Call this the Sweatshop Event Horizon.
I'd ask why oh why should anyone have to wear noise-cancelling headphones and/or install white noise generators just to get work done, but why bother? This is an intangible loss so the MBAs and management consultants behind this can claim they saved big bucks and then blame you for your lost productivity at your next review.
Finally, the worst part is when the HR department starts citing this morale-mashing pox as a perk:
That said, if all you want to do is play foosball and talk to your co-workers all day whilst whittling away someone else's VC money, it seems like an excellent approach to doing so.
Startup companies start off as 2-3 people, who are all good friends and don't mind working in a room. Then they hire another person, and it still works fine in one room. Then they get a bigger room, and hire a couple more. And so on. At any point, moving to separate offices would be a big change in company culture with negative effects on morale and communication as well as positive.
I need quiet and privacy and uninterrupted 4-hour coding sessions to be productive. Yet, I myself ended up putting 10 people in a room I once had to myself. It was a slippery slope.
They decided instead of letting people have offices
they'd spend a ton of money on construction to knock
out all of those walls and put in an open cube farm.
The level of WTF from the employees was palpable.
Oh, I can easily believe that they decided that without talking to employees; I just can't understand it.
Even if I was purely trying to wring productivity out of my workers and didn't give a crap about my workers' happiness, seems like pure selfishness would drive me to at least consider their feedback and find out what they needed.
My personal experiences with open offices have all been at large organizations bending over backwards to explain how they would make us more productive. No engineers bought into it.
Also, the companies that complain about how hard it is to find qualified employees might consider that many of the most qualified people might not want to work for them because of their working conditions.
I've been trying to get my own employer to get SSD's for everyone and they're still dragging their feet. It's so frustrating because I know this is costing the business money.
I've been trying to get my own employer to get SSD's
for everyone and they're still dragging their feet.
It's so frustrating because I know this is costing
the business money.
They're a very traditional and somewhat penny-pinching company in an industry that has been slowly shrinking and consolidating in the past few decades.
Once I showed my boss how fast my SSD-equipped laptop booted, he was a convert.
These days, he's using SSD upgrades to squeeze fresh life out of old desktops and laptops. A 128GB SSD doesn't cost much more than $100, and dropping one into a 5 year-old laptop or desktop makes it feel fast as hell again. Management likes spending $100 on a new drive better than spending $700 on a new machine, and users like the fact that the don't have to reinstall all their stuff.
I actually don't do any of my work locally, except for office stuff (mails, docs, ppt). All of my real work is on a server with big beefy hardware and enterprise level SLAs. I can reboot my laptop all day long for security patches and not interrupt my most important work. All of the laptops have SSDs (albeit with full disk encryption). No it's not a thin client, it's a full Windows install.
Also, doesn't Google have open floor plans? They have good-sized cubicles, but the walls are very low IIRC. You'd think Google would be all about maximizing programmer productivity. Ironically, only at Microsoft did devs get a nice office with a thick wood door.
Even if you play your music at a low volume, your ears were not meant to be covered by ear buds or over-ear headphones constantly (as in, hours at a time). And yet, this is something that people in the IT industry have accepted as common practice. Just think of the looming health implications when everyone's ears get a little older, and less likely to heal properly.
About 5 years ago I had an ear infection that left one of my ears with a permanent loss of hearing. Now, it's only 5% at the top end of the spectrum (soft Ss, iirc), but it's enough to aggravate me daily. But the downside is that I can no longer wear headphones for anything more than 20 minutes at a time (it feels like pressure is building up in my head...a very weird feeling), even with no music playing. So here I would sit, in a loud open plan office without the ability to wear headphones and being asked to solve hard problems. If this were a leg or back injury and I was made to use something in the office that aggravated that problem area, I'd have a worksafe (OSHA?) problem, but for some reason people's ears are not a health issue.
Just remember, your ears are extremely sensitive instruments and they rarely get better if you destroy them. And if you think not being able to hear properly is the only side-effect, just ask someone with hearing loss what they go through. They'll likely tell you about slurred speech, random phantom noises, pain, etc.
 This is caused (over time) by you not being able to accurately hear what you are saying. You hear your own voice via two mechanisms: internally through your jaw bone (mandible) and externally through your ear. Fun fact: most of your voice is heard through your jaw, which is why everyone says their voice sounds funny through when they hear themselves on video.
That's completely false. There is nothing special about headphones, other than the fact that they make it easy to listen to loud music for protracted periods without annoying anyone else. Headphones are a serious concern to audiologists, but not because there's anything inherently damaging about headphone use, it's simply a very common way for reckless people to expose themselves to high SPLs. Good quality headphones can be used perfectly safely by anyone with the common sense to use them at an appropriate level.
