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.
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.
But at least the billiard table was great.
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…)
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.
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.
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.
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).
which is not very common because then the company has to buy both caves and common space for everyone.
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.
By their accounts it was their most productive era
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).
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".
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.
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?
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.
This sounds ... taxing. Like being at a loud cafe blasting music only you cannot get away because it's your place of work.
Not being aggressive here just interested.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The 'office with closed door' is still seen as primarily a 'managerial' thing, in places I've worked and been.
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.
"haha they can't be working becuase they're listening to music through their heaphones"
I'd really appreciate any tips on this.
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 now seek earplugs/earphones designed to specifically block the human voice.
Earbuds and white noise does seem to help. I've found that binaural beats help block the noise and increase my focus.
VOX on the headphones? ~ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voice-operated_switch
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
You appear to be doing everything of which you accuse them.
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.
 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.
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.
EDIT: Nvm, google cache has it : https://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?hl=en&outp...
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.
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.
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.
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. :)
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.
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.
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
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 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'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.
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.
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?
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.
Move your computer so you can see people and have a flat surface behind you.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The walls of your cubicle can be a foot thick and it won't help the noise much.
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)
The 1998 study sounds far more interesting, as presumably there was a control group, and the end result was statistically significant.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Regarding diversity, I actually think we're pretty diverse. Our 8 developers include:
1 Indian, 1 Palestinian
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.
Do you feel that a poll of you team would result in a 80/20 rule matching your perspective?
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.
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.
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.
Damn evolution. At some point, monkeys inclined to facing into the cliff wall got eaten.
I also find as a designer this is far more acceptable than when I worked as a programmer.
What I wish corporations would do about it is let us play loud rock music, or things of that nature, while we work.
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.
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.
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).
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.
"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."
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.
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?
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.