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Open-plan offices are making workers sick (news.com.au)
90 points by astrec on Jan 13, 2009 | hide | past | web | favorite | 71 comments

Yes! ... I actually work from home, but I went into the office for two weeks this past August to get to know the guys I work for. Their office is an open plan (one big room with a long E[ish]-shaped desk and people sitting at various points along the E).

Two main things I noticed:

1. Office distractions were MUCH harder for me to deal with than home distractions. Distractions at home are generally things I self impose and can control with will power (i.e., not playing with the cat, not turning on the TV, not getting a snack, etc.)... but in the office there was stuff going on all around me and no way to shut it out.

2. The guy sitting next to me was sick -- when I got back to my home office two weeks later, so was I. (Granted, travel could have been a factor here -- I live in the US and their offices are a 20 hour plane ride away in Australia.)

Oh, I hear the bug went around the entire office after I left, too.

The transmission of illnesses would be greatly reduced if companies gave decent sick time benefits. At my company, my sick time is rolled into my vacation time. If I am take off work for an illness, it counts against my vacation time.

I once was sick with mono for 4 weeks and went to work miserable everyday. I did almost nothing but sit and stare at my monitor all day.

That's atrocious. I think it's probably illegal in the UK - and we have 20-30 days of paid vacation!

I'm surprised you managed to stay awake with mono... I remember I stayed in bed for about 20 hours out of every 24, for about 6 weeks.

This is something that's becoming more common in the US - "personal time" replaces sick and vacation time. Ostensibly, it's to encourage people scheduling time off than feeling like they need to "burn through" their sick time every year. However, I think it may have to do with paying out accrued vacation time for employees. I'm not well enough versed in HR stuff to speak to that though.

I work for a university in the US now. We get 2 weeks of vacation time, 5 days of personal time (sick + ???), and the university shuts down for almost 2 weeks at the end of each year. On the whole, it's far better than most employers I've had. However, being a parent with a child in daycare causes the problem that I have to burn through my personal days when she's sick so that I have nothing left over when I'm sick - so, it's off to work I go.

Crazy. In Australia we get min 4 weeks annual leave, 8-12 sick days, plus long service leave as early as 10 years (depending on state).

My company actually has a problem with presenteeism, that is, staff coming into work half dead instead of taking a couple of days off. Usually we send them home, but occasionally someone will take out a whole department with some bug or another.

Or put in the infrastructure to allow someone to work from home.

I'm rarely sick enough to not get out of bed, but since I get to work on my bike every day, in the middle of a winter, a little cold makes it pretty difficult to make it to the office. On those days, I simply head into the home office and put in my time. And others have pointed out, I tend to be more productive at home.

    The transmission of illnesses would be greatly
    reduced if companies gave decent sick time benefits. 
Is transmission of illness a bad thing? By getting constantly a little bit sick it builds you up. And there's that whole thing about allergies from enthusiastic immune systems, etc.

Also, often diseases are contageous before you are aware of them. I think chicken pox is like this, maybe common virii also.

General immunity only build up until about 20 years old (end of adolescence, basically), sorry, but can't remember the source. Afterwards, exposure to disease does not contribute anything to general immunity. Specific immunity to colds is impossible, as the virus mutates several times per year (you never get the same cold twice). Also, frequent colds tend to lower general immunity, opening the door for secondary infections.

>sorry, but can't remember the source

You'll have to do better than that; it definitely isn't like the immune system stops adapting after the age of 20; otherwise vaccines wouldn't work.

By the way, I work in the US and get three weeks of combined sick time/vacation. My company calls it "flexible time off."

That's actually pretty ordinary (sick days run over into vacation; it's all PTO). Like most Americans here, I get six sick days and twelve days vacation annually.

I can finally understand why more and more Americans come to Europe.

(this is not meant as a troll or a flame, I really didn't know how good European work laws are until reading things like that).

Many jobs here, there are.

I really like the flexibility of the PTO system. As long as you leave yourself a buffer of days in case you get sick it works great.

