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Open-plan offices must die (mattrogish.com)
290 points by MattRogish on March 20, 2012 | hide | past | favorite | 179 comments

In 10 years of working with startups, small niche businesses, and large corps I've been exposed to the following:

1) Cube Farms in large corps 2) Private offices for everyone in a startup founded by Microsoft alumni. 3) Team Rooms of 3-5 people max. 4) Large open areas with no cube walls at all. 5) Working from home (what I do right now)

Based on this experience, I think the optimal solution is the 3-5 person team room. It works well because it allows for a high degree of collaboration while keeping folks outside the team at arms length to limit distraction. In this environment, we shipped a working product written from scratch within 3 months.

Open plan offices were by far the single most distracting environment. Ironically, I was at the same company when we switched from a 3 person team room to an open floor plan to cut costs. The productivity hit was enormous.

Cube farms are actually better than open floor plans. They're far less impressive and drab, but the cube walls serve as a minor barrier to interruption since they require getting up and walking to make eye contact.

Working from home is great for productivity as a single programmer, but collaboration is more of a challenge, and it requires solid leadership capable of defining problems very clearly and staying focused. That's a tall order for most startups where the ground is constantly shifting.

Private offices were great for a single programmer working on a well defined problem, but difficult to foster the right collaborative environment. It's hard to institute concepts like pair programming and code review under this setup.

Based on this experience, I think the optimal solution is the 3-5 person team room. It works well because it allows for a high degree of collaboration while keeping folks outside the team at arms length to limit distraction. In this environment, we shipped a working product written from scratch within 3 months.

I cannot even begin to imagine how anybody could find that desirable. 3-5 people in one room? So you still get distractions, lack of privacy, and the room will probably be too damn hot more often than not (some companies get this part right, most don't in my experience)... and unless you entire team is those 3-5 people, you still don't get the purported advantage of maximum ability to communicate and collaborate without having to get up and walk somewhere. This actually sounds like the worst of all worlds to me.

Then again, I'm strongly biased towards the belief that programmers should have private offices with doors that close.

A team room can be a great solution if it's done thoughtfully. The big drawback to private offices is that it can inhibit the cross-polination of projects that results in revolutionary ideas. A few rules about group offices that seem to help:

-The team decides the furniture layout.

-The team members don't have to be on the same project, but they should perform similar functions. Don't put the project managers in the same room as the developers!

-There should be ample meeting space separate from the group office space.

-The team needs someone who is senior enough to lead the group if they need rules on distractions and interruptions. For example, in one group office we sent questions to each other over IM even though we were literally elbow-to-elbow. In another group office, we talked almost constantly because we each brought specialized, non-intersecting knowledge to the project.

-The team doesn't last forever. When projects or people start to turn over, it's a good idea to re-form the groups.

(edit: list format looked terrible)

I love the productivity boost of sitting with my PM:

"hey, feature x.y.z is actually a pain, now that I look at it closely. Can I email scrap it?"

"scrapped. "

Way better than spending a couple of days working on it before a weekly checkup meeting.

Project managers don't typically make such decisions. They ask how X is coming along, and how long Y will take.

The PM might also be the Product Manager. In that case they would indeed be taking those decisions.

This depends a lot of the size of the project and company.

Some teams may work more on a model where they just have to deliver X, where X is some high level business requirement.

In such circumstances it might not be unreasonable for the project manager to make decisions about which particular bells and whistles to include in the version 1 deliverable etc.

And there's no chance you could, instead, just get up and walk to where the PM sits, or call him/her via phone, or use IM, or just send an email, and accomplish the same end?

To me, it sounds like a false dichotomy to say that you either sit together and have rapid communication OR you sit apart and are forced to wait for a weekly checkup meeting... surely there's a continuum there??

try a daily standup.

If this is a 3-5 person squad, working together with a policy of keeping telephone conversations outside. Then I think that this is the best setup.

As a programmer, I really prefer team rooms. By which I mean one comfortable room with the whole team and exactly the whole team: nobody extra, nobody missing. Plus some nearby space for things like phone calls and meetings, so that work doesn't get disrupted.

The thing I like best about this is that I basically never have to wait for somebody to get back to me. Never having to check or write email for stuff that's more easily accomplished in person is awesome.

  The thing I like best about this is that I basically never 
  have to wait for somebody to get back to me.
But what about the person in the middle of "flow" that you just asked a question?

The person I most often have to talk to is a product person, who are happy to be interrupted most of the time (and when they aren't, they go hide).

When it's another developer, there's an etiquette to it. Because we're in the same room, I generally know when they're focused, and will just wait a bit if it isn't urgent. You also have graduated options for interrupting. There are times when people get my attention just by looking at me, or turning towards me and waiting a moment. If somebody is in flow, they'll probably ignore that.

We also do test-driven development and a fair bit of pair programming, which makes distractions less problematic when they do happen.

Yep, that's why I can't stand this arrangement. Respect others time and workflow by using non-blocking communication like email or IM. They'll answer when it's convenient for them.

I always preferred IM or email to phone or face-to-face for this exact reason. IM and email can be ignored until its convenient to reply, but phone and face-to-face forces you to stop working and respond right away, even if you were right in the middle of something.

The room should be the size of a conference room so everyone has a normal sized desk and room to personalize their space.

Team fit and cohesiveness become pretty critical in this setup. Ideally the team lead should sit with the team or close enough to run interference and provide air cover as needed.

I don't think he meant 3-5 people working in a space the size of a one person office. If that is what he meant, you are right. Otherwise, if the space is big as 5 small offices, it does not sound bad.

You may be right. One of the companies I used to work for was cheap enough to try a stunt like that, so I'm a bit biased when I hear people talking about putting 3-5 people in one room.

Oh yes it does. I probably caused measurable damage to my hearing trying to block out the conversations with headphones+music. It was horrific.

I agree. Even with my nice sound isolating earbuds (Shure), it doesn't block out all the external sounds unless I set the volume higher than I would like.

While playing music on headphones can help block out conversations, it is still a distraction. It's just not as annoying as hearing other people talk.

And they've never invented (to my knowledge) smell-canceling headphones.

I've worked in places where it was an issue. And it's a very difficult one to address. "Please be quieter" is much more socially acceptable than "Please use deodorant".

There are two ways to handle this reasonably gracefully, and a lot of ways that suck.

1. In private, tell the person "I don't think your deodorant is working well enough. Just thought you ought to know."

2. Go to their manager, and have the manager say pretty much the same thing, not mentioning that anyone but the manager noticed anything.

Almost anything else comes off as boorish.

If smell is a problem then you are sitting way too tight.

An open room needs plenty of space.

For me it depends entirely on the type of conversation.

I don't mind if it's done at moderate volume and is relevant to the work at hand. Indeed, I like those kinds of conversation to happen around me; the ambient information lets me have a better feel for how the project is going.

It's only when it's irrelevant or loud that I'd want headphones. So we just kick that kind of conversation out of the team room.

I'm a private office fan myself, but having worked in a team room before, it's actually pretty good so long as it is large enough and the "team" is actually a team.

