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From Cubicles, Cry for Quiet Pierces Office Buzz (nytimes.com)
115 points by kanamekun 1079 days ago | 54 comments



"Open Plan" offices are more evil than Satan, The Beach Boys, Pop-under Ads, Politicians, and Slashdot Trolls all rolled up into one. I would never knowingly subject anybody to that crap.

Which is why, if/when the day comes that Fogbeam Labs can acquire office space and hire employees, I intend to make sure that everyone gets a private office, with a door. Knowledge workers need the opportunity for privacy and way to avoid countless, unnecessary context switches. Open Plan is practically designed to generate the maximum possible number of interruptions and distractions during the course of a day. It's disrespectful to people to put them in a situation like that, and it's less productive. That's just the wrong way to do things, as far as I'm concerned.

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The interesting question for us who agree with you is why do other people think otherwise. Two reasons come to mind: some co-workers don't mind the disruptions themselves (e.g. if they do a different kind of work), and some managers simply just like the view.

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The interesting question for us who agree with you is why do other people think otherwise. Two reasons come to mind: some co-workers don't mind the disruptions themselves (e.g. if they do a different kind of work), and some managers simply just like the view.

I'm a cynic and tend to believe that in most cases it comes down to a belief (rooted in short-sighted thinking) that open-plan saves money by compressing more people into a given number of square feet of office space. That is, I think few - if any - managers actually believe that open-plan is better for productivity or anything... they just think it's cheaper, and they don't bother balancing the cost savings with the other factors.

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This explanation makes sense: one (cost) is easily measurable, the other (productivity) isn't. The first gets optimized.

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Imagine a large open plan space full of cubicles.

Now imagine that same space, redesigned with walls and doored-offices. It would be a rabbit warren, and not only would most people not have a window, you couldn't even see a window while walking around.

Which got me thinking. A compromise between open plan cubes and rabbit warren offices would be to slightly enlarge the cubes, and extend their walls up to the ceiling, but the wall material above chest height would be glass, so natural light has a chance to distribute throughout the space.

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A ring of offices surrounding a common area (with couches and whiteboards) is the best environment I've been in. I have fond memories of parts of Apple's Infinite Loop 1.

Reportedly Apple was going to put cubicals in the IL buildings, but decided to go with hard-walled offices because it was cheaper in the long term.

(I haven't worked there since '94 or so -- for all I know it's wall-to-wall cubicals, with three minions to a cubie and the fourth hunkered under the table beside the power strips).

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That's essentially how offices were in the 60s/70s - giant open floors with wall-like solid/glass partitions up to the ceiling. Also more configurable than drywall when the floorplan needs to change. Take a look at the current season of Mad Men for example.

I think what changed was cubical walls are much cheaper and easier to move and some managers like being able to walk around and keep an eye on everyone (Lumbergh).

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If you compare the cost of renting commercial space to the cost of software engineer labor, this explanation doesn't hold up.

The cost of commercial rent is minuscule when compared to the cost of engineering labor. If a business believed doubling floorspace would genuinely increase productivity by even 10%, it would be a no-brainer financially.

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One (space per engineer) is much more controllable than the other (pay per engineer). Hence it gets controlled.

You've got to cut what you can, not necessarily the biggest expense.

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I have to wonder whether the managers using that rationale notice whether compression comes at the cost of efficiency.

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I think the successfulness of open space plans depends greatly on the work you're doing.

If you're working primarily alone on difficult engineering problems, with well-defined specifications and a clear division of who owns what part of the code, then (from my experience) solitary offices are more productive. Communication doesn't need to be as high-bandwidth, and concentration needs to be deep.

On the other hand, there are many environments that are different. If your organization intentionally has low-fidelity product requirements, the cost of communicating with business stakeholders needs to be low. If you intentionally eschew code ownership, engineers will frequently be working in areas of the codebase they haven't worked in before and need to talk to colleagues who know it better.

Open plans make concentration harder and communication easier. Closed office plans are the reverse. I think no office plan is "better" than the other, but rather our office plan should fit the work style of your organization.

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I've always had an office until the last few years. Now I work in a cubicle. My feeling is that communication was much easier for me in an environment with offices. The reason for this is that I could have in-depth conversation with others in an office. In a cubicle, I feel that having a conversation with someone else is antisocial because it will annoy everyone else.