We give people the option 4 weeks "Paid Time Off" or 3 weeks vacation and "unlimited" sick (although you move to short term disability if you need 5 or more days in a row). About 80 percent of people choose the latter.

We also give 7 fixed holidays and 5 floating holidays.

When I was still working as a game programmer in London, there were ~70 people working in what was effectively one big open-plan office. (it was somewhere between L and T-shaped, so not everyone could see everyone else) I used to come in well before everyone else, around 8:00-8:15 (most others came in ~9:45) because I was so much more productive in the 1½ hours with nobody around - it probably accounted for 50% of what I got done in a day.

Of course, come crunch time, I had to stay in just as late as everyone else, so my 8am starts quickly disappeared, and productivity along with it.

The communication argument for open-plan never made sense to me: if you want to talk to someone who isn't an immediate neighbour, you need to get up and walk over anyway. And you can still talk to your neighbours if you have shared 2-4 person offices, which are a vast improvement. (I prefer being on my own altogether, but maybe that's just me being a misanthrope)

I like sharing an office with another developer working on the same project. Working by my self with the door closed is more productive, but less social. What I hate is sharing an office with someone that is working on some other project.

I guess I need to clarify that I'd be fine with sharing an office with a friend or so. Just sharing with some random person you work with - meh.

As a rule of thumb, I am three times more productive at home than in any shared workspace. The actual workspace, getting there, dealing with the politics, background noise, for office work is incredibly unproductive. For collaboration use skype and email, and meet up once a week with colleagues. The technology for monitoring homeworking will be a very big sector over the next five years, to root out the slackers. Bring it on.

The technology for monitoring homeworking will be a very big sector over the next five years, to root out the slackers.

You may be right, but the mindset of needing monitoring technology to root out the slackers in your workforce seems symptomatic of a larger problem of lacking meaningful metrics for whether actual productivity has occurred.

> lacking meaningful metrics for whether actual productivity has occurred.

I believe in the Pareto 80/20 rule and wonder some days whether I am falling into the other category (I don't believe it's static)

I was joking the other day with my co-worker about a new chat status message.

"Mike, Active, 15% brain activity"

Amen. I'll submit to a webcam if that's what it takes to keep people convinced I'm working, but I'd much rather have them say "he got his work done promptly and well, he's a-okay."

Just wait until you have a spouse and kids running around the house. Sometimes I need to go to the office early to get some sleep.

Whilst we all love to hate overcrowded offices, I really don't think that there's any problems with open plan offices. I worked in those for 4 years and never had an issue with them. Sure, there is a slight decrease in your personal productivity due to the likelihood of distractions and interruptions, but that is balanced by an increase in team productivity thanks to an increase in communication.

Work is not all about your own personal work. In fact, in the large organisations where I worked, I'd say at least 50% of the work that people ended up doing was a result of miscommunication, and so there are clearly huge benefits in finding ways to decrease that miscommunication.

Even programming work was largely dependent on communication. The projects where I worked didn't do any rocket science that required weeks of solitary work to chew through, but it did require a good understanding of arcane, bizarre business (finance) rules and interface requirements, and the bottleneck there was definitely communication rather than concentration.

That's funny because the moment you put programmers in warehouse everyone of them puts on headphones - as such no communication is increased.

Even with headphones you're more likely to have a chat with someone who's a couple of desks away in an open plan office than someone who's in a separate office.

not necessarily true. it's much harder to "bother" someone who is visually and audibly giving cues he doesn't want to be bothered, than with someone whom you simply skype in with once a day. maybe you can "communicate" more frequently with the former, but the interactions may in fact be less productive than an open atmosphere.

open plan offices may actually make people more defensive about distractions and hurt team interactions.

I appreciate your anecdotal experience, but the article claims to be the result of an empirical study, so I'm going to weight their findings more heavily, unless someone can offer a reason to believe their methodology was poor.

"and using open-plan designs can save 20 per cent on construction"

That's all? Doesn't sound right, if you put people in offices each person gets a lot more space, so you'd need a bigger building, etc. I think it's a lot more than 20 percent.

