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Open-plan offices decrease face-to-face collaboration: study (inc.com)
727 points by simonebrunozzi on Feb 6, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 455 comments

Here's the paper: https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rstb.201...

Roughly, they found two big companies that were about to switch "from assigned seats in cubicles to similarly assigned seats in an open office design, with large rooms of desks and monitors and no dividers between people's desks". Roles included "technology, sales and pricing, HR, finance, and product development, as well as the top leadership". They compared interaction metrics before and after the change.

For me the problem is not really distractions (I don't care if people interrupt me from time to time, in fact I like it). My problem is the mental strain that stems from lack of privacy, the knowledge that people can see me and my monitor all the time, it's like there's a background process in my mind that checks whether what I want to do (move a lot in my chair, comment on HN, eat something) is ok with people around me. And this constant monitoring and self-control is tiring.

One thing that helped me get past this feeling was looking around at other desks and realizing that either a. no one cares what you are doing because they are too busy working on their own stuff or b. half the office is watching youtube anyway.

Also remember that your company likely logs everyone’s web activity in an easily searcheable format.

While this is hardly an unknown fact amongst HN readers, a lot of people get very surprised when told about this.I've seen some of my colleagues going to private mode to browse something not work related, and when I explain that tbis won't help at all, they are almost shocked.

I am shocked, shocked to find that non-work related browsing is going on here!

I’m wondering if the new Brave browser’s Tor-based private mode makes a difference.

Many companies have systems circumventing https via additional certificates—effectively a man in the middle attack.

you mean everyone doesn't just use their phones for browsing non-work related things?

They do- most of them connected to the company's WiFi :)

But company doesn't know who has phone with given MAC address, while computers MACs are probably assigned to employee.

I'm sure I could trace it back to most people with high level of accuracy, as it's a small company.

It does if you have to log into the captive portal to use the wifi.

As someone who actually works on the IT-side of this, your statement is technically correct but my experience suggests a vanishingly-small number of employers actually monitor this data in any rigorous way. The only time I've ever seen an org reviewing web logs was in response to a specific formal HR complaint.

I get easily startled when I am very focused and people walk around in my peripheral vision or behind me. It really stresses me out. I work remote now so life is good but when I was at the office I was completely exhausted every evening because of this stress

I'm the same way. I'm downright jumpy. The result seems to be people think I'm up to something lol

This is very common even when people have no sense of needing to “hide” what’s on their screen... it’s just a natural fight vs flight human impulse to he worried about who is walking around in your space.

Even worse for the large fraction of the population who are introverts.

Even worse for people with PTSD than for introverts.

Foucault wouldn't be surprised at all at the prevalence of open-plan offices.

The association of open-plan offices to the Panopticon:

> ..The fact that the inmates cannot know when they are being watched means that they are motivated to act as though they are being watched at all times. Thus, the inmates are effectively compelled to regulate their own behaviour.

> ..Foucault used the panopticon as metaphor for the modern disciplinary society in Discipline and Punish.

> He argued that discipline had replaced the pre-modern society of kings, and that the panopticon should not be understood as a building, but as a mechanism of power and a diagram of political technology.

> ..In the landmark surveillance narrative Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), George Orwell said: "there was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment ... you had to live ... in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinised."

Orwell was way off. Our every movement is scrutinized even when it’s dark.

Or JIRA and its abuses

Foucault would also argue that open-office is the best office plan. His ideas of the power structure behind discipline reach far beyond what the penal system implemented them as.

I'll second this. You only have so much mental energy and focus. Managing your self image in a room full of others is wasteful and exhausting.

A couple of high-end screen privacy filters paid by me of course, solved the problem 100%. Stress levels went way down

This resonates so much with me. One of the advantages of being an early engineer at my company has meant that I was able to choose my spot in office: right at the back, next to a window, in the corner.

Sure, it feels like I'm being a bit anti-social at times, but I'm very comfortable in my corner :)

Exactly! I would be fine in an open office where monitors can't be seen from behind (sideways is okay, I should be able to show colleagues sitting beside me, my screen). Perhaps, between two rows a thin paper-ish wall can be put up.

That's by design. Look up 'panopticon'

I've worked in a variety of settings, and my favorite is a small team in a conference room/tiny open office. 3-8 people.

People tend to be respectful of each other's concentration at that number of people. And since you're in the same team, most interruptions are likely to be useful to other members of the team. But if we wanted to just bother 1 specific person, we would just use instant message.

Our manager worked in the same conference room too. But he would step outside for any calls he had to make.

It also gave an exiting "small startup" feel for me, even when working for a large company.

I guess I'll be the exception here. I'm in a psudeo-open workspace right now which is pretty much what you're talking about except that we're not in a room, it's what the company calls a "pod" with high walls and a single doorway. I would say 90% of all distractions etc. come from inside the pod. Moving us into our own room would make no difference. It does get pretty loud sometimes in the building, but it's mostly white noise and easy (at least for me) to ignore. The only way to work mostly without distractions here is to wear headphones, which generally signals to others that they should leave you alone, but even then people will still just wander over and bother you because you're right there. For some people the idea of chatting someone who's sitting 5 feet away from them is super weird.

The most productive times I have, hands-down, are when I work from home.

> For some people the idea of chatting someone who's sitting 5 feet away from them is super weird.

This is exactly what happens in my employer's "pod rooms." There are 10 of us and inevitably someone will be all, "Jack; Jack!; HEY, JACK!!" and someone else says "he has his headphones on just send him an IM" and the first person replies "ugh!" and then gets up to walk over and stand at Jack's shoulder until Jack takes off his headphones and looks up at the person.

It's not just one person that does this or we might could get the behavior to change. Apparently humans in group spaces just really, really, really want to verbally speak to other humans in those spaces and there's no amount of "hey guys I'm really trying to work here could you keep it down" that doesn't come across as rude or condescending.

I guess part of it for me is there seems to be no escaping from the noise of life any more. At least at work I used to have an office with a door that I could close for a couple of hours of solitude and heads-down real work. Now, after the building redesign, there are 950 people in the building and a pittance of conference rooms and phone rooms and "team rooms" (little conference rooms supposedly shared between just two or three teams sitting in larger "pod rooms" but, in practice, squatted in by one or two people all day). I've spent twenty minutes walking around my building and the adjacent one just trying to find somewhere to do a phone screen for an interview candidate.

Combine that with the rest of the world getting louder[0] and it's becoming a little frustrating.

0 - Right now I can hear my neighbor upstairs walking around on the hardwood floors all of our apartments have with his hard-soled shoes like he's been doing for the past hour, the traffic outside because apparently density should only exist next to busy arterials in the city where I live, planes loudly going overhead because the cloud ceiling is lower and they're taking a more direct route to the airport, and now the backup generator for the newly-constructed senior home is running its weekly test.

> Right now I can hear my neighbor upstairs walking around on the hardwood floors all of our apartments have with his hard-soled shoes like he's been doing for the past hour, the traffic outside because apparently density should only exist next to busy arterials in the city where I live, planes loudly going overhead because the cloud ceiling is lower and they're taking a more direct route to the airport, and now the backup generator for the newly-constructed senior home is running its weekly test.

Cities grew too quickly and are now kind of like the startup that never planned for its explosive growth and is struggling to cope trying to keep the wheels from falling off. A paradigm shift is needed, and will come about at some point- I'm just not sure when, and in what form.

Or I'll just move to Montana and do a self-sustainable ranch(hah). I don't necessarily want to be that far out, but looking at the way things are going, wife and I rarely go out anymore anyways due to the overcrowding, so the benefits of having a city is rapidly diminishing.

> so the benefits of having a city is rapidly diminishing.

To be 100% clear, I still love living in the dense city where I do and I have no plans on moving away from it. But I don't think employers have yet figured out that taking away the quiet(er?) spots at work does a lot of harm because it means loss of hours of quiet.

I also readily admit that a good chunk of this is on me. I am increasingly a curmudgeon, probably because of changes at work, and so I take it out on the other parts of my environment by quietly being frustrated.

I've lived in the middle of nowhere before and hated it. I've lived in the "quiet" suburbs and hated it. At least living in the city, with the attendant noise, I get more out of it than I lose; I'm just still frustrated at my employer (and my industry) for taking away my office door.

Ahh, gotcha. Sorry for misunderstanding your point.

It'll be interesting to see if SpaceX's Starlink LEO internet service will spur remote workers to spread out even further into places like Montana. We've already had to deal with some remote workers relocating to developing countries and in one case, even an active warzone, without telling the company first.

Remote work is still challenging though. The nature of not being able to get person-to-person time (regardless of how good video calls get) will always remain a challenge in its own right.

The space issue is fundamental: there just aren't that much space around cities as they stand today. The only pragmatic solutions are:

1) Build up. Everyone wants to live in these areas, so build as tall of buildings as possible and just spread out upwards. Doesn't solve the personal office problem though since Tokyo is super dense but I don't think anybody has a private office?

2) Build new cities. America is big, and there is still plenty of space left to build. But it looks to me like a combination of power-law economics, plus locale desirability, and political willingness to invest into infrastructure is pushing most ordinary people right back into the clutches of 1).

> Remote work is still challenging though. The nature of not being able to get person-to-person time (regardless of how good video calls get) will always remain a challenge in its own right.

Even as a remote worker, I used to think this was true.

I no longer believe this is the case.

In remote video calls each human is like an augmented cyborg integrated with their computer and the internet.

The nature of IRL meetings tend to disrupt the augmentation aspect. Above a certain number of people perhaps augmentation becomes more obstacle then advantage though.

The above is anecdotal and your experience may differ.

Hmmmm. I believe you. I haven't had enough remote experience yet to know for sure, but it sounds reasonable to me.

Work life in Japanese cities is difficult to compare with it in the United States because Japanese culture is so much different. Diversity is not prized, conformity and harmony are. A large open space with 300 workers in Japan operates very differently than an open space with 300 workers in an American city.

Build new cities, you're on the right track though I doubt it will happen from scratch like in China. Rather mid-tier cities such as Huntsville and Boise will grow into larger cities.

Remote work has its up and down sides. I've been doing it for two years. Most of the time it is better but there are occasions when collaborating on some idea or document would work better in person at a whiteboard. But those get fewer all the time and the remote collaboration tools get better over time. I'd love for all of us to have Surface Hub whiteboards but they're still too expensive to have a reasonable ROI. Over time though, the price will go down, as will that of other high fidelity collaboration tools.

>It's not just one person that does this or we might could get the behavior to change.

Presuming you're not the only one who's experiencing this it seems like this could be surfaced to the entire team and some norms could be established around when it's appropriate to approach someone. E.g. "If they're wearing headphones then they don't want to be interrupted, so send an email/IM/whatever instead."

