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More damaging evidence on open plan offices (thesoundagency.com)
173 points by ColinWright 1606 days ago | past | web | 132 comments

Here's my experience, best to worst:

1. Small team of programmers, sharing a closed office.

2. Small team of programmers sharing an open office.

3. Team of programmers each with their own office.

4. Team of programmers in one big room.

5. Team of programmers in one big room along with a bunch of other people.

Small team, in a circle, with their backs to each other, was by far the most productive environment I've ever experienced. We could concentrate on our work, but when shit happened we could turn to look at our compatriots screen and help each other out.

You have to be a real team for this to work. Not just a bunch of people with the same employer.

You missed:

6. Small team of programmers, sharing an office with salesmen shouting into phones.

In one place I worked the sales-guys would walk over to the programmers (where it was quiet) to make noisy calls so they wouldn't disturb the other sales-guys.

7. Small team of programmers, sharing an office with the boss and his secretary / saleswoman, several people smoking, and the office radio running music you do not really care for. And a wall mounted webcam pointed at the programmers "so the cleaning woman does not nick stuff".

But at least the billiard table was great.

And you never addressed this? First, by politeness. If that doesn't work, by triangulation. (Talk to your boss and have him get it straightened out.) If that didn't work, defenestration.

We tried but at that point in time the company had been taken over by salesmen. They ruled with a swagger, parking large BMWs in the disabled parking bays, spending a weeks wage on lunch, making promises we couldn't keep and barking orders at experienced coders.

It was straight out of the IT crowd (only much darker).

(In fact around the same time we witnessed an actual scene from the IT crowd: the CEO gave a speech at the launch dinner for of our revolutionary new product (3 years in the making) where he lavished praise on every department apart from the dev team who planned and built it. We looked at each other dumbstruck waiting for him to thank the cleaners next…)

You are an optimist. The most probable result is sales people shaking their heads at the programming curmudgeons.

One real story. The head of PR guy has a very strong voice. We were lucky that he doesn't talk in the phone too often, because he took me out of the zone, almost out of the office every time.

Then he was moved and placed in the sales people row, farther from programmers. Now he complains that he can't concentrate because their chatter.

Do you really think that this guy was just a little bit aware of the effect of his conversations? I really doubt it.

I think the biggest productivity spike comes from removing "other people" from the room where programmers are.

Mixing people on a maker's schedule with those on a manager's schedule is never going to work. Also don't mix people who need to think with people who need to talk on the phone.

On one project we started in a large, but private room. Each programmer staked out their own space. Might as well have been separate offices. About 8 weeks into the project, we rearranged the desks into a circle, facing out. Relevant communication increased massively. I was aware of exactly what my colleagues were working on all the time (yet still able to focus on my own tasks). Yes, there were times when someone would interrupt me when I had a complex problem gelling in my mind, but it was offset by having the required expertise for the entire product immediately available.

From personal experience, we have a team of programmers all from the same group working in an isolated area. At some point a secretary for some unrelated manager was seated among us at it became a huge destruction. By the nature of here work, she was constantly talking on the phone of having her phone ring.

Exactly. Which is why I don't see much difference in most of the scenarios jamieb describes, except for 5.

In our current office, we don't have the luxury of closed offices, but we do have separate spaces (kitchen, meeting room, small "lounge" room, hallway.) So the informal rule is: the big open room where everyone sits is on the maker's schedule, if you have to big discussions or use the phone, go elsewhere.

Works well enough most of the time. Of course it helps that there are very few non-programmers, and those are out of the office most of the time, so the open plan office is usually peaceful anyway.

Concur on #1 -- I've never been so focused as when six of us shared a large office that was isolated from the rest of the company by two doors and a set of stairs.

Similarly, a set of closed offices around a common area with couches and whiteboards. Here you get to choose; individuals can isolate, when cranking, and they can also include themselves into conversations by leaving their doors open.

Note that this is WAY different from having a set of offices along a long hallway (where you get no community at all -- hallways are just like motels, or crappy apartments).

I also concur with #1's finding (small group in a room shut off from the rest). I once worked with 5 other C++ developers all sitting at a couple fold out tables in a one room office to work on a software that was used in a highly competitive niche market and this was by far the most productive I ever was. Like the OP, we could instantly talk to one another about a problem or to ask why certain blocks of code were a certain way. We wrote software used to track bets (off shore gambling). Our software sold for around $100K and at the time (about '93-'95) our only competitor was a large corporation that appeared to struggle to keep up with us. We were so innovative and fast to deliver. Those days long behind me, I often wish to find that same cohesiveness in my work-life again.

This is called caves and commons


which is not very common because then the company has to buy both caves and common space for everyone.

One to try, if you can, is a team, each with their own office, but also a large "war room" where folks can rotate in and out of during their projects. During "crunch mode" everyone involved is in the war room, but they still had a private office to retreat to when needed.

This was my favorite, and this company made software for government forms, each family of forms had their own schedule, so what groups were pressured changed during the year.

I prefer facing one another at a long table. I probably don't need to see your screen to fix your issue and if I do, I'm coming over to sit with you for a few minutes. Most likely, seeing your face and answering your question is enough. Less disruption to my own work as well.

id Software rocked the gaming world with #1 when they were building their first games

By their accounts it was their most productive era

Heh, according to "Masters of Doom", Carmack was known to lug his 22 inch CRT back to his place when things got too distracting.

To those recommending headphones, I find headphones/earbuds uncomfortable, and listening to music distracting. But more to the point, think of what you're really saying: a disruptive, unproductive work environment is my problem. The idea of a default poor environment where each employee finds their own solution to seal themselves off from disruption is plainly absurd, when thought of in those terms.

It really depends on what you hear.

Try in the following order:

* Ambient radio channel. (Check out http://somafm.com/)

* Hear natural sounds like rain, wind or the ocean.

