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Like cities and human development, there should be different areas for different types of work and different people.

Maybe you're a programmer and you want 100% silence, that should be available.

Maybe you're like me, who gets a lot more done in a small, focused group. You should be able to squat in a collaboration room all day and get shit done.

Maybe you don't mind ambient noise, and like to sit on a couch to work so people can stop by and visit and interrupt you for a chat and to share an idea. That should be available too.

Like most things in life, it comes down to having options available to people, and letting them make choices versus trying to predict or control behavior for "performance".




That's one of the main takeaways from the story tho. In an open office those who need silence cannot get it, even if there are private rooms available: "Some of us even feel that escaping to a quiet room is a sign of weakness" and "it can feel as if we’re not pulling our weight if we’re not present"


One thing that that would bother me in that situation is I do not enjoy doing work on laptops. I prefer to work from a desktop where the monitor (1) reasonably sized, (2) at eye level. I also prefer a full sized mouse and keyboard, as I feel handicapped by a trackpad. Most quiet places do not have this, so I am effectively chained to my desk, where my desktop is.


At my company, we are fortunate to have quiet spaces that have dual monitors, keyboard, and mouse, for your laptop. I agree, it's a necessity.


Yeah the worst is when they want all the work done onsite and expect extreme hours at the open office space total recipe for disaster


Over ear headphones are a pretty good workaround if you don't want to be distracted by the noise.


They're really not, though. In addition to "hey, hearing damage!" if you're listening loud enough to actually counteract the din of crap around you, it's a profoundly isolating thing to be wearing them for six hours a day. It's symptomatic relief that pushes the buttons of way worse problems, IMO.


Which is why I just bought some of those Bose noise cancelling cans. Listen at a safe volume and block out noise. They're great.


That you have to block out noise by strapping things to your head for six hours a day is the problem that you are steadfastly not solving, though.

You can't get around needing to strap things to your head when you're operating a jackhammer. Nerd at a desk? At the least we should fight for a little dignity.


Agreed, I know that noise-cancelling headphones are a solution to noisy offices for some people, but for me at least it's almost as distracting to have something (anything) strapped to my head for hours on end. And yeah, no one should have to do that in the first place.

There is a huge overlap in my experience between people who like open offices because it's easy for them to socialize and ask questions, and people who like to pester their busy coworkers with questions they could have figured out themselves. Also people who get bored easily and like to pester coworkers because they need a break from whatever they've been working on for the last 15 minutes.

Basically whenever I hear someone say, "I love open offices because when I don't know how to do something, my coworkers are right there to help me", I can't help but think, "yeah, I bet you do, and I bet your coworkers are ready to claw their eyes out when you come around asking something because you couldn't be bothered to read a man page". Every time someone touts coworker accessibility for questions as a critical reason to have open offices, I can't help but wonder what the ratio is between the time they spend asking other people questions and the time they spend answering other people's questions, because it always sounds like it's pretty huge.


Same thing goes for availability over Slack, HipChat, etc.

"We should all be on the Slack/HipChat channel so we can get instant answers to all of our questions!" - the people who have lots of questions

"Great, all I need, another source of interruptions!" - the people who get asked lots of questions

(Guess which one I consider myself to be?)


Il take async communications over interuptrupts any day of the week. Just disable notifications and check it when you're not balls deep in something.


Additionally, it's not a universal work-around. Noise canceling gives a significant fraction of us nausea


Or some people are very sensitive to the (white?) noise that noise that NC headphones still generate.


>...noise cancelling cans...

Active noise cancelling systems generally only suppress continuous steady sounds, e.g. fan noise or motor hum. It actually makes conversations and other transient activities _more_ audible by reducing the background sound.


Depends on the model. QC20's from bose (in-ear noise canceling) are basically magic in that regard - turn them on, add relatively quiet music, and I might as well be deaf to everything, including conversation.

That does lead the the annoying problem that I have to have something stuck in my ear (vs on, which isn't quite as annoying) for 6ish hours a day. Also, they're expensive af, and require frequent charging since I never remember to turn off the noise cancelling when I'm done with them.


Solution: sit near your most monotonous colleagues.


They're expensive too. I know it's not a concern for some but it is for me.


No, they're not. Headphones are a marginal improvement over listening to all the conversations in the room, but not nearly as good for concentration as an actual quiet room.


It isn't just the noise that is distracting though, visual stimuli can be more distracting than noise; at least they are for me. I guess we could solve this problem via headphones and VR goggles with views isolated views of your desktop, but if you're going to go to that extreme, why not just work remotely or in a closed office?


A visual barrier may be needed also if you've got people roaming around. At one place we had large black fold out cardboard pieces to alleviate that. Was kind of absurd, but better than nothing.


Watch your volume levels, though, if you're listening to music. A few years' worth of listening to metal with noise cancelling headphones trying to drone out the noise has probably contributed to the slight tinnitus I'm having.