I agree. I found cubicles a bit soul-sucking and private offices too isolated. An open plan in a small area is fine for me, but 200 people on a floor is too many. If you're pair programming, you can get away with a lot more noise around you than if you're trying to concentrate by yourself. Also, people are less likely to interrupt a pair that is obviously hard at work than they are to bug an individual.

This is by far the most effective workplace environment and arrangement I have experienced as well, for teams and large companies - almost like physical 'pod' structures

Same! I worked in a setting like that and it was by far the most productive environment I've been in as far as pure work volume and concentration. Basically people were in tiny open offices sorted by teams (i.e. frontend, backend, copywriters). Our group kept the room pretty dark and no one talked, we just messaged each other. I realize that description can sound a little creepy, but it was blissful.

Open office-wise the best was getting a desk that was in a corner around a pony wall. So I had a wall (conference room) at my back, a pony wall at my left and a desk facing towards me, which is almost like a wall in front. Also the people I was sitting near could control the lights on our side of the wall. We kept only half on and it was super helpful. I think bright fluorescent lighting is a little distracting. Maybe not distracting, but not awesome.

Same, best setup for me was quads of corner desks with high exterior walls, making a sort of open room of four that were faced away from each other but within earshot. The cubes had sliding frosted glass windows between quads that you could open to talk to the adjacent team.

Also high natural light with moderate ceiling lights and good task lighting on ample desk surface.

This was at a premium EDI firm in the 90’s. It was awesome.

Same here. Team rooms are the best. You can actually collaborate there and still get some sense of privacy. It’s a also a real team builder.

The best office I've experienced (but sadly only visited for two week, the branch I worked at had typical open plan garbage) had the building split into sections where along both sides were small single-person offices (large enough that two people could sit at a desk and work, or 3 to 4 people could sit for a meeting) with closing sliding doors. In the space between the two rows of offices was a small amount of hot-desk space (maybe 6 to 8 desks), some armchairs and sofas and a conference table with projector. The layout was basically:

    |  |  |  |  |  |
    +- +- +- +- +- +
    |HHHH  CCC  ####|
    +- +- +- +- +- +
    |  |  |  |  |  |
Where H was the hotdesk space, C the casual sofas/armchairs with coffee tables, and # the conference table with projector against the wall on one end. Not drawn to scale, of course.

This is my favorite kind of setup. I call it the "Unix Room" model, because it's sort of like what I saw at Bell Labs: Private offices for staff, but people would also work in an open area often (it helped that they just had terminals scattered around and you could sit at any one of them). I've worked in such an environment and loved it, but of course it costs more space than any of the other alternatives.

Yeah, it really was the best of both worlds. People tended to keep their doors open to signal it was ok to interrupt them, but if they needed to get work done, they just close the doors. People also spent a lot of time in the center areas, when it made sense to do so, eg when they were doing something that could be done in a more relaxed environment, or to brainstorm or chat with others.

Letting people choose how they work, how revolutionary!

The best office I was in as very much like this. It was in the Bubb Road office of Apple's Newton team. Each person had a walled office with a door that closed, a full-length window next to the door, and an exterior window on the building's grounds. The office was just about big enough to fit two people to sit or stand in front of the whiteboard.

Each half a dozen or so offices were arranged around common areas with sofas and gaming tables, and next to kitchens. We called the common areas "living rooms". Rolling whiteboards were stationed in or near the living rooms.

It was close to ideal. If you needed privacy to think, you could close the door. If you were receiving visits, you could open it. If you needed contact with others, or a serious discussion, you could join people in the living room and roll in a whiteboard if it was needed.

I also worked at NeXT, which had a similar arrangement, except that its common areas weren't as inviting as Newton's living rooms.

That sounds really great! I dream of working in such a place. If my next (or any, really) startup venture is successful, I will strive to create a similar space (but also I strongly believe in remote working as an option, no reason to lock yourself out of amazingly talented people just because they’re out of you geographical proximity)

That looks so much like https://dwarffortresswiki.org/index.php/DF2014:Workshop_desi... that I kinda want potential employers to start publishing their office designs as Dwarf Fortress saves.

Hah, thanks for that! :D That would be fun, alright.

Completely off topic, I just got Tarn Adams' latest book (procedural storytelling) today. I'm looking forward to reading it when I get time.

I've added that book to my list of possible reads.

I must say I am actually disappointed that it doesn't appear to have been written in an algorithmic fashion.

At a quick flip through the pages, it also doesn’t cover that much in terms of technical details, code or diagrams, but seems to be mostly a discussion of techniques and case studies.

I’d personally like a more technically focused book because some of the struggles I have is that I can hack together a grammar-based system (eg an L-system) easily enough, but turning it into a production quality reasonable performance/memory system is much harder. Eg I made an L-system using a string as the data and characters as the nodes and I was doing string matching and manipulation to implement the production rules. It worked great as a little demo, but was much much too inefficient for a real system. Converting it into something more efficient was too much work for me at the time. Perhaps time I try again though!

I’ll see. I have a train journey tomorrow so I’ll start reading it then :)

This would be great!

Maybe a floorplan to ascii converter is needed.

I've had this setup in academic environments a few times, and it's wonderful.

Lots of grad student offices are like this. We may have the money, but they have the workspace.

Seems like we should be able to trade some of our money for this. I’d be surprised to learn it was less productive too.

Any company would surely go for this.

I'm currently at an office where some of it is arranged that way but some others are perhaps more hybrid into open-office arrangements that will works pretty well:

           D  D |  DD DD DD |
                   DD DD DD |
         WWWWWWWW        DD |
                W  BBBB     |
         W      W  BBBB     |
         W      W        DD |
         W      W   DD   DD |
         W      W   DD   DD |
The open end is towards 'the rest' of the office, the W are walls, the B is a block that makes the rest seem like a somewhat divided area and dampens sound, has benches and TVs and whiteboards. The D's are desks, they are farther apart but it's a pain to draw them better. You generally find the same people at generally the same desk, but they can shift around as day-to-day partnering differs or if people want to sit together for other reasons. It feels much more like a 'larger' private office than an open plan office because there is plenty of blocking yet you can move freely and sit freely where it happens to makes the most sense at any given time. Silence and concentration? Most likely to happen in the bottom left desk block, want interaction and many ideas? Sit somewhere top middle. Want to have two different teams working together? 12 people can fit at the right side of the drawing, top to bottom. Yes there is a gap, but that helps give you plenty of air, carpet sound damping and room to walk around while you think. And when you do need a meeting room with projector and bean bags etc, the W-enclosed room is exactly that. The two single D-desks are mostly for people that need to sit close to us for a day or two and just want a bit of desk space. Right edge is a wall, top and bottom are windows all the way left and right.

I think that it's not as much the 'best' plan, or planned to work this way, but with the people that sit there (which is always the same ~20 people in different configurations) and a small amount of 'togetherness' as a team, you don't really have any of the 'open office' annoyances while still having a lot of the working-together benefits. Without the small B-block in the middle or the large W-room it probably wouldn't work.

I love this sharing.

I'll share mine:

    |   |   **** | STORE *** DD  DD  D DD | DD DD *****|
    | K |    ___  \______*** DD  DD    DD | DD DD *****|
    |   |    DD \            DD  D     DD | DD DD      |
    |   |                                    D D       |
    |___| DD DD DD  DDD  +---+D DD DD DD  | DD DD DD DD|
    | M | DD DD DD       | M |D DD    DD  | DD    DD DD|
    |   | DD DD DD  DDD  |   |D DD DD DD  | DD DD DD DD|
D = Desk, M= Meeting room(s), K=Kitchen. *=elevator/toilets

Nowhere to go for peace time. I figure this is the most common setup.

(those desks in the aisle are facing inwards, so you can walk behind the people at them)

This is one of the other floors (this is from a promotional video, so it's what the company _wants_ to portray): https://i.imgur.com/4CkI4AI.png

Thanks to you both for sharing your setups. I find it really interesting.

I wonder how much lower salary people would accept if they got a much sparser work environment?

I am a millennial (born in '88) and I would LOVE to have a cubicle. My first job was at Cisco in San Jose, California which had cubicles. I was fortunate enough to be introduced to the corporate environment with cubicles.

I loved my cubicle. Like you said: just enough privacy to get things done. People would come by only if absolutely necessary otherwise they would mind their own business.

Having cubicles also prevented useless chatter.

Then I left that company and my productivity and mental peace has never been the same. Not even near.

Your post reminded me of how my own perception has changed.

I remember when I graduated college I interviewed and got a job and went to work at this company that in hindsight, had these awesome large high end cubicles, with wooden U shaped desks and tall partitions. Yet, I remember walking to my cubicle and feeling a pang of sadness. I could see this huge cubicle farm and I was being guided to my own "little" cubicle to go and sit in. Felt like a hamster in a cage - a small cog in a huge machine. Which I guess I was. All the managers had offices along the outsides of the farm, facing the windows.

But now that my expectations have been lowered further... I'd take that cubicle setup over an open plan office any day.

If space is at such a premium, the solution is to encourage more remote work. At this point, the industry, with its years of experience in outsourcing, offshoring and working with distributed teams has proven that remote work is an excellent and efficient model. At the very least, it should be far more mainstream than it is.

>But now that my expectations have been lowered further... I'd take that cubicle setup over an open plan office any day.

Scott Adams nailed it in his book from 15 years ago:

>After your boss has taken away your door, your walls, and your storage areas, there aren't many options left for the next revolution in office design. One of the following things is likely to go next: the floor; the ceiling; your happiness. I think the floor will stay, but only because your company would have to dig a huge hole all the way to the other side of the earth to get rid of it. As you can imagine, a huge hole through the earth would represent a serious threat to office productivity.

There's a missing stage in his description, that we're having issues with right now: in an open office plan, not having enough seats for everyone.

Standing desks are better for your health anyway.

But you need a desk to stand at first.

One company I was at switched to "hot desking" after carefully monitoring the usage rate of desks throughout the building.

Come time to do the switch, and unless you are at the office by 7.30-8.00 it's musical chairs and people end up working in the kitchenettes.

Turns out they did their desk usage survey during the holiday season. So of course there was tons of spare desks at the time.

Also ignoring the fact that developers are going to be in the office every day - they budgeted on everybody being like sales people and out of the office half their time.

My wife has the same thing... has to leave the house by a certain time if she wants to work on the same floor as the rest if the team.

I never thought the hot desk policy at a company I wasn’t even working at would affect my morning...

This sounds like a job for remote work, but I'm guessing this was the sort of shop that expected you to be in the office 4 out of 5 or more days per week.

Not if you have varicose veins.

or parking! Lack of parking makes me irrationally angry for some reason.