* Noise generators: http://simplynoise.com/

If it still distracting for you, just put some earplugs in (Try silicone, they are very comfortable).

Another ambient channel: http://stillstream.com/

While I totally agree with your second point, here is a pragmatic solution to your first:


This depends on where you're working. If you're looking for efficiency, sure, maybe open plan offices will impact your Business Efficiency Quotient.

If your company enjoys having an open floor plan, then just do it. When in doubt, value happiness over anything else. We have music playing constantly at the office with everyone sitting on long community tables. It's a relaxed, fun atmosphere, and I enjoy doing work there.

When you want to go into The Zone, we have closed off offices that you can do that in (or, alternatively, just stay at home or go to a coffee shop and get your work done there).

Efficiency in workers isn't the end-all game. There are a lot of metrics beyond just "what is the most work we can squeeze out of our employees today".

You love that environment, but that would make me go mental. You would tell me to go in to the closed office, but personally, I would know what was going on out side. It would still drive me mental. For me, its all about isolation. I would go for a log cabin on a mountain. And obviously, that would drive other people mental.

The real point, I feel, is that different people work well in different ways. Some like a buzzy hyper environment, others like to be left alone to get on with it. Some are easily distracted, like me, others can work in mad chaos. And of course there are all those in-between.

To me the mistake, a common mistake, is to think one solution fits all.

>personally, I would know what was going on out side.

What do you mean? It sounds like you mean that you don't want to work somewhere where people are allowed an open space to work in. The described workplace has an open plan working area, available closed offices, and finally the option to work remotely. That doesn't sound like one solution fits all. Can you clarify what would bother you?

I don't understand what the guy you are replying to meant in terms of not knowing what was going on in the open space (who cares? isn't that the point of being in the closed office), but I still would say that there are issues with the originally described office.

In my experience, places with "open space where there are closed offices if you need them" have like maybe one or two closed offices and if you used one all the time you'd be the "loner who bogarts the office space".

For an office to truly be both open and closed you need enough closed offices for some people to be assigned a full-time closed office if they choose that. Otherwise you have a situation like those jobs that have unlimited vacation time except you can't ever really use it or you risk being ostracized.

Some current postings for jobs on Craigslist sound like they were written by a Marketing Manager, personality is stressed, no working in isolation, glad I'm not the only one who enjoys quiet time to get work done. People who are into totally social scenes might be happier in marketing or sales than programming.

""We have music playing constantly at the office with everyone sitting on long community tables.""

This sounds ... taxing. Like being at a loud cafe blasting music only you cannot get away because it's your place of work.

Like I said, go into one of the private offices. Or don't go into the office.

I have real problems with loud music, and enforced choice of music. How would someone like me be effective in your organisation? How would I get the news? Stay with the vibe? Or would you simply not recruit someone like me as I would be obviously different at interview?

Not being aggressive here just interested.

Our office communication is fairly nonexistent. Everything's done through chat, so you're not missing much if you're in the office or not or in the quiet area of the office.

And the music choice isn't really enforced... we built a shared music server controllable via web and chat where everyone can request and vote on songs collaboratively.

OK, so I could summarise your environment as 'remote-working with physical proximity'.

PS: its simply the noise, I'd be the one in the corner with the noise cancelling headphones requesting the 'sea sound' track every day. I'm sure your music choice process is very democratic.

I was about to post "hmm, sounds a lot like Github", but then I looked at your profile and saw, yes, it is Github.

We have a shared workspace too, modeled after Bell Labs' famous Unix Room. It's nice to work in there from time to time, but everyone except the interns also has a real office of their own where they can store hardware and records, make phone calls, or just hide away to work on a paper. I think having a personal office to which you can retreat when necessary is very important in making shared workspaces actually work.

That's assuming that you have that option. I've worked at many places where there were no private offices (outside of the owner) and working remotely was greatly discouraged. From speaking with colleges, it's more common then it should be.

I'm working one of those places right now.

Heck, over the course of five jobs I've never been at a place where it wasn't open-plan with music playing. I've unfortunately needed to acquire a collection of earplugs and headphones to defend against the noise.

I have seen one place with private offices (albeit for higher-ranking management), and that was at Yahoo! Everywhere else had management on the benches with the rest of the team.

Maybe it's a cultural thing around here in Sydney.

That means if you need to spend 5 critical minutes talking with a fellow programmer then your choices are pretty much limited to IM or email or a really great audio call on cell phones.

That's near optimal, but few offices with software developers offer both options. Yes, communal areas for some type of work/communication, private areas for others. It's staggeringly obvious that this meets everyone's needs (both individuals and the collective team) but I've found very few places offer anything remotely similar.

The 'office with closed door' is still seen as primarily a 'managerial' thing, in places I've worked and been.

very well said.

The abstract from the 1998 paper is:

Three experiments examine what is widely reported to be one of the most common forms of interference in open-plan office environments—the effect of background noise. Experiment 1 investigates whether office noise (with or without speech) is disruptive to two office-related tasks: memory for prose and mental arithmetic. The results show that whereas office noise with speech disrupts performance on both tasks, office noise without speech disrupts performance on the mental arithmetic task only. Experiment 2 investigates the memory for prose task more closely by varying the duration and the meaning of the background noise. Experiment 3 examines whether the meaning of speech is important to the disruption of a mental arithmetic task. The results show that both speech and office noise can disrupt performance on memory for prose and mental arithmetic tasks, and the effect is independent of the meaning of the irrelevant speech. These results are presented and interpreted in light of current research and theories regarding the effect of background noise.

Try telling that to the suits higher up the ladder. I tried this numerous times (give the current devs a better environment instead of throwing more people at this late project) but they just won't believe it.

"haha they can't be working becuase they're listening to music through their heaphones"

I'd really appreciate any tips on this.

Wait. What? So devs where you work cannot listen to headphones? Even when I was wearing a suit and tie to work in the 90s we could still wear headphones while working.