I agree about team rooms, and IBM agrees with you too: In the 1970s, IBM's research into this suggested a hybrid model for developer productivity -- it's one I think still works well today.

The idea behind the model is that small product or functional teams tend to need to talk at the same time, and therefore also tend to need 'flow' time at the same time. Breaking flow for the group is evil, hence separate space. Recongregating for a short chat between team members is evil, hence the coworking.

400 square feet is more than enough space for a brainstorming area as well as desks.

I personally hate to see a common pattern of developers with headphones on -- it means the tech teams are stressed in some way, and don't have enough flow time or personal space.

>I personally hate to see a common pattern of developers with headphones on

What? I can't work without them, regardless of my environment. I could be alone in a woods, coding, and I'd still need headphones/earbuds and music going to get my code on. That's been true for over a decade and I've even tried to break the habit.

It's funny, even in an empty room the headphones help signal that I'm focusing. Headphones-off-speakers-on is Youtube-and-farting-around-online time, headphones-on is coding time.

I have experienced all the same situations as you and I strongly disagree with the 3-5 person team room idea. I'm currently in a 3 person room right now and it's the worst of all I've had! You're constantly distracted by the other 2 guys and communication between the rest of the team is made difficult. Plus you can rarely shut the door, turn lights on/off, set the air conditioning how you like without upsetting one of the others in your office.

I'd take an open plan office with sales people and managers screaming on the phone any day over my current situation!

Of course, the best choice would be my own office... we can all dream I guess.

I would rather have an open plan than a cube farm. Cubical walls give the illusion of privacy. They let people think they can talk as loudly as they want to without distracting anyone. Plus, they inhibit meaningful collaboration by making it more difficult to talk to teammates.

At least with the open plan, you get what you see.

yeah I definitely agree. I used to work in a cube farm, the office I work in now is more open, has sort of half-cubicles but is laid out differently than a cube farm. With the cube farm people would still talk and you'd hear their private conversations but never see them, at least with the more open plan if you glare over at someone who is being rudely loud they get the idea, with the cube farm they just yammer away all day in their little isolated pods, I noticed some of the dev's there seemed to screw around a lot more and have a lot more non-work related conversations (one in particular) than they do in the more open environment.

Our open office / team room is 4 people and it works out great. If one of us needs to zone out, we all have headphones for that. We're able joke around or shoot at the Nerf hoop. The only downside is phone calls, especially when we have more than one going on.

Going from this to a cube farm or an isolated office seems depressing in comparison.

Going from this to a cube farm or an isolated office seems depressing in comparison.

Being in individual offices doesn't necessarily mean being isolated to an extreme degree. As long as people choose to keep their doors open more often than not (in my experience, most people do) and as long as the team members who work together are physically located near each other, it's not - in my experience - a bad thing at all. In fact, assuming that people are given offices that are large enough to fit 2-3 people and are outfitted with guest chairs, it's no uncommon for 1-3 people who need to "huddle up" to do so in one of their respective offices.

The difference between this and trying to encourage collaboration through "open plan" is that when somebody needs isolation it's easy to get, and the huddles are on-demand and last as long as needed and no longer.

The other advantage to this is that small meetings can just take place in one individual's office, saving dedicated conference rooms for larger groups.

"Ironically, I was at the same company when we switched from a 3 person team room to an open floor plan to cut costs. The productivity hit was enormous."

So you had the inertia effect AND a less productive work environment. I wonder if there is anything out there about the productivity lost during a move.

The main problem was the noise level went up as all the teams ended up in the same room, along with the IT ops guys. It went from 3 guys that worked well in a team room to 25 people in one open office plan.

Our own team's cohesiveness deteriorated as we all went into headphone mode and communication was slower among ourselves.

If four grownup people on a mission cannot agree to terms that would be most favorable for the common goal. Then all hope is lost anyway.

Well, I'll counter-point that I was in a 3-5 person team room for a few years and it was terrible. I've been in an open office for the last 1.5 years and it's been amazing and I've never been more productive. In the team room, no matter what I did, people felt they had the right to interrupt me. In the open office, I put on my headphones and am free of distractions, and people know that if you have headphones on you don't want to be disturbed. So each to their own I think.

I like this kind of layout for a group of people in a department or project:

   |         |         |
   |         |         |
   +-----+  -+-  +-----+
   |                   |
   |     |       |     |
   +-----+       +-----+
   |     |       |     |
   |                   |
   +-----+       +-----+
   |     |       |     |
   |                   |
   +-------|   |-------+
The area in the middle is a common area for the group. It can have a table or two and chairs so people can hang out there, or even bring their laptops out and work there, when they are feeling social.

The bottom and middle side rooms are private offices. They should have doors that close and be reasonably insulated from sound, so that a worker can work without disturbance when they want to. Ideally, the wall wall facing the central area should have a big window (with drapes or blinds!) so that the person in the office can see if anything interesting is going on in the central area. Each office should have its own light switch capable of turning off all lights in that office.

The top two rooms can be bigger offices, or conference rooms, or break rooms for breaks that might be too noisy in the central area.

The break in the bottom wall is the connection to the hallway.

With this environment, you can easily work in private, no distraction mode (go into your office, close the door, and close the blinds), or in full social mode (take your laptop to the middle area), or in between (work in your office, but leave the door and window open, so you can keep an ear and eye on what's going on in the social area.

Note that if you have two groups working on different things, but that have a manager or senior engineer working with both, you can extend this concept and put the two groups side by side, and shift and stretch one of the offices and make it connect to both groups, so that common manager's office is in both groups:

   |         |         |         |         |
   |         |         |         |         |
   +-----+  -+-  +-----+-----+  -+-  +-----+
   |                   |                   |
   |     |       |     |     |       |     |
   +-----+       +-----+-----+       +-----+
   |     |                 |         |     |
   |               |                       |
   +-----+       +-----+-----+       +-----+
   |     |       |     |     |       |     |
   |                   |                   |
   +-------|   |-------+-------|   |-------+

> With this environment, you can easily work in private, no distraction mode, or in full social mode...

Bingo. It seems that so many people operate under the assumption that there is only one way to work (social or private). The truth is that some people tend to be more productive working mostly alone and others tend to be more productive spending most of their time in direct collaboration. Also, some tasks lend themselves to private, heads-down work and others lend themselves to group collaboration. An office environment needs to have the flexibility for this.

Any office setup that only allows for one style of work is bound to have problems.

My college dorm was like this: Six little one-person rooms along a common hallway with a common room at the end.

It was like heaven. And I got a lot done, back then.

That's how some arrived at the layout that this article derides. A consulting company that held some tech events in Phoenix had a bunch of private offices but they weren't used that often. What they arrived at, for their next space, was two conference rooms and a big open office shared by a dozen or so people (mostly developers).

Making a note of this for my next Dwarf Fortress game...

BTW, did you use Emacs to draw those diagrams?


What are the dimensions you would recommend for the rooms?

TL;DR summary: I find open-plan offices very distracting, and I know some other people do, therefore they are distracting for everyone and should be eliminated.