Insufficient parking makes me feel like it's a scam done knowingly. If there's not enough stalls in the lot, it encourages you to go earlier so you'll find a stall available, which leads to a feedback loop of the entire workforce needing to show up earlier and earlier (and of course, with the expectation that they'll work when they get to their desk, and still stay til 5).

I think people's experiences and what they consider cubicles vary widely. When I started, I had a true cubicle with a standing 'U' shaped desk around the cube perimeter, which could've housed two employees. The cubicles had tall walls (7ft) so there was some actual privacy. those were Cubicle Nirvana, but for density reasons have seen two iterations of smaller, and smaller cubes. 'drive-by' type meetings were easy to accommodate without disrupting others.

Currently, our cubicles are a honey-comb type arrangement. (think pods of three cubicles on one side, two on the other) There is no privacy, and rows behind you leave 18" of space to the employee behind you. Gone are the tall walls for working while standing. Edges of the cubicles do not stand proud of the desks, so it's not much to work with.

We've seemingly taken the worst of both worlds when it comes to cubicle AND open office concepts. I wouldn't even know what to call it, other than awful.

Ironically, we have collectively forgotten why cubicles were invented, and why office workers originally hailed them as wonderful things: they ended the open office workspaces that were dominant at the time.

Indeed. This was a common office layout through much of the 20th century: https://youtu.be/5cNJNKkCQ2E

That was unexpected. Holy crap. I think it's time for a beer.

There's also the floor size to consider, cubicles or team sized cubicles where everyone has windows or at least some natural light are very different from cubicles in a massive (wide/long) dilbertesque building with only artificial light in the center. In my neck of the woods these large buildings in industrial/technology parks are becoming a thing of the past and a lot of newer offices buildings are very thin which makes cubicles much more appealing.

Millennial here, Working in IT (Support and Development). I work for a company that had existed for over 50 years, they gave me a dedicated office, The productivity increase is incredible, I'm reluctant to ever change jobs because I'd lose my office and become thrown into the pile of people in the center of an office (Hell).

My experience has been the opposite, and I've been in cubes, remote, my own office, and open-offices.

Cubicles are the soul-sucking solitude that give a false sense of privacy. You're still just as interruptable except isolated from everyone else. If you see your coworkers as a problem then maybe this is nice but I never felt that way, preferring open office space to cubicles.

Meta response.

There has to be a better way to aggregate than having this same article (effectively) pop up every other week. And then like 30% of all hiring/firing/workplace discussions devolve into the open floor plan discussion.

The responses are always the same and the conversation hasn't moved an inch in five years.

No, its not that hard to just hide the submission and close the comment chains which veer. But my brain constantly says 'what if someone said something new and novel on the subject?!'. So its friction for me because I'm either spending 10 minutes reading a rehash or 5 minutes thinking 'I should just glance at it just in case'

The problem with reddit's solution is discoverability. Also, who would want a feed dedicated to kvetching/discussing open floor plans? Some/lots of people clearly want the articles and discussion, but would anyone actually subscribe to a feed like that?

> There has to be a better way to aggregate than having this same article (effectively) pop up every other week.

I disagree. I think this is actually the best way HN can bring about change, even though the arguments haven't changed in years.

IMO the reason these posts get upvoted is out of protest and to raise awareness. HN is probably the most influential source in tech. If every time you look at HN there's threads complaining about something, it must be pretty important.

After watching memes travel around the internet and cross over into mainstream thinking, I put a lot of weight on how much HN's front page matters. Slashdot used to have a similar effect, then Digg, then Reddit, now HN.

Well, HN votes are (at least designed) not for liking/protesting, but to give feedback that something was interesting and curious.

IIRC it's similar for Reddit (I believe it's meant to be if the comment contributes to the discussion or not). Few people seem to follow it though.

I am interested in open office discussions.

In this case the sad thing is that the thread filled up for hours before we noticed the actual topic and changed the title. If people would discuss the study, which is the new information here, the discussion might be less generic.


I work in an open office environment. I never thought I’d say this, but it works excellently; there’s always energy in the air, collaboration is easy, and it’s a great space to hold company all-hands meetings. I’d say there are 4 keys to making this work:

1) The founders have a great sense of aesthetic and our office is a beautiful space as a result (also stays very clean), meaning it stays less stressful and promotes a positive mood. This may not be strictly necessary but it sure helps it not feel like the hellscape that “open office” evokes.

2) There are plenty of closed-room office spaces available if you need focus time

3) Both of our open-office sections are in rooms much bigger than the rows of desks, so despite having a large number of people in one room, it never feels crowded

4) There is Sonos in both open-office areas and people are pretty good about not hogging it or playing obnoxious/too-loud music

I’ve also worked in open offices that were nightmarish, but saw these same factors (minus the aesthetic portion) make for an effective office environment elsewhere as well. Music, breakout offices, and non-desk space seem to be the musts (but do decorate nicely because it matters more than I ever would have thought before).

EDIT: I should add that it’s usually pretty quiet, and the music very low. I don’t consider it a distraction, but I also like my coworkers’ music so this may not work for everyone. Also, headphones are universally respected as a “do not disturb” signal.

> it’s a great space to hold company all-hands meetings.

I've never been in an all-hands meeting that was actually useful. Usually its a bunch of guys bragging about how great they are in roundabout ways.

> There is Sonos in both open-office areas

Oh god. That alone would want me to not work there. I don't want to listen to someone else's music (most of the time, I don't want to listen to music at all -- I work from home now, thankfully, and spend most of the day without any noise or music at all. Silence is amazing. I don't want to be overstimulated all day every day)

>There is Sonos in both open-office areas and people are pretty good about not hogging it or playing obnoxious/too-loud music

If my only choices were working in this office and homelessness, I would honest to go choose homelessness.

There's always a third option of coming in before everybody else and smashing the Sonos into a thousand pieces with a sledge hammer.

Be careful with this. I've actually done this and it's not an easy path.

My job is 'focus time' 95% of the day. So I need to monopolize on of those office spaces. Hey! Just put a sign on the door - Joe's Office. And we're back to closed offices.

It all depends on the job.

Definitely! There are some dedicated offices for those who need them as well. It’s just the support and dev teams that have open offices. Both of those teams do a lot of informal communicating internally and externally so it’s nice for them (I’m on the dev team and do a mix of focus work and communication).

2) is flawed: I don't want to go to a private office for focus time. I got my external monitors, headphones, dock, etc. in my main seat. It's my working area, and should be the main focus area.

> 2) There are plenty of closed-room office spaces available if you need focus time

As a coder, the ratio is like 99% focus time and 1% socialising. If I were just to take an office everyday id be viewed as entitled even if its the most rational thing

> 4) There is Sonos in both open-office areas and people are pretty good about not hogging it or playing obnoxious/too-loud music

Just, why is there a Sonos in the first place!? I can't imagine being at work and wanting to hear someone's playlist.

> 2) There are plenty of closed-room office spaces available if you need focus time

This is key.

If I had the flexibility to work in one of these spaces regularly (30+ hours a week), I would be fine. Oh, and each of these rooms has a dual monitor setup with a docking station for my laptop, right?

Same exact story here - worked in an open office that was awful that we slowly transformed into one that functioned extremely well.

Where I've always thought open offices break down is when you have the space filled with people who wouldn't normally talk to each other if they were in their own offices. Organizations that have roughly the same number of projects as they have developers.

Where it started to work extremely well, is when the only people within a 10 foot radius of me exclusively worked on the same project, codebase and backlog as me. If you're building a component for a developer that's sitting to the right of you, tested by a QA sitting to the left of you with business rules written by the BA sitting behind you it's incredible how fast you can move.

> 4) There is Sonos in both open-office areas and people are pretty good about not hogging it or playing obnoxious/too-loud music

Yikes. that sounds awful for focus-time.

So I worked in a legacy industry and they co-located a couple of teams near our biggest client. They decided to put in place an open office concept for the engineers and support staff, and gave the VPs and sales guys private offices.

Especially when we first moved into the office the VPs loved to take the customers on a tour and stand at the top of the space and tell them how great this open office was. I was in a bad mood one time when this happened and the VP asked me if I agreed (with the customer) and I said, "it is perfect for what it was built for, it was built to show our customers how many resources we have and to imply that we have no walls separating our BUs from working together." He was not happy, but also had no lines of responsibility to me or my business segment.

And like all open offices it was loud so everyone put on headphones and we had zero cross-BU interaction and very low inter-BU interaction. At one point corporate tried to push a no headphones rule because it looked bad when they brought in customers and it did not land well in the cube dwellers. A compromise was reached to not allow headphones when customers leadership visits where planned, about once a month.

My biggest problem with the design was that they guy in the desk that faced me spent around 80% of his time on conference calls. Now he wasn't loud at all, almost never said anything on these calls, but he would sit silently with his headset on staring directly at me the whole time. Now he wasn't looking at me, just looking forward but it was really disconcerting.

What I always find funny about the whole concept is that the open cube was really first imagined by Taylor as he tried to apply physical labor efficiencies into the office world. You would have everyone in an open office with the manager slighly raised up behind everyone so he could monitor them to ensure everyone was working at peak efficiency. Plus the modern leader of open offices, a company I forgot the name of in Colorado implemented and pushed open offices into the modern world, and then killed the practice internally in less than 2 years.

I hate the open office plans with no view blockers or ones that are too low that peoples eyes peek over. It's so distracting to see movement or peoples eyes that I now deliberately lower my chair as far as it goes so that the tiny short wall blocks everything.

> he would sit silently with his headset on staring directly at me the whole time

Sorry, but this image is hilarious.

35+ years in the IT workforce here.

Yep, dumbest idea ever.

The vast majority of my office time was in cubicles, which are pretty good. Usually enough privacy to get things done. I did have a glassed-in private office for about a year at one company. That was productivity heaven. In retrospect I was dumb to leave that company when I did, but they started demolishing offices for cubicles about 2 years later. It is all about efficient use of real estate.

I've been at a millennial run company for the last 6 years, first 4 in open space. What a productivity fuck, for all the often repeated reasons. And I really consider them de-humanizing. I gave up on trying to explain this to management years ago.

Working from home the last 2 years. Whenever I do visit the home office nothing gets done. Looking at what my colleagues do, I think they only ever get much done on work form home days.

"It is all about efficient use of real estate."

I've been a part of these discussions at very high levels and this is the consistent theme. Short-term, easily quantifiable savings against nebulous, hard to quantify harms. Facilities folks always win and get a pat on the back. Any push back about the open office should, in my opinion, start with addressing this basic incentive. Everything about collaboration, open communication, etc. is just window dressing used to justify the moves.

> It is all about efficient use of real estate.

To be completely accurate, it's all about maximizing profit and minimizing costs, which in this case means having as many people in a given amount of floor space as is legally possible.