Yes they can, but (non-tech) management doesn't believe they're actually working when they do.

Get a new job. That's usually the solution to office madness.

Wait, so your saying your devs aren't allowed to listen to music through their headphones? Inconceivable.

Change jobs? :-(

I've taken to wearing earplugs. Not earbuds, earplugs. Over that I sometimes wear firing range headphones. I had to do this since the woman next to me was going through a horrible, horrible divorce and would talk to her mother during the work day (don't blame her, I'd do the same maybe if my wife tried to burn the house with me and the kids in it).

I have noticed though that this is particularly bad for team dynamics. Everyone on the team is use to me having earplugs in, but they still feel like they can't ask me questions. As the lead, I need to be open to questions. As a result, I sometimes wear them; sometimes I don't. I do know that it would be far more efficient to have walls.

I did the same thing and, to my befuddlement, found that it did not suffice (even with "33 db" earplugs). A few moments' reflection gave men the answer: both earplugs and firing range headphones are designed to block noise from frequencies _outside_ the range of the human voice and to _allow_ the human voice to come piercing through. This is done for safety concerns as well as for enabling communication in noisy environments.

I now seek earplugs/earphones designed to specifically block the human voice.

The isolation/frequency curve is one factor, certainly, but a bigger problem is that the ear's response is logarithmic. Even if the earplugs or earmuffs have a perfectly flat isolation/frequency curve, so that all frequencies are attenuated by 33 dB, you can still hear just fine; it's just not as loud. Only if you introduce some masking sound (even white or pink noise will do) in combination with the attenuation can you render the outside sounds inaudible.

Interestingly, with well-isolating earplugs, you own breathing and blood movement becomes white noise that helps to mask outside sound even more.

I noticed the same thing, especially when I just had the firing range headphones. However whenever paired, or even alone did help some. It turned the noise around me into more of Peanut's teacher sound (wawawaan).

Earbuds and white noise does seem to help. I've found that binaural beats help block the noise and increase my focus.

"... I have noticed though that this is particularly bad for team dynamics. Everyone on the team is use to me having earplugs in, but they still feel like they can't ask me questions. As the lead, I need to be open to questions. ..."

VOX on the headphones? ~ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voice-operated_switch

Cached version: http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:dljdt23...

This is not 'more evidence', this is a sample of one person, conducting a pseudo experiment for a television program which is likely to have a very strong confirmation bias both in conducting it and eventual editing (although I didn't watch it, I'm making a massive assumption based on the quality of UK 'factual' programming). I don't doubt open plan noise is a distraction, I used to have to regularly take myself off to a quiet room when I was in an open plan space. I just object to the headline of the non-article.

So let's see if I understand this.

You didn't watch it, you haven't read any of the literature about it, and you're accusing them of pseudo-science based on your very strong confirmation bias. You then say:

  > I used to have to regularly take myself off to
  > a quiet room when I was in an open plan space
So that's also a sample of one person.

You appear to be doing everything of which you accuse them.

Maybe, but it's only my opinion, and I didn't pass it of as scientific evidence of anything.

Given the UK's history of exporting world-class documentaries, I'm curious as to your opinion of the quality of UK factual programming.

Talking to people who have come to the UK from Europe and America I've been told many times that we are lucky enough to have some of the best television in the world. I'm very happy to pay my license fee and contribute towards the BBC. We do have some very excellent documentarians Adam Curtis being one of my personal favourites.

It may be that I'm something of a spoilt brat complaining about my toys being taken away, I grew up with excellent weekly factual documentary strands like Panorama and Arena, and Tomorrows World which was not a documentary but a fondly remembered weekly science show, now cancelled and not replaced. During the last decade the overall frequency and quality of these shows has declined very sharply.

Documentaries used to trust their audiences, but now quality is apparently judged by viewing figures alone the public service content of any channel has to fight against entertainment programming and they've slipped too far towards entertaining the audience viscerally rather than mentally.

Documentaries are now filled with fluff and sensationalised content and do not treat the audience with the respect they once did. A brief example being a 2010 Panorama doc about CERN and the LHC which felt like it consisted solely of asking as many scientists as possible 'Is the LHC going to cause the Earth to be eaten by a black hole'; For an hour.

[edit] I tend to think this is happening mainly in sci/tech programming, the humanities are still well covered.

Also I realise this might sound like I'm complaining about factual programming as entertainment. I realise that it should entertain and be accesible to an audience new to the material. I'd just like it if they remembered to slip in some facts now and again.

It's good to have research and evidence support what we already know. I can only say that the best remedy is playing white noise to your headphones and trying to fall into another reality of thw world of programming. White noise is the only thing that I can listen to for longer periods of times without growing sick or bored to it.

Interesting. Many natural sounds are very similar to white noise (e.g. leaves, waterfalls, etc.). We evolved in nature so our brains might be tuned to specific sounds, that is, they have a positive psychological effect.

My father, who was also an engineer, taught me when he had a difficult problem to solve he went for a walk in the woods. The solution often just came to him by magic. I wonder if it was the walking or the "sounds"? Probably both.

Mirror anyone? I'm getting a 509 Bandwidth Limit Exceeded message. Thanks.

EDIT: Nvm, google cache has it : https://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?hl=en&outp...

Management is all about communication. Management closes floor-plans. Is it not surprising floor-plans are designed to reflect that?

It's a hard problem to solve because few people ever think "what am I giving up?" There is a special breed of experienced manager (usually one or two levels from the workers) who does, but she is rare. Most are either too inexperienced to have been bitten, not taken seriously by other management for these decisions, or can't answer the question anyway.

Ideally, understanding the use of the space and how to best accomplish that would be part of the architect's job, but the guy with the money always wins.

Except that managers do not choose open plans for themselves, the communicators, which shows that floor plans are more about supervision, social status, and budget, than about productivity or teamwork.

