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Open plan offices attract highest levels of worker dissatisfaction (theconversation.com)
242 points by amerika_blog on Sept 19, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 194 comments



I don't think open offices are necessarily bad, but that they're harder to get right. What you need is:

- A a decent cultural protocol around it. One place I worked had the very strong rule that you start all non-emergency communication asynchronously (usually text chat), even if the person is right next to you. Another place I worked at strongly respected headphones as the "don't bother me" signal. - A reasonable number of walled-off rooms for anyone to use. Need to take a phone call? Have a quick 1-on-1? Debate something loudly with 3-5 people? You need to have rooms, of varying sizes, to handle these use cases near at hand. - Minimal noise that's not related to collaboration. Eg, no loud ringing phones. No phone-based customer support department in the same room as the devs. No kitchen (full of dishwashers, coffee grinders, etc) area facing the open workspace.

Open offices can work, but only if you go out of your way to make them work. Just throwing a few dozen devs in a warehouse is a recipe for dissatisfaction. I think that that happens more often than not, resulting in things like this study.


You mentioned headphones. Headphones seem to be an essential part of open plans. Not only do they send a don't-bother-me signal, they also drown out the noise.

But that's also a really annoying part of it. I don't want to have to put on headphones all the time.


Protip: get earmuffs. The kind that construction workers use. They're about $20 on Amazon. If you combine them with earbuds, you literally can't hear a conversation right next to you.

This is the setup that pro Starcraft tournaments use so that players can't hear the announcers and crowd.


That has the exact same problem as headphones. I do not want to wear giant things on my head for 6-8 hours a day while I try to get into and stay in the flow.

(I don't have a problem with ambient conversation at, say, Starbucks, but I find myself very distracted by people talking about work stuff in the same room as me.)


I tried construction worker earmuffs for a while. The biggest problem is that I wear eyeglasses. The arms for my eyeglasses have to go through the soundproofing system to hang on to my face, which leaks sound and makes them kind of useless. I assume construction workers don't wear glasses?

They also squeezed my head which was uncomfortable after 8 - 10 hours.

Lastly, people kept trying to talk to me, which meant I had to pull them off and put them on and pull them off and put them on which was a little maddening.


Small nitpick: my understanding (perhaps moreso in more sound-dependent FPS) is that pro gamers are already sound shielded.

The two headsets were 1) voice chat with your team 2) large 'surround sound' headphones that really signaled direction.


Definiately not the case for league tournaments. In the spring split of EU LCS they wore 3M Peltor ear defenders over small in-ear buds for their actual sound.

More recent tournaments they seem to have integrated ear defenders with headphones with Mic's on. (Previously they had 3 headsets, the ear buds for sound, the defenders then their sponsors headsets around their necks for the mic.)



I bet I'm not the only one who sometimes puts headphones on with no music, solely to broadcast that don't-bother-me signal.


> solely to broadcast that don't-bother-me signal.

Current workplace has a no-headphones rule, exactly because of that.

Many people were donning headphones as soon as they arrived in the office and not taking them off until home time, simply to avoid having to interact with anyone else.

So now no-one can avail of shorter periods of non-interruption, but I understand why they banned them.

In-ear earphones seem to be tolerated, so long as they are removed when someone comes to talk.


Sounds like a terrible policy for concentration. On the surface management might think they are getting better results (more interaction) but it is probably at the cost of individual productivity.


Also someone signaling the entire day that they are not available is a big red flag either in terms of their workload, stress level, interpersonal interactions with some people, or some feelings in general at the company.

Either way its something to tap to find out what's going on.


Good headphones are comfortable. I actually prefer them sometimes to no headphones, 'cause they keep my ears warm.


I've got the reverse problem: I'm _always_ warm. Keep a fan at my desk, on at all times. Over-the-ear phones trap a _lot_ of heat.

Instead I use earplugs.


I wear glasses and I have yet to find a pair of sufficiently isolating headphones that doesn't become painfully uncomfortable after 1 hour. And I've tried various high-end solutions.


Tried Etymotic earbuds? They come with a bunch of adapters to fit different sized ears. My model is of course discontinued but the mc5 looks closest. http://www.etymotic.com/ephp/mc5.html

edit: unlike any other earbuds I have tried, they are engineered to survive the inevitable wax-plugging. Just replace the filter & you're back in business.


Try earmuffs?


I tried industrial earmuffs for a while (-25 dB), when I was in a noisy office, and they work. With another "layer" of in-ear phones you can work anywhere. They also send a stronger signal of "don't bother me", but some will find it rude.


LOL where is your office?


That's the only reason I've ever used headphones.


If the top post indicates anything, it's the high precedence the psyche places on framing. Switch around your default- and exception cases and see if that helps take your mind off it.

It's a real thing. This summer, because my room would get hot at night, I had to leave a fan on. At first, I couldn't sleep with the noise. But now that it's getting colder, I've tried leaving it off, and guess what. Ha. Now I need the noise.


I have worked in an open office plan and simply can't work with people around me talking. I had to wear my headphones all day every day. I would never accept a job in an open office again.


I got marked down as not a culture fit when at an interview with a digital agency - I pointed out that the camped noisy office environment (all working on laptops no double screens and popper docking stations) would be effecting their efficiency.

The role I was going for was as a technical consultant to improve the quality of the work - go figure


I have an office of 4, which is bearable. I have gone for a few interviews recently, and open plan seems to be the norm. It seems difficult to find a productive working environment.

I was way more productive when there were just two of us in the same office. That was when the organisation was just starting out.


One of the worst things for me in open plan offices is you can hear people eating at their desks. For me nothing is more annoying and distracting than to hear someone crunching on cookies or popcorn or potato chips at his desk. That's an instant headphones-on for me. It's worse than all the other background noise/conversations put together.


I work in China in a semi-open office, every afternoon they make fruit available for consumption. Whenever the fruits are relatively juicy (e.g. Chinese pears), I can't get any work done due to all the smacking and slurping around my work area; I have to go to Starbucks.


I worked in an open office situation once with a co-worker across from me who listened to sports talk radio all day - no headphones. I literally can't imagine a more distracting work environment.


Peter: Milton? Uh, could you turn that down just a little bit?

Milton: Uh, they said I could listen to the radio at a reasonable volume from nine to eleven while I'm collating….

Peter: But, no, no, no. I know you're allowed to, I was just thinking, like a personal favor, y'know?

Milton: I, I told Bill that if Sandra's going to listen to her headphones while she' working, I can listen to the radio while I'm collating...


Maybe you could have requested him/her to use headphones. Many a times in a situations similar to above I have requested my coworkers to use earphones, and usually they would comply.


Me neither! Did you ask him to use headphones?


Eventually, and amazingly we actually became decent friends... eventually. In the early days it was a matter of picking my battles, and there were other more important things to work on. (Hard as that might be to believe.) So for a while I just put my headphones in and tried to tune it out.

(Initially I just asked him to turn it down, and I don't recall the exact response, but it was probably approximately, "No.")


What gets me is the smell of delicious food being eaten by my coworkers...I have to stick to plain food in small quantities to keep from getting fat again, and I get jealous...


> One place I worked had the very strong rule that you start all non-emergency communication asynchronously (usually text chat), even if the person is right next to you.

A little bit off topic, but I too have experienced this, and I have to say, it's awful for productivity, team building, and team assimilation. As a new hire, I would send my mentor a question and it might be ten minutes to fifty minutes before I would get a reply. By then, I'd all but forgotten what I was asking about in the first place, since I had moved on because of not knowing how long I'd have to wait. That led to wasted time and an overall loss of focus.