The benefit of the low cost per person of office space is weighed against the negatives:

* Employee attitude/positive workplace (hard to measure)

* Difficulties introduced to the workplace by the increased density - noise, psychological effects, smells, etc (hard to measure/easily dismissed)

* A less pleasant workplace makes employee retention work less well (difficult to measure)

The other up side of the open plan space is that it's a project that an otherwise ineffective manager can do to appear valuable.

The real elephant in the room of open plan offices is "hoteling", IE employees are supposed to sit down at the first open space and start working. The real reason this is implemented is that assigning spaces in an open plan is difficult, and hoteling avoids arguments over who gets the better spot (near the restrooms, vending machines, windows, or whatever) and avoids the work of tracking employee seating and doing assignments.

However, in every single open plan space I've worked in, everyone sits in the same location every day. Despite this being obvious, no one ever seems to remember this when they decide on yet another open plan office conversion.

I lead these budget planning meetings and this is accurate

> The vast majority of my office time was in cubicles, which are pretty good.

I remember watching "Office Space" circa 2000 and it looked pretty soul crushing, and working in pre-FAANG big tech around 2006, it felt very mechanical and depressing. I get your gripes, but I think some is also rosy retrospection.

It was dull, gray, and lacking in character but it sure beats sitting elbow to elbow cafeteria style trying to get work done.

I did appreciate how easy it was to liven it up inside your own cubicle though. There are entire lines of office products designed to work with cubicle walls. I had posters, calendars, and random knicknacks, and I was able to create a space where I felt happy. I've never been able to personalize a space the same way since.

Hell, at my current job personalization of your space is actively discouraged, since there's a culture of hot-desking if you're coming in from another office.

Ah yeah, hot-desking, the next progression in cost-savings-cum-"oh no, actually, this is about collaboration!" So much collaboration that I can't expect to always have my seat with my team?

I used to work for a global 500 company that had cube farms at some locations, and others on an open plan.

I'm not gonna lie, the cube farms were an awful eyesore. But I still really enjoyed the occasional weeks I'd spend visiting those offices, and would have jumped at the chance to move to one. The people were quite a bit more outgoing and social, and yet the space still managed to be quieter. Noise level and character were generally comparable to those of my college's library.

I do sit next to others but do have full sized desk, two large monitors and with a pair of good headphones I think it works pretty well.

Right - I'd expect this in Japan where space really is a premium and the collective work attitude is much different but... why here in the States?!?

I understand what you're saying, but it's really more that we didn't know just how bad it could get. Cubicle farms were "soul crushing", because they came about from the same management practices that eventually led to open-floor plans: treating people as cost centers rather than people, micromanaging measurable real-estate costs at the expense of unmeasurable productivity.

And while one can theoretically make good software in open-floor-plan-environment/current-whipping-boy-programming-language-of-the-month/etc., the existence of such things is a big sign on the door "we probably don't care about craft".

You know what, if I'm going to be downvoted for an opinion, it should at least earn it:

Too bad open offices are here to stay, if you were worth it you could get an office, maybe invest in some good headphones :)

You seem to be in a very small minority, then... I have to agree with most of the opinions I've read through the thread, open floor plans are a total productivity killer, way too many distraction sources and most of what communication there is, is irrelevant because no team stayed separate or respected anyone else's audio boundaries.

Cubes are still rather poor, but at least I odn't have to see what my neighbor's doing, or listen to any but the loudest noises. I'm three steps away from everyone else in the team, and if we need an impromptu discussion the aisle is at least a cube width, so plenty of quick standup space.

An office / separate workroom away from the team opposite me would be great but I can earbud them away.

From my reply below:

I hear a conversation relevant to me and jump in, a conversation stops being relevant I jump out That simple interaction has added tons of value for me over the last few years of open offices. We have a very simple way to indicate you don't want to be interrupted, headphones or a flag There's also tons of huddle rooms you can go into if you want to hunker down in quiet - Everyone is different, some people feel switching from keyboard to mouse is a huge productivity drain and invest a lot in avoiding that transition Maybe I'm just fortunate but it's never been an issue for me, people are pretty respectful of their coworkers where I've worked

> a huge part of craft is communication, and open offices are great for that.

But they aren't great for that. For most people, they're the opposite. That's the point the article is making, and the article agrees with what I've personally observed.

I've never worked in one, unless I count schoolrooms.

But I can imagine that I'd be so jumpy and angry that I'd refuse to talk with anyone. And that I'd wear humongous headphones, and blast death metal or whatever.

The dynamic in the spaces that I worked was that all of the devs want to be respectful of the other devs. Part of what that means is that you want to avoid making noise. The result is that speaking is kept to the bare minimum.

Ah. So that's why meatspace collaboration goes down, yes?

But then there are the loudmouths :(

>a huge part of craft is communication, and open offices are great for that.

Can you explain this to me? How does an open office lead to better communication than cubes or partitioned group work spaces?

I'm in an open office. A lot of communication is done via email and IM. When someone comes to my desk to ask a question, collaborate, or just say hey, I typically don't get up. If a group stops by, we'll usually move to a collaborative area or set up a meeting. This would be true no matter if I were in a cube or partitioned group area. If I have a private office, I may not even have to leave my desk.

The typical response I see to this is that open offices tend to have this implied notion of everyone is willing to communicate at any time. I'd argue that on an individual level for developers, that's more often false. Someone head-down probably doesn't want to be interrupted.

> How does an open office lead to better communication than cubes or partitioned group work spaces?

It doesn't make sense because that's not the reason open-floor-plan exists. The reason is 100% cost-savings. "Communication" is just a post-hoc rationalization, created by management, parroted by employees too boorish to learn how to communicate politely and effectively.

He seems to have edited his comment because the part you’re replying to isn’t there any more, but you’re correct, open offices don’t improve communication and they can’t meaningfully improve communication. If you happen to need to “communicate” with any of the maximum four people you’re physically adjacent to, then yes, you can start a conversation without having to get up from your chair. Otherwise, you have to get up and walk across the room to where the other person is (or just IM them): exactly the same as with cubicles.

I hear a conversation relevant to me and jump in, a conversation stops being relevant I jump out

That simple interaction has added tons of value for me over the last few years of open offices.

We have a very simple way to indicate you don't want to be interrupted, headphones or a flag

There's also tons of huddle rooms you can go into if you want to hunker down in quiet


Everyone is different, some people feel switching from keyboard to mouse is a huge productivity drain and invest a lot in avoiding that transition

Maybe I'm just fortunate but it's never been an issue for me, people are pretty respectful of their coworkers where I've worked

>...Everyone is different, some people feel switching from keyboard to mouse is a huge productivity drain and invest a lot in avoiding that transition

And they are likely wrong. People believe a lot of things about themselves that don't hold up to scrutiny. For example, people think they can multitask, etc and studies show that the aren't nearly as productive doing that as they think they are. People think that open offices help collaboration, but that is not what the research shows. As the article says:

>...As my colleague Jessica Stillman pointed out last week, a new study from Harvard showed that when employees move from a traditional office to an open plan office, it doesn't cause them to interact more socially or more frequently.

>Instead, the opposite happens. They start using email and messaging with much greater frequency than before. In other words, even if collaboration were a great idea (it's a questionable notion), open plan offices are the worst possible way to make it happen.

>Previous studies of open plan offices have shown that they make people less productive, but most of those studies gave lip service to the notion that open plan offices would increase collaboration, thereby offsetting the damage.


And I have a way of indicating I do want to be interrupted: I leave my door open, I walk around the floor and look for other open doors, I move to the break room and have lunch with everyone else. It would bug the shit out of me if someone interjected themselves into a conversation I was having with someone else in my office.

That's the problem with open-floor-plan. It presumes "my need to know what you're saying/doing is more important than you even getting the opportunity to consent to me knowing."

Well, that's exactly the point, in a way.

Sitting in an open-plan office lets you know that you're not "worth it". That you're not respected. And you're way too distracted to actually get much done. So you zone out with music, watch YouTube, hang out on HN, etc.

And then, because you're not productive, you're condemned to an open-plan future :(

Every person I work with daily could work at a place with a private office if they wanted.

Hell, I'm pretty sure if they asked seriously for a private office, the company would jump over itself to make it happen.

If you need to do passive aggressive stuff like refuse to work because you're in an open office that's rather unfortunate, a lot of very successful, productive, people work in open offices.

> Every person I work with daily could work at a place with a private office if they wanted.

That seems counterintuitive. Or at least from what I've read. Such as TFA.

> If you need to do passive aggressive stuff like refuse to work because you're in an open office that's rather unfortunate ...

TFA actually presents evidence that there's a productivity hit.

(replying to the pre-edit comment, as I think that can be insightful)

I do agree that open office looks a lot less depressing than a cubicle farm; being able to see a large area tends to be more pleasing than lots of obstructions. However, actually having the same amount of people (or, usually, more people because that's why they have open offices in the first place) can cause issues due to the more intense noise and distractions. But that wouldn't be visible in a quick visit; it would need to come out over a prolonged period of working in that environment. And somehow all the decision makers never actually work in the middle of the open plan office…

> if you were worth it you could get an office

Well I'm not good enough to demand an office, but I like to think I'm on the upper half of the talent scale and when I'm job hunting I can be somewhat selective. The office style is one of my selection criteria, so companies with open plan offices are putting themselves at a disadvantage. It wont show up on a balance sheet but it will hurt them in the long run.

Typically companies with open plan offices have more "quirks" sending people away.

I've got a similar experience to the OP (35+ years in tech). Cubicles as "soul crushing" as they look are much better than the open floor plan offices. Best of all was when I had an office with a door for a few years.

open floorplan < cubicles < office with a door

No it’s not.

The beauty of the cubicle was in its practical functionality. If you’re working effectice and productively you don’t really notice the plainness of your surroundings.

A private space, but you could still see out the window.

Of course we compared cubicles to private offices back when there were still cubicle farms and found them "soul crushing".

The leap to open floor plans was a whole other level. It's like plotting soul crushing on a log scale.

Yeah, all of the talk about "increased collaborations!" seems to be hand-waivey, pseudo-admittance of "we don't know how to communicate effectively!"

I work in a private office now. I almost never work from home, and it's never to "be productive", almost always because of some personal scheduling issue. I used to work in open-office environments and would try to work from home as much as possible. One of them was even at a company around the corner from where I am now, so it wasn't even a commuting issue.

We have weekly meetings scheduled to force the issue of getting everyone caught up. But mostly, I just take a daily walk around the floor, see folk and get caught up on everything. The meetings mostly become "catching up the one person who was out the rest of the week".

We don't do daily standups. Ugh, what a boondoggle Scrum became after The Suits found out about it. Who needs it, anyway? Just talk to people.