The real reason for cubicles and open floor plans is that it makes the bean counters happier. Everything else is rationalization, IMHO.

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Are the two really opposed? At my job, we have an open floor plan and a couple of closed rooms where people go for conversations, talking on the phone, etc. Seems to work fine, although I don't have much of a gauge to measure by.

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We tend to call those "meetings" rather than "conversations".

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What if two people need to work together on a computer and they only have desktops. The commom-area closed room doesn't do them any good.

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The common-area closed room should have a desktop computer in it.

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I don't buy your arguments in favor of open space plans.

In my experience, clarifying a requirement or requesting a feature always takes far less time than coding it up. As a developer, I'd rather you call me over to your office and we spend 30 minutes discussing what you want, then I go back to my office and spend an hour working on it and get back to you if I have any more questions.

If the business stakeholders are changing requirements and coming up with new ones so often that they need constant communication, then there's a problem. Hold a meeting to get the requirements nailed down, then give the developers some quite time to work.

For developer-developer questions I've found it's almost always easier to ask questions via email, instant message or IRC because of copy/paste.

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Open plans make concentration harder and communication easier. Closed office plans are the reverse. I think no office plan is "better" than the other, but rather our office plan should fit the work style of your organization.

I actually mostly agree with that in a sense. I won't deny that - at times - there can be advantages to the increased communications bandwidth of having everybody in one small space, communicating freely. I just don't think it's the optimal setup for all the time.

To elaborate on what I said above, if Fogbeam Labs had funding and employees and all that jazz, I would plan on putting employees in private offices. But, I'd also want to accompany that with plenty of open space, with tables, chairs, couches, and lots of big whiteboards-on-wheels, so that people would have a place to spontaneously self-organize into small groups to collaborate on an ad-hoc, as-needed basis. But yet, everyone would have the option of retreating to their private office for periods of deep thought and intense focus.

The thing is, I think that it would be better to put the open-space lounge like areas near the outside walls of the building, where the natural light is... which would mean putting individual offices near the core, away from the natural light. On that point, I'd love to hear the opinions of other HN'ers. What would you prefer, a private office with less access to natural light, and the lounge-like area described above near the windows, OR an office with a window, and the collaborative space in the middle, away from the natural light?

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Natural light in offices, lounges in center. A few nooks with natural light.

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You're missing out on a potentially happy medium: Small offices of up to (for example) four people. When you're all working together on a project, the communication is likely to be relevant to everyone in the small room. Better than being out in the open plan where unrelated people are having discussions that might be interesting, but are really just distracting.

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Open plans make concentration harder and communication easier

So in other words, all else equal, they reduce the signal to noise ratio.

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I work in a non-programming office. My team actually just has a large room with two tables in the middle of it, that we set ourselves up at. When we're hard at work, we look a lot like the Scoble picture of the "Facebook war room" [1].

Most of our tasks are either very individual and require good mental flow (like programming), or are done in pairs. The open layout let's us communicate when we need a pair. We also have designed our workflow so that almost all of the tasks we complete can be done by any member of the team. If someone is bored or sick of what they are doing, they can just bounce on to another task, as long as it doesn't screw up the timeline. If two people are bored, they usually just...swap.

We're able to keep a level of friendly camaraderie really easily. We all hear what is going on, so when someone needs to pick up the slack on a project, we all know the requirements.

It works well. But everyone on my team is the sort of person who it'd work well for.

[1]: http://www.flickr.com/photos/scobleizer/5179447062/

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That actually sounds kind of cool, but I can't imagine it fitting a big company. Maybe it works for ultra-small companies or individual teams.

Where do ya work, might I ask?

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Why have offices at all? Since people won't be talking in person (are you going to walk into someone's office to interrupt them?), why make everyone commute?

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Why have offices at all?

Meetings. Nothing says 'I'm the boss' like assembling one's minions in a conference room for an hour.

But one might really want to provide your knowledge workers with office in the same suite so they do physically interact when they want/need.

For everything from 'just a quick chat to eradicate a problem' to chance chit-chat in the breakroom ... physical presence makes all kinds of good things happen.

