When I took a mgmt role as VP/Engnring at a firm a few years ago, the first thing I did was assess and address morale, which was not good. One of the obvious things was that the staff didn't like the militaristic-layout of desks, being on display to others in the organization who had cozy and private retreats to use.
The CEO freaked out when I told him we were moving to the opposite side of the office floor (we had a full floor in a standard big-city downtown office building). When we moved over, we had our choice of cubes, open areas (not desks, but full-on tables) and quiet corners. Product management hated it because they "had to walk over to see what was going on". It didn't take a lot to figure out the source of frustration with the office environment for the engineering team. After that, I was able to take on the frustrations of the product management group since they could no longer easily impact the engineering team.
As it turned out, the engineering team didn't mind working in any combination of those situations, as long as they could kind of pick-and-choose over time. And, wouldn't you know it, productivity went up -- considerably.
This makes it incredibly easy to put yourself next to the people you're actually working with. It tends to cut down on interruptions (you're not stuck in a room working on feature X while there are other people working on features Y and Z).
Flexibility and freedom are wonderful. Of course, you have to be able to trust people to not abuse it; it might be difficult to implement this in an existing large company, though you might get away with it in a smallish division.
All of your network drops would all be connected to the switches in advance (if network security was a concern, you could do 802.1X controlled VLAN / port-based authentication). In this type of setup, you've now made it "port on a switch = physical location in the building" (within the length of an ethernet cable - say 6-9 feet).
With the right automation tools, when a port goes active, it would be possible to poll the client workstation information connected to it and automatically update directory information with the physical location based on the port that user is connected to (assuming a 1-to-1 user to computer assignment).
I'm interested in something more comprehensive and definitive, and was wondering what Valve's actual solution was.
There's probably a third-party vendor that can take that interface and integrate it with your Exchange / LDAP directory services to update physical location. Given the rather unique structure of Valve, however, I'd be more inclined to think they rolled their own.
And if such a business product doesn't exist, hey, opportunity for you (or someone else).
And RE: using MAC - that's one reason I mentioned 802.1X. If you do EAP you can have client certificates for proof of identity / identity mapping. Then it doesn't matter what the MAC is (which can be spoofed anyways, so it's not trustworthy) / which network interface the machine uses.
It appears from interviews with Valve staff and photos of their office that the desks are mobile, with the office built around a flexible arrangement, including freight elevators. In that case, it's extraordinarily easy to identify where someone is, or at least where their desk is, and whether they are at it.
Now I'm going to toss and turn tonight, waking up at 5am with the organization I was thinking of. :-)
[Edit] It was Olivetti Research. There's a good reason it was difficult to recall.
In my current position I have a desk that's in an area that's a bit too social. In a lot of cases social is good for me. It puts me in water-cooler contact with the folks I need to interact with, and I avoid having to send an e-mail which elicits a reply copying the entire org-chart, turning it into a "who can be more formal and professional" contest.
On the other hand, this desk is my desk. There are many like it, but this one is mine.
That doesn't always work.
Sometimes I need to be able to go somewhere and basically disappear into a productivity hole. There's really nowhere to go to do that. I could check out a conference room, but one person stealing a conference room for a workday isn't really going to go over well.
My ideal situation is one where I have a desk or area that's basically mine, and a lot of little corners and holes that I can move around to as needed.
My small team has just been moved from by the door and the photocopier/printer bay to a position further back by a wall. Calmer, quieter and we are getting on with more stuff. This is an open plan office with ~70 people based in it.
Caveat: I'm a teacher so I spend a lot of time in classrooms anyway
Then they closed some other sites and moved their people in, and by the end of it we were all jammed into a single huge room (big enough that if there was someone standing at the other end, I couldn't see who it was) with so many desks that there was only one way from any one desk to any other - if I wanted to get to the desk of the guy sitting directly in front of me (who spent the day facing me) I had to walk all the way out to the long corridor and then weave in and out of pods of desks to get to him. He was an FPGA designer, as I recall. He ended up "borrowing" some of the industrial noise-suppressing headphones from the catapult lab in the basement so he could block out the noise of everyone working. Because it could take over a minute to walk to the desk of the person ten feet away from you, people phoned a lot or just had conversations over the top of partitions. A particularly inspiring move was the demand that the tall cupboards some people had (six foot tall ones) that broke up the sightline a bit and created shields be replaced with smaller ones. So that they wouldn't break up the sightlines.
I quit that job without having another job to move on to (which, to be honest, I thought was normal and was how I'd always done it, but this time the boss was so surprised he explained that it's not the way people normally do things). I think everyone I worked with there had quit within a year, leaving the lifers to it.
Ironically, I once spent some time at one of the offices in France and it was gorgeous. Floors were basically all enclosed offices with one to three people in them. Proper offices with proper walls and doors; none of this moveable partition stuff. With wine at lunch.
So, what it took me doing was learning more about the product management daily process. It turned out that what drove a lot of the communication needs of the product management team was a desire for status updates because (drum-roll please) they couldn't articulate it sufficiently to the executive team.
We drove toward what information was needed and how timely, then figured out how we in engineering could supply product mgmt with that info while staying in the wheelhouse of our own flow. So, evaluation of things like JIRA (Atlassian), Redmine and other tools to coordinate product management actions with engineering actions. It took a little while, but it required everyone all around to work together in expected ways to lower those frustration barriers.
Many managers consider frequent communication as being good communication, but more often than not its actually very bad. It is a signal that people are not thinking through what they are trying to communicate. Some trivial barriers, such as a door or forcing people to walk over, are often a good thing, because they force people to evaluate what they are communicating and whether it is worth the effort.