It depends. A startup can move into a big open loft, buy $50 folding tables from Staples which are 2" too high and cause intense pain when you type, and spend nothing.

On the other hand, if you compare the cost of a typical, Class-A cubicle installation to a typical Class-A private office instalation, they're about the same. In both cases you give workers about 100 square feet of personal space; the main difference is whether you build drywall partitions, which is relatively cheap, or buy fancy cubicle systems, which is actually more expensive. The cubicle systems are supposed to be a bargain "in the long run" because you can move or reconfigure them, something which literally never happens in the real world.

Yeah, but you can depreciate cubicle systems, which is something you can't do with drywall.

Curiously, cubes count as office furniture (and hence business machines), which means that you can depreciate it much more efficiently than you can if it was a capital improvement cost, which makes it cheaper on paper. Even better, if you've got some crafty people, you can have someone else own the things and lease the cubes - which is even better from a tax point of view.

While this probably doesn't apply in a startup context, it has a significant impact if you're moving into a larger space and will be paying for the improvements yourself.

The cubicle systems are supposed to be a bargain "in the long run" because you can move or reconfigure them, something which literally never happens in the real world

Sounds like a lot of software!

Agreed. I think they mean on the cost for building the building, not the cost per employee housed in the building.

I.e. a closed-offices building might cost $1 billion and house 10,000 private offices with 10,000 employees, whereas an open-plan-offices building of the same area and volume might cost $800 million and house 50,000 employees in a bunch of open areas with a few meeting rooms peppered around.

You could read this research, or just have read Peopleware from, what, 15 years ago? DeMarco and Lister nail everything you've ever thought about working in an office.

If you haven't read this you should have! http://www.amazon.com/Peopleware-Productive-Projects-Teams-S... I think Joel just cribs articles directly from it some days ;)

Well, he has definitely read it.


Thanks for the link.

I know Joel has read it, Joel is one of the biggest blogging proponents of a lot of their philosophy. I only meant to be a bit tongue-in-cheek. I don't think Joel is trying to rip those guys off at all.

I would like a hybrid office inspired by libraries... one center room with an open layout, one side room with general use study carrels which is quiet/soundproofed... and maybe one or two small rooms for private group meetings. The open layout in the middle will encourage interaction, but for people who have to disconnect and focus they can go claim a study carrel in the quiet room. What do you think?

The collaborative-space-plus-private-retreat model has been discussed many times, and I favor it too. But I've never heard the library analogy before. That's very intriguing. Thanks!

Has anyone studied the environments that great products were produced in (eg, Xerox Parc, Apple)?

Steve Jobs guided the design of the Pixar building. Here's a quote from Brad Bird (director of The Incredibles, Ratatouille):

"Then there's our building. Steve Jobs basically designed this building. In the center, he created this big atrium area, which seems initially like a waste of space. The reason he did it was that everybody goes off and works in their individual areas. People who work on software code are here, people who animate are there, and people who do designs are over there. Steve put the mailboxes, the meetings rooms, the cafeteria, and, most insidiously and brilliantly, the bathrooms in the center--which initially drove us crazy--so that you run into everybody during the course of a day. [Jobs] realized that when people run into each other, when they make eye contact, things happen. So he made it impossible for you not to run into the rest of the company."

Edit: here's the source article, although you'd have to register to read the whole thing: http://www.mckinseyquarterly.com/innovation_lessons_from_pix...

Thanks, that's an interesting data point.

I mentioned this in another comment, but the guys from Peopleware did exactly that:


The also conclude that small offices with 2-4 people and a door that can close is best.

Interestingly, 2-4 people per office on a small team == an open office plan.

Everyone says that Peopleware advocates private offices (e.g. 1 per person), but their main problem seems to be with cube farms.

I'd be surprised if cubicles fared any better.

The real problem is packing large numbers of people in a big warehouse, regardless of walls. I think the best solution is having a small number of people working on the same project share an office. There should be numerous small conference rooms for when maximum concentration is required.