One problem with that is that in an open-plan office, meetings can be de-formalized into open conversations and you'll have to monitor those if you don't want to be left out or might have something to contribute.

I once worked in an office where the founder would stroll out of his office (natch), and have a conversation with one person, extending to a second person, into a decision-type meeting with more people. Call it an evolving standup.

Even if you're locked into headphones this is can be a big distraction equivalent to not wearing headphones at all.

tl;dr: sometimes "the noise" is not noise.


I've found IEM-style headphones are better. Since they already block out some of the ambient noise by plugging your ears, much lower volume levels are required to block out distractions.


I find any kind of headphones to be painful/disturbing after a while. On-ear are the worst (who the F * * * thought pressing your ears into your head was a good idea?), followed by in-ear. The only ones I can wear for any amount of time are over-ear but eventually (if nothing else) your ears will be all warm and that will be disturbing as well.

Besides I really enjoy just silence sometimes, being forced to listen to music does not necessarily improve my focus.


I sometimes wear my headphones with no music, just in noise-canceling mode. Just like you, I think music can be distracting or tiring after a while. My Sony headphones have such powerful noise canceling that it silences even the slightest hum, sort of a anechoic chamber. It helps me concentrate and I like keeping my ears warm. If I'm in the mood, I also put some white noise sounds on (youtube has plenty of it) including rain, beach waves and train rides.

And I work in my own private corner office.


> On-ear are the worst (who the F * * * thought pressing your ears into your head was a good idea?)

There also exist on-ear headphones that don't apply so much pressure. So it rather seems to me that the model that you tested simply does not fit your requirements.

I also prefer over-ear over on-ear, but did not have the problem with on-ear headphones that you described.


And for those of us who get distracted by visual noise? Maybe blinkers (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blinkers_(horse_tack))?


No one outside of trendy Bay Area tech startups respect the 'headphones = DND' social guideline. Open offices suck for this reason because people just take it as open season to come up to your desk whenever they want to ask a question. I'm forever interrupted by this, not just the movement around me in my peripheral vision and the noise (particularly social converstions in the hall behind me near the printer).


I often do this, but find it enclosing. I also can't stand headphones when I leave the office. I like to listen to music while I work generally. When I work from home, I leave the speakers on. I can move about while I work, not tethered.


I once interviewed over a video call. I asked, "I notice you have an open office there. Where do the developers sit in relation to the sales and customer service teams?"

They cut the interview short, and I never heard from them again.

They know we don't like sitting next to someone yapping on the phone all day. They just don't care.


Bingo. They know it reduces productivity but apparently the productivity hit is worth the cost savings. And frankly, from a business perspective, they could be right. Just don't tell me its "to enhance collaboration" [don't pee on my leg and tell me it's raining].

Perhaps I was too harsh, there probably are some businesses that actually don't know that developers are much different from customers support, accountants or typists when it comes to the need for sustained concentration and focus.

(I mean no disrespect to customer support, accountants or typists.)


Somewhat meta and not being contradictory to your message; but accountants are very much like programmers and need their quiet spaces. Managing complex Excel spreadsheets is about as close to programming as other office work.

Ironically, speaking of accountants, I at least have found that in most businesses, the accounting staff do in fact have their own isolated working space. They justify it because of the "sensitivity" of their data, which is true. But the cynic in me thinks it's because they know developers tend to make more money (on average) and so they influence the situation and pitch to the CxO's to "reduce costs" by moving everyone (except themselves) into public spaces.

Your first point is correct -- it's because of the cost savings. But cost savings only applies to those critters who dwell at the bottom of the org chart.


Accounting often requires huge amount of folder/files which is next to impossible to organize in an open office -- also there is no QA/automated testing for misfiled numbers/reports.

And last but not least, significantly fewer accounts are necessary in a software company compared to the sheer amount of developers. (monkey ones or otherwise)


There are a lot of businesses where the social status hierarchy is much more important than productivity.

As long as the company can survive, they just don't want to give the bottom-rungs much at all.


I was afraid I might get some flak for mentioning accountants. I apparently have/had an incorrect or at least dated view of how an accountant works.

In the context of my own work as a developer, focus for me entails trying to come up with the math to do something new. This entails hours of thinking about it in bed but also trying to juggle the ideas in my head. (I'll be the first to admit that thinking is probably not my strong suit.)

BTW: I'm looking for a New Hampshire based CPA for my sole proprietorship if you know of anyone. :-)


> Bingo. They know it reduces productivity but apparently the productivity hit is worth the cost savings.

Or the cost savings are reaped by different people than those who bear the productivity hit.


I bet accountants fall on the side of people who like uninterrupted quiet to do their work well.


Wait wait wait, are you suggesting that not everyone conforms to the same needs? Where did you hear this blasphemy at. Seriously though, I 100% agree that businesses should not treat employees like sardines that all fit in a row and be more accommodating to different people's preferences and needs.




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