Most modern office layouts seem to be designed to screw with people's fight or flight instincts all day. As a result working in those environments requires lots of forced focus that wears a person out more than needed.

I don't think individual offices are good. People will spend more time away from their offices than in them, attempting to collaborate, then since it's a pain to go back in and out of their office, they'll end up just staying out of their office and socializing most of the time.

Pair offices are similarly bad simply because you end up stuck with somebody you probably don't know, and it requires you to form a close relationship, or keep an awkward distance. If you can't stand each other, it becomes unbearable.

It's been my experience that many open office plans are simply a sly way of saying that the company doesn't want to invest in sufficient space for their team or in a decent build-out of the space.

Of course there are many fine exceptions to this rule, but I've walked into a fairly large number of minimally finished floors, each of which were essentially sheet rock stuck around the support beams, and a few offices in the corner for the executives and maybe an open kitchen off to one side where the plumbing happened to have been. Nothing says, "We corral the cattle in this space" better than this kind of plan.

I have similar issues with cube farms, why not just build offices then? The flexibility that cubes supposedly gives in terms of adjusting layout are never really used. I've seen plenty of established companies with cube farms that haven't changed layout in 20 years. So now the employee has to deal with a cheap workspace, and an open roof that all sounds and distractions leaks into. It's half-assed privacy with half of the distractions of an open floor, at 3 times the cost.

The worst are the hybrids.

The half-height cubicle says "I'm not even going to pay for the material cost and decency of a full-height, and I'm going to pretend that it's important that you can pop your head over the top of your assigned cube."

The waist-height cube is the most ill-conceived abortion of office planning that I've ever encountered. They only provide a symbolic segregation of the employee's space, with all of the noise and distraction of a completely open plan. They say "see, I want you to have your own space, so I'm going to splurge and move you one step up from concrete floors and bare sheet rock, but I want to be sure I can micromanage everything you are doing by simply sneaking up behind you at any time."

If you haven't seen one of these abominations, here it is http://www.officefurnituresaver.com/images/steelcase%20conte...

edit actually this example is out of the depths of hell. It pretends to be an open plan, a group plan (see below) and a waist-height cube, but succeeds at none of them. Now there'll be a dozen groups, each fighting over each other to hear, and nothing getting done.

The best, in my opinion, are small group offices, where individual teams are assigned, their backs to each other, and a small conference table in the middle. The team can close the door to eliminate distractions, they can work together in pairs or small groups as needed and separate as needed. They don't need to screw around reserving conference rooms for group meetings and/or presentations. If done right, they'll have plenty of personal space, and not feel like somebody is about to come up behind them and choke them from behind throughout the day.

The only downside is that as teams grow and shrink, the teams tend to shift offices around alot, or parts of the team end up sitting elsewhere and never really integrate fully with the team. But it's by far the most productive arrangement I'm aware of.

It's been my experience that many open office plans are simply a sly way of saying that the company doesn't want to invest in sufficient space for their team or in a decent build-out of the space.

That's exactly the reason, and it's the only reason. Open space is cheaper. All the song-and-dance about "collaborative environments" is just psychological manipulation to make the employees feel like they are not team players if they don't like it.

I'm a quiet type, and I often need time alone to think and write code and documentation. Nearly as often I also need to be communicating with cow-orkers and scribbling on their whiteboards. It's never all isolation, or all collaboration. It's a mix.

The "rah rah" social types railroaded us into a terrible cubical-based environment where scrums are taking place four feet from my desk and I cannot close a door to get a moment's rest away from people. I am becoming bitter and resentful, and while I am doing well, it is in spite of the system, not because of it.

Management loves it because they get to cram more people into the same amount of space. Managers get offices, of course.

Look: I've worked in collaborative environments. I know what they're like. I also know when I'm being fed a line of bull-poo about how open offices make things collaborative and agile and stuff. I can cope.

The real hidden cost? These environments drive good people away. Work area design is really, really tough.

In my experience, when someone who has designed your new area says the setup is for productivity and collaboration, what they have really done is optimize cost, and you have never had the opportunity to talk to them about your work habits (because that would have made them wrong, and increased the cost if they had truly listened).

Thank you for letting me vent. :)

The "rah rah" social types railroaded us into a terrible cubical-based environment

It wasn't anything other than economic rationalism.

Hell, one of our big banks - the kind that report record profits every quarter - moved a segment of staff into new offices... and only provided 80% of the seats. "Everyone will work from home one day a week". They hotdesked these staff - no guaranteed desk, no personalisation, no real way to even know whether a colleague was in or where on the floor they could be found. The kicker is that this wasn't minimum-wage call-centre staff oe similar, this was six-figure employees.

I had a similar experience as an intern in the IT consulting division of a Big 4 accounting firm. Hotdesking was the official process.

In practice, certain desks were "reserved". Mere peons who hadn't been in the office on the first day it operated could take their pick of terrible desks on any one of three floors.

... if there were any left by 8am.

So in practice you had to get up at 6, log into their utterly terrible booking system (IE6 required and about two dozen ActiveX controls) and book it first thing.

That's exactly the reason, and it's the only reason. Open space is cheaper.

I would agree that it's the main reason, but I'm not sure it's always the only reason. Some people (for whatever reason) actually buy into the idea that working in an open space is better for creativity, collaboration, etc. Even some developers, who ought to know better, seem to have drank enough Agile Koolaid that they believe in this stuff now.

It's actually, IMO, one very unfortunate side-effect of the Agile movement... people somehow started equating "agile" with "everybody must be in one big room together" and that meme stuck, and now it's contributing to the propagation of this "open plan" nonsense. Never mind that you pretty much never, ever, need to actively collaborate with somebody for 8-10 continuous hours in a day. Or never mind that Tom and Suzy collaborating is keeping Joe from getting anything done due to the constant distractions... sigh

> Some people

They're called extroverts. They get into management and then fuck everything up for the mass of introvert engineers because they're incapable of conceiving that a human being wouldn't want to be in constant contact with other human beings at all times.