"The research found that the traditional design was better - small, private closed offices."

They're not suggesting the use of cubicles - I know I wouldn't really consider cubicles to be much different than open plan offices.

Traditional design may be better for health, but it destroys collaboration. IMHO the best office design I've ever been in were simple team rooms - everyone on a team (or sub-team) would work in a large office that they can tailor the way they like (lighting, decor, etc). This really helped build team cohesion, and since everyone is just a shout away it broke down the walls preventing collaboration.

And I suppose it has the added benefit of only getting one team sick at a time :)

It really depends on the type of work you're doing. For jobs that require a lot of collaboration, open areas holding around 10 people can be good. Some jobs would benefit more from having offices that hold 2-3 people each, and for jobs that require you to be on the phone a lot (sales, marketing, support, etc.) private offices really are a better option.

Not much different, but somewhat. Someone is unlikely to sneeze over your cubicle wall unless you're competing with them for a promotion =]

Funnily enough that is how the facilities people sit where I work. Engineers are on open floors of hundreds of people.

Studies generally agree with that. See the book _Peopleware_ for much more in-depth investigation of these issues.

I worked in a Web agency a few months ago and it was an open-plan office, with many 4-places tables. There was a table for the designers, another for the devs, etc. There is a high staff turnover in this company. I did not realize it until i came accross this article, but the open-plan architecture of the office may be a big reason why i left this company. I was not comfortable with all the noises. Now i work in my apartment and i'm happy with that.

I lived in a cube for a good long while but have had an office for the past ten years. An office is nice but I really miss the camaraderie of being the 14th cube in the 8th row after the water cooler. Maybe it was a unique situation but I was surrounded by interesting people with cool hobbies that told great stories. There was always a group that was heading our for lunch and plenty of people to informally work on problems with. As for illness, I don't need co-workers to get me sick... I've outsourced that responsibility to my kids.

I think it has a lot to do with corporate climate, more than the studies are capturing. I have worked in small offices, cubeland, and open office plans. I have been in open office plans where communication was non-existent, and in small offices where we communicated well.

My current place is a very open floorplan, but it just works. We all know that one of the problems we have is that we spread around disease more than we would like. But the thing is we are all extremely happy with the format, and with the benefits we get out of it. There have been offers made in the past to change it, and the team decided to turn it down.

I think breaking it down to floorplan alone doesn't address the issue fully.

I've worked in an open-plan office for the last 6 1/2 years, and I'd never go back to cubes, or even to private offices. The level of collaboration and knowledge-sharing is much, much higher, and while the level of distraction and ambient noise is higher, I find that the increased communication is so valuable that the increased distraction level is more than worth the tradeoff.

From the responses here, I'm guessing not a lot of people on this board have tried XP or any other programming methodology that thrives on high-bandwidth communication. There are plenty of other development methodologies that work for people, of course, but XP and anything close to it really requires a constant level of communication betweeen developers, product managers (and customers), and testers that's just impossible to achieve if you're not physically sitting right next to everyone. In the worst case, maybe the distractions mean I only get 6 hours of work done in an 8 hour day, but it's the right 6 hours of stuff, which isn't always the case when I can't constantly talk with everyone else.

It's certainly possible that people have tried XP with pair programming, story cards, etc. and just hate it, but my experience with new hires is that there's often a lot of initial hostility to the open seating plan, but after a few months most people figure out how to deal with the distractions (generally via headphones or even earplugs if necessary) while coming to appreciate the benefits of a high level of cross-team communication.

I worked for a company that has an open-plan office and the work environment did not do anything to improve in-person communication between developers. I'm sure that it is possible for an open-plan office to be a positive thing, but by itself there is no added benefit. The reason that having an open-plan office made no difference was because everyone communicated via IRC. I would spend more time typing questions into IRC than I would spend talking to co-workers who were sitting right next to me with their headphones on. The fact that the company had an open-plan office did nothing to prevent IRC from being the main communication vehicle.

There were definitely positive things about IRC being the main communication tool, but it killed off any potential benefit that having an open-plan office would provide.