If you have to make up organizational excuses to get people to talk, you're making excuses for people who don't talk. It's not acceptable to be a team contributor and not know how to communicate effectively.

Pretty much all you say I agree with.

Open offices are a psychological tool to control workers. All privacy is removed. This allows them to impose their will on you.

In exchange they get reduced productivity but they don’t seem to care about that as much as control over their staff.

Indeed, I also feel its a closed loop, you only get managers who want to be in total control, which tightens the loop, and we end up with daily stand ups in a battery cage under continuous surveillance.

It gets worse at the lower end of the food chain (e.g. call centres) - even toilet breaks are monitored. Strangely though in the same places there is often a lot of down time because calls are bursty, so watching youtube is permitted (friends of my daughters talk). We are indeed in the strangest timeline.

Damn .... this is exactly my story as well ... moved to working from home for the last 3 years and when I do go into the office nothing gets done. Open-Plan 250 people straight line of sight to them all, nightmare for being productive.

> It is all about efficient use of real estate.

In many cases the Federal tax code can also be the driver of these decisions because the amortization on building upgrades is way longer than cubicles. However, tables over cubicles is likely something else. To me, it's just cheap, like how call centers used to be (even they have cubicles now).

To me cubicles and open office are pretty much the same. Both are noisy and offer no privacy. Single offices or team rooms with maybe 4 people are the best.

Also WFH. I occasionally work from a coworking space when I need a change of scenery, but I plan those days knowing that my productivity will be much different (certain tasks lend themselves to open spaces better than others). Visits to the home office (a two-hour drive) are for connecting with colleagues rather than heads-down work time.

I work in open spaces as a software engineer for all my career (14 years) and have long gotten used to them. Currently have 2 other teams sitting in the same space, often chatting, headphones usually help. Not a fan of working from home.

> 35+ years in the IT workforce here. [...] I did have a glassed-in private office for about a year at one company.

Let me take a stab: 1998-2000? Ha!

(Same here.)

I suspect it’s merely a function of personality. Introverts will find it tiring and invasive. Extroverts will probably find it energizing, and will probably have the most vocal opinions shared.

Mind you, tech leans towards introverts and it’s much easier to find temporary loud spaces than temporary quiet spaces so... probably not ideal

If workers rights or material concerns won’t inspire software engineers to consider organizing, perhaps day to day work “lifestyle” hassles like open offices will. It’s been often repeated that developers eschew organizing because one can always go and find a better paying job if they don’t like the work environment they’re in- but good luck trying to find a workplace that gives the average developer their own office instead of adhering to the industry standard.

Perhaps if engineers had some type of labor union, professional association, or guild, then they can collectively stand up to management and get rid of annoyances like open offices. Why not? If it’s something universally unpopular with hackers, yet embraced by management, doesn’t that provide a valid use case for organizing? Or are we just going to forever grouse about it until management loses interest on their own and embraces an even worse floor plan fad?

And consider the other nearly-ubiquitous or common annoyances in tech- unpaid overtime, lack of support for remote work, whiteboard interviews. Why don’t the workers in the industry rally to solve them, if those in charge are unwilling to? If we care so much about “disruption”, why are we so content with the status quo of work?

Upton Sinclair said of The Jungle that he was aiming for the public’s heart and hit it in the stomach. Perhaps software engineers will not be appealed to by arguments or neither the heart, nor the stomach- but of the flow.

Man "The Jungle" ... that's a far far cry from open offices.

Open offices is a crazy reason to organize / take the union route.

It is, but engineers are compensated at (relatively) crazy levels , so different incentives will need to be given for them to organize. Sometimes social change occurs over the most trivial of issues- certainly wars have been fought over less.

And again, what’s the solution to a problem that management almost universally ignores, while workers mostly detest, if applying organized labor pressure isn’t feasible? To wait for management to change their minds? To invent cheap real estate where each engineer can be granted their own office? To fight for remote work- so another industry standard that would also involve either mgmt. fads to change or workers to collectively protest?

I’m wishy-washy on organized labor, especially for software developers: I think that we’d see less unpaid overtime if there were some sort of collective bargaining going on. I seriously doubt that any labor organization would ever do anything (or even try to do anything) about open offices.

I think any motivation to get software engineers to think and act less like lone wolves would be a step towards in the right direction. At the very least, some sort of sw labor organization can voice their displeasure towards open offices in a united fashion.

Isn't increasing workspace density the real reason this is done with collaboration just used as the public rationale?

No, that's just another public rationale. Programmer salaries are much more expensive than even private offices.

In a past life, when I wrote software for a living, I would ask my managers how much it cost, so I could pay out of pocket for my own private office. In every case, when pressed, they admitted it wasn't about the money at all. They just needed me to be a Team Player.

It wasn't even about built-out cost. The private offices already existed, and were sitting empty, in anticipation of future sales team growth -- even though I don't think we were hiring for that yet. Everyone on the business side always got a private office. Come to think of it, I don't remember ever hearing management try to explain why the sales team apparently didn't need to be team players.

I am in no way advocating for open offices in any circumstance, but one common complaint I've heard from open-office dwellers is how they sit right next to the sales team who are always on their phones.

We have sales people in a room, but there's support people next to the developers. And Bose sells another pair of QuietComforts.

As a person who is frequently called by that sales team: I can tell immediately when I'm talking to someone who is in an open-office, and I associate them with phone spammers.

So, sales people: you're losing money because of that open-office environment.

>I don't remember ever hearing management try to explain why the sales team apparently didn't need to be team players.

Because it's a free-for-all for those signup bonuses/commissions.

Constant surveillance is another part of the real reason with collaboration used as the public rationale. I mean, it doesn't make sense, but it makes them feel more like slave-owners, and that makes them happy.

>Constant surveillance is another part of the real reason with collaboration used as the public rationale

when i worked on an open plan office, that was huge. it seems like my boss' favorite hobby was checking everyone's screen to see what they were doing.

once, i was watching a yt video on a monitor while i worked on the other. normal right? nope. my boss came to my "desk" and said i had to shut it down because it was bothering people (it wasn't anything offensive. it was literally a science podcast).

my boss has literally never walked by to look at my computer. He doesnt even know what im working on day to day.

Definitely a quittable offence

Amateurs. Everyone knows you are supposed to do productivity surveillance in JIRA EasyBI.

It was originally. Now I think there is no reason anymore, it's just the default option.

When the company I work for was looking for an extra office close by, they were all open plan. Changing that was never a topic of discussion.

not just density, but "easier" for the decision makers. Its easier to rent a big open room than to figure out an office plan and seating plan and construction schedule. Its easier to move desks around like musical chairs than to have to mutate rooms and halls.

People will almost always take the near-term cheaper and easier option, even when its worse and more expensive in the long run.

Incidentally, this was the one thing I liked about we-work. Room sizes were genuinely appropriate for 2 - 5 people (ofc sold as 3 - 10).

Coincidentally I am sure that the decision makers would love to hear about your concerns, in their closed offices.

Another trend I've seen is "our CEO/VP sits in the same open floor plan"

...except they are actually in meetings 90% of the time, and may even have a dedicated meeting room (which is just an office by another name).

Actually hours at their open floor plan desk are easily in the single digits per week, of not per month.

CEO at my company did that and seemed to actually enjoy it, but other executives basically forced him to get an office because he was too often discussing confidential information out in the open.

> actually in meetings 90% of the time

Or working from their home office. Which isn't an option for the common people.

Pretty much. Real estate is expensive.

I’d be really curious how much of a hit to people’s salary they would be willing to take, or the reduced capabilities of their business, to get an open office environment.

I worked with an internal team that created a brand new office for a decently-sized tech company. We had this exact debate: open or closed. We explored closed, or versions of it (see Spotify’s team rooms as a great example of a compromise), but the end result was the same: if we expected to grow substantially and expand our business a lot, real estate would be the biggest bottleneck. We’d literally have to pay people less and deliver slower if we wanted to make that trade off, and all the companies we talk to who had gone with some form of closed office had shifted to open over time because the costs were huge.

We did the next best thing, because we definitely heard the concerns of people that getting work done at work really was harder than it should be: we created as much private space for 1-2 people as possible that lots of people could use, so you got to decide whether you were in at your desk mode or heads down mode. Several years later, this seems to work all right. There’s still a desire to work from home occasionally, and my teams are pretty understanding about that. Even with the open office plan, though, we still have to rent virtually every open space around us.

My example is skewed because I also really enjoy my work, but I fully intend to stay in my current position for the rest of my career because I have a real office with a door. I work in Silicon Valley and just cracked 6 figures in total compensation this year. By far the biggest reason that I have no interest in considering moving is the seeming impossibility of getting a cubicle, much less an office, anywhere else. So empirically, I will give up anywhere from ~50k-200k to do work I enjoy in an office with a door.

I've worked in both open and closed office environments -- currently have my own office, and it is _much_ easier for me to be productive without distractions in this arrangement. Huge improvement in quality of work and quality of life. It's possible that I could be persuaded to go back to an open-office environment, but it would require a _lot_ of additional compensation -- like maybe 50+%.

It wouldn't have to be much of a salary cut. If you amortize the up-front cost for around a 110 square foot office, the total is only about $5,000 a year (more than an open office).

45 additional square feet at (a vastly overestimated) $100 per year per square foot for rent. $5,000 construction costs amortized over 10 years.

The way we thought about it was primarily butts in seats. For simplicity, if open office = about 1000, a reasonable closed office environment for us would have housed about half of that. If we needed 1000 to deliver product X, we’d either deliver product X over double the time or for double the (real estate) cost plus the non-local collaboration cost (not insurmountable, but it’s part of the tradeoff).

We’d need to see a closed office productivity increase of double or more to justify it, and we just couldn’t, even talking to other companies that had the kind of collaborative environment we thought of as ideal if we had infinite space. They didn’t see increases at that level.

To be clear, I’m seriously simplifying here. There are so many other considerations like workplace happiness, some amount of creative “collision” differences, churn and burnout, different individual needs for privacy, whether certain collaboration styles enabled by space fit the company culture, the type of work that’s happening, how likely that team structures will be the same in 1 year, 5 years, 10 years. Ultimately, we bet on space flexibility and giving teams more control over their space than giving everyone an office or team room. It’s hard to say what the alternate history would have been, but we do pretty regular surveys about workplace happiness and have seen significant positive increases compared to our old office (also open but much more rigid, far fewer private spaces) and general happiness with people’s access to private space and ability to get work done.

Edit: I also don’t want to overgeneralize. This made sense for us, but I think there are lots of situations where it does not make sense to have an open office, especially if you have a smaller company stocked primarily with very, very high performers doing individually-driven but very deep creative work (in the sense of integrating a lot of information). I would hope all companies would be more thoughtful about it, but I wanted to provide a little look at how a company that values privacy and enabling deep work might still arrive at an open office.