I don't understand why there are so many blog posts describing how "X must die" or "Y is the only good approach to doing Z." If something works well for you, then that's wonderful! Please share it and explain the benefits and downsides and convince me to give Your Favorite Method a try. Describing how Your Favorite Method is actually The Only Reasonable Method (and by extension, that I am wrong/stupid/naive/etc. to be doing anything else) will rarely win me over.

This is actually quite sad. When you try to explain downsides of the open plan office in noncontroversial terms and as rationally as possible, you get ignored. You get positive response, universal agreement, but nothing actually changes. When you use some speech figures to emphasize what your message, you get discarded with nitpicking like this. Nothing happens either.

And nothing will ever happen, it's a bad environment, but it's easy to set up, cheap and common everywhere. It still get the job done, though badly. You try to find a job with something better, but then you just chose to live with it, because it'd require different, worse sacrifices. That in turn sends a signal that it's in fact ok and working office plan. Is there a way out? I'd like to see a blogpost with this title, actually answering the question (preferably with something else than no).

I think office layout advice is not always heeded because it is hard to implement. Basically, if you have an open (closed) office, then switching to a closed (open) office is a pain. Articles might sway you in one direction or the other, but once your company is set up, it's a big hassle to shake things up unless they are very broken. At best, you will try a different approach if/when you start a new company.

For what it's worth, there are lots of successful companies that did fine with offices (Microsoft) and lots of companies that did fine with open spaces (Google).

I worked at LinkedIn while we moved through 3 office buildings. We had an open space, then cubicles/offices, and then an open space again (each layout decision was deliberate). Both layouts had their pros and their cons, and that's why I'm not a fan of blog posts that dismiss the other side completely. Office layout, like many other things, is not a problem with a one-size-fits-all solution.

> it's a bad environment, but it's easy to set up, cheap and common everywhere. It still get the job done, though badly.

Yup. You get less for less. Maybe that's a good compromise for some folks.

Maybe it's because most managers who set up offices don't read hacker news and progeammer blots. And the ones that do started at tiny scrappy companies that can't afford more than one room. For the my part, I worked somewhere that had a manager bragging about moving to another "more collaborative" office layout, with only partial non-wall separation for the dozens of staff, that coincidentally was quite a bargain.

> "I don't understand why there are so many blog posts describing how "X must die" or "Y is the only good approach to doing Z.""

Because they're click-bait. Authors of articles like that don't (primarily) care about making a sound argument. They care about attention.

yeah, there's a literary / English class term for this sort of article, basically, you're just arguing one side, you may not even believe all the points, but everything is supposed to support the main point, its not meant to be a balanced presentation of an issue

*"I don't understand why there are so many blog posts describing how "X must die" or "Y is the only good approach to doing Z.""

Quite simply because this title:

"Open Plan Offices Must Die!"

is better link bait than

"Why I don't like Open Plan Offices".

I imagine this would not do well either: "Open Plan Offices are Usually Not Really for Me, Just Sayin"

"I prefer private offices I guess, but open plan are okay too"

Haha, even better!

"Kill Hollwood."

Every time this subject comes up on HN, most people agree that open offices suck. As a programmer, I don't understand this. I like collaborating. Software is a team sport. I want a space that's optimized for teamwork.

Certainly sometimes I want to go away and think by myself. I want that option, but not as the default.

If programmers don't work well together, then by Conway's Law neither will their code. Beyond that, batting ideas around is just more fun than playing the solitary genius - and produces more satisfying results.

The kind of open office I like, though, is one in which the people are all working on the same system. I agree that noise and interference from unrelated activity is a disaster. It's very simple: everything should be organized around the team.

Personally, my problem with open plans isn't my team members, it's everyone else in the building who isn't on my team.

This is the point that the "team office" plan tries to address. Everyone you want to talk to is in the same room, everyone from other departments, people on manager schedule, etc, is behind a closed door.

Have you ever worked in open space environments?

The noise is aweful, the distrubances are maximized, people walking all over the place, it is awkward when somebody comes to me and we dont have a place to talk other than right there - and thus distrub all my nearby collegues.

We have "cubes" for that, but cubes are too formal, you need almost an invite, and when you do, its too crowded inside, and then you are away from your workplace where you have all the stuff. Sure, bring your laptop, if you have one, the desk computers we have are not so easy to bring along.

Right, that's dreadful (see my last paragraph). But when most people object to open spaces they do so in terms of private offices. I don't want that either. I want a team area. Doesn't seem so hard.

I can't think of any team sport where the members of the team need to spend long periods of time concentrating hard, on their own, without distraction. Can you?

You're pushing the metaphor too hard. Most sports don't involve typing, either.

The point is that complex enough software systems are beyond the capacity of a single person to build, and once you have a team, the team becomes the most important thing.

Bridge might qualify, depending on how you play it, but otherwise you're right.

The book Peopleware backs up the failure of open plan offices with references and data. For any kind of knowledge work, distraction is kryptonite.

I really enjoyed the book, and the info about open plan offices was really interesting. I was previously a fan of the open plan, but now I think if I ever design another office, it would be common areas and offices that close.

We had this setup at Apple (early Infinite Loop days) and it rocked. The best environment I've ever done engineering in, period.

Being able to shut your door for a few hours to crank stuff out is incredibly important. Being able to walk a few feet and collaborate is also incredibly important. They're not at odds.

It doesn't take rocket science to design a space that works. It takes something harder: Money, and the ability for non-engineers to listen to people who haven't been drinking the latest silver bullet kool-aid.

"People can't concentrate in noisy environments." How hard is that to get?

Peopleware has some great data about how listening to music can lower distractions but also reduces problem solving ability. The upshot was that test subjects could plow through code while listening to music, but tended to miss optimizations and shortcuts.

I think Peopleware is a great book, but it makes bold claims with very little experimental data. I personally find this hurts the integrity of the book and would have preferred if the authors were a bit more humble.

The music vs silence point, for example, is based on a tiny experiment with a small sample size. The kind of conclusions that are drawn from it in the book are a stretch.

It surprises me how few companies, even in the start-up world, hire remote developers. I personally get more work done at home in a couple of hours than 8 hours at an office. Simply knowing that you might be distracted puts, at least for me, a strain on what gets accomplished.

As someone who works remotely most of the time, I agree.

I've also started several companies that were mostly or partially distributed. Getting funding for those is sometimes awkward depending on the investors. Most VCs in particular are pretty skeptical of remote work, especially if any of the founders are remote. Even VCs who have funded well known distributed companies tend to be a little hesitant.

Another issue is that later rounds of investment are really difficult if you don't have traction as the VCs will scrutinize everything you do that doesn't look normal, and distribution of people is apparently pretty off the charts.

YC is itself a good example. Everyone must co-locate to San Francisco at the same time. 500startups is the same way. At least in the case of incubators, the centralization is temporary, but I have no idea if there is pressure to co-locate post-YC. Perhaps someone who is post-YC can offer some similar experiences.

I like to call this the "work theater" factor. Some people like to be able to see the work "being done." A large office stuffed with people makes the company seem more "real."

To that end, the (preferably open-plan) office is a set designed to demonstrate that "work is being done here" and everyone required to arrive at 9:00AM to type into their company provided computers during normal business hours are extras on the set.