Well you know, you're only supposed to listen to headphones for an hour a day; it's not worth damaging your hearing for a job.

We offer unlimited sick time, I think that makes a big difference. I don't know if I buy this though, isn't isolation a problem too? I like a mixed space, private areas for people, but with many open collaboration areas. Give people laptops and they can run around.

Tiny cubes are the worst of both worlds. Can't have a private phone call. Can't pair program or work with others.

Once again, correlation != cause

There are pros and cons both ways. Sometimes you just gotta be alone and other times you gotta be together. Depends on what you're doing and who you're working with.

And the talk about viruses was hilarious. Perhaps they should turn off the AC and open a few windows on nice days. That probably has much more influence than where you place your internal walls.

In most offices, the AC is centrally controlled by the building management. Many office buildings also have windows that don't open.

This Programmer's Stone has a lot to say about the whole subject, here's an entry point:


The real questions are: 1) how much do open-plan offices save and 2) what is the increased rate of illness (ie, how much productivity is lost?). Anyone have any data?

This article is all over the news but I can't get a copy of the original paper.

How do coworking sites like Betahouse manage this issue?

Open-plan sucks, as anyone who's had issues with panic attacks can attest. Although there are situations that require it, there's no question that the bad outweighs the good for programmers.

I don't think that open-plan office layouts aid collaboration. It creates a lot of hostility and stress that don't need to exist.

Open-plan is the modern analogue of the assembly-line/factory work environment. I'd guess that the productivity loss for a programmer in that environment is 70-80 percent.

As per my other comment, I've worked in an open plan for 6 1/2 years and I'd say our development team is pretty highly productive. I haven't seen any resulting hostility or stress, it certainly doesn't feel like an assembly line, and we get a lot of communication benefits from it.

Have you experienced/heard of such horror stories yourself? I'm guessing there are good ways to do an open-plan office and bad ways to do it, but I personally haven't seen any of the bad ways.

You've done it that long? How many people in the room? I've done it twice, with maybe 30 and then again with 20 people and hated it both times. Sometimes as a programmer you need to think.

I confess I liked one aspect, the feeling of being in contact with people, but it wasn't productive, I could almost always hear 3 conversations going at once. The worst was, packing people at long tables with laptops. Not even any place to put books. Teh shite, a triumph of cost-cutting and having Indians willing to put up with anything.

Probably for me, high-walled cubicles with not too many people in the same room is a good compromise.

We don't really pack people in or use laptops, we have clusters of 4 or 6 desks that form larger rectangles and which are then stacked back-to-back, so you can easily talk with the people next to/across from you in the desk cluster or you can easily turn around and talk with the people at the next cluster. We generally organize each sub-team as 2 or 3 clusters of desks, with 4-6 developers sitting back-to-back and QA and PM on the opposite sides of the cluster. It makes pair-programming much easier, since all the developer's chairs are in the same open area, so you can easily pair with someone to the side or that sits behind you.

My current part of the floor has maybe 35 people in it, and there's kind of four sides of a rectangle to the building, so overall there are about 140 people or so on the floor. Generally, the clusters are spread out enough that you can't hear conversations that are happening more than about 20 feet away anyway, so the primary conversations you'll overhear are from other people on your sub-team, which are exactly the conversations you really want to be overhearing anyway. It really helps to keep everyone on the team in the loop about what's going on.

We have offices around the perimeter of the building that are unused so that people can grab them to have impromptu whiteboard discussions or make phone calls, which also keeps the general noise level down.

Check out the classic book 'Peopleware'. They have several chapters with empirical evidence that the open-plan office is bad for software engineers (or anyone that needs to concentrate and work in 'flow' mode)

It sounds like your open-plan company was an exception though. Personally we have 50 people in our open-plan office and I hate it. I can't get into flow without loud music via my headphones.

Except the assembly-line environment worked great in its context.

True, because the entire concept behind the process-driven "scientific" factory was that the human shouldn't need to think. It's not great for programmer.

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