If you're concerned that your use of headphones might be damaging your hearing, there is a simple and foolproof fix - purchase a pair of headphones fitted with a calibrated limiter. These are standard items in broadcast environments, where all-day use of headphones is commonplace.
In many environments, headphones actually function as hearing protection. A good pair of custom-fit IEMs or isolating headphones can attenuate background noise by 25-30dB. In many workplaces, you'll be reducing your overall noise exposure by listening to music at a reasonable level.
Pump your brakes...
But I'll tell that to my audiologist the next time I see him. I guess he's been reading the wrong research all these years.
There is a balance to be struck with everything and the message I'm making is that headphone usage should be done in moderation. Wearing headphones and listening to music without breaks is going to damage your hearing no matter what. Hell, even wearing ear plugs in prolonged use can backup earwax enough to potentially cause impaction and bacterial infection.
1. Concerts without earplugs
2. Over-ear headphones
I think people get really into the headphones and want to 'feel' the bass of the music, much in the same way concerts are amazing because you can 'feel the sound.' This usually results in music playing too loud for 4-8 hours per day. Add that up over time and you'll find yourself like me, having to use sound machines every night and during working hours just so I can tune out the ever-persistent ringing in my ears.
You appear to be in Vancouver or thereabouts. Worksafe BC absolutely does cover hearing loss. Here's the claim form:
A couple short items from their studies -- productivity for knowledge workers improves until they get 100 sq. feet of space and 30 sq. ft of desk space(!).
They recommend walled off areas for functional teams, three to four people per, 300 to 400 sq. feet per team. The teams can close the door when they want. You'd give them a couch and a whiteboard, etc. in there.
This gets you private time for functional work teams who typically want to be heads-down or talking at the same time.
There is a reason open plan offices happen: it's not just a cost cutting measure, it's a management style decision as well. Sure, it might be the wrong decision, but there is a reason to it and it's not just screw the code monkeys to cut costs idea people are suggesting. It's a value judgement that dev's personal comfort and productive is not the sole or primary concern of the company and that the company is better served with more communication instead of productivity. The value judgment seems correct: companies make money from good products, not from merely producing code. However, it's not clear the communication is worth more than the added productivity.
Of course getting a building with such facilities is expensive, you need to spend both for the building itself and for the architect who designs it.
Yet management pushes open-plan offices to facilitate communication. It's either out of ignorance, or it's wilful, to save cash.
If you were working with a code listing, a memory dump, and the program output, that could easily take up almost half of 30 square feet. Toss in a giant reference manual or two, and a desk calculator, and it is easy to believe that desks under 30 square feet could interfere with productivity.
And they still are. When you can look at 500+ lines of code at once spread over a table, you can immediately see all sorts of things that aren't evident even on a 30" screen.
Those printouts remain one of my secret weapons for isolating really heinous bugs.
You'll get sick in the stomach long before any effect on your eyes in any case - having it on for hours on end is extremely unrealistic right now.
There are other subtle effects like fish-eye that are lead to a disoriented feeling when I take off the Oculus.
Think of it this way: your cortex is always learning. Always. So if you present visual input that is subtly different (eye-spacing, fish-eye / pin-cushion, lag) for long periods your brain will learn that. Take it away and you've effectively got mild (hopefully reversible) brain damage wrt the physical world.
E.g. if you walk up to a wall in the Tuscany demo, it'll look like the wall at the center of your view is slightly closer to you than the wall off-center. It's not such a bad artifact in-game, but when I take the goggles off, flat walls IRL look slightly bowed away from my center of view for a while, and things feel ... different.
It's similar to when you stare at a scrolling screen, and then look at a fixed object. The object seems to be moving in the opposite direction.
Or a 50" TV screen.
If you're just feeding that 50" TV a standard 1080p signal, you're not going to be able to display significantly more code than you'd be able to display on a 23" screen that's also running at 1080p.
Heck, cover the side of a building with a 1080p projector image, and a 27" monitor running at 2560x1400 will still show more code. :)
It would also be nice to have some height on them - whoever decided that the computer industry must conform to Hollywood entertainment standards has a lot to answer for.
However, I think the closest contemporary analog to the desk space of the 70s would be screen space. This association totally bolsters the 2+ monitor argument.
The "get shit done" part of it, however, may be something different. If you have to defend yourself against heavy incoming meeting emails, and if those meetings are purposeless, meandering blancmanges, then WFH is really a way to evade the meetings.
And absolutely yes, this is the most frustrating and draining environment, I was ever forced to be in.
Productivity is something I do not really know anymore.
Natural light is critical to happiness, at least for me, but I exit to coffee shops rather than attempt to corner the limited supply of conference rooms.
That's soul crushing. I could work at an open office desk with the noise (it's pretty noisy in my cube), at least it's my own personal space.
Open plan offices certainly can have their problems, but I'll take natural light over a private room any day.