I've also found that open plan is great up until you hit the size of your team. One large, open room with only people you work directly with is perfect. Giant hanger-like engineering floors with 100+ people and little dividing the space is a disaster.
A large open plan floor with central, quiet conference rooms anyone can use or phone booths is great. The outer space should be divided into team rooms with their own open layout of 10-15 people or less.
My startup currently shares a large, open-plan loft space with 3 other companies. We each cordoned off one corner of the space with hanging dividers. It's just about perfect.
There are times when I value the (semi) privacy of my cubicle for getting into a focused flow for hours. At this time, I do not want to be interrupted.
At other times, I value being able to take my laptop into a conference room with a bunch of other developers.
Each layout has its own strengths. When interpersonal communication is paramount (i.e. a new project getting started, lots of unknowns, trying to define who's going to do what, etc.) then the conference room approach works.
When I have a well-defined feature to implement, the hunkered-down approach works well.
"If your organization is anything like those studied in our last three annual surveys, the environmental trend is toward less privacy, less dedicated space and more noise. Of course the obvious reason for this is cost. A penny saved on the workspace is a penny earned on the bottom line, or so the logic goes. Those who make such a judgement are guilty of performing a cost/benefit study without the benefit of studying the benefit."
The book was first published in 1987 and apparently has not been very influential.
You think that's bad? Brooks first published The Mythical Man-Month in 1975 and I don't think those lessons have ever sunk in, either.
One point to emphasize is why the authors believe individual offices work: quiet. There is a story about about a programming competition, and in the narrative programmers in quiet spaces performed better than their peers, even controlling for experience and skill.
Back then there weren't headphones or django (I kid, I kid!), but I don't think either work as well as my open-plan colleagues would like us to believe :) My open plan office at Amazon had a gorgeous view of lake union, but sat alongside the Mercer construction and ambulance route -- beyond annoying and distracting.
Perhaps I just haven't had the right quiet open plan experience?
They had a made the best hack of all time in my opinion: everyone worked in dead silence. I was around a hundred people but you could hear a pin drop and I quickly felt uncomfortable chatting with my friend using my normal speaking voice.
THAT I think is how you do it. Just culturally enforce total and utter respect for the environment. Don't take phone calls. Don't chat loudly around people's desks. Focus on your own work.
Sounds like the last forty years of mainstream corporate policy in a nutshell.
"Ever wonder why everybody at Microsoft gets their own office, with walls and a door that shuts? It's in there. Why do managers give so much leeway to their teams to get things done? That's in there too. Why are there so many jelled SWAT teams at Microsoft that are remarkably productive? Mainly because Bill Gates has built a company full of managers who read Peopleware."
It does make you wonder what the future of facebook, with the world's largest open plan office, versus microsoft, which is now viewed as everyone's version of techno-corpor-bureaucratic hell. Are office plans destiny? TBD.
I would never willingly subject a group of knowledge workers to that environment. When we grow Fogbeam to the point that we have employees and actual office space, my intention is to ensure that everybody has a private office, with a door that closes. Or, at least, that everybody is offered such a thing. If some people want to work in a different configuration, I wouldn't want to force them into an office when they don't want it.
My dream configuration has always been "a private office for every individual" and then complemented by several large open area with plenty of couches, chairs, tables, and whiteboards on wheels (and good wi-fi, of course) so that teams, small groups, and individuals can create ad-hoc, temporary configurations that suit them when they need to be co-located, but yet everybody has an office of their own they can retreat to when they need intense focus and privacy.
Worked in an open plan office before, wouldn't again, not for any sort of reward. Went home every night feeling like I'd been run over by a bus. Go home go to sleep. Not my idea of a good time. There were times when I'd catch myself starring off into space.
Working from home has been much better for me. If someone interrupts, then they have to put a bit of effort in, so they're less likely to do it just because they're too lazy to find an answer themselves or something like that. And the absence of noise and the constant pressure of being available to people all the time has dramatically increased my quality of life.
If you are doing something important that needs you to be focused on on particular a thing for long hours,without any interruption, frequent interruptions are disastrous.
There are also more ways to look at it.
If you are doing too many small time tasks that don't demand any serious focus. Its likely you have taken the wrong direction with regards to your career.
Great way of putting that. Can I borrow this? :)
If my coworkers aren't able to communicate quickly, and efficiently with myself and the other team members then the project will lose agility.
Often we will have tasks that require not being disturbed and in the stand up meetings we flag this.
If you need immediate communication, there are other far less distracting methods, such as IM or email, that one can safely ignore until they have managed to lessen their memory load until they've reached a safe point to stop. If you're constantly interrupting your fellow developer while they're in the middle of a high-memory task you are deliberately DESTROYING any "agility" of your project by wasting their time rebuilding their mental state before you interrupted them.
* responding to change over following a plan
* individuals and interactions over processes and tools
* working software over comprehensive documentation
* face-to-face conversation
* co-location and pair programming
"Agile methods emphasize face-to-face communication over written documents when the team is all in the same location. Most agile teams work in a single open office (called a bullpen), which facilitates such communication. Team size is typically small (5-9 people) to simplify team communication and team collaboration."
I could go on. Almost everything in agile is about flexibility and that's exactly what we need in our team and exactly what being able to sit close together without cube walls enables.
Agile certainly is not about single lines of communication, it's almos the complete oposite of that. Agile doesn't have 'appropriate times' since unknowns must be accommodated as and when. Being agile is about iteration, firing and then aiming, talking to each other, collaborating, and getting it done.
And as I said before, if individuals need uninterrupted time to get their work done this of course is accommodated. We're not school children, we know how to behave.
IM and email are all ok communication tools, but they are inefficient compared to a quick conversation - especially if you need to look at a visual front end bug on your colleague's screen in order to understand what the problem is.