> giving teams more control over their space

Unfortunately, in an open environment, the most important factors are uncontrollable.

After trying it twice, I'm pretty sure that there is no amount of compensation that would get me to agree to work in an open office space.

I'd easily take a 10% paycut to get a cubicle again. (Whether 10% actually covers the extra costs, I don't know.)

In Austin, I can get a modest 1-2 person private office for around $2k/month. At an annual salary of $120K, that's only 10-20% of developer costs. So the upper bound on the potential real estate savings of an open plan is on the order of 10-20%. Maybe a bit more if most devs are relatively inexperienced and therefore cheaper.

So while the savings is not nothing, when it's that small any potential productivity hit becomes even more of a big deal.

I was talking with a friend who works at a company HQ'd in NYC and he said that the average cost per person/desk was over 60k/yr. It was a lot higher than I was expecting.

No way...a nice sized cubicle is 100 sqft, and Class A rents in Manhattan are under $100/sqft/y. So the actual office space is something like $10,000 or less per year.

Of course there is other overhead, but space itself is in that range. So the max savings, in the most expensive market in the US, is under $10k per year.

But you don't rent by cubicle, you rent by floor or building. So adding a new employee when you have hit your max means you have to figure something out or sink a whole lot of money into a new building for one person.

Office in NYC was remodeled to open office, and the limits were determined by fire code, bathrooms, etc. In the end, a whole bunch of valuable floor space is sitting empty as relaxation rooms, a puzzle table, and funky couch areas that nobody wants to sit at because it’s next to a big boss’s office.

Practically speaking, most people are treating the shift as an implicit agreement that employees can work from home 90+% of the time.

That size seems high. 100 sqft would be a nice sized office. Cubicles are more like 30 square feet. Douglas Coupland gave cubicles the name "veal fattening pens" in Generation X but they're actually smaller now - calf enclosures are 30-35 sqft. The latest fad with standing desks is even smaller.


Yes, that's my point--the cost of raw office space for a single large cubicle/small office in Manhattan is under $10k/year. Other overhead is basically the same for a shared bench vs. large cubicle.

I'd be surprised if this is just real estate. HR and other things get rolled into overhead cost numbers.

But the portion that is ascribed to the raw footage would be under $10k/y...the other costs are not really correlated with shared bench vs cubicle vs private office.

Compared to the salary of skilled workers, it isn't really that much.

So is developer time. You would think someone would try and cost the difference in productivity drop (maybe they did already).

I am convinced too.

The other side of this is that a very large percentage of folks in our industry seem to have social anxiety-spectrum issues.

Folks without those don't seem to understand how much energy is being burned through just being out in the open and on display for all of your coworkers. It's not something I, personally, have control over.

The time I've spent in "open concept" work places, I finish every day frustrated with my ability to accomplish tasks and physically and emotionally drained.

That takes a very serious toll over time.

I've moved on from jobs due to this type of work environment.

I've had the opposite experience. I had a job where half the floor plan was cubicals and half was open plan where you had groups of 2-3 people in a sort of cove.

I started in the cubicle section. And I hated my job. Every day felt draining to the soul. I felt invisible and isolated and I hated it. I was making no progress in the organization. I'd constantly find excuses to leave my desk just to see another human face. My desk was a cluttered mess and I just hated my life. We got some new hires, so I got to shuffle over to one of the coves.

It was like getting a totally different job where all of a sudden I loved coming into work. I loved seeing people. We communicated efficiently, I organized my space effectively because it was so visible to everyone. I could catch errors others were making as they were going and pretty soon they'd come line up to get help on stuff. We were so much more efficient than letting people fail for longer, run up the client bill, and then have to redo everything. The lines of communication were opened up with me acting as a hub of sorts and so we came up with a lot of innovations in that time that made our processes more efficient.

And when we had to do overtime, it was a communal activity. The feeling was that of a team.

Open concept is my jam.

One of my offices, after vocal complaints about the open office plan, did a quick survey.

Roughly 50% were fine with the open office plan. (this office was mainly devs, HR, recruiting, and data scientists) As someone that is drained by social interactions (I _like_ them, but afterwards I'm drained, not energized), that is easily distracted by movement, and who can't hear conversations in the background without instinctively trying to focus on what is being said, open offices are hell for me.

I was utterly mystified by the "other" 50%. How do you just "choose" what to focus on? That's like controlling a reflex. I knew there were extraverts, but SO MANY?!

Can't find it anymore, but I could swear there was a study that recently hit the HN front page that found that everyone's productivity objectively takes a hit in a distracting environment. But, subjectively, extraverts perceive themselves as being more productive, while introverts don't.

This. Extroverts are likelier to choose the survey response that reinforces their identity. If you’re a social person, then “I love open office plans, they totally make me more productive” is the pro-social answer.

I would rephrase 'reinforces their identity' to 'helps maintain their sanity and happiness'.

I am not even saying they don't take a hit to their productivity. Just that that's not the important metric to those folks, they just would dread a job where they're isolated.

Yup it’s been proven that libraries are good places to get work done not cafeterias.

They really should have collaborative AND personal spaces. Not a forced airport-like office setup.

What were they smoking when they designed those?

For me, a little noise is the worst. A busy cafe with a constant level of noise is easy for me to tune out. If everyone is silent but like every 30s something happens: Someone coughs, a bag of snacks is rustled, a cardboard strap is opened. That's the worst.


I'm fine when the general level of noise is way up, because there's less for the brain to latch onto and get distracted by. I've churned out serious lines of code in a noisy cafe, but always churn out more when I'm at home: my noises, no distractions.

It's the human interaction though that drags me away from the work-from-home/work-in-a-cubicle lifestyle.

I find even quiet conversations in an open environment to be the worst of all distractions. The clacking of pens and the slurping of drinks in a library set my teeth on edge, forcing me to wear headphones, which means I may as well be outside with the rabble.

This makes me wonder if the core of the problem is the lack of control over your own environment somehow

Sure but a cube farm isn't going to save you from this.

This is driven with money-saving in mind -- at least short term. Consider it is easier to lease space as a landlord if it is open space floorplan, and it is easier to deal with a 1-2 year temporary space as a startup, than actually pay to modify it.

A lot of this depends on people on the maker's schedule vs. the manager's schedule.

Or put another way, some people like the office environment because it matches how they communicate and get things done. The office environment is built around the idea of real-time conversations, which can be helpful for collaboration if it's not overused.

With that being said, the office (especially open-offices) take this idea way too far. I just finished a post about it a couple minutes ago: https://www.friday.app/office-vs-remote-distance-communicati...

Trying to tune out the background conversations is especially hard when most of them are in a language you speak usefully, but not fluently.

Works the same in the reverse case: I'm a native speaker in the office language, but many of my coworkers are not. One of them is impossible for me to tune out, only because of a difficult accent (his grammar etc are actually better than the ones that I can tune out). It feels as if a mental background process for flagging keywords or something like that keeps bailing out with an exception, "sorry consciousness, you take over". I discovered that I can limit the effect with positive framing as a naturally occurring experiment that grants an interesting window into the inner workings of the mind. At least this way, the distraction does not get compounded by annoyance (which also would be quite unfair). I can only imagine how bad it must be when everyone around you causes that kind of escalation to consciousness.

Surveys like that don't work very well. The same people would probably also have been "fine" with their own office. Many people just want to get along, and enduring this and that is something that we learn all the way from childhood.

"cove of 2-3 people" isn't really open plan. Working next to a couple people who you'll probably end up getting friendly with if they aren't jerks is very different from working in an ocean of 50 people.

This conversation is a great example of the differences in personalities, and why there is no single solution for everybody. As a rather misanthropic person, my preference is to see other human beings (that aren't loved ones) very rarely, ideally never. I don't want to see, hear, smell, etc people.

Until I'm fully remote, cubicles are the best scenario I've found. They let me feel "invisible and isolated" and I love it. If I could build out my cubicle to be a complete box with opaque walls and soundproofing, I'd do so in a heartbeat.

Hopefully decision-making people can become aware that there's a huge spectrum of preferences, and work to accommodate them rather than impose preferences on others.

Extroverts: I feel invisible and isolated and I hate it.

Introverts: I feel invisible and isolated and I love it.

More like:

Introvert: Anyone could (and has in the past) interrupted my thoughts in similar situations, I need to be ready.

Introvert: What are they saying? Does that involve me or an area I should be concerned about?

Introvert: There's someone within speaking voice 'ear-shot' and/or eye-contact range, lets work on that task together.

im not sure what any of this has to do with introversion

No one is 100% polarized introvert or extrovert though. I’m willing to be t silent environments are more conducive to productivity.

Whomever designs those open spaces watches way too much Fixer Upper. That or not enough — the open spaces are communal but there are ALSO spaces for people to retreat into their space.

>I’m willing to be t silent environments are more conducive to productivity.

It's always worked for libraries, I think. Why not offices?

Aren’t libraries usually open spaces? But they enforce strict silence.

So you can go tap on anyone’s shoulder but if you want to have a conversation you need to head to a non working area.

That sounds like the best idea to me. Open office plan, but no loud conversations are allowed. You need to maintain strict library like silences. However, you also provide enough breakout rooms or non quiet areas where people can head over to to have a discussion.

Which of course can never work in an office environment. Leave your desk for every Zoom/WebEx conference call? Whisper with the colleague who needs to talk to you for a minute about something? You're not going to decamp to a meeting area for all the daily grind stuff- so the open area is always going to be interruptingly loud.

We have unofficial office rules that work just like that. We do not have a sea of 50 people in the same space however, instead we have sort of isolated spaces that contain about 15-20 people each. All phone calls, chats longer than a minute or two ('I need to whiteboard this with you') and such are always done in small dedicated phone / meeting rooms on the sides of the open space. There is an adjacent coffee and food eating space shared by 3 such shared spaces, so about 40 people. It works well enough, almost everyone is mindful of sticking to the rules, since it benefits everybody to keep it that way.

Another anecdata: I'm in an open office right now, and the area that I'm in could ostensibly be considered to be a "cove", with about 6 people. I hate it. I'm not on the same calls, so people being in calls messes with my flow. They're not on my same calls, so I either have to move to a hot and sticky phone booth, or leave the building entirely (I've taken a few calls in my car) since I work on projects that aren't ready for the office rumor mill.

I really miss my cubicle. I could stand up and have a conversation, or sit down and be in relative peace. The sound and visual isolation offered by those fabric walls can't be overstated.

I feel invisible and isolated in my open plan office anyway, but also exposed in all the ways that spike my anxiety and keep me from getting work done. It's the worst of both worlds.

I think the former aspect probably has more to do with the job itself than the physical working environment ... it's hard to walk away from what I get paid, but one of these days I'll probably have to.