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Since people won't be talking in person (are you going to walk into someone's office to interrupt them?),

What? That's totally ridiculous. Of course I'll walk into someone's office, if the door is open. I've worked in offices where developers have individual offices before, and there's plenty of "in person" conversation that goes on. The difference is, the "in person" between, say, mindcrime and jrockway, isn't disturbing / interrupting joerandomuser. And, jrockway has the option to close his door, which is a very strong signal indicating "I don't want to be bothered right now."

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A hipster-trash response that completely ignores the main point of your comment and focuses on one throwaway portion of it: "Pet Sounds" is one of the best albums ever made.

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I think it's ridiculous that people try to put programmers in this environment. Coding is one activity that requires a tremendous amount of focus and concentration, you shouldn't even think about this for programmers. And I, for one, find headphones to be irritating and distracting, so that doesn't work out very well either.

For programming there are times where collaboration and group innovation is great--it's before you start coding. Yes, by all means hang out in bullpens and shoot darts at each other, cool. But once you start building, you take your piece of the structure and go build it in solitude. If you need to confer with someone else you figure out how to make it happen, whether it's walking up and interrupting them or even if you have to schedule a meeting. It's the nature of the beast, there is no magic pill to make that part go faster.

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I hated headphones with passion until I found a pair of earbud plug style phones with small plugs. And they are under 20 bucks. They don't isolated aot of noise, just low background chatter. Anything louder is completely ridiculous (yet common).

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We just need more multi-modal offices. Sometimes you need singular, uninterrupted, quiet spaces and then sometimes you need the constant collaboration of the bullpen space. Leaders need to define the values of the organization and intentionally decide which layout will be the default.

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My favorite workspace had proper offices surrounding open working spaces. Most everyone worked in an office, sometimes doubled up with an officemate. When you needed to blow off some steam, talk to a coworker or collaborate, you moved out into the open space. Also, the default behavior was an open door policy, making it much easier to pop in on someone.

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Boom! You nailed it in a few lines.

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I really can not concentrate with constant noise and distractions around me and it is not because I am stupid, a bad person, or anti-social as "open plan" and "bull pen" advocates like to claim.

Last week I went to the local library. I hadn't been in a while.

The card catalogs of course went away years ago and were replaced with computers. Computers are all now tied up by people playing video games, looking at porn, and doing web shopping.

There are meetings going on, people drinking coffee, loud talking and debates, and some sort of classes.

It's as loud as a gymnasium. By the time I found the book stacks which had been moved to the basement since no one was interested in them, I couldn't remember what I came to look for.

There is a reason why libraries used to maintain protocols of silence, and the same reason applies to doing engineering design work.

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some libraries are still quiet, and those are where I've done some of my best work! Try a library on a college campus - they're often open to non-students, and usually still have a culture of serious study, so they haven't been entirely converted into internet cafes.

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I find cubicles hugely motivating.

I work my ass off every day to make sure I'll never need to sit in a cubicle again.

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How I cope:

I work for a company large enough to have little areas I can retreat to and get work done in isolation: A stall in the library, a corner of the cafeteria. I can get a solid hour or so of work done on a laptop (coding, writing, whatever) before I need to connect with my cow-orkers.

I also try to stay off the network during this time; I turn off wireless and shut down the browser and email client. This does wonders for concentration.

[I should add: Most of the rest of our company does have offices. Our particular division does not, and most people hate it.

I'm ambivalent; the open space plan works pretty well on teams, but if you get /two/ teams in the same open area, it's a misery of cross-talk and extraneous noise. Perhaps extreme mobility would help, a-la Valve, where people can dynamically choose their neighbors]

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your cafeteria is quiet? In my office, it's the largest source of noise, and that noise carries throughout most of the (rather large, but rather open) office space

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Off-hours, there are nooks where it's not bad.

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At previous jobs, I complained it was too quiet - everyone was just a robot staring at the computer screens. But then when people started chatting, I complained it was too noisy.

I realize it has little to do with the noise. And more to do whether I actually liked what I was doing.

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I just do not get it, I guess.

Colocation is one of the biggest things that make teams work. Putting any kind of barrier creates nearly-instant havoc.