I would also argue that if your project is being that reactive that it should be considered an anti-pattern, and that you should examine ways to make things less chaotic (erm, I mean, "agile").
As for 'anti-pattern' I'd say that describes our set up rather well. And yes, changes need to be made to make the work more predictable but until someone cracks that nut the boots on the ground definitely benefit from sitting together and being able to turn to talk.
People initiate communications for social reasons, or if they cannot proceed on a task without additional information. These "choke points" don't line up, from person to person. When you're at a choke point you have a decision to make -- defer work and interrupt your own flow, or interrupt the flow of someone else so you can keep your own rolling.
Unless problems are pedestrian or communication times are aligned, it's zero-sum. And that's presuming that the initiator has kept his own flow going (at the expense of someone else's).
You can sometimes (but not always) maintain a queue of tasks and switch to another, instead of interrupting someone else.
But the best thing to do is to get into flow prepared. Figure out beforehand what you don't know, and get it straight. Don't just dive in. Spend a few minutes sorting out what you're missing, line that up first, then head into flow.
Open spaces really hurt my productivity because my mind naturally tries to keep track of all the conversations going on around me. This ADD wired brain helped make me a great waiter, but it's hard to explain to bosses/founders why I prefer to work in a quiet environment with as few people around as possible whenever I'm not simply cranking out code that takes no thought.
Most of my bosses have been very accommodating at first, but each time the scenario ends up where management feels like my isolation is a sign of not wanting to be a team player and is harming the morale of those programmers that look up to me.
I really don't know what the right answer is to this dilemma, but for me, at least, the trend towards an open plan offices is stifling my ability to perform at a consistently high level.
Edit: to those replying below, thanks for the suggestion. Thankfully my employer has no policy against headphone usage, so I do get some help from that. One thing many people don't realize about ADD is that a loss of focus can be triggered through other senses such as seeing movement out of the corner of my eyes. Sound is definitely the most distracting element, but an environment with a lot of movement can be almost as bad in my case.
I find I have to alternate between focused creative work and more interactive work on a timescale of days to weeks. That is, I spend several days to a few weeks (occasionally 2 or 3 months) where I am more isolated from my teammates, and get some specific development task done. Then I spend a roughly equal amout of time in "interrupt-driven" mode, answering questions from teammates and support people, fixing bugs, testing, and generally doing stuff that needs to get done but doesn't require the same level of isolation and concentration. Moving back and forth between these modes lets me do a reasonable job of both kinds of work. (I don't isolate myself totally in the creative stretches, but I let my email back up, for example, responding to only the truly urgent requests.)
The problem managers have is that their work tends to be almost entirely interrupt-driven, and the exceptions take place in meetings. It's all they know. I don't know what to suggest except maybe to ask them to imagine they were writing a book -- what kind of work environment would they need?
On my engineering team we tried to collect all interrupt driven work together (triaging bug reports, working on deployments, production issues) and let it only bother one person. This is a sacrificial duty of your long-term productivity we all rotate each sprint (bug duty).
I find it easier to do interrupt-driven work when I'm full time in an interruptible context. I'd much rather be on-call for a week once every couple of months than be interrupted several times a day.
Policy against headphones, is that a thing? Shudder.
This is normal.
We (mgmt) went to great effort to eliminate the possibility of concentration amongst the workers because all wisdom comes from above at our organization and we don't concentrate so you shouldn't either. Furthermore we intentionally designed this for easy collaboration / talking and your wearing headphones is a directly insubordinate act against our intentional management decision to encourage collaboration. As a class observation we are an engineering organization not a customer service organization so I do not want to see my people wearing "customer service" headphones, unless you want to transfer out of engineering and into 1st level support. Finally we occasionally escort outside visitors past this area on sales calls and what would they think if they saw you wearing headphones, that we are not observant, or we tolerate insubordination, or ?
This is a paraphrase of the conversation I had at a former employer. I'm shocked any open plan office allows headphones, it is blatantly insubordinate to go directly against your bosses orders and 1) think and 2) block out your coworkers. If they wanted you to think they certainly wouldn't sabotage you by putting you in an open plan office.
I worked in Santa Clara.
Besides, I don't want to always be wearing headphones while I'm coding. I do enjoy quiet and peace while working, without needing my head and ears wrapped.
Another issue with ADHD isn't just being distracted, but also getting back to work after being disrupted. It's easy to talk about getting into the zone, but for someone with ADHD, it's even more challenging. Since I've started medication, I've seen firsthand the dramatic difference.
This isn't meant to say you are wrong. Closed-ear headphones do help, and they are just one thing I use. But alone, they simply don't come close. Open-offices are a challenge.
Did you have similar problems in College? That is, if you get distracted from homework assignments (say, friends are bugging you to go out), then it would take you much more time to get back at it again?
It happens to me all the time. It takes me a lot of time to finally force myself to do some assignment, and if I go out, I might waste almost the a whole day afterwards just trying to get into "the zone" again... Unfortunately, the meds are giving me side effects (increased heart rate).
Yes. And it was a struggle. I always chalked it up to procrastination. As a 33 year old learning you've had ADHD and OCD all your life, it kind of freaks you out. They say not to do it, but you can't help but think of what you could have done had you been properly diagnosed. Instead, they tell me I need to focus on what I have accomplished in spite of my condition (which, to be completely fair, is nothing that I can complain about).
> Unfortunately, the meds are giving me side effects (increased heart rate).
Try something different? =)
That's because it's speed, an amphetamine.
For example, every day I took 8 o'clock classes. Every day. I'd also try to get all my other classes over by noon.