The second sounds like hub-and-spoke, where you have pods of 2-4 people clustered around common area. (I enjoy that as well.)

Open concept is usually more like 20-40 in a giant pen without any sort of separation or soundproofing between.

Studies suggest hub-and-spoke is good; open concept is high density feedlots applied to white collar work.

I am curious as what type of work did you do at that job. "I could catch errors others were making as they were going" sounds as something I would not be able to do as a developer.

As has been alluded to in previous incarnations of this article topic and subsequent HN commentary, for a typical IT/software job the ideal I think is to either have functional teams in their own closed open area or to have such an area along with a quiet cube or office (even if it's "hoteled") for work that requires long periods of uninterrupted focus.

An great alternative is just an open office where remote workers meet a few times a week to collaborate then go back home to get stuff done.

Somehow there has to be a mix because an open office space with all the yackety yak that comes with it is practically impossible to get any real individual work done. I end up making progress during quiet times at home after hours or when I take a day off/sick leave. Not ideal. Where is our 21st century Jetsons future, dammit. It's not supposed to be worse.

The small group - if they work at least on related things - can be valuable. Those huge areas of desk next to desk as in modern "startup" (in quotes since it includes Facebook etc.) open offices are a way different story, though.

i've lived with chronic depersonalization and the resultant anxiety which had kept me hamstrung in my one and only job

after a couple personal breakthroughs i finally gained the confidence to earn a promotion to my very modest dream role, only to find out a couple months in that we'd be transferring to open plan

after the move i almost immediately started experiencing esteem-crumbling health issues caused by the constant anxiety, i avoided growth opportunities because i couldn't muster the energy to even volunteer, i failed to cultivate proper relationships with any of my coworkers and before long my destructive fight-or-flight tendencies were back in full force

i tried being completely transparent about my problems in an attempt to save this job id wanted for so long, jumped through hoops like seeing a company appointed therapist, tried and failed to arrange more flexible working situations and so on

eventually i provided enough dirt on file for them to force me to resign, so i'm now unemployed in my 30s with no references i have any confidence in and enough shame and guilt to put me in the ground should my extreme mental fog ever clear again

knowing how deep mental issues can run i'm so sad knowing people are having their careers effectively curtailed by something as stupid as this in an industry that should understand these problems better than any other

> eventually i provided enough dirt on file for them to force me to resign, so i'm now unemployed in my 30s with no references i have any confidence in and enough shame and guilt to put me in the ground should my extreme mental fog ever clear again

Have you considered working for a remote-only company, such as GitLab, DuckDuckGo or Buffer? For someone with a chronic depersonalization / derealization disorder a formal work environment should be a non-starter. The constant self-reflection around other people consumes the entire energy and leaves one unable to perform.

i have no formal qualifications to speak of and i was in operations so my knowledge is already years out of date, all over the place and not at all relevant to any business operating that way

i've struggled learning anything since i left because as bad as people affect me the less time i spend around them the worse the mental fog gets, which makes my ability to focus on any one topic pretty much non-existent

attaining the delicate balance i require to feel functional is not happening in any formal environment, you are completely right about that and i've come to accept it over the past few years

apologies for not getting back to you before, got stuck in a mental loop just writing a response.. sounds like you know exactly what i'm talking about so i appreciate it

I know exactly how it feels. And that often nobody around can truly relate with this experience.

It's like being thrown into a dark hole and being left there all by yourself, 24/7, for years.

If you haven't seen it, Numb (2007) has captured this state pretty well:


Also, it seems, there was a related thread here a year ago:


That's just a reminder, that you are not alone.

i did see numb long before i was conscious of the problem, i will give it a rewatch

giving that thread a read as well

if i leave nothing else behind i hope i'm at some point able to impart some knowledge on how to navigate this, with how we're living our lives i'm worried it will be commonplace before long

thank you again

100% this, you've described perfectly how I feel. It's not something I have control over either. Even in high school, I've had to close the doors to my room to be able to focus on learning. I can work in a team on a common task requiring constant interaction (e.g. brainstorming, negotiating, designing), but if a task requires individual focus (like programming), I have to expend significant emotional energy on managing my anxiety if my work area is in the open.

I know I'm not alone in this; the last time I worked in an office, we were technically in a semi-open space (8 people in a room), but the desks and monitors got subtly but quickly rearranged to block everyone's line-of-sight to everyone else.

> I've moved on from jobs due to this type of work environment.

Me too. The last job I had was with a top tier company whose products nearly everyone reading this owns and uses. The open office workspace is why I quit. It was an intolerable hell.

Fruit company?

No, but I'm not going to identify the company.

It absolutely sucked for me whenever I used to try and code, if I was deep in thought and looking away and someone passed by, they would nod in my direction or get my attention some other way ( sorry am thinking, not in a mood to socialize)! Thankfully when I needed to get work done, the company allowed remote work. Working remote for the last 2.5 years, it's going to be hard when I have to go back to a real office.

> The other side of this is that a very large percentage of folks in our industry seem to have social anxiety-spectrum issues.

I've tried to search for studies in the past but failed at google (after hearing numerous managers repeat many times that "loads of people in IT are on the spectrum"). If many (non medical) managers have said it, there must be easily accessible studies, surely.

>a very large percentage of folks in our industry seem to have social anxiety-spectrum issues.

It seems like it, I wouldn't like a cubicle. I think open offices aren't ideal. I'd prefer a team room, but between solitude and open I pick open.

Totally agree. Open concept at my place is beyond ridiculous. I'm not a zoo animal.

Zero privacy, bathrooms are disgusting, kitchen is disgusting. I just give up. I work at home as much as possible.

The concept of "Social anxiety" really doesn't explain it fully IMHO. The concept may even sound like a label of being wimpy, retarded or scared, which is probably not true at all - or can be made true/untrue depending on circumstances!

It's more about what kind of loads your brain are optimized for (when feeling "drained" after social exposure for a full day), being exceedingly more sensitive than most, maybe even exposing more shenanigans at earliest opportunity.

What helps is being encouraged to decide yourself, taking matters in your own hands. Making decision yourself to go into an unfamiliar environment, while having opportunity to withdraw etc. would be empowering and allow for adjustments by the individual herself. This requires a platform in the environment though, which takes time for everybody to adjust to. However such general empowerment in the environment benefits all in the end.

These are not an unfounded view or wishful thoughts in my experience, though people will have different experiences.

That's a very narrow view of the world, friend.

It's dangerous to presume that you have such a deep and wide perspective that you can instantly diagnose something so thoroughly.

Sorry for thinking and sharing my experience.

Just go back to being socially anxious then!

Nevermind other explanation models or opportunities.

I've updated my comment to attempt to clarify the meaning better, in case that was miscommunicated.

The older I get, the more I realize that we really haven't figured out anything at all.

We just make up or prescribe to a set of rules that help us cope with that as best as possible.

That's intentionally or unintentionally very insightful. We are the product of our environment, which is infinitely more powerful than us, so we have to adapt it wisely or perish.

> The Harvard study, by contrast, undercuts the entire premise that justifies the fad. And that leaves companies with only one justification for moving to an open plan office: less floor space, and therefore a lower rent.

From beginning this was the reason - because when planning for the office the cost difference between open/close office would show up in the Excel files - loss of productivity no Excel or Project Mgmt software can capture (it is hand-wavy stuff for CFO office).

Apart from rent, the cost of HVAC (heating, cooling) is drastically reduced - installation, operation and maintenance - open office has more efficient distribution due to no obstructing walls, lesser duct outlets - in closed office plan, each office needs to have at least one outlet, most of the time more than one.

Then ofcourse saving on drywalls, doors, locks, etc.

Yep, and I've used those arguments to justify working from home permanently before.

Last time I just found out when the bean counters were coming around and worked from home the days they were in the office. When the plan came out and they hadn't figure out a slot for me I just told them I work from home and started doing it full time. Problem solved.

Caveat: It helped we were an acquisition. Roles and norms were very in flux. I'd done work in other areas to pass off all my onsite responsibilities to the purchaser.

I worked in an office that was redesigned several times.

After the last round of absurdly low / no cube walls. I bought myself some shooting earmuffs to block out the noise / a socially friendly way of signaling to others I should not be interrupted.

It was telling that within a week half the team had amazon boxes on their desk and similar earmuffs.

Now for very small teams with EVERYONE handling the situation properly. I think the open space can work, but it has to be VERY specific to department and folks who work well together.

Eventually I ended up in a quiet corner of the office with half a dozen folks who were really good about talking to each other and it was super efficient ... but MAN that is not something you can just "make happen" and if one person / manager (especially managers) is bad about it... it's a mess.

I am not sure why employees would message and email more if they can just turn their chair around to chat about something they are working on.

Does anyone have experience of this? I have worked in open plan offices since 1999 and I've never experienced productivity problems. If anything I'd expect working in a cube would lead to more time wasted cruising websites since your screen is more obscured. I dunno, I've only worked in cubes a handful of times.

Simple, when you go visit someone in a private office you can close the door and have a long conversation about your topic and really hash out the details. If you turn around and start blabbering to one of your teammates in an open office plan, everyone within hearing distance will want to murder you. If you're not aware of this, I guarantee everyone within 30 feet of you is already wearing headphones and hates you.

So now you have to coordinate on Slack to go to one of the shared team meeting rooms instead. At that point you might as well have your conversation in Slack, even if the person is sitting right next to you. And that's the state of open offices today, co-located but void of any actual collaboration.

I've worked in single person offices, 2-3 person offices and open offices. 2-3 person offices where everyone works on the same thing is the best, by far. Remote work is the new private office, not quite as good as a 2-3 person office, but infinitely better than an open office.

Honestly, I don't see this as a thing once you get to a certain size. It used to be a thing at my workplace when we were smaller. However, now, the place is just so loud with conversation/whatever on a daily basis that people are less bothered by individual conversations near them. It's like complaining about conversation next to you when you're in a cafeteria full of it already.

Everyone wears headphones at my place if they're trying to focus. Last job literally handed out construction ear muffs.

Also, all the rooms are taken up by meetings. Mostly by business/product. There's no rooms left for engineers to hash things out, frequently.

> However, now, the place is just so loud with conversation/whatever on a daily basis that people are less bothered by individual conversations near them.

I cannot adequately describe the horror this sentence induces in me.

Feel like it's pretty normal in SV - but, I don't like it either.