I'm an extroverted engineer, I far far far prefer offices, so the very pleasurable people don't distract the living hell out of me.

I think many of the open plan office advocates have no idea how much they produce on a given day or not, and don't simply know how much MORE they make in a quiet room.

I must protest.

I'm at a small startup with ~8 people, which is currently working out of a 5000+ square-foot warehouse with dozens of spare office rooms along the side. And you know what? All the engineers work together in just one large room, so they can ask each other what's going on with some part of the code and things like that.

Of course, it's only a few people, chatter is limited (and usually informative), and most of the time it's fairly quiet. I'm sure a variety of open-plan offices don't meet those needs, and could use additional partitioning and quiet spaces like the article talks about. I'm sure you run into a variety of issues trying to scale the open-space office. But contrary to your cynical assessment, the concept of open-space collaboration has some intrinsic merit and works well in a variety of cases.

I think that's basically what the person you're replying to suggested as the ideal.

For example, I work in a relatively open space with two different teams mixed in. It's also the central hub for all the offices. So if anyone feels like chatting, in their office or not, or gets a bit boisterous, the developer's focus and productivity goes into the toilet.

It really is excruciating during those times.

I've had my own office before and didn't really care for it. The best work environment I've been in was a "double-sized" office (maybe 20x12?) with four or five desks against the walls. Pairing up meant just rolling your chair over. The door was most often shut to keep the noise out. Impromptu team meetings were quick and easy. Everyone in the office kept conversation volume low to respect the rest of the team. When there's only 4 or 5 people in an office you can make that stick. When you center a small company around a main area, where I'm also expected to work, that's a losing battle and you end up looking like the cranky old man who just can't stand it if other people are being cheerfully sociable.

I'm at a small startup with ~8 people, which is currently working out of a 5000+ square-foot warehouse with dozens of spare office rooms along the side. And you know what? All the engineers work together in just one large room, so they can ask each other what's going on with some part of the code and things like that.

Well, yes, of course. 8 people can all work in one room without constant distraction. The question is, will everyone working in one large room still be ideal when your startup reaches 80 people?

"Most modern office layouts seem to be designed to screw with people's fight or flight instincts all day."

And I thought I was the only one who felt this way. Facing a wall in an open office space causes me to react defensively to noises around me. Is someone sneaking up on me? What's happening in my immediate surroundings? This is not rational, but I don't see any way to make myself stop other than to "handicap" my senses via headphones. Thankfully, I don't get reflections off my monitor, the wall, etc. When our cat stays out all night, he invariably comes in and sleeps for hours, even in the summer. We suppose he doesn't sleep while outside because he must constantly be aware of his surroundings. In an open office environment, I feel like our cat.

Never accept that positioning. Constant stress hormones are very bad for you and I don't see why shortening my life by 6 months to many years is worth them being able to sneak up on me and scare me 1x a week while I'm working.

Move your computer so you can see people and have a flat surface behind you.

One solution. http://www.thinkgeek.com/computing/accessories/2940/?srp=1

I had one of those. If anything, it made me MORE paranoid. Before, I only responded to noise. Easy enough to fix, put on the headphones. But with the mirror, I can now see constant movement out of the corner of my eye. all. day. long.

> I don't think individual offices are good. People will spend more time away from their offices than in them, attempting to collaborate, then since it's a pain to go back in and out of their office, they'll end up just staying out of their office and socializing most of the time.

It depends on how collaboration-intensive the job is. Having an office (ideally with a big, heavy door) is amazing. It's really the fight-or-flight situation. When I have the only possible entrance sufficiently barricaded, I can let myself go into a much deeper productivity zone than if there is the possibility of people intruding on my space.

Same here. Though I can't find it now, (I think it was) Joel Spolsky had a piece about individual offices in which he claimed study after study found individual offices to be the most productive for programmers. Certainly the case for me - productivity is all about how many mental balls I can have in the air at once. The more distractions I have the less productive I am.

I loathe full height single person cubes personally, however it was explained to me at my current job (large multinational) that one rationale for cube farms is that legal can treat these as 'laboratory conditions'. It's common for us to work with prototype hardware which might involve legal agreements, but from a practical level I find this rather pathetic.

There's also the fact that in many jurisdictions, things like cube walls can be depreciated like office furniture, whereas building actual walls counts as an improvement on the building - making the cubes even cheaper/more tax-efficient.

Cubes are used more because they are cheaper than building thousands of offices more than they are used because they are flexibly reconfigured.

Individual offices are great for privacy and noise control - especially if one makes a lot of calls.

Shared offices in my experience are fine - you sound like you have some social issues, no offense.

The only things I would worry about sharing an office with another are hygiene and if the other person is a "lights-on" worker when I am a "lights-off" worker.

I shared an office with this developer in 1999 named Srini. We were both lights-off workers. I was IT, he was development - so it worked well.

The only issue was that he was rather comical to look at - so whenever we would have lengthy conversations, I would giggle as he was talking, which annoyed him because he would be talking about something serious and I would be laughing. He would ask me what I was laughing at and I would always have to say "nothing, your comments just reminded me of something else that I thought was funny."

I had to avoid looking at him as he talked for this reason.

I think the best thing is to cycle through a workspace based on what you are doing. As long as you can work on and laptop and out of 1 bag, you are pretty much set.

This can also help prevent workplace injuries as you are not always sitting in the same position. The way I work I get to sit in multiple ergonomic chairs, a standing desk, and even laying down on a sofa.

You want to avoid injuries, so you suggest using the least ergonomic piece of equipment possible?

I do all my work on laptops, but 99% of it is with a monitor, keyboard, and mouse attached at a workstation calibrated to me. Hunching over a laptop is the last thing you should be doing.