No matter the environment, text-based and asynchronous communication just aren't very effective compared to spoken communication, even when considering the interrupted party momentarily losing their flow.


It depends on the social norms. In my office, thankfully, there is a norm that you only go to ask another person after you've looked through the documentation and attempted to understand the code or error message yourself. I don't mind being interrupted in my current work environment, because I know that 90% of the time, the interruption is a worthwhile one - that there is a non-stupid question for me to answer.

I have worked at offices where this norm did not exist. I would strongly challenge your assertion in that case. My productivity definitely was adversely affected. What I think a lot of people lose sight of is that interruptions are additive. If you get interrupted once or twice, that's fine. You can recover and get on with whatever you're working on. But if the interruptions are a regular feature (especially when they're for little things that take two to five minutes to solve, but require you to drop all your current context) it takes longer and longer to recover. At some point (usually around lunchtime in my case) I'd just give up and hop on IRC or Hacker News, knowing that it was unlikely I'd get much work done that day.

It got to the point where I'd come in at 6:30am and leave at 3:30pm just so that I could have a few hours of uninterrupted coding time at the beginning of the day. And this was in an office where it was just other developers I had to deal with. I would probably last less than a week in an office that I had to share with non-developers (especially sales, who have to be constantly on the phone).


Your middle paragraph is exactly what I see of myself.

I go in the morning and everything is ready to go and so am I, but then attempting to load my brain with whatever I am working on, getting a question every 5 minutes or so makes it seem like a running a marathon and the cognitive load is such that I would rather just dedicate the time and work on it at home.


Amen. Worked in an open floor plan (30ft long rows with 8 people at each) and now work in an office of cubes (6'x7'), so actual desk space is the same. I found the developer collaboration and communication far better in the open plan than the closed plan. People were always communicating the the former and almost never pop their heads up for air in the later.

Today a coworker was IM'ing me and I then I realized that he was sitting literally 18" from me behind a partition so I just starting talking out loud to him. Seemed to unsettle him. Collaborate damn it!


> Collaborate damn it!

Do they want to hear you talking to him? I sure wouldn't want people talking while I'm trying to concentrate.

"Collaboration" doesn't have to mean annoying your coworkers. If you need to do things aloud, that's fine--I sometimes find it better too--but it's vastly better go somewhere private for it.


People collaborate on open source projects all the time without uttering a damn word.


Yeah, I feel weird about emailing/ iming people in the same room as me when something could be solved with a 30 second or so conversation.


I often find the opposite. We discuss details, and go through options changing our minds a number of times on the way.

Via email (or text based communication), then the result is clear, and I can refer back to it afterwards. Also meetings with non-technical users tend to go around in circles where they discuss trivial details that are pretty irrelevant.


Some kinds of work respond very poorly to interruption, and for others it's trivial. Breaking a coder out of their 'zone' kills their productivity. Breaking a typist out of their 'zone' is trivial. This being said, if someone is meant to be mentoring you, then this will require special tactics as it is a special relationship.


This isn't really a feature of the environment, except accidentally. What's really at stake here is striking the balance between the short term cost of integrating a new team member and the long term cost of failing to integrate them well.


I sat next to my very first technical mentor for a few years, and he had no compunction about holding up a finger and saying "hang on" curtly when I'd start to ask something. If you all agree that it isn't rude in this context, I think that reaction can help. I do it myself occasionally and usually can keep about 80-90% of my flow.

Try doing that to your wife on work-from-home days at your own peril.


Wife nothing, try doing it to the exact same mentor who felt entitled to do it to you.

If my experience / observation is any guide, the result is utterly epic shitfit.


I have done that, and no explosions, nor any shitfits.

It depends on both the way you do that, and the way people talk to each other there (aka the culture).


Work with better people?

At my last job (less applicable now as I WFH), it was acceptable practice to give a "hold on" to everyone you'd run into on a daily basis. Maybe not the CEO, but the VP of Engineering would wait a sec if you needed to get something done Right There.


> As a new hire, I would send my mentor a question and it might be ten minutes to fifty minutes before I would get a reply.

This is a weaird problem to me. At my last job, we had the "ask async first" thing--but, yeah, if they're not responding and it's urgent, then of course you go ask them, that's just obvious. But the point is that this behavior should be rare because it's not "momentarily" losing their flow, it's often losing it for ten to fifteen minutes. A two-second IM is less likely to make them lose it than you walking over, so start there.


Great point, I've also experienced that as a new hire.

The best new hire layout I've had was purposely being assigned to share an office with my mentor. Since we were in a physical office, I wasn't afraid to ask any questions, even the dumb-sounding ones that otherwise would be overheard by everyone within ten feet in an open plan.


But if you implement all of that perfectly, doesn't that defeat the whole purpose of having an open office? (I.e. to stimulate more spontaneous collaboration)


The actual purpose of open offices is to save money.

The collaboration stuff is marketing nonsense managers tell themselves to try and ease the cognitive dissonance of lying about it.


Depends on the kind of work you do. If you're in sales or marketing the open office plan may indeed stimulate creativity or whatever.

But for people who have to concentrate (like software developers) it's a productivity killer. Joel Spolsky used to touch on this occasionally - he claims all sorts of research shows the most productive arrangement is to put everyone in his own office with a door.

Where I work that will never happen, because there are corporate-wide rules about who gets an office and who doesn't. You have to be a director to get your own office, which is two levels above non-managers. They're so anal about it one time I worked on a floor with no directors and they left all the offices unoccupied. They crowded everyone into cubes and even doubled one up when they ran out of (cubicle) space.


Then the question comes: Do they really save money, or does it just appear like they do?

Saving money on office space is money saved. People being distracted and doing poor work is money lost. I wonder how it sums up.


Money saved on office space is easily measurable and directly attributable to the bean counter responsible.

Productivity loss is hard to measure, and even when it's blatantly obvious, it's easy to shift the blame.


It highly depends on the team. In a small team that know each other well, it can work. Most of the time it's not the case, however.


The main purpose of open offices is to save on real estate costs, stimulating more spontaneous collaboration is just a flimsy excuse.


Partitions can still be installed between the work pods to provide a measure of privacy. Many of the open-plan offices I've seen have no partitions, the only thing between you and everyone else is a computer monitor. It's insane.


Partitions don't do much to cut down on noise unfortunately.


With partitions, at least I don't have to watch the office gumbies milling around flapping their arms and smacking their pieholes. Half of my monkey brain is tracking their movements for threats, and the other half is struggling to prevent me flinging handfuls of my faeces at them out of annoyance.

For sound? I can just put on headphones.


It depends on the partitions and how other surfaces are finished.

With sufficiently high walls (about 6'), carpeting, and acoustic ceilings, you'll actually cut noise quite a bit. Lower and sound travels in straight lines.

One of my gigs had a "pod" style cubical layout with 6' high walls, glass in the upper 2' or so, arranged in groups of four (see diagrams below). It's still one of the best workspace designs I've seen, period.

https://plus.google.com/photos/104092656004159577193/albums/...


I think one benefit is the cost savings? More people in smaller area + large area for group chats when needed, etc?


Cost savings until Cold/Flu season hits. Watch that burn through the office...


If people are in the same office space overall, everyone will likely catch whatever's going around anyway.


They are recirculating too much HVAC air, too.


I would add to that: don't have fewer rooms than you have continual need for.