I was getting back to the dorm right when my friends were waking up. I did most of my studying while they were at class.
This does prevent you from having the "up-all-night" thrill of being in college, but I often found a nap between 4 PM and 6 PM was enough to get me through most evenings. And because I had already studied, I didn't feel guilt about not doing my work.
I summarized it a few years ago if you don't have a copy handy:
Those effectively eliminate auditory ADD in an open environment. Nothing has been more effective than these for me.
Happened to me twice before I ditched using in-ear headphones at work.
The Shure does not use active noise cancellation like the Bose, but I think it is more effective simply because it fits snugly in your ear like a set of ear plugs. (It's also more uncomfortable because of that.)
Note that earplug use can cause earwax buildup. There are a bunch of home remedy's that can help. Talk to your doctor about options.
With noise cancelling for when someone decides to vacuum the office or finds out it's a nice day to use a power drill
My cure so far has been raining.fm and big insulating headphones. But it's not ideal, my ideal environment is alone in silence.
Headphones are also a useful social signal that you're not to be interrupted.
I don't like open-plan, but it tentatively appears to be most effective for organizations as a whole. Some initial conclusions:
- We'd be wise to distinguish what we'd all like to have as an office from what actually functions best in a larger system. It is erroneous to think that simply because you like something means it's always the best policy for everybody. Sometimes local non-optimizations need to be made to optimize the system as a whole.
- Open-plan environments are nowhere near being a determining factor in team performance, but they can be an important add-on. So sure, if your company is too cheap for offices, treat teams like slaves, and just wants to cram as many people possible into the smallest space? Then that's going to suck. But that's going to suck anyway. I'd just be really careful about confusing "stuff I think is cool" from "stuff that works the best for everybody concerned" I'd also be careful about over-generalizing. A big hunk of this is team, project, company, technology, and building specific.
- As long as you're adapting, you could end up with any kind of office space. But just as an informed guess, co-located open plan is where I'd start, then adapt from there.
- The worse thing you can do is start with a pre-conceived notion of what works and didn't and then try to force reality to conform to it.
The original article is quoting peer-reviewed research that tends to support the opposite of your opinion. What do you think is wrong with the methodology employed in the OA?
"Workers in open-plan offices get sick more often" - Only supported by one study done in Denmark. Not enough research.
"Open-plan offices are less productive" - Supported by a study which only identified some of the negative effects of a open-office plan (such as the effect of irrelevant speech). That study didn't attempt to measure the benefits of an open office, or attempt to exhaustively list all of the effects of an open office, so it doesn't speak to the overall effect on efficiency.
All the other claims were either focused on employee opinions or were about things other than an open office plan.
You can guess what my opinion here is. At my previous company, the floor plan had both offices and a wide open area, so we could choose where to sit. I picked the open area and loved it. Being able to eavesdrop on the status of other teams, or having really easy group communication (as easy as yelling across the room) was incredibly valuable. I think the open office is especially nice in our industry since we really tend to suffer from under-communication and a lack of cross-team networking.
Anyway some folks at our company chose small offices and I think they enjoyed it. The ideal floor plan would have a mix of both I think. But I don't think Facebook's new one-giant-open-area building is nearly as awful as people make it out to be.
My team was a cluster of 8 fixed desks in a giant sea of engineering, with people always walking through our area on their way somewhere else. The noise level was so high they installed custom white-noise generators that have an unnerving effect when you spend all day with them.
Contrasting this to another company where there were separate team rooms of 5-10 people for each group in the company and it was much more pleasant while still having a lot of the same benefits.
Again, my sampling is based on the good fortune of working on really good, highly talented and focused teams. It's not perfect and certainly after months and years on the same team, you can lose perspective and think some things are worse (or better) than they really are. But I've been on really disfunctional teams as well, and some teams that I'd say were "in between". For those latter teams, I wouldn't recommend open-plan. To me, open plan is a high-risk, high reward proposition that takes commitment from the top down to make work over the long haul. But in my experience, the reward is high, and I really do prefer it.
My last two gigs have been open-plan, and I prefer it much more than closed-cube spaces. If your team is working as it should, and is in close proximity to project/product management, with a good process and a healthy level of trust between the stakeholders and between the various engineers, then in my experience open-plan is far better, because the quality of communication is high, the general focus of the team is high, and there's less background noise "distraction", because the cross-talk is usually relevant and on-task, and has a higher likelihood of being pertinent to the job at hand. Open plan offices work well when the team is already working well.
However, if there's broken processes, unfocussed coworkers, and a general level of distrust between team members or across teams, then the background chatter becomes exponentially more distracting and frustrating. Unfortunately most teams tend towards the latter and not the former.
In other words -- in my limited, anecdotal experience (last 5 years, two large open-plan teams; 10 years before that in closed or hybrid), high-functioning teams tend to thrive on the cross-talk and constant communication that open plan creates organically. Lower-functioning teams on the other hand have done better when the natural barriers of walls and closed doors limit unnecessary distractions and create healthier boundaries.
So it's not surprising to me that the study shows more instances of teams unhappy with open plans; it's certainly not for everybody. But the best teams I've been on have absolutely thrived in that environment.
I wonder how programmers in such environments can get in the "zone" and stay in it for extended periods of time, if they are being "constantly communicated with".
My experience at large tables has been that good coders and PMs will actually IM a developer when they need to ask a question -- I do this all the time even when I'm sitting 2 feet from the guy I need to talk to: "let me know when you have a sec to talk about X", etc.
Again, that's evidence of a team that's generally on-task and communicating well -- a cultural quality that is itself harder to find than not.
It's also a nice courtesy to IM someone before dropping by their desk so they aren't surprised and you can check if it's a bad time.