OK, but for sure nobody introduces open space for creativity. Simply it is cheapest kind of office space, without walls you may use big space (lets say 25 m x 40 m, so 1000 m^2 with windows on both longer walls) and place desks everywhere. With walls you will be able to use not more than 800 m^2, and probably even less because walls block light and this part in the middle of office with walls will be dark and you cannot set desks there. Also air condition is cheaper.

Personally I loved solution used in Motorola, so cubicles with thick walls (about 10-15 cm of sponge or similar stuff) which has about 160-180 cm of height. Even people talking in normal way in corridor didn't interrupted you.

Gawd no. I've worked in a variety of environments and even a factory floor open plan office is better than cubicles. Cubicles in my experience promote even worse behavior like taking conference calls on speaker phones, I've never had to rely on using headphones more than in a cubicle farm.

The walls of your cubicle can be a foot thick and it won't help the noise much.

Nope, everyone was using headphones :-) Those was cubicles where in each corner 1 person has desk. So in one cubicle you had small team. But all persons was sitting in this way that they without turning wasn't able to see another people.

1) If you're going to build out an open office, make sure to invest in sound engineering to dampen noise. There is a big difference between hearing distractions in the immediate vicinity and hearing them across the entire office.

2) Then make sure you offer good-quality noise-canceling headphones.

3) Even the supposed benefits of the open office are questionable, I think. I personally prefer as much communication to be asynchronous as possible. Using GTalk and email lets me queue up discussions and distractions and focus on working for longer undisturbed periods. The open plan directly encourages people to distract each other with minimal cost. This is useful for people working directly on the same thing, but those people would be in the same room anyway in a closed office.

(Google cache result: http://tinyurl.com/7rfscsn)

Whilst I agree that open plan offices are probably more distracting than closed off offices, I'm not sure I'd consider the test described by the article as particularly compelling evidence.

The 1998 study sounds far more interesting, as presumably there was a control group, and the end result was statistically significant.

I cannot stand open layouts for coders. I am very rigid about only working at places that respect coders. That means an ergonomic environment (desk, chair, monitors, et al), with good lighting. It also means either providing a quiet work environment with no visual distractions, or allowing work from home 2-3 days a week.

Small start-up environments are great for this. In my experience, seeing the work environment for coders is an excellent predictor of team happiness, productivity, and ultimately company success.

Studies like these don't look at the holistic picture. Productivity isn't just a function of minimal distractions, but a combination of a bunch of items.

In particular to this study, it doesn't account for employee happiness. Personally, I and all of my employees, are far happier with an open space. Happy employees, make for productive and loyal employees.

I would gladly take an open space knowing the trade off that it might be a little more distracting, but a much more pleasant environment to work in.

If all this is true it is a complete failure of capitalism. Moving workers to a different office building is not that hard and if they were actually 3 times as ptoductive as the OP claims it would be easy to become rich really quick. Set up a consultancy doing fixed bids and you can pocket the returns. I don't buy it even though i really hate open plan offices.

Our startup has been looking at office spaces lately for ~9 people (6 developers and 3 business people), and based on these comments it sounds like the recommended layout would be two separated / noise-insulated areas, one for each group to work. Would love to hear whether people agree with this or not.

Our dev culture discourages anyone working in "the zone" because more often than not, it produces crappy code -- crappy mainly in that it's hard for others to understand/maintain. If you're off by yourself thinking about something really hard, you're doing it wrong. You should be hashing out new ideas in conversations with other devs. Grab a conference room if you're conversation gets animated or regards something with a very narrow scope that others won't care about, otherwise do it in the open so anyone can jump in.

"Disruptions" are conversations where ideas and implementations are fleshed out. That's the hard work. Coding quietly means you're doing something so trivial that pairing would be silly.

I really believe this dev culture produces fewer defects and makes the team more responsive since so much knowledge is shared.

You obviously have little idea of what it means to be "in the zone." It is just as easy to get there with a pair as without, provided you have a decent environment to work in. Pairing is like tennis, another activity which can get you in the zone.

Your environment sounds to me like a typical too-many-chefs situation, and those environments usually tend to turn out mediocre crap fairly quickly, when the tasks are trivial, and to take forever to get something working when the task is complex and everybody needs to get their two cents in on how to do things.

Our team has very good chemistry, lots of respect for opinions all the way around. So I don't think people feel the need to get their two cents in on every issue. If a subset takes off on something, the rest know that they'll be brought up to speed at some later point, and the code quality will be decent. If there are parts of it that aren't decent, we'll either agree to fix them, or agree that we don't have resources and we'll have to live with them.

Regarding definitions of "in the zone", mine wouldn't include a pair in a good rhythm. Being in the zone, to me, evokes a lone programmer writing lots of code while holding complex mental models in his/her head for hours at a time. It's a pleasurable feeling for most of us with a bent for logic and problem solving, but my experience is that it doesn't always produce the best code.

* spelling edit

I'm curious, what exactly kind of software do you work on? I suspect your approach might work okay for fairly simple apps where the main question is getting the requirements right, but not so much with anything that requires serious thinking. Or maybe you're just all a bunch of extraverts.

Yes, fleshing out requirements is a big part of it. Our apps are web apps but in financing, so they're not totally trivial. We do both the public facing web-apps and the tool used by loan processors for administration.

Our team has a high number of extraverts, but the introverts seem just as happy. We have no surly curmudgeons.

When I hired on, I was surprised that so many people rode bikes to work. And when I proposed climbing a local mountain to one similarly outdoorsy co-worker, I was surprised that the whole team was interested. 10 out of the 12 in the office either did the warm-up climb or actually camped out overnight and completed the larger climb (Mt St. Helens). I found this amount of shared lifestyle/outside-interests to be unique among places I've worked. I'm certain we weren't hired because of these interests, but it seems to have worked out that we share a lot of them.

> I found this amount of shared lifestyle/outside-interests to be unique among places I've worked. I'm certain we weren't hired because of these interests, but it seems to have worked out that we share a lot of them.

