power, network, etc.. I was always amazed at just how expensive cubicles were. I mean, for what they are. One of the call centers was owned by a construction company. They originally went with cubes but in their next call center they built cubes out of drywall, not quite offices obviously - but looked really good, at mere fraction of the cost.

As a person that has worked in both open and closed floor plans, ill just say this, I miss working from home and cant wait to go back.


I love that idea and I'm glad someone realized it. The dry wall helps with the noise, which reduces stress in that environment.


Last time I wanted cubes in the Silicon Valley, used ones in excellent condition were available for cheap. Thank you, Internet Bubble!


Any benefit of re-using them is lost. Also if the company is growing, new ones get bought all the time, so old ones aren't re-used anyway.

5-10 years after the initial deployment, the same models are no longer available and the new cubicle system isn't compatible with the old one so they're stuck with the now obsolete setup and are forced to either work with it or scrap it and start over.


Event though dry walls are cheap, you cannot just install them as you can do with cubicles. You'd have to change ventilation to work for all rooms, have proper lights for every cubicle, adhere to fire restrictions (probably alarms in every small room) and will likely need to use more space per employee.

Cubicles or open plan is by far the cheapest way to set up an office since you only have one room that you need to set up. And that's the main reason people use it, it's just cheaper. If you look at flexible working spaces, desks in closed rooms often cost twice of what you pay for a desk in an open floor layout. I don't think there's a way to set up closed offices at even close the price of open offices.

And I must admit as much as I don't like open offices, sitting in a tiny private office of the size you have to yourself in an open office would probably lead to anxiety.


I had a couple office spaces built out. While we used cubicles for odd spaces (no light/no sprinkler) we tried to use built offices as much as possible. Because it was much, much cheaper. Hundreds of dollars instead of thousands.

You can always double-up in a 10X12 office if you grow. And until then, its very nice. And cheap.


One former employer doubled up but only if the parties were opposite "early bird" vs "night owl". My officemate left work at 2 every afternoon to pick up the kids (even in the summer, whatever), then VPNed in from home, and I abused flex time to a level of almost working 2nd shift, so we each had nearly private offices for at least half the work day. It was a small office, couldn't have been more than 10 ft on a side, but remember we didn't need endless collaboration and meeting spaces because we had offices, so the net real estate used was less than cubes or open offices. Also it was cheaper because cubes or open offices falling apart is just being cheap, but a 150 year old building falling apart is financially valuable "character"

Flex time with small group office is nearly ideal. I can spend hours a day with the door closed concentrating or meeting, or hours a day working as a team, it just seems ideal.

Its like the difference between college dorm life with a roommate or two, vs military barracks grid array of 50 beds packed together.


>> so we each had nearly private offices for at least half the work day

The problem is someone noticing that and then sticking 4 people in your office.


At one place I worked we went in on a weekend and rearranged all of the cubicles in our work area to better suit our work style and needs. (moved openings, created a central collaboration area, etc) Our boss was ok with it because he said he was responsible for the budget for that floor (including real estate) and if we felt it would make us more productive he was all for it. Unfortunately the corporate bureaucrats got wind of it several months later and came in from HQ (which was 1,000 miles away) and ordered us to put them back in the official standard configuration. They didn't care that our team worked better and was more productive the way we had it. They had official standard configurations and our cubes had to stay that way.


Could it be that one of the team members made a complaint privately (or anonymously)? Otherwise it would be a stupid move (and would be easy to fight by taking the case to the next level of bureaucrats -- "bureaucrats have greater bureaucrats to go to .. " :) )


Teammates of mine have very occasionally been able to fend off a stupid edict by a mid-level manager with a simple (and literal) "Fuck off, we're busy" and/or "we have real work to do". They're usually to embarrassed to respond or escalate. It's hardly a recommended procedure, or appropriate for every situation or combination of people.

The more polite - "We're 100% contracted out right now" is somewhat less effective - they come back a month or so later.


Was there some complaint from another team or something? That is just so illogical.


I have no idea if someone complained or not. There were regular visits by senior management and remote team members. Some of whom were jealous that we had cubes at all.


...or they said that they were jealous to toe the party line.


The furniture police!


There is a tax benefit as well. Cubicles are considered "furniture" which depreciates faster than walls. Companies get to deduct a greater percentage of the cost of cubicles each year than they would for the cost of building a wall.


This is one of those cases where middle management is harming the company's long term interests for personal benefits. An annual review or resume benefits from saved X$/year as long as other costs are hidden. Many managers also just like walking past the cube farm to their office.


Are you sure this is a middle-management thing?

I always got the feeling it came from some C-level exec giving the thumbs up to the Facilities exec's hateful (but ignorant!) Powerpoint about openness and collaboration and TCO and the fungibility of talent.

"Well of course we value openness and collaboration just as much as Facebook does, and they're open-plan!"


And they may honestly not know any better, if the developers haven't come out of their shells to complain to him, and he's seen the photos of Facebook and knows they are maybe the most successful software company on Earth.


You might be comparing to the wrong thing. These days, lots of open offices I see do not involve expensive (low) cubicle walls and desks, they're just simple tables. You can't get much cheaper than simple fold-up tables.