In a previous job, we had an open office layout with a handful of small conference rooms. The rooms were always being fought over -- resulting in the institution of a byzantine booking system involving Outlook calendars and admin permissions, with the office manager as bottleneck to booking a room.

As a client-facing person (i.e., someone who needed to be on the phone a lot), I hated it. More often than not, I found myself walking around downstairs, in the building lobby, or out on a balcony somewhere when trying to conduct business. I got sick of fighting over conference rooms, and sicker still of trying to evict squatters from rooms that I'd booked for urgent meetings or calls. And if I ever needed a quiet place to go concentrate on something, that was pretty much out of the question for most of the day. I ended up taking a lot of work home with me every night, simply because I couldn't get it done at the office.

I enjoyed some great chit-chat with coworkers, and I probably saw more YouTube videos and memes in that office than I have anywhere else. Productivity kind of sucked, though.


> Open offices can work, but only if you go out of your way to make them work. Just throwing a few dozen devs in a warehouse is a recipe for dissatisfaction. I think that that happens more often than not, resulting in things like this study.

No, they're universally bad. No door, no privacy and a constant stream of chatter from other people. Yuck.


Open office does not scale beyond 6-10 people. There was an article though about a firm that did have open office but had special function areas - like quiet work area or meeting room are. If you are in quiet room area, you don't talk there at all. Huge open office I think is bad as it invites distraction.

Many companies grow from open offices as startups but then they have to change they way they do the open office if they want to preserve the "open office". my 2c.


I worked in one of these places where we were expected to do real engineering work, but with an overhead loudspeaker paging system for incoming sales and service calls. "Bong, Rick Line 1, Bong Dale Line 6" Those were the days... (not really).


But if no one talks in the open plan layout, what's the benefit of open plan at all? Might as well give people their own private space free of visual distractions.


Private space for everyone costs more. The entire point of the open plan is to save money, but it gets sold as something entirely different.


Policies that enforce silence is what's needed for open office plans to work. But silence would also cancel out any supposed creativity benefits.


I'm in a cube farm right now and I don't find that the cubes make the noise any softer than my co-workers in another office that have an open plan. I can still plainly hear everything that people around me are talking about. I still find headphones a necessity.


I can still hear my coworker clipping his toe nails each week two cubes down. Cubes don't help much.


I completely agree, wrote up essentially the exact same thing: http://dev.hubspot.com/blog/open-plan-offices


It's increasingly becoming evident how ineffective offices can be as workplaces, especially in light of better and better communication for developers over the internet. Obviously this isn't true for all places and all cultures, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't frequently question my basic physical presence in the office sometimes. It is common for me to not talk to a single coworker about work throughout the day. Meetings are rare, always scheduled ahead of time, and always short. I feel like our office mostly exists as a vestige of past tradition, a celebration of our success (it's styled after our products), and also out of a deep-seated paranoia about the productivity of workers you can't see, even though as developers we have very, very concrete ways of measuring productivity.

(Also, the nondevelopers are in constant verbal communication.)

All that said, I'm not dissatisfied. Our office is always very quiet and cool. The kitchen is stocked. The chairs are comfortable. It's not a bad set up at all and I don't find that it really hinders my productivity too much. But it does feel unnecessary, and I personally know I'd be more productive telecommuting 3-4 days a week. Dressing up and behaving professionally for 8-9 hours straight does take a toll on my ability to output good code, albeit a minor one, and the location of the office in the city certainly takes a huge toll on my bank account (housing is 2-3x more expensive in this area, but the commutes are horrible from far out).


I thought telecommuting was a great idea until I tried it. I have enough trouble focusing on my work at work. At home, no one can tell that I'm playing Team Fortress in my underwear as long as I keep the IM window open, and my productivity basically craters. I'd like to think that I'm a grown-up who doesn't need someone looking over his shoulder but, well, I'm not.


Then you should work in an office. Different strokes for different folks. I only object to the bullshit people sometimes throw out that just because they personally are a better team player in an office, they assume everyone else also must be.


Oh, absolutely. If it works for you, that's awesome. Didn't mean to imply otherwise.


I've battled with this problem too. You can control it, it just takes some willpower.


A kitchen timer may help. The Pomodoro Technique provides the specifics:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pomodoro_Technique

One works through a 25 minute time block (a pomodoro) using the kitchen timer, deferring all interruptions until a time block can be assigned for communication. Pomodoros are grouped into two hour sets when practicable. Tasks and projects are broken down into, or, combined into 25 minute pomodoros, and the pomodoros checked off when completed. Interrupted pomodoros are "cancelled" and lost. Breaks are taken between single pomodoros and extended breaks after a set.

Time management in effect becomes a game in which one seeks to perform X number of pomodoros a day while losing as little as possible.

I'd always attributed a state of flow to good luck or simply having a good day. After using a kitchen timer and the workflow above I now realize that I was previously rarely if ever in the flow state because of repeated interruptions and distractions, distractions which were and are largely in my power to control.

Good luck.


> It is common for me to not talk to a single coworker about work throughout the day.

I have to say, that is a rare situation in every office I've worked in. Maybe it has to do with the types of people I've hired, but it is incredibly common to see collaboration during the day between 2-3 people and heavy collaboration anytime difficult problems comes up.


To be clear, I meant verbal communication, not over the computer. There's lots of the latter. But overall I agree it is probably a quirk of the office I work in that we have more solo work than usual.


It is common for me to not talk to a single coworker about work throughout the day. Meetings are rare, always scheduled ahead of time, and always short.

Are you hiring? Are the pay and benefits competitive?


I often question this as well and I work remotely most of the time. I go in once or twice a week because I feel guilty. there are certainly days that I go into the office and don't talk to anyone other than the occasional "hey, how are you". To the op it off I drive into the office to connect to a customers vpn to do remote work for them.


>An open plan workplace, in which enclosed rooms are eschewed in favour of partitioned or non-partitioned desks arranged around a large room, are supposed to promote interaction between workers and boost teamwork.

Instead, everyone's too busy maintaining social facades for the entirety of their day, day after day, rather than focusing on their work.


My lord this is truth. I don't care what you did yesterday, what you're doing tonight, what you're doing this weekend, why you're wearing what you're wearing, who got you that thing, when you got in, when you leave, why you hate brad, why you hate brad but love donna, why donna's nice but you'd prefer to be home studying. did you get an extra $30 deducted from your paycheck? doesn't that suck? it only takes me 20 minutes to get work, it use to take me 15.

I don't care. I've come here to work.

I enjoy interacting socially, but I really honest-to-goodness would rather talk about work at work. I really truly don't care about your personal life at work. I would feel so relieved if I never had a conversation about something personal at work.

It doesn't have to be Nazi Germany, but it doesn't need to be constant chatter.

Yes I'm an engineer.


> what you did yesterday, what you're doing tonight

Good Lord, now we're doing social-life standups. Agile really has taken over.


God yes. Particularly when part of the team has no real life outside their job and they get to spend the social-life meeting handwaving around that fact. It's useless and sad. So glad I don't work there anymore.


Heavens. Glad you're out of that dump.


Well, it sounds like you're mostly just an antisocial kind of person. I mean, if you decide to put an arbitrary wall between you and your co-workers where you are simply not allowed to make friends with anyone, that's a pretty sad existence. I mean, this job takes up ~50% of your waking life, and during that time you can't treat anyone around you as a friend?

If all your co-workers are such uninteresting people, maybe you're at the wrong company.


Whether or not my coworkers have unique and interesting lives shouldn't really matter in a work environment, no? Shouldn't the thing we're all working on and the goal were all striving towards be number one?