That actually makes a ton of sense and makes me feel much better about my inbox being empty. Thanks.

This has always totally baffled me. You can hire three developers in the Midwest for the price of two in SF.

My friends in Silicon Valley say it's because if a developer is any good they move out there. Quite simply that is just not true. They may be less reluctant to work for a startup, but those that will aren't being asked.

I'm a developer currently in the Midwest. It's such a great place for families.

Sure, I'd be willing to work for a startup again. But relocation to SF would be a challenge, due to the difference in CoL, housing prices, and level of services.

> Quite simply that is not true.

There seems to be evidence that this is, at least statistically, true. There will of course be good developers in the Midwest. But when you combine the draw of the valley, with the fact that most of the best developers got to where they are by the interactions they have with other developers. Add in that the best programmers are driven by their trade, and highly likely to move to where they can get the best, most challenging problems. I could easily see this to be true.

Then, when most developers are hired by personal reference, how do you expect us to find these amazing developers hiding in the Midwest?

There seems to be evidence that this is, at least statistically, true. There will of course be good developers in the Midwest. But when you combine the draw of the valley, with the fact that most of the best developers got to where they are by the interactions they have with other developers. Add in that the best programmers are driven by their trade, and highly likely to move to where they can get the best, most challenging problems. I could easily see this to be true

Sounds like you live in a bubble. There are tons of great developers who'd never move to San Francisco (family, personal preference etc), and I can interact with other great developers without leaving my city ... additionally, doing startups isn't the only interesting programming work to be done :D

Then, when most developers are hired by personal reference, how do you expect us to find these amazing developers hiding in the Midwest?

Maybe relying only on personal reference is doing it wrong then ;)

> Maybe relying only on personal reference is doing it wrong then.

We try not to, but other forms of recruitment have thus far, returned less than stellar applicants. The only other luck we've had is actively seeking out people with projects in the same field. But that has mixed results also.

> how do you expect us to find these amazing developers hiding in the Midwest?

I don't really think you're trying and that was my point.

You're telling me the Midwest developers who move out to the Valley don't know a single great developer from back home who would jump to work for your startup as long as he could do it from home?

I have a very small sampling of midwest developers who I've worked with to be a representative sample. But for those I do know, the great developers from back home already moved out to the bay.

Been working from the Midwest remotely for 20 years. Working great. Work with a group of top-notch developers, from all over the country.

You may want to look into some remote development tools? I suggest Sococo, but I work there.

I'm not saying it doesn't happen. Just saying we see it less. We're open to remote workers (We have one person working from Greece ATM), but so far haven't been impressed with any applicants we've received from the 'midwest'.

I'm always looking for more remote development tools, I'll check out Sococo, but any other suggestions.

Probably because the majority of us cannot work remotely due to the need of humans to interact socially.

I also find that face-to-face conversation and in-office team building are important aspects to build a solid company for a long time.

EDIT: Lack of sleep yields poor brain, eye, and hand coordination.

While the substance of your argument is coherent. Your argument could be improved with clarity.

I understand that English is likely not your primary language. And no offense intended, but grammar does add substantially to clarity.

This usually holds true when the work is known and quantifiable. But in the context of a rapidly changing startup where one-off conversations can have major impacts on the direction of the product, this doesn't work as well.

It's easier to be dismissive of people that you don't see on a daily basis.

I think open-plan offices work if you have the right kind of HVAC system. Seriously, hear me out:

I work in an open-plan office. I didn't realize it when I first started, but there's actually quite a bit of white noise from the HVAC system. Maybe it's the nature of white noise that it wasn't immediately apparent.

One day, about a month after I had started, someone changed the thermostat settings. The constant white noise shut off. In the silence, the sense of space of the office immediately changed. Every footstep on the loft floor was suddenly audible. All the design conversations and dev pairing suddenly seemed much nearer, the words much harder to ignore. It was like the office had shrunk.

We tried a few hours this way, and finally set the HVAC system back to how it had been, filling the office once again with a constant, hushing whoosh. The space was back to normal.

Even better, our open plan office purportedly has active noise canceling systems similar to what are in noise canceling headphones built into the ceiling. This is to dampen noise from elsewhere in the office and keep distractions elsewhere from being too distracting.

If you think they really work, could you say who makes those?

Unfortunately, I don't know anything about them really.

This actually a design consideration in HVAC engineering, from what I know. There's usually a compromise between flatter ducts, which consume more energy, produce more noise but take up less vertical space, and squarer ducts, which are quieter, more efficient but take up more space. However going too far towards large, square ducts can reduce the background noise produced below the level that many office workers are used to.

My employer actually has white noise generators that intentionally create this effect.

the polite term for that is the marketing department ;)

HVAC can ruin private offices too! Consider the common case where 5 Private offices share HVAC, but some have windows, and some face west, some south. Guarantee that everyone is burning or freezing. But hey, you save $30/month per person on AC, so it's a bargain!

At Guidewire we've worked in an open-plan office for basically the whole life of the company (roughly 10 years), and it's worked really well for us (by whatever metric you like: successful products, financial success, employee retention). Yes, it can be distracting to people, so most people bring headphones, and it's important for people to be considerate and move discussions or phone calls into side offices and conference rooms.

At least with the type of software we build, though, communication is absolutely critical, and it's amazing how much a difference of even 10 feet makes in the frequency with which people talk. The optimum layout for us is roughly 1 or 2 clusters of 4-6 desks per "pod" (i.e. a cross-functional team consisting of developers, product managers, and qa that are all working on the same area of the product). At that level, when people are talking about something, what they're talking about is almost always relevant to you, so it's not necessarily a distraction: they're talking about your code and your project, so it's a good thing that you can overhear and participate in the conversation if you wish. If you didn't hear those conversations, you'd be out of the loop. It's often better to be a little more distracted and all on the same page than have a team of 5 engineers plowing ahead in different directions.

That's a common conflation when talking about software engineering in general: it's not just how much you get done, it's what you get done. If you get a ton of work done on the wrong thing, you might feel really productive, but you're not actually creating any value. At least with our software, a high level of communication is necessary for most projects to ensure that everyone is on the same page and rowing in the same direction. When that communication breaks down, projects start to fail.

Your mileage may vary, of course, depending on the size of your team and the nature of what you're building. (And it goes without saying that a giant warehouse with desks arranged like an 1890's cloth factory is a terrible idea; you have to consider lines of sight, and acoustics, and other environmental things. Not all open plan offices are the same.) But this assumption that open plan offices have been "proven" to be sub-optimal flies in the face of plenty of empirical evidence from companies like mine that have used them very successfully.

I'm glad this is working for you. I agree that different teams will probably respond in different ways to open-plan offices, and that not all such offices are created equally.

However, your claim that this has worked "really well" for you "for basically the whole life of the company ... by whatever metric" is not "plenty of empirical evidence." It's anecdotal, and most importantly lacks a comparison to a different arrangement (a control). You have no idea if any of your chosen metrics (however debatable for team effectiveness) would be better for your current team in a different set-up.

I also disagree that just because the conversations people hear are about the product, constantly overhearing conversations is therefore productive. If you need everyone in the team to talk about every decision at all times, this is probably either brought on by too few conversations or a lacking framework for productive communication.