Ever since I figured this out, I really couldn't give a shit if I had a window or not. Ok, getting a window is a status symbol, which is nice, but whatever. Give me the option of a corner office shared with two other people or a telecom closet, and I'll take the closet, so long as I can have my lamp. [jesus, i sound like the guy with the stapler]
and I'll take the closet, so long as I can have my lamp.
I got a lot of slightly puzzled (but mostly complimentary) comments for it but whatever, programmers are already seen as a little weird.
Also, it's not like I turned my office into some kind of stereotypical hacker's cave, with nothing but pale and sickly monitor light. I now have one of the few offices in the building that looks like a nice, warm, inviting place.
I'm a fan of warmer lightbulb colors, even though they don't quite match the cooler tone of natural sunlight.
I'd take a private office over natural light any day, the natural light thing is mostly fixable, just buy a couple of floor lamps and put full-spectrum lightbulbs in them, then turn off the overhead florescents. This isn't exactly like natural light, but is close enough in terms of how it looks and proper full-spectrum lighting has been shown to be effective against seasonal affective disorder (I don't suffer from this, but the fact that they work here suggests they are psychologically a good match for people who need natural light).
There's no real fix for open offices though. Headphones introduce a whole host of other problems and don't detract from the visual distractions or constant barrage of people trying to pull you out of flow.
My current job is an open plan office (one that is at least flexible in allowing for a lot of work from home). My next job will absolutely not be in an open office. I've finally decided this is a dealbreaker in terms of any future employment.
Of course, if you don't have an open floorplan, it's easier to adjust your lighting conditions.
I wish more buildings embraced skylights. My gym for instance has its own roof and was recently remodeled. Still, I've got to work out in the daytime under fluorescent lights... sigh. At least they're warmer than in the past.
edit: longer answer - I work in Mountain View, where there is huge competition for buildings thanks to Google. Small companies get the leftovers, and beggers can't be choosers.
The the extreme example of this is seasonal depression, which is the reasons Scandinavian countries have very high rates of suicide.
But good scientific studies show most people are effected by lack of sunlight, and it impacts mood and alertness.
Windows in offices is an expensive problem to solve, but as sunlight frequency strip lighting is the same price as the yellow stuff normally seen in offices, I'm surprised we don't use it.
At the same time I've known (more?) programmers that prefer the dark. And I also know programmers that prefer a constant buzz of activity in the background (e.g. leading them to coffee shops). I fall into this category on some days. So my dream office would have dark caves, light caves, and some open plan. I'd have a home desk, but there'd be enough surplus that I could visit any other area if the mood suits me.
There's no price for the peace it brings.
I like the idea of caves. We share our office with another company, Southtree. Our nook of the office holds about five of our desks. We've decided to move our desks to the walls, so we don't face each other but still benefit from some of the pieces of an open office. I can say this has definitely helped our productivity, but we're still susceptible to flipping our chairs around and talking.
At that point, I think it comes down to discipline.
I would prefer, I think, to have a "shut down zone" of sorts, like your cave but less cubicle. Maybe slightly darkened glass walls or something, so the feeling is open but the noise is not.
Glad to know I'm not the only one struggling with this.
For me, it's not necessarily the frequency of random
conversation/noise/etc, but the lingering feeling that
you could be interrupted at any time. That idea keeps me
from concentrating and working to my full potential.
I don't know why. I am not anxious or paranoid in general. I don't fear people walking up behind me when I'm sitting and relaxing, or standing and chatting, or whatever.
It must be some primal thing. My brain must know that if I'm completely engrossed in writing code (as opposed to casually sitting around) then I'm completely defenseless as well, and thus prevents me from full concentration.
My area is a total of three cubes of space, all of which is open to the walkway. Interruptions are de facto day-to-day existence. On the other hand, I don't often do much that's truly put-on-blinders-and-earmuffs, so it doesn't seem as draining.
I would still like to have an enclosed space with a door that the desk can face, instead of having people walk up behind me all day.
The worst place I worked, in terms of these factors, had cubicles with an open side behind the employee, all kinds of employees side by side, and a high-traffic aisle on the open side of the row of cubes.
So, you're trying to ponder some data structure or where to put a method, and people from different departments are holding loud conversations in the aisles, rapping on steel columns as they walk by, letting their phones blare obnoxious ringtones at top volume, holding speakerphone meetings in their cubes - then a co-worker walks up quietly behind you, pops a can-top, and when you jump, laughs and says "oh did I wake you up". Soon you're so frazzled that you can't focus on anything, just being on edge all the time wondering how long you have until the next startling interruption.
And the managers can't be convinced that this has anything to do with productivity. Anything said about it is interpreted as whining about trivial details, and gets an answer like "everyone has the same conditions, maybe you should work somewhere else".