My bend at work is definitely more towards the antisocial simply because I would like to focus on work. Bother me if it's work related otherwise maybe wait until 5pm or whenever we're all wrapping up.

I'm down for making friends, but we don't need to talk all week long about the camping trip we're all going on this weekend. It's a thing, it's happening. Why don't we talk about it after it happens?

Honestly, I know it sounds cheesy, but I wish so bad to have worked on an Apollo mission or the Manhattan project. In my fantasy, those engineers just showed up and talked about the most interesting and fascinating and craziest shit and then went and built it. At lunch people talked about the minutiae of putting a dude on the moon or what the hell Rutherford scattering was and NOT the perfect temperature to roast a coffee bean or why the iphone sucks.

I know, I know, some people want to decompress and unwind throughout the day and not be so preoccupied with that intense shit all the time. I just think it'd be cool if people were more like that.


I think you answered your own question. If you're saving babies or firing a moonshot, yes work is number one.

Otherwise work is a priority, but not the only priority and maybe not the top priority. I love building things my customers love, but that's not the only thing I love. I expect to share some of who I am and learn some about my coworkers during the 9 to 5. The ability for my coworkers and I to click, on multiple levels, is important. It helps both for building rapport among teammates to solve business issues and as compensation in the form of a positive work environment.

And while I expect many intense work environments are much more focused, I also know some of the most intense environments still have small talk, sometimes intentionally thrown in to diffuse that intensity. It helps people view each other holistically as actual people, not just tools to solve problems or obstacles to overcome.


I agree. The problem occurs when the chatter occupies nearly 30% of my working day. I'm okay if it's 10-15% I guess. But not really. Ideally it'd be like 0-5%.

I don't like feeling like an unproductive schlub at work.

Y'all are paying me all this money to work, not to socialize.

Sorry it took so long to get to that point, but ultimately that's it. I'm getting paid a lot of money to work. Not to socialize. And I will gladly work my ass off so don't think I need to socialize a whole bunch throughout the day to get shit done or to enjoy myself.


> I don't like feeling like an unproductive schlub at work.

I am very jealous. Some of us have very boring, unchallenging, crap corporate-drone jobs in which the 30% social distraction is the only way to make it through the day without going mad.

Feeling 'unproductive' doesn't factor into it when one's work seems meaningless.

Quick riposte: 'just leave' doesn't pay the mortgage.


First, some people are introverts. They genuinely do not work well under conditions of heavy social interaction. This does not mean that they are "antisocial" or that they are sad; it means that they are more sensitive to some kinds of stimuli and so are more easily distracted and exhausted by it.

Such people should be understood and given the distance that allows them to work, not browbeaten into keeping up with the extraverts.


More than that, some people are antisocial and/or sad, yet are very good engineers. So employers and colleagues should be really interested in having those around, especially if they don't want to bother you with non-technical things.


> antisocial

Nope, just introvert.

If you don't know what an introvert is, here is a quick guide: http://i.imgur.com/f2BmB2x.jpg

I also recommend reading the book "Quiet" by Susan Cain. Even if you're more on the extroverted side of the spectrum, you will learn a lot about introversion and extroversion and how to deal with introverted people. (And even if you don't realize it, many of the people you know, whether they're friends, family or co-workers are introverts and have to deal with living in an extroverted world.)


Yeah, I know what an introvert is - that comic describes me very well.

This person still sounds more antisocial than introverted. And if they're just extremely introverted, then news flash: they live in the real world with /other people/.

I'm introverted but at work a lot of what people want to talk about is not work but /does/ align to my interests (software, engineering, etc.). So talking happens, and this person trying to shove their workaholic no-nonsense BS down everyone else's throat is no good.


It doesn't have to be about being an anti-social/introverted person or not. I love to have small talk with people about their personal lives, but not while I'm working, simultaneously.

I want to work, and only focus on work, then take a break, go have a coffee in the break room, and chat about whatevers.

The problem with open office plans is that it gets mixed up, and it's really hard to do the context switching when working on hard problems.

It really reminds me of being a first year student at university, when a lot of people prefer to study in groups, while having coffee, and are convinced it's the best way to study.

By the fourth year though, you know that to really do well, you need to withdraw and get into productivity mode, then socialize when studying is done, as a separate activity..


Antisocial means activities that interfere with others or society. Lacking a desire to socialize is asocial, not antisocial.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antisocial_behavior http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asociality


Can you work if you can't hear your thoughts?


You can still see them.


You can, others can't.


Open plan offices are one of many signals that make me very wary of modern management concepts. In trade publications 20 years ago, you'd read breathless articles about the end of cubicles and the advent of minimalist, modern, open office plans.

gasp! collaboration!

gasp! accountability!

gasp! blah blah

Now years later it's obvious why they took over the world, CEOs everywhere saw the bright open office spaces, with just desks and

gasp! cost savings!

Open office plans are a way for a company to be cheap and that's about it. No investment in offices needed, no investment in fussy cubicles, no interior decorators needed (just expose the brick!). Rent a warehouse, buy desks at IKEA , assemble and voila instant office.

These days management even tries to get strategic about open plans. I'll put this department next to this one and this one so they can talk to each other more freely and voila synergy!

Absolutely the worst environment for thinking jobs possible (the contrapositive is, if it's a good environment for your job it's probably not a thinking job).


I think that my company's open office is a good environment for my job as a developer. We have a strong culture of being quiet during the day, and often the office is totally silent, with a soft hum and clicking keyboards.

There are closed off spaces to make phone calls, and client-facing people are sectioned off slightly so their phone calls don't bother the rest of us. If we were in a big farm of fluorescent-lit cubicles or airless private offices I think I'd be less productive simply because I'd be fantasizing about not being there.

Open offices that don't have a culture of quiet, however, could indeed be total hell for 'thinking' roles, but an open office doesn't have to be the unequivocally bad working environment that you make it out to be.


For me the thing that is really the worst about the open workspace is not the noise--I can put in ear plugs and then noise reducing headphones. The worst is seeing people move around in my peripheral vision, that just makes it impossible to concentrate.


Have you tried blinders? Funny enough this ad says "Blinders, because she shies at new ideas"

http://www.matthewkressel.net/wp-content/uploads/blinders.jp...


LOL, I haven't. Thinking about a dev wearing those on top of noise reducing headphones is a pretty great mental image though. :-)


I agree. I absolutely hate visual distractions. They occur constantly in the open office I'm in. It used to be worse as my desk faced a popular meeting room, but it's still pretty bad.


I think I read here that people in wall-facing desks on shared offices are more stressed (due to unconscious worry/instincts due to people moving at your back)


Anybody who disagrees with me is not in a thinking job ....


I'm pretty happy with my current open environment, coming off of a fairly negative open environment.

Here's what I think they did right:

- High partitions around team cluster, low partitions within cluster. Means you don't see just anybody who's standing, but can easily get eye contact with the people you actually need to communicate with.

- White noise generators. All ambient noise is suppressed--I can't hear the people in the next cube if they're talking quietly. Only the shrillest beeps or sneezes disrupt my concentration.

- Lots of natural light. If you're going to do open concept, at least take advantage of the #1 benefit.

- Lots of small meeting rooms with whiteboards.

Even then, I noticed a massive difference in how much I enjoyed the open plan when I transitioned from working on a project that was very collaborative (pairing being the norm) to a project that required a lot of solo effort. I'm very conscious of distractions now, and end up working later hours to take advantage of the quiet when everyone's gone home.