> If you didn't hear those conversations, you'd be out of the loop.

Why aren't you keeping track of decisions and new information formally, e.g. by e-mail? How do you keep employees functional after they get sick or go on a leave? If you have processes for that, then it is not absolutely essential to hear those conversations; employees can read the important stuff at the end of the day.

The problem with all these debates about "optimal" office layouts is that they're all a series of non-repeatable experiments: someone can always say "Sure, you were successful doing X, but if you'd done Y instead you would have been more successful."

The hypothesis that Y is superior then becomes non-falsifiable: if someone doing Y fails, it wasn't because they did Y it must have been another factor, and if someone not doing Y succeeds, then they would have been better off doing Y. At some point, the argument becomes completely unhinged from any real-world experience.

So really, all I can say is: we have open-plan offices, and we've been successful/productive/kept employees happy, so clearly it is possible for open-plan offices to work. For someone that's convinced that open-plan offices can't possibly be a good idea, and who rejects other people's real-world experiences, what is there left to argue over? The hypothesis becomes non-falsifiable and there's no point talking about it.

To your point about conversations, when people are sick or on leave or working remotely those conversations don't happen and we suffer as a result. We haven't found any replacement for impromptu conversation, or for gaining knowledge through overhead conversations, and so on.

Just as a stupid example (though this sort of thing happens all the time), suppose Chris goes to ask Bob a question, and Alice is setting next to Bob. Bob thinks the answer is that you have to do A, but Bob's wrong, and Alice knows it: the right answer is now to do B. On top of that, Denise, who's also sitting there, hears the answer as well, and just learned something effectively by osmosis.

If Alice wasn't sitting there, able to hear the question, she wouldn't have jumped in, and Chris would have gotten the wrong answer and wasted hours or days doing the wrong thing. Denise also wouldn't be clued in to how things should work either. If Bob had a private office that Chris went to, or it was a one-off IM or phone call, you'd have the same problems. Did everyone get a little distracted by overhearing that conversation? Yes. But ultimately, that productivity hit was worth it, because Chris was saved a ton of time and Denise and Bob gained useful knowledge.

If you can convince people to use something like Campfire where they route all communication through such that people who are remote or momentarily absent are included, I think that can take the place of overhearing those conversations, but it's impossible (in my experience) to convince people to do that when they're working in the same building: people would rather just go chat face-to-face since it's much higher bandwidth than typing.

You're right, office conditions are notoriously hard to research because variables are abundant. However, there are ways to measure it empirically. In the design of an experiment like that, you'd want to use metrics that are heavily dependent on the change. Measuring financial outcomes is no good, because they are affected in significant ways by a number of other factors (including a large factor of luck).

A better metric for this kind of research could be stress levels because they are significantly dependent on changes in physical working environments. Stress is affected by a number of other work factors, such as management, work/life balance and workload, but these can be measured and controlled for. The effects of stress on various performance outcomes are fairly well understood, so this relationship can be used in tandem with other variables to ensure that a change is having the hypothesized effect. Again, it's not simple, but it's far removed from having no comparison.

I wouldn't suggest using online communications for every decision, but rather recording the essence of each substantial conversation digitally. Tasking one person with sending an e-mail containing the conclusion of a discussion takes a fraction of the man-hours consumed by a conversation, especially if many people are frequently involved (which I still advocate against).

Further, summarizing by e-mail is an aid to people's memories, helps avoid miscommunication by establishing a mutual understanding, and chronicles decisions and progress for later review or lookup.

Just FYI, I think that really depends on what kind of a person you are.. Some people prefer to write because it gives them an opportunity to explain things in an ordered, and well thought out fashion.

That is a great example and happens all the time. This can be handled decently well by something like Skype, or just using code reviews and design reviews like professional engineers we claim to be.

Quiet introverts in an open plan office can work reasonably well but drop one extrovert into the mix and watch the stress levels rise and productivity plummet.

I think that's what most people don't understand. Actually, I'm not sure if it's introverts vs. extroverts necessarily, but there are definitely some people who thrive in a busy, loud environment but many people who don't, such as my (admittedly introverted) self.

My boss was incredulous when I told him that his shiny new office environment that packed 30+ people into a 30x24 ft. space was the worst environment I'd ever worked in. He told me that they'd done this because people had complained that the office was too quiet. <sigh>.

One day when I have a startup of my own. I'm going to have a mixture of small offices with doors, and larger team rooms, and open space lobbies. Everyone must have wheels on their entire desk. And they'll be able to move around to whatever office suits them for that day, for that problem. That would be my dream because that's what I would like myself. Having options and being able to decide for myself.

From what I've read [1], Valve employs the desk-on-wheels configuration to great success. The higher-order function to this is that teams can be fluid and the process for reconfiguring for new projects is as easy as wheeling your desk around.

[1] http://www.penny-arcade.com/report/editorial-article/where-t...

Looks nice!

I must admit when you said "desk-on-wheels" my first thought was that it sounded like something from a Terry Gilliam movie.

This discussion starts from the premise that developer time is the most critical thing for which you must optimize your organisation.

The most critical thing is usually the customer and optimizing for the customer means doing things differently:

* having the developers take customer calls and help requests

* increasing the amount of time the developers spend understanding the users - in order to reduce the amount of irrelevelant work being done

* cultivating a culture of 'code not written'

Do you really think that cranking code is the most important thing your organisation does?

In my experience, the developers should NOT be taking customer calls.

Once a client knows that a developer will take calls, they will take advantage of it and try to get in new features and changes. There should be a layer between developers and clients. This helps the developers not get distracted or waste their time by explaining things that someone could do also (or better).

Yes, the developers should be aware of what the clients are having issues with or what features they want, but there should be a 'firewall' between developers and clients. Not all the time, but most of the time. The firewall can be imaginary, but the client needs to believe it exists.

I tend to agree with this point. There should be a firewall or layer between customer -> developer communications. The firewall intercepts/takes/handles incoming requests from the customer and forwards them on to the dev team or a developer who, if needed, can/will contact the customer. The customers should never have a direct line to developers unless you only want developers to work on "urgent" (regardless of important or unimportant) issues and "small/easy" features.

I am not saying that all developers should always be on customer support.

But all developers should sometimes be on customer support - maybe 1 day a week, maybe more.

We call that 'moving' and not 'working'. Working is something that generates customer satisfaction. Moving is just anything else. Adding bodies just to run distraction for developers is adding pure waste onto payroll.

Yes. If you define my 'organization' as the component that builds the products we sell. As a company, customer interaction is very high, but that is very dependent on the quality of our product.

Almost overwhelmingly, our #1 customer request is new features closely followed by bug fixes. I enjoy talking to customers to help them with problems, but even when I had free reign to contact customers directly, I usually wrapped up conversation pretty quickly and cranked a new build for whatever the issue was.

I have spent plenty of time in customer calls with 4 or 5 other employees twiddling my thumbs, and I don't think the customer benefited much from my presence. Developer time with a customer really needs to be targeted to be valuable.

At least 80% of the time I spend is working on stuff that doesn't need a distraction.