Well there you go then.

I can't say for sure, but I'm going to ask you to consider a possibility: either consciously or not, you have a hiring process that filters for "people like me". For instance, if your team was interviewing a fat person, somewhere in the interview process either you or the candidate would get a strong sense that they wouldn't "fit in" or they wouldn't be a good "cultural fit".

It's no skin off my back whether you hire fat/unoutdoorsy/introverted people or not, unless I'm applying to work at your shop, but it seems like you're deliberately creating a rigid monoculture, and rigid monocultures are prone to groupthink. You're doing everything you can to squash diversity (not in the "women and non-white people" sense, but in the "people who genuinely think differently" sense). If you do that enough, then even the people you have will suppress any "heretical" thoughts they might have. Maybe the gains in cohesion are worth it for you, maybe not; I have no way to tell. But it frightens me a little when places deliberately design themselves to induce groupthink.

Interesting. I was trying to think of any controversies due to "heretical" thoughts. We really haven't had any. (So maybe you are right!) We have our nerd-fights about say, rspec vs minitest, or estimating techniques, but not much beyond that. All of us lead pretty well, when we need to, and follow well when someone else is leading.

Regarding diversity, I actually think we're pretty diverse. Our 8 developers include:

1 Indian, 1 Palestinian

1 woman

2 overweight but not obese

2 introverts, 1 strong extrovert, 3 mild extroverts

1 M.A., 1 M.S. working on his PhD. 2 high school drop outs.

2 Textmate, 6 vim

1 under age 30, 3 over age 40

1 ex-con, 1 former jazz musician

4 married with children

3 prefer dogs, 4 cats

Apparently, though, we all like to mountain climb.

>> So I don't think people feel the need to get their two cents in on every issue.

Do you feel that a poll of you team would result in a 80/20 rule matching your perspective?

I'm not sure what you mean. Would 80% agree with me? Do 20% of the people give 1.6 cents? What is the 80/20 rule in this case?

The Agile mantra these days is write code instead of talking, but there's no faster way to iterate than to have a conversation. Sure you've got to write code at some point, but save yourself wasted hours and days doing the wrong thing and talk about it for 30 minutes.

People seem to forget that code is a means, not an end.

P.S. Down-voting the OP for having a different opinion, for shame Hacker News.

On re-read, I'm guessing the down votes are for tone. It reads a little rigid and preachy to me now.

What I was attempting to describe is the mindset our team currently has, not what yours should have.

Our particular team of 8 devs is happy and productive with it. I do understand that this approach could be less than ideal for a different team, or the same team working on projects of a different nature.

Incidentally, our work space was designed by the team. We moved last summer. The management chose the office and we were given $50k to do whatever we wanted with it. We built one conference room, a server room, and two small meeting rooms. The rest was open with clusters of stand-up desks.

Where do you work? I'd like to not apply.

Your snark actually raises a good point: The optimal office arrangement probably depends on who works there.

Last Friday our team presented some of our dev proceses to the local agile group. We had 5 devs and a product person there. Someone observed that our team seems to have really good personal chemistry and we all agreed. We chalked it up to careful hiring. If you wouldn't function well with our set-up, we probably wouldn't offer you a job.

This seems like such an odd outlook to me, one in which you are effectively saying that no single indivisible task should or could ever be completed by a single person in a few hours of focused work.

Yes, we pretty much try to pair on everything. It doesn't work out when there is an odd number or someone gets pulled elsewhere, so it's not all of the time. When we don't pair, we do code reviews (also by a pair).

I think the 2nd worst part of an open office besides the sound is the visual distraction of people walking back and forth in front of your desk. With sound at least you can get good headphones to mitigate it. Short of building a wall, it's hard to stop the visual distractions.

For me, the sensory distraction of people walking back and forth behind my desk is far worse than in front of it. Even if I have headphones in - vibrations from footsteps, someone bumps my chair, etc.

Damn evolution. At some point, monkeys inclined to facing into the cliff wall got eaten.

If you want to max out on hours, sure. If you want to max out on quality I disagree. I find my work is incredibly better due to the communicative nature of the open plan.

I also find as a designer this is far more acceptable than when I worked as a programmer.

I can't imagine working in a cubicle environment without the ability to block out distraction and hope to maintain any level of productivity. Any major project I'm working on involves some planning - yes - but even more long stretches of uninterrupted productivity and writing/coding/creating/implementing. I'm the owner of a small web company and while our team works from home currently, when we eventually do move into office space the priority will be ensuring everyone has a real office with access to collaborative space when needed.

I currently work in a medium-sized room with a lot of people in it. Its noisy, and hard to work. I try to work in quieter places. So for me this all rings true.

What I wish corporations would do about it is let us play loud rock music, or things of that nature, while we work.

Is this a culture thing? In some Japanese offices, the boss is at the head of a line of desks where all his subordinates work in plain view all the time.

I work at in an open-plan office and it does definitely suck. On the other hand it means that there is very little pressure to look better than the rest.

I'm absolutely no expert, but if it's really about noise, isn't good noise-cancelling headphones a much cheaper investment than more walls?

for me it's not just the sound, lots of people in the same room is distracting, and makes it hard(er) for me to concentrate. For some reason even more so if everyone is silent.

Silence is not natural. That's why people work and sleep better with white noise. Go out into the jungle and see how quiet it is. When it gets really quiet, something's up.

And that hits the nail on the head for why even BigCorps are moving to open floor plans. Walls cost. Tables are cheaper than ergonomic desks.

I'll tell you what, though. Working at a table on a laptop all day is really bad for neck and eyes. I miss my big, eye-level monitor.

I couldn't do that. I've had eye strain and dry eye issues for years, and I've found that an ergonomic work environment helps a lot (proper lighting is a big part of that). What you are describing might even be an OSHA violation.