So I think there's a lot to be said about the dynamic of your team. And in that regard, my current employer again does well by giving QA, support, and other "solo acts" individual high partitions.


Are you in an environment where you're often working together and collaborating on shit? Open plans are great.

Do you need quiet time where you're thinking for 5 hours a day and coding for 1? You need your own office.

Graphic designers, phone support, this kind of stuff seems to work great in an open office. Crazy team trying to crank out something fast? Also works great.

But they just add to burnout and aren't a good fit for writers or programmers. If this is the case, give everyone a small, modest office with drywall and a drop ceiling, and then have LOTS of common areas or meeting rooms so people can get together to chat or bang stuff out.


I used to trade on the largest trading floor in the world. It's the ultimate open office plan - MD next to associate director next to operations analyst next to napping beer cart attendant. Information flowed like quicksilver, and bureaucratic hurdles were resolved in a rapid sequence of huffs and grunts. For pounding through a structured list of tasks, there was no match. For more cerebral work, I hated it.

My most productive and cherished hours were those after the close, when I could snap in headphones and burn through theoretically intense if P&L-vague projects. Incidentally, it was those projects which made the bank's quarter for every quarter I worked there.

There is a personality that thrives on open office plans. I, sometimes, am one of them. But open layouts encourages rapid, myopic collaboration over deep thinking. The ideal solution might be an open office layout with a "library" retreat.


I would die a thousand deaths in an open layout office. If offices must design their spaces for max efficiency of desks rather than of work product then they are not utilizing max efficiency of their greatest asset—their people. The idea above of a 'library retreat' has some benefit; but what if you have 1/2 an office of folks who need quiet to produce? It would be vastly important I think to include such questions on the interview...and to know how to answer them for the interviewee.


Ways this could be biased:

  - higher skilled workers are in closed offices more often
    * and satisfaction varies by skill level

  - p(open office) varies by industry 
    * and satisfaction varies by industry

  - people feel more comfortable doing non-work items behind a door 
    * and they like getting personal tasks done
As a developer I'm happy in an open office, as long as I have enough space, and I'm separated from the sales (phone) staff


I happened to read this right after the article on Simpson's Paradox, and you put your finger on exactly what I was thinking - it's almost certain that there are many hidden variables that predict whether or not you work in an open office, and many of these likely correlate very strongly with job satisfaction, potentially inverting the relationship just based on relative employment rates in different areas. Just knowing that satisfaction correlates with open floorplans doesn't tell us anything solid about whether you should choose one or not.


The first thing I think of when I hear "open office" is a call center. Of course those people hate their jobs. Did they control for that sort of work?

That said, I have worked in a few class A office spaces and the difference between class A and any other arrangement is huge. Always the perfect temperature, designed to muffle noise, enough glass to see what's going on but enough partitioning to avoid distraction. I'm not sure the cost can be easily justified, however.


I was lucky enough to have my own office at Apple even during all of the pairing up when the company doubled, tripled, etc. the size of the engineering team.

My most productive moments were when I could close the door and turn my music up on my high end speakers and blast through the work.

My office was also cozy with an old chair that people came in and sat down for impromptu meetings. No need to schedule conference rooms and we all had our own white boards.

Jumping to startups that tout open spaces and the engineers I've met since who've praised them, I wonder if it's because these engineers haven't worked at companies who have actual real offices for everyone.

The collaboration is definitely different for sure, in open spaces you can share in the tension and keep pace with everyone. Yet I find I need a day or two a week to work from home to get in those purely productive days.

I'd love it if engineering culture went back to demanding offices as a perk, but I fear those days are gone now that we demand living and working in expensive cities.


And yet, despite all the studies and data, these things continue to spread like a plague through the corporate world.

...because it makes upper management feel good to keep the peons in a bullpen.


Have you ever priced cubicle panels and hardware? How about erecting walls and doors? There's a secondary benefit here.


There are also huge differences in the tax treatment of cubicles vs. walls, which can have a non-trivial impact on the decision making if it's an office of any size. Generally (and IANATL) cubicles and movable walls can be considered office furniture, whereas walls and doors are structural improvements - and those things have very different depreciation rates and benefits.


If you depreciate them, you have to either dispose of them at some point, or sell them at a loss (and you can only depreciate the loss). Over time it could cost more than walls, or have an extremely long depreciation schedule.


The best tax benefit of all would be an open plan that spends $0.00 on cubicles, walls, and doors. That's what I was getting at.


It's worth noting that modern offices often have the ability to place walls wherever their clients need them to be. That said, they are no better than cubicles because they have virtually no sound isolation.


Worked in the office acoustics world for awhile including coding a simulation for acoustics within both cubicle environments and private office to private office environments:

The most important sound paths in most office spaces are refraction ( low cubicle walls may as well not be there, just because you can't see your neighbor over a 48" cubicle wall doesn't mean that wall in contributing much of anything to sound isolation ) and reflection ( hard walls, cheap ceiling tiles, ceiling air vents with open air returns, etc ).

"Movable Walls" vary widely in their absorption profile, as do ceiling tiles. In both cases high quality models are fine. Most issues with movable walls had nothing to do with their absorption profile but rather poor installation/fitting causing 1/4" air gaps around the edges creating a perfect refraction and / or reflection path for sound.


Telecommuting.


I guess I should be saying "it's hard to argue with the numbers," and yet my temptation is precisely to argue against the numbers at least for my job (programming for a tech company). I just don't understand what I would be doing in my own office, other than wasting space and spending more time leaving my office to find coprogrammers I have questions for.


That you have to spend a lot of time with other programmers asking questions raises another question: why is this? If the other programmers were better able to concentrate and churn out specs/documentation for their work that you could consult at your leisure, would there be as much need for constantly interrupting each other with questions? If you had all the information you needed at your fingertips, why couldn't you stay in your office and focus 100% on developing your part of the software?

As an analogy, it's like saying "Who has time to implement safety measures when we're so busy administering first aid because of all the accidents?"


Hmm... sufficiently define everything so that human contact is unnecessary? Genius idea. Now if only the customer knew exactly what they wanted a year out and the BA's perfectly captured that in absolutely unambiguous prose, and of course if nothing ever failed to go according to plan.


You're both right. It's a spectrum. Perfect documentation is impossible, but good documentation is valuable.


In biot's analogy, human contact is analogous to first aid.


For one thing, the context is self-reported employee satisfaction, not team productivity. Even if you could somehow find a measure of productivity that many people would agree to, I'm skeptical that the results would support the idea you have presented.


You would be NOT annoying the guy next to you with your loud chewing/constant throat clearing/conversations/talking through problems/music heard through your earphones.

I've worked in open plan, cubes, and my own office. Open plan is by far the worst. For me, it comes down to perceived privacy more so than noise.


You would spend the time orienting on your personal tasks, as opposed to filtering out the chatter of your coworkers, the movements that distract you, the sound of a hundred fingers tapping away at the keyboards... you would have time to mentally turn a problem over and over for as long as your mind could stand it.


A lot of you guys would absolutely hate to work where I do. Next week is my last week, but for unrelated reasons.

We're an open office plan and I love it. I couldn't imagine working in an office where everyone is quietly tucked away in their offices. Worth mentioning, is that we're a pair programming shop and everyone on the team is a big fan of pairing all the time.

But it is loud as shit in the team room. We have a Spotify playlist constantly going in the background. When a BA passes a story for completion, this is signified by the ringing of a cowbell, at which point everyone will pound on their desk and play with noise makers to celebrate. That happens a few times a day. When a build breaks, a siren goes off and noises play from the build computer to let everyone know.