This will increase your capacity for involved/interesting ideas, make recovering from interruptions faster, and slow you down slightly (but not enough to completely offset the benefits).
In a quiet environment, people tend to be discouraged from being the only ones talking and being listened in on, and instead scurry off into the meeting rooms or manager offices. Others put on the headphones and go totally 'heads-down'. Communications end up being more closed and 'formal'.
I found interrupt rate increased for open plan by, oh, probably a factor of ten. Look, VLM isn't talking, therefore he must not be doing anything, lets ask him about last nights TV episode. If the cube wall is high enough that you can't see if the worker drone is in there much less on the phone (aka working) or actually working as in thinking, then you don't just yell at the guy across the room.
I notice a massive impedance bump between the "knowledge workers" and the "talkers". Engineering and Finance and operations got along nearly perfectly because both know that not talking does not mean not working aka ready for interrupt please bug me. On the other hand management / customer service / sales, if they're not talking they're not working, so interrupt rate was horrible from those types, hmm I have a problem and those three are talking about football so they're busy, and that guy's talking to his wife on the phone so he's busy, I know I'll bug that guy looking at a component datasheet, obviously he's the only one here not doing anything. Marketing types were kind of in between, some understand that thinking is work, some don't.
If a management tier is unwilling to spend money arranging desks to avoid constant interruptions that common sense tells us will be detrimental, then it is a management tier that is unlikely to have been a blip and then make all other decisions well.
Google Ed Catmull, the quiet co-founder of Pixar, interviewed at economist conference 2010 - it is far and away the best example of simple focus on getting teams to work well - no "do it my way" but plenty of "if the team is functioning well there are enough good people in it to over one anything"
I'm simply saying that performance -- as measured by the team itself -- may be maximized by the team deciding to do things that it finds uncomfortable. You also don't always optimize overall performance by optimizing individual performance.
There's also the issue of communication versus productivity. Communication is a far greater obstacle to many technology team's success than individual productivity. Bunch o' guys working by themselves in a nice, quiet cushy office doesn't give you the cross-talk, annoyance, problem-solving and innovative banter you get by putting them all together. Sometimes doing things you find annoying or troublesome is actually the best way to reach your goals. Surely this isn't a new observation.
Not too sure about the optimising for individual vs team performance. Teams seem to do best when it's obvious everyone has to play their very best game. The times when it's necessary to sacrifice for the good of the team are a hell of a lot less frequent than the times you just need to know task A will get done because Fred is on the case and Fred has a history of delivering. Stops everyone trying to worry about everything.
Edit: the sentence I'm not sure we are not disagreeing either does not make enough sense to keep.
There are compartmentalized open plans, where a specific team or division is grouped together in close proximity, and then you have some form of the "kitchen sink", where any number of teams (if not the whole company) is just thrown into a room.
The latter is extremely unpleasant, IMHO. Being constantly disrupted by the loud side chatter that inevitably comes out of another group (e.g. marketing, finance, sales, etc.) is infinitely more distracting than ancillary chatter that is relevant to a specific team / department. In addition, obviously, the more open a plan is the more physical distractions are present which doesn't help matters either.
I already quit 3 long term jobs a few weeks after company moved to open-plan. At end I just had to start my own business. Now I am single-handily competing with multi-billion companies (and I dare to say with good success).
Open-plan comes with lot of bullsh*t. But at end it is just about a few bucks which company moves from operating cost to management bonuses.
Many developers care about stuff like free soda. I would strongly recommend to care about your working environment and mental health. It takes about 10 years of stress-free work to develop and reach your full technical potential. Working for peanuts and burning-out after 15 years is really bad carier plan.
I personally can work in any kind of environment, but I prefer it quiet. Headphones help when in open-plan places but I noticed it takes me longer to get focused in such places. I now reject job offers were I would get anything less than a private cubicle.
We do respect each other's space though, so most times it gets as quiet as a library, and even though my teammate is just on the other side of the table from me, he will IM me instead of just looking past the monitor and talk to me. It's usually quiet, but closer to lunch or near the end of the day, we play StarCraft 2, start chattering a bit more, and it's generally a bit looser.
For the most part, we don't work remotely, but the VP of Engineering insists that if one of us is even possibly sick, to stay at home and not infect others.
It's definitely a different set of "rules", but I really do enjoy it.
It got me thinking why that might be, and I had a thought I hadn't had before. Management types typically have their days broken up in to short 30-60 minute blocks - that's their standard work process - meeting, meeting, meeting, planning, etc. I don't think they can really understand people focusing for 2-3 hours at a stretch, and that there's often a big increase in productivity for some people working under those conditions.
Thought-workers are somewhat alone in this, and because the people who make office seating decisions don't work that way, they can not fathom anyone else might need to work that way (except, of course, they still need their doors to be closed for quiet/private work conditions).
Of course you can have small conference rooms for those kinds of conversations, but if it's a significant part of the job an office just makes sense.
Regardless, I'm not advocating for people to not have private offices - I'm arguing for more people to have private offices, and I think decision makers simply aren't capable of putting themselves in the shoes of people who do 'thought work' as their primary task.
For heads down go to your office and close the door.
1:1 collaboration go join your partner.
Max3 cram on in.
Passive collaboration open your door.
Larger team meet at conf table.
Active teamwork move with laptop out to table.
Large screen on wall at end of table.
This neighborhood is repeated over and over again.
Collocate teams in alcoves.
Go visit other alcoves when you need to.
Touchdown or camp at whatever teams space you need to be at.
This design was rejected at my local office rebuild.
But a year later was taken up at another facility. It won someone architectural awards.
Me? I get to enjoy its productivity multiplier every time I visit that facility. Anyone who experiences it comments on it being the best arrangement they have ever seen.