For example, my current team was working on a particular platform (web) until we needed to start an iOS app. We split the team and the iOS team went to the next room over (we were too big for the room we were in anyway). The web team was, in part, developing the API that the mobile team was consuming (bad idea, but speed to market was of utmost importance).

There were arguments between the teams. An Us v. Them attitude started. It became very agitated. And most of it can be attributed to the fact that they sat 5 more feet away from us and were not in our line of sight. Crazy.

I love open space environments. There are challenges (picking the music, for example). But, we get over them because we really do need to be able to yell "Hey <Business Person>, can you clarify this feature a little for me?" and be heard without having to track that person down from across the office.

So, personally, I am very confused. I guess I'm trained to ignore the noise around me [1]? Maybe I'm just one of the "noise makers" mentioned. But it is incredibly intriguing to me that I find comfort and productivity in open spaces while others are ready to damn it.

[1] There was a blog post recently from a pair programming coach (can't find it, sorry). But one of the things that he taught was actually how to ignore the noises and be production. Your mind beings to hear things but you aren't actively thinking about it. It's slowly processing in the back of your mind until you hear something that clicks. E.g.

I'm writing code.

Dorothy says to Mike, "...API was" ==> you brain hears this

Then your mind rewinds.

"Joe said that the update part of the API was broken this morning. Do you know what's up?"

You pipe up, "Hey! Dorothy, we changed the format of the json going into the API. You should check the docs for the updated format."

Back to writing code.

Some other links from coworkers:

http://bizvalu.blogspot.com/2007/10/open-space-configuration... http://martinfowler.com/bliki/TeamRoom.html

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"we really do need to be able to yell "Hey <Business Person>, can you clarify this feature a little for me?" and be heard without having to track that person down from across the office"

Rather than yelling and disturbing the entire work area, what about some kind of instant messaging for those cases?

.................

"I'm writing code.

Dorothy says to Mike, "...API was" ==> you brain hears this

Then your mind rewinds.

"Joe said that the update part of the API was broken this morning. Do you know what's up?"

You pipe up, "Hey! Dorothy, we changed the format of the json going into the API. You should check the docs for the updated format."

Back to writing code."

Except then Dorothy comes over and asks you about the updated format instead of checking the docs because you decided to pipe up. Now she's in your face, and you are talking to her about something completely different than what you were focused on 20s ago. The consequences of losing focus and time to fully regain momentum are well known and the disadvantage to you typically don't warrant the advantage that Dorothy received by your presence.

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That's very pessimistic and doesn't happen in practice. Basic politeness is key to interacting with other humans.

If Dorothy happens to do this, give that person feedback and address it on a human level rather than putting walls between people (figuratively and literally).

Edit: And, sorry, just reread and saw your first comment. And, apologies because I laughed at the comment. You're talking about replacing a high bandwidth, instant communication channel with a low bandwidth, asynchronous communication channel? There are instances when firing off an email to the person next to you is better than the alternative and you should be making those decisions.

Also, I don't think anyone on our team would call it "disturbing the entire workplace". It's how we work.

I'm not trying to pick a fight, really. I think people in these two camps just cannot empathize with each other for some reason.

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"You're talking about replacing a high bandwidth, instant communication channel with a low bandwidth, asynchronous communication channel?"

No, actually I'm talking about replacing yelling a question across an entire office space with simply sending them an IM. The IM method also doesn't require tracking them down, and as you mentioned basic politeness, I think yelling for somebody when you have no idea where they are or what they may be doing is rather impolite. You could be disrupting a conversation they may be involved in elsewhere for example.

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I currently work in an open office environment doing software development and absolutely hate it....I'm the type of person who needs complete quiet and solitary in order to focus and stay focused. There are constant distractions.

Most of my coworkers are the opposite, they seem to enjoy the open environment.

But i agree that it depends on the type of work your doing that makes this better or worse.

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Noisy environment are awesome to work in. But it does need to be noise, as soon as there is any signal mixed in with the noise it throws you off because you start focusing on that instead of whatever you're doing.

That's what makes coffee shops such a great place to work. There's a bunch of people who don't care about you - so nobody will say anything to you - even the music is taken care of so you don't have to worry about that either.

Quiet environments are the worst. I find myself completely incapable of thinking when it's quiet because my brain just starts playing music to run away from the quietness.