DO you want your developers taking simple tech support calls?

Depends on the type of software you write.

Developers tend to have the biggest ego and opinion in the room yet from time to time, they are also the ones who are clueless about the users or real-world scenarios.

I'm a developer. I like to interact with customers some of the time and wouldn't even mind taking some support calls once in a while. I feel like it keeps me in touch with reality, like you're saying, and I like knowing that people are out there using my stuff.

But most developers don't feel this way. Forcing them to take support calls just to satisfy the boss' idea of how their ego should be adjusted just doesn't sound to me like something that's likely to be productive.

What would you do if the developers weren't budging after you told them that "this is what the client wants".

I don't know anything about the business structure you have in mind, but usually customers don't get to talk to the developers so they don't expect to be able to do it unless its part of the contract. In my experience usually they don't even ask unless someone has put them up to it.

E.g., they may be working on a complex issue with a Support guy in over his head who has been reduced to relaying messages to "the developers". I'm happy to jump on such a call directly because it feels like it saves everyone time and running around.

But all companies with lots of users eventually develop layers of Support in place to shield their developers from potentially constant interrupts.

...and the cost impact of a software developer who doesn't understand the customer and real-world scenarios is enormous. They just sit there are crank our new support calls, new support costs, worse customer experiences, slower growth rates, deteriorating customer experiences.

You need to take action to stop them folk coding as quick as...

Getting the customer to do it is as good a way as any.

Yup. How do you get to zero defect if you don't? The point is to eliminate support calls by root cause analysis:

* is the software borked?

* are the doco's borked?

* is the user community too poor/uninformed/unsupported to generate the answers without developer involvement

The devs are a key part of determining which of these things is the root cause. If they don't talk to the people who matter (the customers) how can they help solve the problems?

"having the developers take customer calls and help requests"


I was never a fan of open-plan office space. As a programmer it's like trying to get work done at a school cafeteria. Which doesn't work without a good pair of head phones. How stupid, if you think about it, we all sit around with head phones, trying to stay in the zone. Yeah I get work done in such environments, but my best work was created in a 2-4 people office or at home, working on problems by myself while connected to a team chat.

To me, it's more like working in a busy computer lab. This works well for me since I was conditioned through university to be productive in a lab environment, to get things done efficiently and to not be distracted by other groups or people in a lab setting.

I think there should be both quiet isolation environments and communal lab-type environments in software companies. It's surprising to me how there is so much emphasis in hunkering down in one place and staying put.

Most developers who I've known are easily-distracted from being in the "zone", and I include myself in that list. I'm always more productive when working remotely, where I can control my work environment. Second in order of preference is having a private office. It doesn't matter if it is little more than a closet with a door. I've been in nearly every scenario described by folks here on HN, and the most toxic was working in an open office space, and having an exit door behind me, to boot.

That's the one thing that MSFT really got right: private offices with doors that close.

I think it depends a lot on how the people work together. If you're doing a lot of impromptu "meetings", pair programming, brainstorming sessions etc, then this setup is probably an advantage.

Personally, I can cancel out most distractions by a large enough monitor and headphones, but get really awkward when someone is standing behind me or walking by. So I need to have my back to a wall, whether it's an open office or not.

I think we all do agree that offices without fixed desks are a big no-no. Some companies tried to do that a while ago, where you just have a cart with your stuff and work where you're needed (with thin clients way back when, and laptops a bit later). Yuck.

Yes, but "impromptu meetings" are toxic for getting things done when you're coding. An interrupt-driven culture makes it a nightmare to get into a flow state and stay there without constantly having to context-switch because some jerk has to have an answer RIGHT NOW and can't be bothered to send email.

Some teams benefit more from immediate responses than "flow state". If you're running a operation where there's lots of small features and design niggles, brainstorming them out with the rest of the team might be better than achieving perfect zanshin, but still having no idea, or doing 8 hours of back-and-forth intense coding then finding out that there's a standard library function or better algorithm that your co-worker could have told you hours ago.

Granted, this would mostly apply to teams who are either very newbie-heavy or work on very small feature increments at a time - or both. And maybe some designers, but I'm not qualified to talk about that. For most other purposes, more isolated environments with a good tech solution for communication would be preferable (IRC, Basecamp, Jabbber etc.)

Even then, you can keep communication via email or IM, just send a message to the person who may know, "hey, do we have any library for this, seems like we might", etc and they get back to you when they can, you don't have to have face to face to ask questions, as you said, mainly its important for newbies, but more experienced dev's should know when to ping someone even if the response won't be immediate.

> I think we all do agree that offices without fixed desks are a big no-no. Some companies tried to do that a while ago, where you just have a cart with your stuff and work where you're needed (with thin clients way back when, and laptops a bit later). Yuck.

I'm curious why people feel this way. I've never worked in this kind of environment, but where I have worked, I've never actually had that much stuff at my desk or in the office. And I always felt like, while I could customize my workspace to work better for me, everything belonged to the company anyway so it would be silly to feel territorial about my workspace. Give me five minutes to adjust everything and I'd be ready to go at any desk.

Sure, you're not the only one who doesn't have a problem with that, but quite a lot of those efforts were company-wide. It does make sense for consultants who are out of the office 90% of the time anyway. Why keep N offices for N people then?

Your point about "everything belongs to the company anyway" is basically the gist of it: If you're shuffled around too often, you yourself might feel like company property. I would say that this is true for the majority of people, just like most of them are prone to "homesteading". The nesting instinct is quite primal… (And in relation to the original point of this thread, familiar, interruption-less environments make it easier for most people to focus.)

One additional annoying point is the reason for this: Basically you've got two, either the one I mentioned above, where you've got a lot of empty offices due to consultants not in at all, or the company wants to turn everyone into in-house consultants. No fixed teams, quickly adding two new co-workers to a late project - we all know how well that works. Or one of the worst sins: Taking you out of your team because your job is done there for now, and instead of just idling along they'll just add you to another department, whether they need help or not.

Cost saving without mercy and regard to basic human nature. One might argue that it could work if you restrict yourself to those with a suitable psychological profile, but I bet this will only result in false "nomads" who are just trying to act that way to avoid losing a job (or to get it in the first place).

I really enjoy working in an open plan office. The distractions don't really bother me and I appreciate the energy level going around. I obviously use headphones to cancel out noise when I need to focus, sometimes just playing white noise tracks or no sound at all (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZPoqNeR3_UA is a personal favorite).

Having a heavy distraction-oriented work flow forces you into a mode where you segment your tasks as atomically as possible, for example using the pomodoro technique. There are certainly times when a quiet space is necessary, and I will retreat away from my desk to a library or quiet corner where I'm not near people.

I wonder how much of this is because I am young (24). My generation has grown up bombarded by distractions. So much so, in fact, that I find that there are equally many distractions inside of my computer as there are coming from the office plan.

It's a big help if everyone around you understands the rules and nuances. Things like "If my headphones are on, do NOT talk to me or even tap me on the shoulder"

It's when you try everything possible to shut out distractions (yes, including the Les Nessman tape on the floor, you older folk will know what I'm talking about) and it still doesn't work.