I think part of it might be the pair programming. Before I started pairing, I was a headphones kind of guy, too. I liked it quiet and I was easily distracted. But when you're talking through a problem with your pair and you have someone to help keep you on task, it's really easy to avoid being distracted.

I guess the point is, in the right culture and with the right personalities, open office can work really well. No one complains about it being hard to focus on my team and it's rarely quiet. We also get shit done and everyone is pretty happy.

In a couple weeks, I'm moving on to another pair programming shop in an open office, but really only because I felt like it was time for me to see some different challenges. When I'm ready to move on from there, I'll probably be seeking a similar atmosphere.

p.s. I'm a pretty extreme introvert.


Work spaces I have had

* High school: desk in bedroom. Unaware there are worse options: Productivity: 9.

* College, year 1: dorm with roommate, cop-style desks facing each other. Shut up! Productivity: 4.

* College, years 2-4: two roommates, desk under bed. Vaguely cramped, but not bad. Productivity: 6.

* First ship: Flight of the Intruder style aluminum desk/dresser/bookcase measuring 24" wide, aligned athwartships, so every roll of that frigate dumped my work all over until I hacked some retaining straps in. (http://www.maritime.org/tour/img/fbc/fbc-captain.jpg, except our bunks were 3 high). Productivity: 3.

* Second ship: Double-wide version of same but it's a carrier, no rolling. Productivity: NA because I also an actual office, with a door, and it was right next to wardroom. Downside: back wall of office was next to the trap wires. Had to wear double hearing protection during flight ops. Office productivity: 6-9.

* Staff at the Naval Academy, Annapolis: more desk acreage than I could use, huge vaulted window, rich blue carpet, could hide out all day. Productivity: 0-8. Home office: got an Ethan Allen desk on clearance. Productivity: 6.

* Med school, year 1: Katrina. 5' folding table next to the foldout couch two very kind University of Houston students let me sleep on all year. Still have that folding table. Not bad. Productivity: 6-8.

* Med school, years 2-4, New Orleans: Ethan Allen desk tried in every room of the house, but little kids make it impossible. Productivity at home: 0. Starbucks: 7.

* Internship. Same as above, but also had a cubicle in the 180 desk "resident storage facility". Had no desire to be there and rare could be. Productivity at cubicle: -1.

* First job as a doc: moved to San Diego, converted falling-apart cubicle desk in our office (incidentally the server closet, possibly the only reason it had an air conditioner) into a standing desk. Joy. Could work all day. Had a 34" stool that helped on occasion. 3 officemates: productivity: 5. A Navy clinic, "doctor's office" set up during the weekdays I took clinic, productivity: 4 (they seemed to feel doctors were cheaper than medical assistants). Starbucks: 7.

* Oh, during that job, worked at an urgent care on the weekends: sterile "doctor's office" with a desk and computer. 4 exam rooms. Highly routinized workflow seeing 30+ patients in 12 hours. Productivity: 11.

* Currently: professionally designed cubicle set up in an office with one office mate. We face opposite directions, neither face away from the door. Most productive ever. Productivity: 8-9. Starbucks 7. But also moved my Ethan Allen desk into my bedroom and installed a door lock. Home productivity: 4-8.

N=1


First ship photo

My favorite part of the setup was the utterly useless desk safe, easily jimmied open (and then permanently broken) by using two Navy-issue pairs of scissors. Then, invariably, someone would forget to wedge their safe door open and you'd have to barge through staterooms in officer country during heavy seas at 3 a.m. to look for the offending thunk, thunk that was driving everyone insane.

Oh, to be 23 again...


This is an amazing chronicle of working arrangements. Thank you.


What do you think it is about your current shared cubicle that makes it the most productive ever?


It's not better than the urgent care, but it's on the high end. Mainly, the work is quite interesting and there's lots of it. Case-report quality stuff comes across my desk daily and large studies are in the making. I have dual screen monitors, (also had that at the standing desk at the last job), but I have also customized my world a bit more: I have vim tuned better (works reasonably well with Dragon, but could be better). The office has windows with mini-blinds, which has a peculiar ability to really make the space feel expansive, yet safe from prying eyes. My microscope has dual heads so I put a Magnifi (arcturuslabs.com) on the second head and can take pics at my leisure (see http://reddit.com/r/pathology for unknowns) so that verges on a third screen. Plus my ipad. And I have been planning to move in here for over a year, so I have thought hard about what to do.

And, thanks in part to years of great posts on Hacker News, I'm much better at scripting mundane tasks than the average pathology resident.

I think another thing is that I took up surfing. I'm from Kansas. I go surfing with dolphins at least once a week. I own a home in SoCal, wife and kids are happy and smart. How did I get here?


Cool, so sounds like having a dialed-in routine & setup is a big factor.

It's interesting your productivity goes up in Starbucks. I'm the same way too. Distracting conversations are bad but white noise is fine. Plus there may be something to the whole anonymity thing, in that you don't think about or engage the people around you as much.


It's completely true for me as well. I think knowing that someone might interrupt me at any time (which is true both at work and at home, most of the time) doesn't allow me to fully concentrate as well as I can in a place like a coffee shop or a library.


Its not the open space per se that is the problem but rather the ratio of the number of people occupying how much space.

I have now had 15 years of experience with different plans, 6 of those with my own 60 people agency and a lot of time spent trying to figure out the optimal space.

Its really simple. Size vs. number of people is the defining factor.


You know, I've never worked in nor seen an office that wasn't "bullpit" style with people grouped onto many desks.

Maybe this is just NZ. Is having your entire development team each having their own private office something that actually happens in America (bar the amazing fantasy land that Spolsky's office sounds like).

Also, it's worth mentioning that this is just a survey, and just addresses how people "feel", not efficiency or anything like that. My ideal "work" environment (i.e. a beach) doesn't necessarily line up with my most productive.


Yes. I am in my own office. I've more or less been in a single office since, oh, 95 or so.

It's impossible to think in bullpen/cubes. Well, that's hyperbole, but it is both wearying and distracting. I'm sure there are personality types that thrive in that situation, but it is just really hard for me to be in an environment like that for long. There's a reason there's a "no talking" rule at libraries, after all.


That's what my closed cans headphones are for :P


I have ADHD. I find what's on my own computer distracting enough. Put me in a room of people moving and screens flicking and changing and

-- SQUIRREL! --

... I won't be very productive.


Heh, so the music I listen to tends to be pulsing non-vocal quiet electronic music (currently listening to: Done by Robot Science) because it's not music I'm going to sing or sitting-dance along too, and it's entirely ignorable, but it also cuts out the noise of everything around me.

I can still see my coworker hacking SQL into some XML (wtf is he doing) out of the corner of my eye, but I'm not sure wearing horse blinkers to work would be socially acceptable.


Doesn't help with the visual distraction though. People are walking towards me all the time, or towards the people behind me, or next to me, and they are jumping around and waving their arms around and shooting nerfguns at each other and I don't know what.

Even after rearranging my desk such that I mostly look towards the windows, the hardest part I tend to concentrate on is staying focussed, and by now, maintaining that for more than half a day is extremely hard.

It's also making me sad. I can go long durations with intense focus. Given the right problem and atmosphere, something like 6 - 8 hours of intense focus and progress is possible, my high score is somewhere around 15 hours with minor breaks at a ludum dare. This is just not going to happen in this environment.


I had my own office, complete with door, the entire time I was at Apple. It was fantastic. I've worked in open plan offices before and since, and I vastly prefer individual offices.