Using cheap tables, giving your employees laptops without external keyboards and stands and using big, bright florescent tube lighting is terrible for workers. It harms their bodies and hurts productivity.

Where I live you could sue your employer for that. Stronger yet, they'd get an unannounced visit from the work-health folks and get a massive fine.

for me its not noise, its availability. a closed office door means "I'm not available" and people generally respect that. headphones don't convey that same message, so those of us without offices really have no way to broadcast "i'm busy dont interrupt."

We have "don't interrupt me"-bandanas.

I've had two bad experiences with open plan offices, two good, and one excellent.

The first bad experience was shortlived - I was temporarily in a large room with half-height desk dividers with people doing sales and support calls. I asked to move.

In the other bad experience, it wasn't sales, but a bunch of reasonably unruly, not young, but childish developers (edit: could have been a culture/value mismatch, the company was a "corporate" supporting a long-lived product, my team coming from start-up environments or preferring them working on a new product). I managed to get my team moved to another location in the building, and a room for three of us to sit in (facing outward). (I stole the window seat.)

The first good experience with open plan was where our group was together, with a small gap between our group and the next, with some head-height dividers.

The second good experience was, I admit, not really open plan. In a long space, we had pods of 8-12 people with full-height glass walls, with frosting up to just above sitting-head-height. This was an interesting environment - we mixed support staff (non-phone support), operations staff, developers, designers, and so forth equally between the pods. (This was at Yola. Before we moved to new offices, we were in rooms in a house holding 5-7 people in each room.)

The best experience has been at Facebook, where I am here. Especially at our new campus in Menlo Park. Basically, open plan broken up with small "lounges" and curtain-closable rooms, with gaps between groups working on different things. Plenty of meeting room space, with tons of 2-4 person unreservable rooms, and whiteboards everywhere.

There are exceptions. Like in the old office, there are a few people who need serious quiet/lack of distractions to work, and they work in their own rooms. Some teams go into "war rooms" when they're near release to facilitate even higher-bandwidth discussions.

This applies to the bulk of the company, including, for example, the CEO, CTO, VP of Engineering, and VP of Product.

Anecdotally, open plan doesn't work at all well when you mix certain job types (sales and engineering, for example), doesn't work as well when you mix people working on different products or without break-out rooms or gaps between groups. It seems like it can be done well, and it probably needs motivated employees (employees already unhappy are likely to respond more aggressively to distraction). Some people just don't work well in the environment, and catering to them is a good idea. Having meeting rooms or collaboration areas located close by, but not distracting to those working, makes people tend to use them to avoid annoying those nearby (have this happen every few days when conversations go over a few minutes, or have more than a few people).

Concentration is horribly overrated. Pairing > concentration.

This is really about the productivity/availability tradeoff, which is not linear but binary. Open-plan offices are optimized for availability.

Closed-door environments aren't great either. They might be good for the individual, but not for the team. Also, in the long-term, people who close their doors not to perform as well: they're more productive on an hour-by-hour basis, but they miss out on a lot of important conversations. Since 95% of the information that's actually important is conveyed in informal conversations rather than meetings, that can become an issue.

What I think would work best is something like a restaurant booth in shape, but with 12-hour chairs (you can't work for a full day in a restaurant booth). The table is a common space for the team, but everyone has a wall at their back. Open-back visibility (and worse yet, rear traffic) is often more of a productivity-killer and anxiety-producer than noise.

This reminds me of Richard Hamming's talk "You and Your Research": http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~robins/YouAndYourResearch.html

"I noticed the following facts about people who work with the door open or the door closed. I notice that if you have the door to your office closed, you get more work done today and tomorrow, and you are more productive than most. But 10 years later somehow you don't know quite know what problems are worth working on; all the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance. He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions, but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important."

I'm reading Lean Startup at he moment, and that was one of the bits that jumped out to me; people feel productive when they get 'hours done'.

This might be a solid 8 hours of coding in a day, but if you are missing out on conversations what is to say those 8 hours aren't in the wrong direction, or replication of work. Sure good standups might catch this sort of mistake, but I've seen people 'hide' what they are doing from the team, as they feel productive solving the problem.

I love the idea of the booth you describe, where people are still 'available' but also can feel private and others can ssee from your face when you are totally in the zone.

This might be a solid 8 hours of coding in a day, but if you are missing out on conversations what is to say those 8 hours aren't in the wrong direction, or replication of work.

Serendipitous, happenstance conversations are a Good Thing, but if you're relying on that to keep people from spending entire days doing the wrong thing, you're doing something wrong, IMO. What's wrong with a daily standup meeting, chat via IRC/XMPP/whatever, and/or "management by walking around" on the behalf of whoever is leading the team, as a mechanism to make sure people are focused on the right thing?

Sure good standups might catch this sort of mistake, but I've seen people 'hide' what they are doing from the team, as they feel productive solving the problem.

If somebody is actively hiding what they're doing, you have bigger problems than the lack of chance conversations, no?

I've seen "management by walking around" go very badly. I worked in a company where status pings were a 2-4 times per day occurrence. It made it really hard to get anything done because these impromptu meetings wasted so much time and energy. I think the guy was just bored... And used to having 10-20 reports (instead of 3) which would make 2-4 status pings per day less intolerable.

It's not quite enough to say I quit that job (after the manager failed to mend his ways and gave a ridiculous rant about the incompetence of the team as justification for the insanity). I fired that jerk.

Standups may be annoying but at least they're scheduled. I still think daily team-wide (6+ people) standups are still a waste of time, but at least it's a documented waste of time.

One thing I can assure any potential employer is that I will never again work in a cubicle environment. They are noisy, distracting and degrading. And since I'm in a high demand, hard-to-find role I'm going to leverage this fact to allow me to filter out situations that would put me in a cubicle. If you do not wish to provide me an office, or cannot afford one, I can do software development just fine from home or my own space of choice.

Google, Facebook? That's quite a bit of non-damaging evidence.

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