Any other time? When i need to work from the local office I am in low wall cubicle hell from thanks to our expert architects.
1) Lazy managers or PMs, who either won't expend the effort to use ascertain on their own how things are progressing (code review, ticket / task lists, reports), or don't have the discipline to actually manage without continuously interrupting with questions about things they should already know.
2) Bean counting finance or facilities types, who foolishly look at cost as the primary design factor largely ahead of productivity and work quality (not quantity).
Giving people an environment where they can focus when needed (an "office") along with areas where collaboration can occur when desired ("war rooms") is the only approach that gives people the opportunity to excel.
I am extremely doubtful that the time and effort to go find someone in their workspace is more time consuming than the cumulative impact of constant distraction, be it visual or auditory. If it is the case, then these people can team up in a single office or work room.
Especially in tech, where more and more companies proclaim they provide choice and flexibility in tools, workstations, and even nutrition, forcing everyone to work in one, unfiltered common area is equivalent to putting them in a henhouse.
TL;DR - open plan offices are trendy bullshit to avoid spending enough for a comfortable workspace.
The cost is not the reason because open floor plan offices in downtown SF aren't exactly "cheaper" than renting in an already established office suite. The reason is the insecurities of management, combined with the fashion/groupthink aspect of silicon valley startup CEOs (herp derp, facebook does it! Startup X does it! It's the thing to do!)
Didn't anyone of them read the famous books of Tom DeMarco, such as "Peopleware"? Decades ago, DeMarco argued (IMHO very convincingly) for closed rooms to cut distractions - at least for thought workers. DeMarco even concluded that telephones are bad, especially if in the company's culture it's not socially accepted that people are free to ignore a phone call.
So the seating arrangement is not for engineer productivity, nor is the benefit of higher openness and visibility for engineers. How exactly is this better for the company? maybe for a few middle managers who themselves who aren't qualified to be engineers but want to get credit for the work being done. To me, it seems like it's only to prevent engineer led projects from getting wings before the non-engineers have set themselves up to take the credit.
As a rough guess, optimal business value in an enterprise software company probably results from engineers spending 20-40% of their time with users/product managers/other stakeholders and 60-80% of their time actually programming/designing/working with other developers. These numbers are highly imprecise and depend on circumstances, but they're probably in the right order of magnitude.
The issue with private offices is that in my experience many engineers will prefer to spend 95% of their time engineering and just 5% of their time understanding the problem. As a result they build more features but the features are significantly less valuable. 2-3 person offices seems to mitigate that pretty well, while open plan offices seem to go way too far in the other direction.
But I think we're probably in violent agreement here. I like team rooms. Small team including product people, engineers, qa, even support and sales sometimes, in one enclosed space. Much less random noise, and a more focused vibe. Either that or 100% remote with a single shared team chat room.
When engineering, I personally enjoy spending 11 AM - 4 PM interacting with others and 4 PM - 8 PM locked up in a room working on code. I wish that switching around like that were an option in more offices.
A manager who does this is incompetent or has hired incompetent people.
A technical leader who does this is controlling or -- again -- is dealing with incompetent people.
I worked at a company that had 3:00 tea time, like in academic departments. People drank coffee and played board games, but after half an hour, they were talking about work again and the cross-department communication that was needed would happen organically.
That's a lot better than subjecting engineers to a 24/7 open-plan arrangement that will, after 8 hours at a stretch, wear on a typical person's nerves and health.
I agree with you that 2- or 3-person offices will probably provide enough privacy for most people. Individual offices have their perks, but they do require attention to common spaces and communication to prevent the siloization you talked about.
The most individually effective tactic I've found is to eat lunch/play games/get coffee with people in order departments as much as possible. A lot of the best communication occurs in a relaxed setting-I'm convinced that a major key to success is to encourage/enable people who don't normally spend time together to hang out informally.
Could it be, for example, that companies with worse management practices tend to adopt open-plan offices, but that it's actually the bad management practices causing stress, sickness, less productivity -- and that the open-plan offices have very little to do with it?
In environments as incredibly complex as office settings, it is particularly important to realize that correlation != causation.
Despite everyone hating them, I actually think cubicles are the best arrangement. The cubicle walls offer separation and let people focus and get more work done, but not so much that they stifle collaboration and communication (which everyone having their own office does).
Open office is by far the worst, I actually really hate it. So distracting, noisy, and for sure the least productive.
Offices were invented to reduce the transaction cost of communication between employees, which was true 20 years ago but not anymore. I guess we have to wait till the net generation moves in to management to be truly comfortable with the mobile workforce.
The time of long tail of work environment is upon us.
Letting people work from home (or wherever) with quite a bit of freedom. I do think there is some value in having people physically located near each other and coming into the office at least part-time, but I totally agree with giving employees a lot of autonomy in deciding where to work.
I've tried the work-from-anywhere thing and it sucks. It really just turns into work-all-the-time for me.
I suspect if you sat down with Lennox or Crane and said "we want to design an HVAC system that will work in this environment." they would come up with something very different than what we currently have. Sadly its going to take a bit to convince the landlord to rip out the old system and put in a new one.
Working from home is not a requirement - I'd also be happy with an open-plan arrangement where you could book an office for one day a week. The important factor is that every now and then I need some peace and quiet.
And good open plan offices will give you nooks and crannies to get away from the noise when you want to.
There are definitely downsides to both.
Knowledge workers of the past who have had money and power work in quiet campus colleges or oasis of calm like Londons Lincoln's Inn or Temple.
No power or influence - and work in chicken farms.
There is an advantage - for companies willing to put in the effort to make a sane work environment, to grow and support honesty and team support - well it's like being give. A free extra lap on the business marathon.