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I disagree. I detest coffee shops for trying to get any work done for a couple reasons. First, no matter how hard I try, noise always seems to seep in through my headphones, and second, it's too dynamic of an environment for me- people walking around and moving is distracting for me.

The best working environment I ever had was when I was in college- the top floor of our library was a big study room with individual cubicles, and it was absolutely silent. It was the one place I could really zone out and get work done because once I was firmly planted in a cubicle, I could focus solely on the task in front of me.

I was interested to learn that pink noise specifically blocks speech. I use one all the time, and I'd really like to see the difference in an office environment with one on and off.

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"The best working environment I ever had was when I was in college- the top floor of our library was a big study room with individual cubicles, and it was absolutely silent. It was the one place I could really zone out and get work done because once I was firmly planted in a cubicle, I could focus solely on the task in front of me."

I also found the presence of others and absence of my own stuff kept me from task avoidance strategies.

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Yeah, it's purely a different-strokes sort of thing.

I hated the monolithic campus library. It was less lively than a mausoleum. Low ceilings and the agony of a thousand procrastinators. The quiet was unnerving and I had trouble focusing in there.

I instead opted to study at a noisy on-campus coffee shop environment. Most of my friends seemed to need dead silence though, so asserting that either one is the "best work environment" is rather self-centered.

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Interesting, whenever I'm at a coffee shop I find there is mostly no need for headphones because there is already enough random noise about.

Well, that's a lie. I use headphones when somebody is talking at the next table whose voice projects. I don't know what it is, but when some people talk to one another it sounds like birds chattering, but some people you can hear clearly over surprisingly great distances.

That then becomes a problem - being able to make out specific words.

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For anyone wanting to experiment, http://simplynoise.com/ generates white/pink/brown noise.

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I bring headphones. The ones like earplugs. Then I watch MST3K on youtube and ignore anyone that doesn't ping me on chat.

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Personally, I find Philip Jeck's multi-turntable trapped groove samples (NOT club, more elegiac and nostalgia based) have the right kind of noise in the right frequency bands, and are devoid of 'signal'. Plenty on YouTube (official) if you want to try them.

I'm going to suggest the booths at work for when there is a furniture refresh (new building, three years old). Nice idea and probably not outrageously expensive, great for meetings and for mind mapping. I wanted to know about the numbers; are the booths extra or do they assume some percentage of use to calculate the seat numbers in the office?

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This template seems to work for all workplace architecture discussions:

I find that my work style is the only work style that works for me, therefore it works for everyone because HR ensures we're all identical cogs in the machine. Therefore I feel the best idea is to enforce hyper conformity on everyone. If they don't like it they can not work, or I can relate how other employers are more extreme so they should be happy.

As far as my own preferences go, as a guy who has to work at home a lot, its always hilarious to substitute in "home" for "work" and re-read articles about the supposed advantages of open plan offices. Yes, I do my best coding at home when my toddler kids are no more than 3 feet from my ears and arguing continuously with each other over meaningless stuff I don't care about. Yes, I do my best coding when Barney the Dinosaur music is blasting loudly (unless you're the guy picking the music, the music the team has to listen to probably sucks). Yes, when I'm deep into debugging something, the correct next step is always to have last nights American Idol monday morning quarterbacking babbled into my ears. Sure, the best way to stay on task is to listen to others in the area talk about their own work, what could be distracting about that.

My only question is who is paying people to write this kind of stuff? None of it is logical, so they're obviously not figuring it out on their own. Is it a Stockholm Syndrome thing or kiss up to the boss thing based on their own work environment? Or just the old classic follow the money, where someone, somehow, is making money off this? Personally I think is one of those "I strongly encourage my competitors to implement this solution" type of near-industrial counter-espionage. I heard google makes their rock star architects work next to the jet engine test area at the airport, I strongly encourage my competition to implement that plan.

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I'm a huge fan of office "suites" - smallish offices which comfortably hold 3-6 people. It's a good sweet spot between open spaces full of dozens of people and individual offices. Usually suite-mates are people on the same team/projet as you, so you still get that open collaboration, but aren't distracted (or distract) the other people in the office whose daily work is unrelated to yours.

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