Pretty soon I did. And that organization still has no clue.
Different people have different styles and needs. In fact, the same person might have different needs on different days. Sometimes I love working in a beehive when collaboration is key; other times I'd much prefer to be working in a soundproof underground bunker.
Why is this so hard to understand? Why do nearly all offices try to adopt a one-size-fits all approach that is just so obviously going to frustrate at least 50% of the employees?
It just seems so simple - design a workplace with both collaborative and private work areas. Let people take their laptops and sit wherever the %(#*@ they want on a minute-to-minute basis. That's really so difficult?
Option 3: It's 2013, the internet exists, let people work wherever in the world they feel most productive. Judge them on their output, not their butt being in a seat for 8 hours.
And before someone jumps in to say it doesn't scale, we're 600 employees, or of which about 400 work from home, so while we're not huge, were definitely past startup size :)
(this is not me disagreeing with you, just expanding on your point)
Sure, it involves investing in a space with lots of extra room, but they have been very successful in it so far for the last 5 or so years.
I'm not sure how they'd feel about enforced mobility. I guess you could reserve a certain % of the office for mobile-people-only spaces?
But most of my coworkers want to plaster their iMac's
with to-do post-its, put up photos, store snacks/Advil
/whatever in their drawers, keep knicknacks/doodads/plants
on their desks, etc. -- personalize their space.
I think the answer can be as simple as giving each worker a small home "cave" and then having some shared spaces that encourage collaborative work.
Not that different (and not even necessarily more space-hungry) from what a lot of companies do anyway, really, with the old "cubicles and conference rooms" setup.
The only problems with that setup are 1) the cubicles are rarely quite private enough for real deep, contemplative work, and 2) grabbing a shared space is enough of a pain (having to reserve a conference room through the receptionist, or whatever) that it's subtly discouraged for purposes of impromptu collaboration.
I believe Pixar's offices are arranged something like this. Each artist has private space, but the common areas linking private spaces are hubs that encourage interaction and cross-traffic.
An open office plan may make it easier to see and hear what everyone else is doing. That seeing and hearing, however is going to take time and energy away from what you need to get done.
In college, did everyone study in the cafeteria? No. Programming and learning and implementing new technologies are a lot like studying. Why would you try to do that in the cafeteria?
Why do typical organizational structures break management down to a few direct reports per person? Because it is really hard to keep track of what more than a few other people are doing with any degree of precision.
I suppose if you have an open office, you can get rid of all middle management and have everyone direct report to the CEO because you all (including the CEO) know what everyone else is doing all the time?
A few years later they tried to shove engineering into 6x6 cubes. That lasted 2 months. Productivity had plummeted.
Naively imposing open offices to improve collaboration is like naively imposing scrum to improve communication - both are externally imposed edicts attempting to establish by fiat something that needs to grow organically.
Fire the bean counters. Compared to the hourly wage of an engineer, even a whole large pizza per hour is a great deal.
Granted, the institution would have fallen apart in the long run. Eventually people would get lives outside of work (families, friends, hobbies...) and realize that 'free pizza' in exchange for 4-5 hours of off-the-clock labor is a shitty deal for anyone making more than minimum wage. People would get hired on that just saw the company as a paycheck & wanted to get out after their 9-5.
For the price of a meal the company got up to six hours of overtime from staff members at the beginning of the weekend and they decided to cut it to a third of a meal?!
Conversations pop up throughout the day and there are little pockets of noise but everyone is pretty happy. In fact I just hired a developer who said one of the things he liked was the large open floor plan.
My last boss drew the office up with ONE conference room. Big mistake. You need at least 3 for the size of our office. One for actual conferences and a phone call room and a 'war room'.
The lunchroom was sized too big, and was only used for lunch from 11:30 to 1:00, so it became the second conference room or place to take a phone call.
 The commentator is asking out of curiosity about what other people do. This comment is not an admission of either nose picking or nut scratching at work on the part of the commentator. 
 The first footnote that disclaims nose picking and nut scratching at work is not meant to imply that the commentator picks his nose or scratches his nuts at home.
One guy would let an (audible) fart rip about once a day. The manager (female) had family issues and would start screaming and/or crying over the phone a few times a day.
There was no separation between personal and business matters.
It was the most unproductive environment I have ever encountered.
I'm constantly distracted both audibly and visually -- the constant visual distractions being the big kicker.
I definitely think open office plans for software teams are not the way to go.
Also consider that sometimes the biggest producer is sometimes the most introverted and least connected in terms of personnel graph. Putting up walls everywhere dramatically increases that persons social barrier to communication which translates directly into business drag. Open plans ease that persons burden.
This is the opposite of my observation. I seem to be the only programmer that likes open office plans and the ability to collaborate and start conversations with low friction.
Don't tap on the glass! It'll make their hearts explode!