The average Oxford JCR isn't that calm, and both the Inns of Court support people who are performing in the open shout mosh pit that was the Georgian courtroom.
I take your well-made point, but somehow we need to balance calm reflection with connection.
Pixar has an open central area I believe (where the toilets are) deliberately to encourage people to connect when they leave their offices (where they can concentrate)
Campuses almost always have a central coffee / open area where "everyone meets up". All the Inns of court that I remember we're built around grassy courtyards, all encouraging an easy mixing without compromising office work
It is is suspect the real advantage of yammer or those web-IRC 37signal things - there is a "room" to go to that is social more than work.
I think it will be empty tank inside retired oil tanker. It could dock a few miles of the coast, so no problems with property taxes and imigration permits.Thousands of developers would fit into single tanker. Also steel hull absorbs radio waves, so no unauthorized tweeting or surfing during working hours :-)
Maybe it depends on the team and the personality types in it?
That's exactly the case. Different people have different preferences. And if you have an inflexible work environment of a particular type, your company is losing access to all the talented people who hate that particular environment -- you're, in effect, making something like the ability to work in a noisy space a more important hiring criterion than the ability to write good code. (Maybe this is one of the reasons that companies feel there's a shortage of developers?)
The best approach might be to offer a choice to employees rather than having rigid policies like "everybody has to collaborate on a minute-by-minute basis in an open space", or "managers get offices and everyone else gets cubicles". Giving employees control over their individual working environments would go a long way toward making them feel valued by the company, even more than giving them free food.
That image in the article of the women (could be men) all lined up like battery hens looks like my worst office night mare. You almost couldn't stretch your arms/wings with out assaulting your co-workers. Its considered bad form for animals to just exist like that, why is it OK for humans engaged in work?
--open-plan offices can work great for small teams of maybe 4-6 max. Beyond five or six people though, productivity starts to drop significantly. Also, the people on the team have to like each other, be working on the same problem/goal, and have a comfortable environment (whiteboards, comfy armchairs/sofa, big table and comfy chairs, natural lighting through large windows). For a small, driven team, this is great.
--private offices are my preferred choice for a larger, established organization. I want to be able to shut my door and work without the distractions of everyday office life invading my consciousness. I can focus when needed, be social when I want. More important, I can have my own private whiteboard.
--cubicles are almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea in that you get the illusion of privacy (but not really) along with the illusion of an open-plan (but not really).
--work from home/home office. For the past 5 years, this is how I've worked with my own business. I like the privacy and the ability to get stuff done. But I miss socializing and brainstorming with others, and am finding myself in coffee shops more and more often, just for the social aspects.
One concept I'd like to experiment with is a hybrid "enclave" model, where larger private offices/rooms are set up for teams working on projects, or just people who like to work together. Maybe an external wall could open or close instead of a door if the team decides to be more social or focused.
The funny thing is, in spite of all the signs, our office are knocking walls down to make rooms bigger!
Does anyone know how much it costs to have private offices all round? My estimate was that a 1sqft/yr is $55 in SF right now, so the 100-150sqft for 1 open plan desk is $700, and you might need twice as much space to give people (small) private offices. Would love something more accurate though.
- You have to put up walls and doors: studs, wallboard, painting, running cables through walls. And once you put up those walls and doors, you need to knock them down again to reconfigure the space.
- A closed office needs its own dedicated heating and air-conditioning ducts, power/network distribution, overhead lighting, smoke detector, sprinkler, etc. In an open plan, these can be shared among several work spaces.
I do like small open offices when working closely with people on a team. But everyone in that office has to be working on the same project. This is the scenario where it can be great. Even in this case, though, there are some periods where you need to step away to a silo to do your own thing for awhile in my experience.
I have heard of some mythical working environments with both public and private working areas that allow people to move as they will. I guess this would be the optimal solution.
While my team specifically tends to be pretty social, I've found other areas of the floor seem to be utterly silent, and in these the above feeling is even more solidified. We've been able to kind of avoid the feeling by finding a natural corner of the building that almost puts us back into that 'bullpen' environment.
Some things have changed, though. Coders don't need a bookshelf when they can get a Safari subscription. Nobody needs a fixed-line phone. For 90% of coding a laptop is fast enough. So I would think that a "hotelling" style arrangement would work now, before, a coder might be holed up with a pile of books, big, heavy CRTs, and desktop computers. Now that Drive has a "scan" command, even the whiteboard can come along with an engineer between work and home.
Even worse, when space is low, the solution is to double people up in offices. That can create really uncomfortable situations that can harm productivity as well, much like suddenly getting a new, unexpected roommate.
1) looking at your (single) monitor, you have 4 to 5 people inside your field of vision. talk about distraction city.
2) no desk space. bad for ergonomics, and no "thinking space" either.
3) no personal space. stretch our arms to your sides, and you'll whack your coworker's head.
talk about cramming them in like sardines. i run my office as an "open plan" but we have a good 1.5 meters separating people, and people are either facing wall, or window. (not facing each-other)
For this reason, I have a dedicated screen, full sized keyboard and separate mouse. All configured and arranged to be most comfortable to me, so not exactly interchangeable.
Thus, a dedicated "assigned" seat. I wouldn't want it any other way.
The major benefit of a designated home base, though, is that people who need to deliver papers or other physical goods to you don't have to hunt you down through the entire office.
On the plus side at some point it gets dense and chaotic enough to become pure white noise.
I've never worked in a cubicle office but it doesn't appeal, however I hate open plan offices too... for the reasons in the article - too much extraneous noise
Favourite office was more like a house, about half a dozen people to each room. The rooms were open to each other, doorways but no doors, no barriers to wandering through to the next room for a chat.