What about the cost of those special collaboration rooms that no one wants to talk about?

At my previous cube farm employer, we had maybe 75 cubes, a giant 30x30 cafeteria/lunch/meeting room, oh 16 tables to eat lunch at least, a large conference room we literally called the large conference room of 20x20 and a small conf room we called the small conference room of 10x10 and there was an engineering team meeting operations room (really a lockable storage room / lab) that was 20x20. Because coats and boots "can't be stored in cubes" although we did anyway, there was a row of 50 feet by 3 feet of coat closet that was basically unused. That's a lot of square footage allocated to no individual therefore "saved" but offices would result in 2000 or so sq ft of shared space being eliminated. Now figure a 10x10 office shared by two people, thats 40 people's private offices just being wasted in the shared space required by cubicle life. So of the 75 people in that office 40 are in the new offices and 35 are distributed in the space formerly occupied by cubes. Certainly cube walls are slightly thinner than private office walls but the space savings won't be a factor of two. Definitely the employer was throwing away a considerable amount of expensive rent by using cubes and meeting rooms instead of private offices. If they junked the cubes and went private shared office they would have still had extra leftover space maybe for fancier larger offices or some people could have solitary private offices or maybe some "neutral ground" meeting rooms.


This depends entirely on the employer and what they provide for in the office.

Yes, if they provide special "collaboration rooms", that's going to add to the cost. But if they don't, then it's not a factor. If your employer just gives you one big open room with a bunch of tables, and that's it, that really doesn't cost much. And there's a bunch of employers these days that do exactly this.

(As for coats and boots, you can put your coat on the back of your chair. Or drop it on the floor under your desk. Yeah, it sucks, but again there's plenty of employers that treat engineers this way these days.)


The open office is terrible for having meetings, calls and conferences. All the companies I've seen had to allocate about half the building space to meeting rooms only. That totally ruins the alleged space savings from having a single cheap hangar full of people.

There wouldn't be need for that many rooms if there were proper offices.


I don't disagree, but I'll also point out that it isn't much better with cubicles. When I worked in a giant company that had cubicles in the 2000s, it was the same: a significant part (not half though) of the floor space was dedicated to meeting rooms, because you can't have meetings in a cubicle easily, and for privacy, serious discussion, etc., you really need a meeting room. So a company like that, which is already set up with the 1990s standard of cubicles and meeting rooms, could easily see an open-office plan as a way to save money and pack even more people into the office buildings they already have. All they have to do is take out the cubicles and stick a bunch of tables in, and leave the meeting rooms as-is.

But yes, if they had proper offices, they wouldn't need many of those meeting rooms, only some larger ones for meetings that are too big for the offices (more than 3-4 people perhaps).


The vaccine already exists. It was introduced to the US in 1786.

Metaphorically speaking, many of our peers believe that this vaccine causes autism. It occasionally does cause illness more severe than those vaccinated against.

It's collective bargaining through a cartel of skilled laborers. Unions.

But like Brundlefly, those infected managers don't believe they have a disease. They're not getting worse, they're getting better (as they turn into monsters).


> It's collective bargaining through a cartel of skilled laborers. Unions.

We don't need unions - we need developers who strongly refuse to work in open offices. Since there is a shortage of developers, this should suffice. The large problem is that too many developers are willing to compromise.


So you're saying that we need a category of workers to agree to refuse certain working conditions, but as a group so that individual compromisers don't undermine the action?

...but we don't need unions?


If we can rely on a shortage of desperate workers, we don't need to send mafia goons after them.

The ethical, nonviolent way to reject bad pay or working conditions is to quit, accepting that the employer might find someone else. That's not what unions do.


The historical behavior of unions is commensurate with the historical behavior of employers and strike-breakers.

Your adversary is not going to be ethical and nonviolent.

Unions resolve the prisoner's dilemma in favor of the prisoners. The game is set up like this:

  In each trial, 3 players distribute $300.
  A and B vote on whether E gets $100 or $150.
  E can cast a tie-breaking vote.
  E decides how to distribute the remainder to A and B.

  | A gets | B gets | E gets |
  +--------+--------+--------+-----
  |   $100 |   $100 |   $100 | A $100, B $100
  |   $150 |   $  0 |   $150 | A $150, B $100
  |   $  0 |   $150 |   $150 | A $100, B $150
  |   $ 75 |   $ 75 |   $150 | A $150, B $150
Obviously, if A and B cooperate, and voluntarily form a cartel with the power to enforce cooperation, they will experience a better outcome. Because in the long run, in repeated trials, the employer will be pocketing an extra $50 in a huge number of trials, while pitting the employees against each other.


Some, like myself, strongly prefer open offices.

I mean, I get why some people don't like them, but let's not pretend that the sentiment is universal.


Is someone building 4x4' drywall "offices" somewhere?


Right, the cost savings in going with cubes over offices is not in materials. It's in the amount of people per sq ft you can jam into one office.


Build bigger; double up. Its still better than sharing with 50 people.


If you just build a bigger office and fill it with cubes or desks is that really much better? The biggest issue for me in my open office was that devs feel the need to play instruments to start standups for some reason. Usually bongos but in the past it was a giant gong. Really made my client phone calls interesting. My biggest WFH issue is dogs.




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