It's not being young. In the olden days, before email even, software developers would close the door their personal office and then it was the telephone that was an interruption.

On a bad day, they could get interrupted by that thing 4 or 5 times! :-) They were typically big interruptions though, as it was considered quite rude not to give the other person your full attention pretty much for as long as they wanted it.

Private offices are definitely the most productive. Developers should avoid firms that do not understand this basic piece of information. Conversely, those firms that understand that their success depends on getting the best people will build office space to help recruit those people.

I'm currently working at a place which separates its programmers into offices of 2 or 3 people. I'm used to working in open plan offices and so far my current situation feels much like the worst of both worlds. Obviously someone, somewhere thought this would make us more productive but I can't see it.

As with the article I agree that there should be some private space for programmers to work alone. Perhaps not 100% of the time but instead have the open plan aspect for communication and then a separate series of offices people can move to and close the door for some privacy. Not sure how well that'd work in some environments but it's something to think about.

That would feel weird being in a small space with just one or two other people all the time.

Having worked in different arrangements, I must say that every developer having their own office with a closable door is really the most productive. Though I have seen very small close-knit teams work sitting around the same table together.

But most companies prefer to give the offices to managers and put software developers out in the cubes.

Ironic, isn't it. Managers whose jobs revolve around communication, coordination, and staying on top of things get offices with doors where they can isolate themselves. Developers whose job requires long stretches of focus and concentration are kept in open spaces with numerous distractions.

Many managers are frequently hosting mini-meetings or yelling into their speakerphone a lot. It's an act of mercy to everyone to give them a shuttable door. :-)

yes, I agree, I once worked in a completely open office (no separate rooms, even for the manager / "CEO", it was a very small startup company and would have to listen to this sort of nonsense all day

And CEO's--who spend the most time outside the office--get the biggest offices at all.

Offices aren't intended as workspace, they're intended as status symbols.

I would never want work somewhere where the CEO had a large office. Unless maybe CEO was owner and is buying the office with his own money.

At my last job, I had a bigger windowier office than the CEO, and our company had millions in revenue.

I don't think I've ever worked someplace where the CEO didn't have the biggest, nicest office in the company. Although in both cases the CEO was also founder and owned upwards of half the company.

In any case, it doesn't really bother me as long as I have the resources to get my work done. It's just an interesting observation.

Great point, I'll bring it up at the next (probably pointless) meeting we have :)

The most effective setups I've seen and experienced are those that keep noise and distractions low, communication easy and incentives to drop into and stay in the zone maximized. Incidentally these factors are not limited to just workspace layout. I think overly focusing on work space at the expense of other crucial factors is another case of "sub-optimization" and thereby not "lean".

Some of these factors are:

* Gathering the team in one place and ideally at the same time. Standup meetings do this, as well as catered breakfasts and lunches.

* Open spaces that provide ready access to other folks, engineers, designers, product owners. It's amazing how high the hurdle of having to get up and open a door can be and how amazing the cost of inferior decisions made by coders is when asking someone requires overcoming hurdles. Remember that the desired behavior must also be the easiest behavior.

* No employee-specific workstations. The easier it is to move around and the more common the computer setup the better collaboration can ensue.

* Subdued noise levels. This can be accomplished through white noise generators, Dj Tiesto, sound swallowing wall fabrics and carpets, etc.

* Systems that capture project data in structured ways, minimizing the need and role of email.

* Separate gathering spaces for socializing, ping pong, lunches, meetings, phone calls to not disturb the main work area.

* A prevailing practice of pair programming and TDD.

Interestingly, some of the most successful development shops like Pivotal Labs and Hashrocket do exactly that.

I've always like Pixars office. Certain areas for people that need to work in groups and offices in upstairs hall ways for people to work in private offices. Sort of the best of both worlds.


Slightly forced connection in the intro to the design of Apple stores. Open plan offices have been around plenty longer than Apple shops.

It is good to have a mix of spaces, but designing people's main work space to be a place for constant interruptions does seem to be a fundamental flaw. Breakout rooms and private spaces should be in the mix.

1. Distractions are not always bad. Given the number of hours devs can work, sometimes a short distraction is healthy. 2. Every developer knows to invest a good set of noise canceling headphones in an open office. This allows you to be in 'heads-down' mode and your coworkers know not to bother you unless it's work related.

I hate wearing headphones even more than I hate being able to hear all 250 of my coworkers at once.

about headphones - i hate these somehow. I am ok to use these while riding bike, when I wait in line, or working in coffee shop, but nothing is more pleasuring and actually helping concentrate like closed office with speakers playing Infected Mushrooms.

I'm at Microsoft right now. Microsoft has a policy that everyone gets their own office, if they want it. They "if they want it" part there is key - myself and everyone else on my team was given the choice to have either an open work environment or an office environment. Most of my team and I chose to pursue the open route (a lot of our team is composed of designers, not programmers). I've enjoyed it quite a bit for meetings and other collaborative efforts. When I need to get a lot of my own work done though, I escape somewhere else or do it from home. The reverse is true as well - I know some people who chose to have offices who will work a couple days a week out in the open, simply to collaborate with others more closely.

Each has its benefits. Open-plan offices shouldn't die, but people need to realize that they come with ups and downs.

Open plan offices can solve some problems really well - providing fresh air and daylight to a large number of people efficiently, when executed well.

They can provide a creative, collaborative and egalitarian studio like environment, again when executed well.

What they struggle with primarily is sound isolation, attenuation, and masking. Secondarily they struggle with visual and olfactory distractions.

Designing an open office to look like an Apple store is a mistake. Apple stores are designed to be lively and animated - there's a reason for all those hard surfaces, particularly the glass ceiling. That reason is that they reflect sound. There's also a reason coffee shops provide big overstuffed chairs and carpeted floors.

The ideal setup that I've found is having two people per office that we have at my current workplace:

- cuts out distractions: you can only get distracted if you decide to talk with your office-mate. If either of us wants to chat with someone else, we move our discussion to a meeting room.

- avoids the isolation and slacking off that a single person per office setup generates.

- if office-mates are chosen intelligently, it can result in good collaboration for e.g. pairing a mentor with a junior programmer. A good idea would be to change the pairs every few months.

There's one reason why open plan will always rule over individual offices or 3-4 person team rooms: you can fit more people into open plans. If square footage matters to your bottom line (ie your office isn't out in the warehouse district) then you can get more employees per sq ft. Bitch all you want, but it ain't gonna change.

I think it depends somewhat on how you do it.

We're very collaborative, so being locked away in rooms would be a pain. We all sit together, but we reduce the pain of open-plan offices by being careful to minimize distraction. E.g., phone calls happen in other rooms. Meetings that don't involve the whole team go in the conference room.

I wouldn't mind a low-height cubicle farm. That is nobody can see each other if everyone is sitting down, if you stand up you can see people without getting on your toes.

I would also arrange the cubicles such that your back is never to the entrance. So you know when someone is walking into your space.

Such things exist and are horrible to work in.

I worked in a very large dev office that was essentially a gigantic low-height cube farm and sound carried for-frigging-EVER - conversations 20m away may as well have been in your lap. Plus, if you happen to be taller sitting down than the wall height (as I was), then you also get the nice distraction of seeing developers and other worker bees shuffling around the place.