I'd be curious how things are in other places where costs per square meter are high and there is not a huge tech culture. In other words, San Francisco is probably an outlier.
Would I get away with "Sorry boss I can't fix the emergency this afternoon, home is too quiet and comfortable and spacious, but thank god my kids are coming home from school and once they start screaming at each other, playing video games, and watching TV, I'm sure I'll be able to get right to work on the problem."
One of the things that makes our implementation very effective is that everyone from the CEO to the interns sit at the same desks and share the same environment. The culture is very open and everyone is encouraged to walk up to anyone and ask them a question or ten, of they have them. This collaborative environment more than makes up for the occasional loss in individual employee productivity, in my opinion.
It probably also helps that we are an instant message culture as opposed to a phone conversation one, which cuts down on a lot of the noise distraction as well.
The comfort of having a door to close is also nice so you can focus. Also it's great to be able to every once in a while take a few minute break and do something mindless and non-work related and not have people think you're slacking.
Like some others that posted here I think you need to mix and match for a semi-open floor plan that includes, conference rooms, lounges and private offices that people can take turns in.
However, when I worked at companies with open floor plans I tended to hang out with my coworkers more outside the office. It was good for team building and for pulling some funny pranks on one another.
Of the most interesting ~20 stories I've seen in the past week, 5 were qz.
I work as a Presales Engineer for a software company. At the beginning of this year, we switched from a 90s-style cubicle setup with dividers to an open-office setup. When the change was announced last Fall, everyone on my team voiced heavy skepticism. We thought that it would greatly reduce our productivity as well as the already-limited privacy we had in an office setting. We had systems in place to limit the interruptions coming from the sales and marketing teams, and an open-office plan would practically nullify them. But we were the minority, so our concerns were swept under the rug. Fortunately, things ended up well.
For the sales and marketing folks, things have improved greatly since we made the switch six months ago. They now sit with us in the same "pods," which are collections of IKEA desks. Each pod has several sales and marketing people and one or two Presales Engineers. They can ask us any question at any time. And unlike with email, which we could previously put on a queue to answer later, or instant message, which we could ignore or temporarily block (DND mode), we now have to provide the answer right away. They can in turn relay that answer to the sales channel or the customer with a much shorter turnaround, which helps to advance and close sales faster.
As for us Presales Engineers, I cannot tell if the net result has been a positive or a negative. On the one hand, we now have a lot more distractions. We see people walking around and we hear their conversations. I personally have memorized the phone scripts that my pod-mates use when they call customers. Another negative has been team cohesion. In the previous setup, my team used to sit together on one side of the floor and we could have conversations much more easily. Now we're spread out all over the place, and most of our interaction occurs via group chat (Google Hangout).
Collectively, everyone's morale has improved quite a bit. It's very refreshing to be able to walk out of the elevator into an open space, as opposed to a claustrophobic, never-ending group of cubicles. And all the pods are right in front of the windows, which means everyone can now enjoy the Southern California sun and the great view of mountains we have from our office. I purchased a nice set of noise-canceling headphones (company paid for it) that I put on whenever I need to get in "the zone" to work on things that need deep concentration, and I trained my pod-mates to not interrupt me when I have them on. It works really well. Other pods have also come up with systems that work for them.
Another collective benefit has been social cohesion. When the teams were separate last year, there was an "us vs. them" mentality. The sales folks saw us engineers as unapproachable, and we saw the sales folks as needy and disruptive. Now though, each pod has become a team, and people are much more willing to help each other and collaborate. This has eliminated a lot of the tension in the office.
It is worth noting that the above occurred within the context of a sales team and the engineers that support that team. That said, I'm pretty sure it can also apply to developers. We actually had one of the developer teams move to our floor a couple of months ago (the A/C unit on their floor broke). At first they had the same fears as my team of engineers had. But it ended up working out really well. Sales people never interrupt them, and communication flows from sales to Presales (my team), and from there to this group of developers. Being able to walk over to their desks to show the problem we're having and walking through it in person, as opposed to trying to do it over email or IM, has been a great boon for both parties.
Bottom line: open-offices have their pros and cons. The vast majority of Hacker News users are technical people and it seems most of them are adamantly against open-office plans. But as someone who has a bigger picture view (since I work with everyone in the company), I can tell you that there is a chance the net result can be a positive if the plan is implemented well.
Also, people can work from home whenever they want. Most prefer to be in the office because it's nice and quiet.
The problem isn't open spaces, the problem is the people in it.
Not to mention that there's a psychological pressure just from being around people who are in the same room all the time - difficult to give yourself permission to relax and focus in on one thing when someone might come and interrupt you at any point.
I do not want to spend the majority of my working day five feet from someone else with no barrier having to deal with the distraction, noise, invasion of personal space that comes with that
to me it shows a lack of respect towards your employees
The human body NEEDS to get sick to build anti-bodies - without these then you will get sick more often. The American way of "Take antibiotics or medicine as soon as you get sick!" is one of the worst habits of my beloved American people (and fast food).
These days it is common for people to avoid the sun and use excessive sunscreen if they do; geeks are not known for their tans. But a few minutes sunbathing is definitely beneficial.
The govt is a tad behind on this, but it has recently upped the recommendations.
Your body doesn't always exhibit signs of something wrong, and there are many instances in which that's it's true and it's too late to take action. I had to get a birthmark removed from my back last summer because it could've been a malignant type of skin cancer. I certainly didn't "feel" anything from it, and wouldn't have known about it until a dermatologist pointed it out to me.
I like the idea of pods though, where QA, BAs and developers are all together, as opposed to 60 or so people all in this huge area, which is how we did it.