I haven't really been in a startup office that wasn't this way in quite a while. First startup I was at played music all the time - that wasn't great. Second place (not a startup) had engineers stationed next to sales people who had to be on the phone all the time at their desks. Third one - the sales folks were further away but everyone not in engineering was so loud that they gave those muffs out (lots of customer service reps sat near engineering too - lots of phone calls). And now I am at one where everyone is next to everyone even at a billion dollar company. Each person gets a 60"x30" desk (it might be smaller actually) and they shove 6-8 of them together in groups of 2x3 or 2x4. Then put them in really close proximity where you have about 12-18" between your chair at your desk and the person behind you. Not uncommon to run into the person behind you. This is for a company with over $100mil in funding. There's about 100 people in the office. It's not a very large office at all.

Most people just don't join the company if it's an issue - but I don't think anyone has cited that as an issue yet. Most people complain more about the terrible codebase or poor management or bad numbers or poor compensation. (Inclusive or)

> Everyone wears headphones at my place if they're trying to focus. Last job literally handed out construction ear muffs.

This doesn't work for a lot of people, including myself. Being sonically cut off from the environment causes many people a great deal of anxiety and stress.

And why do they need meeting rooms for everything? Because they don't have offices.

I think I need to know what kind of businesses actually have people working in discrete offices of 2-3 people. The only place I've really seen this is at Kodak/Creo. It was horrible and stagnant.

White noise generators and proper office design mitigate nearly all of your concerns. There is obviously etiquette to having quick conversations around colleagues and meeting rooms are always available for deeper collaboration. For the most part our work is planned out carefully, most problems can be resolved via a couple of quick Slack messages.

I feel socialized and look forward to coming to work. If I worked in a small 2-3 person silo I'd feel like an instrument of industry rather than a family member. I know that sounds trite but it's true, feeling part of a larger team / the business as a whole is incredibly motivating.

I admit my concept of small private offices is marred by my own experiences of those work environments which have all been just soulless bad places to work. I know that is not the rule for cube/small office workplace design.

Private offices aren't cubes. You can still hear conversations with cubicles. And if you have an office with more than one person, the long conversation still disrupts the other people in the office.

Long conversations do deserve private space, but this can be resolved by having ample meeting spaces.

You can hear loud conversations. Those fabric walls do a surprisingly good job at limiting the spread of a normal-volume conversation to about 1 cubicle around you, and you can speak in soft tones and not be heard at all.

I worked in an open-office for a year and my experience there was pretty bad. I was in a deep-work, heavy focus department sandwiched between two walking paths (we called our desks "Review Island") and literally anyone in the company including CEO could walk within 2 feet of you when they headed for coffee or water. So, you're on edge, your peripheral vision is a ton of people walking by. Then, the two departments next to us were very collaborative, they involved a lot of conversations...and yet, they also hated the open-office.

People want to have conversations when they want to; at other times, they want silence. I think there was an effect where no one wanted to interrupt others' silence, so they just emailed or chatted when a simple walk-over-and-chat would suffice...if we had had more space and more individuals with offices, I think a lot more productive collaboration would've occurred.

So, in summary, the noise/distraction was already so bad, we didn't want to make it worse.

You would message and email more because you can't just turn your chair around to chat about something you are working on. If you do that, you kill the productivity of a dozen other people while you have that chat, and get them mad at you as a bonus.

I remember one office design where they had these tables placed between desks faced back to back, on the theory that people would use those tables for collaborative work. Instead, the tables just became oversized bookshelves. People couldn't have a conversation over them because conversations make noise.

Wearable chairs and chat bots can increase open office productivity.


In an open-plan office, "turning their chair around to chat" involves everyone in the vicinity who overhears the conversation, and "turning around" is only possible for the single-digit number of next-seat neighbours.

Consider the opposite extreme of private offices. An impromptu meeting involves some walking, but otherwise the meeting stays between just those directly-involved. There's no cost to anyone else.

Keeping this distracting effect in mind, silent communication (messaging) looks more attractive.

I just recently went from a personal office to an open plan and find the new situation devoid of merit. Noise-canceling over-the-ear headphones are a must, and phone calls are impossible. Since meeting rooms are minimal, that's an issue too. I've done a handful of meetings in my car.

> phone calls are impossible

And woe to those who need to take a conference call with multiple of their desk neighbors but no conference rooms are available. Nothing like a bunch of people all sitting next to each other talking on the same phone call.

Why companies would implement an open office without a plethora of private meeting spaces is beyond me.

3/3 of my last companies have moved to new offices while I was there, proudly touting the open floor plan and increased number of meeting rooms.

3/3 found that the meeting rooms were inadequate before they even filled the open floor plan seating.

Open floor plans mean meeting rooms become mandatory for just about every interaction. The promised ease of interaction doesnt happen when everyone is in headphones and the polite people dont want to talk while in close quarters with others NOT in the conversation.

I can't tell you how many times I walked past the 12 person conference room with just two people sitting in there, because, where else are they going to have a private discussion when every other room is booked?

As you said, when everyone has an office, only meetings of more than a handful of people need a separate conference room.

I suspect that, as people have been discussing upthread, open offices and a lack of meeting rooms are both symptoms of the underlying problem that a company just doesn't have enough space. I worked in an open office once where the company wasn't under space pressure, and it wasn't nearly as bad.

>phone calls are impossible

I've never had any problem making a phone call in an open office.

But how do your coworkers feel about you not having a problem talking calls at your desk?

Don't know, don't care. If they have a problem with it, they should talk to management. I'd personally be fine with a private office, but I have my doubts about getting one.

Are you looking for a new job?

Even if he was, it’s a waste of time - even if the company started out with sane working conditions, they’ll eventually switch over to an open office because it saves 2% of the operating budget (on paper).

Remote. They can't take my apartment and my private office innit away.

>I am not sure why employees would message and email more if they can just turn their chair around to chat about something they are working on.

Well first of, if I just turn my chair around, I'm talking to the wall.

Secondly, I could yell at another develop from one table and they might not even realise because they're wearing noise-cancelling headphones. I mean, of course they are, they are in a room with 30+ other people.

If I want to collaborate in an open office, I need to get up from my desk, walk to someone else's desk, tap them on the shoulder to get them to remove their headphones and then stand there and talk to the other person + 10 people around them.

I'm working in an open office now. With few exceptions, every single person wears headphones (presumably noise-canceling) most of the day. Some people (especially me) have video conferences from our desks.

For a "hey there" conversation, most teammates have to get up and walk over to someone else... tap them to shake them out of their focus and get them to take their headphones off.

Don't think any of us resort to email, but then again I'm only on one of many teams. We do use Slack but again I don't know how many private Slack conversations occur. (Most of my team is not located here, so everything is Slack, and most of it is in a team channel.)

I'm not sure I have a solid takeaway, but I can say that I'm much, much more engaged with my remote teammates than my local ones.

>For a "hey there" conversation, most teammates have to get up and walk over to someone else... tap them to shake them out of their focus and get them to take their headphones off.

I think it's pretty tough to read if it's okay to interrupt when your teammate is wearing headphones (especially if, as you said, everyone wears them most of the day). Sometimes I'm just wearing headphones to listen to some music while doing something easy and tedious, which would be okay to interrupt. But if I'm diving deep into some system to find a mystery bug, then I'd be annoyed if interrupted.

I'm currently working on a project exploring physical interruptions and would appreciate hearing about your (and other HN users') experiences: https://forms.gle/syL1XrLAauxd57hr7

I've worked on an open plan startup and was a slack admin.

90+% of the messages were private, and we had pretty good activity on public channels.

Because people understand how distracting their conversations are to those who are not involved in the conversations.

I've never really worked in a cubicle (once had a mid tower PC and dual monitors acting as partitions to the front and left) but wouldn't an advantage of an open plan office over a cubicle be that you can see your manager walking towards you from a mile off and be able to quickly look like you're working.

These issues sound a lot like managers not trusting employees to get work done, which sounds like a bigger issue.

This, but, for both sides.

Managers should trust their employees to get stuff done, and not micromanage their time. Employees should get stuff done whether their managers are watching their every move or not, and, trust their managers to not be micromanaging their time. We both need to create a trustworthy relationship.

I have no sympathy for employees who do not do work without being forced to any more than I do for bosses who want to micromanage every minute of employee time or every website they visit. You're both hurting all of us.

Here's another perspective: mercenary-leaning personality types may be able to compartmentalize micromanagement, but highly intrinsically-motivated minds are totally disrupted by it. The anxiety of observation lingers even when the boss isn't looking and all work begins to carry the sting of coercion. Effort for these people grows out of aligning personal agency with meaningful production, so forced conformity to arbitrary management practices (or worst of all, counterproductive ones) actively kills all but the minimal output to remain employed and put food on the table.

But personalities who don't experience the world this way interpret it under the simplistic moral judgment of "laziness", thus perpetuating the very incentive structure that causes it in the first place.

I find it highly dubious that there's a significant fraction of humans who are basically not industrious. That just doesn't seem possible or adaptive in the context of a tribe of hunter-gatherers eeking out survival on the savannah. Rather it seems that we're clinging to unsophisticated organizational structures from the Industrial Revolution, which enabled a highly technical society to emerge in the first place but were never iterated to handle things like psychological diversity or the explosion of highly specialized knowledge work. That’s why we have insanities like software designers working factory shifts, in noisy distracting settings, taking marching orders from people who have no idea what they do.

Like all relationships it is reciprocal notably. Demotivated or stressed employees are more likely to "full slack" (not doing any work as opposed to say switching to a lower intensity duty). Bosses who distrust their employees are more likely to micromanage and stress and demotivate.

Proper results oriented approaches can help for both parties. At the end of the day throughput is what matters for productivity not how hard they work. But that is logistically nontrivial to set up and calibrate properly, let alone other temptations and pressure to try to "optimize" beyond the ability to be sustained. Knowledge work in even the lowliest sense isn't optimal like an assembly line.

Making matters worse as usual for any would be reformers are inertia and politics of course. It is the ultimate "dancing monkey" but instead of being between security and the monkey choosing the latter, the choice is practical and wise decisions or politically pleasing ones.

Not to mention that as knowledge workers, a lot of the value+ideas you provide come from reading and research that is not explicitly work related. I encourage my team to spend time doing non-related research and work/tinker on finding new things they are interested in, and to not feel guilty if I walk by and they have reddit or hn open/visible. That being said, working in an open office is like being stuck in a plane of purgatory.

> if they can just turn their chair around

By definition, there can only be max four people (usually less) you can just “turn your chair around and talk to” without shouting over somebody else’s head - or just getting up and walking over to where they are just as you would if people had cubes. Your insinuation that this is possible or meaningful is so obviously disingenuous that I’m having a hard time you’re making it in good faith: if you’d tried it for even a few hours you’d be able to see the flaw in it.

> I am not sure why employees would message and email more if they can just turn their chair around to chat about something they are working on.

I have observed two main reasons for this.

1. More people now have headphones on to keep them focused. So people send IM's so as not to distract them.

2. It is easy to disturb others when having face to face conversations in the open area.

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