If you are in such a space, then yes, snagging a desk that does not expose your back to the entrance is key to maintaining some level of sanity. A better solution long-term is to find a less brain-damaged environment to work in.

Absolutist hyperbolic linkbaity titles must die...

I couldn't agree more. I need a quiet place alone to program, and I've just recently moved into a coworking space. Total loss of productivity. I'm going to start working from home again, at least 2-3 days a week...

One layout that works well is small / tiny offices around an external wall, with conference rooms, bathrooms, corridors etc in the middle.

My current job is at quite old building (70's) with a floor laid out like this, and it's just fantastic. I have enough space for some computers, a room I can work in in peace and quiet, and just enough space for small meetings and co-working when needed.

Any negative effects of being in a private office can be canceled by having office communicator, Yahoo! chat etc.

Typical 70's office buildings seem to often be laid out like this.

What I would really like to see is a company where employees get to choose from a variety of seating arrangements to pick one that meets their needs. I know some people who absolutely thrive on the open-plan office; these are probably the same people who did all of their homework with the TV on. I also know people who have to wear aircraft-grade earmuffs to avoid being disturbed/distracted by the sound of people walking by their office door.

I don't understand how it's a confusing concept that one particular work setup isn't universally beneficial.

I understand -- you don't like open-plan offices, you don't think that they're an effective environment. That doesn't mean that they're universally terrible; it may work for some companies, and it may fail for others.

Offices, real offices for each developer are best. However, open-plan is still better than cubicles. Cubicles share all the problems of open-plans + you stare at the walls of your cubicle.

I'd love to have an office but I prefer open plans over cubicles.

I hate cubicles. Cubicles are soul-crushing abominations.

Before I quit working for other people I used this as a barometer of whether a company was run by idiots or not. IF they had an open plan office, and were apologetic about it, then they might be redeemable. IF they were proud of it, then idiots. Seriously. Sales guys in a big room, they probably benefit from the vibe. Programmers need distractions to be productive? Really?

In fact, the last company I worked at had hired way too young, and they had a bunch of kids who thought that being in your office writing code was somehow "Bad" because you were "siloed away". They liked to hang out all together at one big table, and chat away all day long with their laptops out.

In the time I was there, I don't think they ever realized they were getting nothing done. (I was curious as to whether they were onto something or not, so I tracked the number of stories and features they committed vs. me and my officemate who at 26 was the "old man" of the bunch, though still much younger than me he was old enough to know what flow was.)

Result: the two of us were about 4 times more productive than the 5 of them.

One of those five, though, was the "director of engineering" (20 years old) and was constantly chastising us for spending too much time in our offices.

When it became clear that this was going to affect my evaluation, I chose to exit that company. (They folded about a year later, never having accomplished the short term goal they were working on while I was there.)

But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe some people are more productive in groups of 2-3. That's fine. Set up offices for them to work that way.

Just let me have some damn peace and quiet so I can get work done! (and I never seem to have a problem hooking up with other engineers to talk about architecture or what have you to keep us coordinated, though often this is via email or chat... which is much less interrupting than a tap on the shoulder.)


On further thought-- maybe designers and people whose job is to sling HTML or javascript don't need to have "Flow". Maybe the jobs for these people are light enough that there is no context switching cost or the cost is low. That's not the case for my work or my career. There's often a very large amount of stuff I need to track in my head... because I'm generally solving hard problems on the back end, rather than making UIs or web pages.

> Programmers need distractions to be productive? Really?

Sometimes. I work from home, so I'm mostly distraction free, but sometimes I need distractions to get the motivation flowing again. I think the perfect office would have the opportunity to work under many different environments, depending on your mood. Moderation is, like always, the key.

> Maybe the jobs for these people are light enough that there is no context switching cost or the cost is low.

Getting a site to work in IE6, or designing a usable UI, is probably hard to do with constant interruptions.

> people whose job is to sling HTML or javascript

What was that? Coding HTML or programming in javascript might not be as mentally hard (most of the time), but is just as much work as anything else.

And where exactly did I say it wasn't work? I said that it might not have the same interruptions costs, and I said this as a way of acknowledging the people in this thread who say that they think open plan offices are great.

So, what you did, was, you cut out a few words, removing all context, and then pretended like there was no context, and put words in my mouth implying I denigrated a certain type of work.

In short, you told a lie.

Disagree with me if you like. In fact, the whole point of that addendum was to acknowledge that some will disagree with me.

But lying about what I said like that? In an attempt to pretend like I said something offensive so you can be offended?


Wow. I think this conversation ends here.

Nice, baseless condescension there at the end.

Its a real shame that people will seek any excuse to misrepresent what one says-- as you do-- because they choose to feel offended.

If you'll read what I wrote, you'll notice that I was granting a possibility to the people who disagree with me about open plan office spaces-- and there are a number who have done this in this thread-- by saying that maybe for some types of work the interruptions are not as expensive.

Rather than accuse me of saying something I didn't say in an attempt to feel superior, and thus bring down the quality of hacker news (as seems to be the trend these days), you could have taken what I said, considered it in context and responded. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe designers need as much flow as programmers do.

Yeah, you said their work was "light enough" that distractions don't matter. That was condescension.

If you want to backpedal, you actually have to take the pedals and run them backwards. Otherwise it's not effective.

…maybe designers and people whose job is to sling HTML or javascript don't need to have "Flow"… Maybe the jobs for these people are light enough that there is no context switching cost…

Typical HN narcissism: it must be trivial if it's not what I'm doing.

Hey, crazy idea: why don't more employers give workers a choice? As a quick read of this thread will show, some people like quiet so they can concentrate, while others like the interaction and "energy" of being with others. That's fine. Live and let live. A startup might have to choose one kind of space, but you don't have to get all that large before it becomes possible to have separate areas/floors for different work styles. It seems like such a no-brainer, but I've only ever seen companies do "one size fits all" or segregation by status. Any employer who let me choose whether to work in a private office or a 2-5 person office or a big open area would definitely get some extra points from me.

Could be tricky getting the choices sorted out - will you have enough people who want the open plan arrangements? will people just go for private offices on a status basis?

In teaching we have various 'learning style' audits. A common one is the VARK profile


Could you imagine what a 'preferred productive environment' questionnaire might look like? Would this help make sensible choices and slot people in to existing teams?

I thought that 'learning styles' stuff was discredited.


Frank Coffield and team evaluated the field some time ago. VARK was one of the few that they found had some merit. I find that a visual explanation can help some students over the 'textbook' verbal/arithmetical presentation. See


(Rendering oddly in Firefox, slideshare used to be so useful...)

This preoccupation with "flow" is getting to be a bit much, I think. It's important to be able to focus on your work, but it's also important not to become like "The Princess and the Pea". You need to be able to do good work when conditions are not 100% exactly the way you want.

Okay, but I still don't see this as a relevant or useful contribution to the discussion about how to lay out an office. I really don't like the attitude of "we're going to deliberately make it harder for you to do your job, and we expect you to man up and deal with it."

Does this analysis apply to pilots and surgeons as well?

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