At Microsoft a private office for engineers is a rule.


My team recently moved from dedicated offices to open offices and the cultural changes have actually been quite interesting to watch.

Not being able to go into someone's office and talk for an hour cuts down on one form of interpersonal bonding. On the flip side, having larger group conversations encourages another type of bonding.

Arranging dinner and lunch outings is 100x easier, we go out as a team quite often now.

Code reviews are fast and fluid. It is easy to get someone to walk on over and take a look at something. Junior programmers worrying about their designs can easily ask more senior members for help.

Productivity in some regards is down, noise level is higher for some things (yes even with headphones), and there are certainly some days where it is hard to think. On the other hand, really hard problems can get a lot of brain power thrown at them really quickly and solved in a matter of minutes. No more of that "well if I had known you were working on that, turns out I found a fix for it yesterday, I could have saved you 4 hours!"

Time spent chit chatting is probably the same. I have gotten to know some coworkers I didn't know before.

I'd say it has overall helped with code quality and team cohesion. Then again our areas are not that small, 8x10, so we are by no means cramped. I have two actual desks in my area so people on external teams can drop in with a laptop if they need to work with me.

It is a royal pain when trying to focus on solving a really hard problem however. Especially if doing pair programming on a super hard problem, when two people's thoughts are all that should be occupying a space.


I've been going at this professionally for over 20 years, and in that time have worked in all sorts of environments. Cubes, private offices, smoke-filled private offices with good friends, and also open plans in both spacious and cramped rooms. Oh, and I've also worked in a garage for a startup!

I've found that it's extraordinarily difficult for me to do my best work in a cramped open space when there is activity surrounding me. From my own experience, it seems that some % of our minds are actively processing movement or sound, even if we're not consciously aware or distracted by it.

Unless I'm bootstrapping something, or working at an ~angel seeded company, I'll refuse to work in an open space unless there is a flexible policy about working from home, where I do have my own private office.

I'll agree with what others have said: Open spaces are about saving money, but they're also a big part of the dog & pony show that tech company executives put on when courting potential investors. This is possibly more important now that most software deployments are no longer happening on accessible data centers. Beyond that, open spaces provide an easier path to scaling engineering headcount, often in a Fred Brooks-ian sort of way.

To me, more than anything these decisions speak to the engineering or C level culture established within a business. If the talent feels the need to wear noise canceling headphones to function, then there is a problem that isn't being addressed.

If a company is FORCED to implement this because they have decided to base their operations in an urban area with outrageous rent, then give the talent the flexibility to work offsite. If the management doesn't trust their people enough with that degree of autonomy, well, I guess that's a different discussion altogether.


From the "who would have guessed" files. Open plan has never been about the workers -- its about the managers and cost.


What, you have a problem working in a cafeteria?

You know, not everybody is young and cool enough for this lifestyle..


I love my open plan office because it is open plan for my team, but still has walls between us and other teams. It definitely facilitates collaboration.

I think the holy grail of offices would be to let you choose at any time where you want to work...grabbing an isolated office some times and being in an open area at others.


As I recall, Microsoft designed X-shaped buildings with shared spaces towards the middle.

Every developer has a private office with "a door that shuts". They all have a view that doesn't look into another office. When they need to work alone, they can work alone.

Each office is large enough that a second person can come in and work alongside them, whiteboard together etc.

Social areas are placed towards the centre of the X. Offices are on the outer. This controls the spread of noise from the social areas.

These buildings were inspired by IBM's Sillicon Valley Lab (née Santa Teresa Lab), which itself was inspired by studies of programmer productivity which found that private offices improved performance markedly over cubicles and open-plan offices.

There's a discussion in Peopleware.


Where's the evidence for these claims though? I know Joel Spolsky makes the argument about "A door that shuts" but it's purely anecdotal. http://www.joelonsoftware.com/items/2008/12/29.html


It seems that the X-shape exists as described, though not for all buildings:

http://www.microsoft.com/presspass/ImageGallery/ImageDetails...

Some buildings aren't strictly cross-shaped but still use right-angled wings for a similar effect:

http://www.microsoft.com/presspass/ImageGallery/ImageDetails...

Compare STL/SVL:

http://www.nfbcal.org/~anordley/IBM/Air/SVL/

IBM published a paper on STL/SVL in 1978; I haven't gotten around to piercing the IEEE paywall to read it yet: http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/xpl/articleDetails.jsp?tp=&arnumb...


F%!#, what a ripoff. IEEE want $31.00 for that paper.. and sadly, it's the same price whether you're an IEEE member or not. So much for the idea that one of the advantage of being an IEEE member is that you get better pricing on papers from journals you don't already subscribe to.

Even sadder, IBM used to publish their journal archives online, available to anyone, for free. IBM Systems Journal wasn't always behind some shitty IEEE paywall.

Yet sadder still, the price to subscribe to IBM Systems Journal through IEEE? $1,400 USD for a one year sub.

Frack... I now remember why I'm sometimes ashamed to admit to being a member of IEEE. Guess it's time to get move involved in the elections and leadership stuff... sigh


I agree. It's extremely annoying how IEEE carefully segment their library access to maximise revenue instead of member value.


Shit, I even got an insurance (car, I think) offer co-branded from my IEEE membership. I've not renewed.


The study in Peopleware was individual coders working on well-defined toy projects. Whatever evidence taken from that may or may not translate to your real-world development organization.


You're right software engineering literature is not as strong as, say, physics -- where you can relatively easily strip out confounding factors. Or medicine, where you can get funding for very large samples. We have to work with the limits of the subject and the research funding.

However it seems that there is a growing body of supporting literature coming from other fields that open-plan is usually a decision with unseen costs. The linked article is an example.


of course not it saves building services budget and they dont care a fig for the effect on the business overall.

Some director saved 10% on deskspace costs and got his/her bonus but screwed the productivity of all the staff by 10/15%


I don't know many people who like their open office plan.

Yet, why are startups trumpeting these as great places to work? Particularly as an engineer, having a door I can close is essential. (That's why I love working on Fridays, when nearly everyone else works from home.)

The biggest stressor for me in an open office is overhearing personal conversations. It's not the noise that bothers me, but the fact that I hear things I really just feel awkward hearing.

My ideal office is just lots and lots of rooms. Maybe you could do an open office if complete silence were enforced on the floor and all meetings were held in adjourning rooms, but that'll never get buy-in.


I used to think this. And then I went to work in an open plan office... and discovered I love it! The office is surprisingly quiet, considering there's about 50 people in the open plan. When conversation does spring up, it's often really interesting and worth listening in on. When it's not, I find I have no trouble tuning it out. Other people seem to more trouble, and they bring noise-canceling headphones.

Not saying that this can work for everyone at every organization. But I for one was pleasantly surprised. Fwiw I'm a pretty introverted guy who deeply values his privacy.


This really is organization dependent. Do your managers look over your shoulder and micromanage you? Would they get upset if they see HN in your web browser more than once or twice a day? Do you worry about them 'catching' you? Are you surrounded by 4 dozen people with multiple loud passionate discussions guaranteed to happen per day? Possibly in a language you don't understand most of the time? And whenever they do this making it very difficult to concentrate? Do they ignore your social requests to move it to a conference room, since they only last a few minutes and they're hunched over someones desk looking at something?

Do you know some people get a minor feeling of background anxiety when their back is to an open space with people talking and walking around? Their peripheral vision and senses conflict with the deep concentration required for software work.

Those noise cancelling headphones are meant to take out droning noises, such as AC system fans or jet engines in airplanes. Conversations with their lack of repetitiveness and human vocal ranges are not filtered out well, if at all. The music they will have to listen to filter you out is distracting in its own right.

Open Offices also decrease the barriers for interruption. Managers like it because they make their jobs a lot easier, because they get to hear what is happening and get status on their workers progress passively.

This is what open office means to many people.


Agreed it's totally organization dependent. Basically fishtoaster said what I wanted to say more clearly than I did. It requires thoughtful management to get right. But I think the same is true of any office environment, open plan or no. I think the article is a bit unfair and essentially saying "badly managed open plan offices are bad."


It's like the Java argument. It's less likely for founders and managers setting the culture to screw up private offices or small group offices than open offices.


> This really is organization dependent.

There are also personal factors at play. Different people thrive under different combinations of stimuli. I'm not a psychologist but I think it'd be related to the intraversion-extroversion axis of personality.


If the discussion is in an unintelligible (to me) language, then it becomes ambient noise and is far less distracting.


I was working at a place that switched to an open office plan with desks in groups of three or four. I was looking forward to it thinking that would foster much needed communication between two teams that shared the space. Instead, I found that I hated it and quit the job based largely on the open office plan.


"...However, a study of over 40,000 survey responses collected over a decade has found that the benefits for workers are quickly outweighed by the disadvantages..."

"...The productivity benefits of teams working together have been used to sell the open plan office for decades. Yet, if you do these evaluations and actually talk to occupants of open plan offices, very few people think that they are productive spaces..."

Note the moving the goalposts here. The survey shows people don't like the noise and interruptions caused by open plan offices. Okay fine, I get that. But the article promises that the benefits are far outweighed by the disadvantages, and then by way of disadvantage tells us that people don't like them that much. There is no data whatsoever on the benefits or drawbacks overall, just opinions from people working in open plan offices.

Is it not possible that open plan offices annoy people and are also more productive? We don't know. This entire article just tells us most people would rather have their own space to work and not be annoyed so much, which most of us should know already, right?

"Things that achieve a goal" and "Things we like doing" are overlapping sets. They are not identical.


My ideal environment allows for free and spontaneous clustering of small groups of developers in spaces that have some noise blocking partitions between clusters.

You get a good balance of people sitting together to work on things while not being distracted by dozens of others in the same office.


This is close to my current office environment.

I have a typical cube, located in a typical cube farm, if I want some relative peace and quiet.

And the team has a dedicated "lab" where I spend most of my day. It's not a totally open-plan area - just a conference room. Never more than 6-7 developers, of whom 4 are on my team, and the rest are transients from other teams working on related projects.

I prefer the lab and only head down to the cube if I need to take client calls. Several of the developers prefer the cubes and spend most of their day there, only coming to the lab for a few hours/day.


I'm currently on training on higher floor in the office, it's such a contrast to my usual desk. On the higher floor they have LOTS of natural light and there are only about 30-40 people on the floor with huge desks and lots of space in between each desk. It's so nice and quiet too.

On my floor (much lower down the building) there are about 100-120 people crammed into tiny little desks with hardly any natural light. It's so noisy with everyone in close proximity you can hardly hear yourself think, let alone getting on with coding.


Working in several at different companies with 15 to 100 people (in the open space) I can attest to at least three kinds of people (and people being are the variable, not furniture not headphones, not culture, not etc.)

1. People who LOATH open spaces, can't handle distractions, work alone.

2. People who like open spaces, feed off the energy and "action", who aren't easily distracted (or can refocus quickly), can tune out noise.

3. People who are ambivalent.

Your success, level of complaints, productivity will depend entirely on mix of these three groups.


I cannot stand open plan offices, to many visual & noise distractions....even just people walking around distracts me (at they coming over to talk with me? I hope not!) Call me crazy, but I much prefer having a small / private office with the door open 70-90% of the time....it is not like I am going to be less accountable (git log anyone)


The only open plan office I ever worked in dedicated ~200 square feet of space per employee, which is probably unlike most open plan offices.

It was probably the most productive I ever was - you were able to get up and just go talk to someone, but you couldn't talk to them from your desk without disrupting everyone else.


What's the official term for my team, and my team only, in an open room where we can whiteboard problems, shoot the shit, play guitar, shoot each other with Nerf guns and churn out more work on average than my entire organization? Cause I love what I have now.


This study does not look at actual productivity. It is very hard to measure productivity in a study though. Does anyone have any links to open plan vs. offices for developers (actual studies)? Considering you can in some way measure productivity for developers.


I don't care about people who do less for the same money in my company. I do care about people who do less for the same money in my company while loudly preventing others from doing their work and generally bullshitting around in a very obnoxious way.


Well, I personally love the open plan and would never go back. I like the social atmosphere and I'm surprised so many people don't like it. Wasn't it trendy to take your laptop to Starbucks just for that kind of environment to work in?


I love it too and would hate being confined in a closed office, ugh. I'm currently working from home 3 weeks out of 4 because of external reasons, and I'd gladly go back to the office full-time if I could. At home, I manage to stay motivated and productive, but at a constant effort. At the office I just have to immerse myself in the studious atmosphere, and motivation and productivity come without even thinking about it. Sprinkle on top of that some human interaction, and days are much lighter on the soul than they are grinding alone at home.

That being said, I have to say that I enjoy my colleagues very much and that they definitely don't spend their day doing distracting shit in the office. If I really need to focus extra hard (or just want some music), I'll put my headphones on and that's it. If anyone wants to talk to me, I'll see them coming in my peripheral vision a few seconds in advance and take the headphones off so the conversation starts naturally. I don't get disturbed by drive-bys enough to significantly affect my productivity - at least it's definitely not worse than the productivity drop I get by having to self-motivate myself at home.

I enjoyed a lot too my previous job where I shared an office with 3-5 colleagues. As a whole, all my experience at offices and workplaces have been great so far. All the common tales of workplace hell, with assholish managers, backstabbing colleagues and so on are completely incredible to me. I feel very lucky.


It was trendy to take your laptop to Starbucks because the people at Starbucks aren't your coworkers and aren't going to yank you out of whatever you're doing to spend 20 minutes telling you to do the thing you would have been done with 20 minutes ago if they hadn't yanked you out of doing it.


I wrote up a blog post trying to explain my company's position on it: http://dev.hubspot.com/blog/open-plan-offices


We are moving from open plan and little tables, where I have like 10 sq feet to work in so it's more smushed plan, to a new office with real cubes and furniture and various collaboration areas. Much better.


engineers - offices, techical staff - cubicles, blue collar workers - open plan factory floor ..err.. office space. It is just a reflection of software engineering status as a profession.


Can we all stop pretending that the collaborative open office emperor actually has clothes? Open office plans are about cost savings at the expense of privacy and respect.


Anybody here feel like this might be a generational issue? I suspect the negative crowd is north of 30 and/or experienced non open spaces. But just a guess.


I dunno... I hated and despised "open plan" in my 20's, in my 30's, and now I still hate it at 40. shrug


I'm 26 and I hate open plan.

Well, I hate the way it is implemented. If you reduced the number of people on a floor, with more desk space and space around desks, I think it could be a MUCH more pleasant environment.

But with managers cramming so many people onto a floor it really grinds you down.

There must be a formula somewhere that calculates the "optimum" or "agreeable" workspace somewhere


What's up with that abstract? Can you imagine a medical abstract where N and key parameters of the results aren't in the abstract?




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