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Going to work from home today ā€“ our office is too loud (42floors.com)
142 points by darrennix on Sept 26, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 157 comments

Open offices are a line-item cost cutting measure and nothing more than that. While they destroy the ability to write code and ergo engineering productivity, they are providing important data on the minimal environment from which productive results can be obtained.

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.

You're thinking about a company that started off with all private offices, then an MBA decided to cut costs and moved everyone to an open plan. But that's not how it happens in startups.

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.

I recently worked a gig where the company was a medium sized international business with I think a few thousand employees but did not yet have a local office. They found a place with old, "conventional" offices with real walls and doors. The place had more than enough space for all of the current local employees with room to grow for several years through the lease. 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.

  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.
The "level of WTF" is something I can't understand. How was this even decided in the first place, without talking things over with the employees?

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.

Yours is an honest mistake. Just don't do it again. Or at least consider breaking it up into separate collaborative groups.

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.

It's ironic that the same companies who pay high salaries to attract top talent then go on to fritter away that talent through distracting work conditions, in an effort to save a few bucks on office space. Salary plus benefits are a much bigger yearly cost than office space for expensive employees like developers, so it seems like they're trying to optimize the wrong thing: if your employees are working at 50% productivity due to distractions, you'll never make up that amount of wasted expense on office space savings.

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.

What also really gets me are employers trying to save money on laptops for knowledge workers (not just programmers, but desk workers in general). They are OK with wasting a week of cumulative time per year because of slow and inadequate hardware, just to save $500 on the purchase price of something that is written off across 3 years. Incredible.

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.
Amazingly, I had good success "converting" my company to SSDs /because/ they're cheap and drag their feet on tech upgrades.

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.

Laptops are more expensive than desktops, assuming you buy a business laptop with the normal enterprise features. They also take more abuse and need replaced a lot. However, companies reap the benefit in allow you to take work home with you (you work more), and in that you can be placed anywhere in an office and still productive.

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.

Well said. I think part of the problem is that the people who specify the office conditions just have no idea of what conditions are best for productivity of software developers or engineers, or the importance of factors like noise, or even that different jobs need different physical surroundings.

Investment banks pay their traders, bankers and salesmen 10X the average programmer. Yet they work in dense, open, loud environments like this:

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.

I think that focus requirements for a trader or a banker are different than for a programmer. I.e. there's less need for stretches of uninterrupted deep focused thinking.

Google has both offices and cubes arranged around collaborative groups of 4-6 workers. It's not an open floor plan, but it's not individual cubes either.

They're not so much a cost-cutting instrument as a power instrument. Open plan offices let the management see that work is happening. It makes them feel in charge of a vibrant business, and in control of how that business is run.

Whenever this topic comes up on HN, something that nobody discusses is the impact to people's health surrounding the overuse of headphones. Talk to any audiologist and describe how often you wear headphones; they will want to reach out and slap you across the face.

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[2], random phantom noises, pain, etc.

[1] http://www.osteopathic.org/osteopathic-health/about-your-hea...

[2] 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.

[Edit] spelling

>Talk to any audiologist and describe how often you wear headphones; they will want to reach out and slap you across the face.

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.

That's completely false.

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.

This, this so much. I just turned 21 years old, and at my age I already have pretty significant tinnitus. Two underlying reasons:

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.

>for some reason people's ears are not a health issue.

You appear to be in Vancouver or thereabouts. Worksafe BC absolutely does cover hearing loss. Here's the claim form:


I'm aware of WorkSafe and I know several people that work there. The form you submitted applies to occupational hearing loss, the kind where you work in a loud workshop whose environment noise is in excess of a specific dB level, not the kind self-imposed by listening to music 8 hours a day.

It might surprise you what OSHA protect workers from[1].

[1] https://www.osha.gov/Publications/OSHA3074/osha3074.html

If you mention that you lost your hearing through an infection, that somewhat weakens the case for the damage done by headphones. I have a similar experience with my eyes. Staring on a monitor didn't degrade my vision, but one year with contacts and an infection nearly could have wiped out the ability for one of my eyes to focus, and it is still more light sensitive, since the scarred tissue scatters light everywhere.

My apologies if it seems like I conflated the my hearing loss by infection with headphone usage. That wasn't my intent...merely to show that the requirement to wear headphones in an open plan office could have potential negative effects down the road for people.

Is using headphones without sound still bad?

These are almost exactly IBM's recommendations from their 1970s era analysis of programmer productivity.

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.

Yes. and IBM had precisely the problems another poster points out that caved in offices cause[0]: people had no idea what others were doing and it led to some problems. Which is fine if you're IBM,make mainframes, and run you company vaguely like the military. But good luck adapting quickly if you have that management style.

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.


There is ample research on how to facilitate interaction between individuals and/or teams, and that is via meeting rooms, tea kitchens and shared common space. It is a solved problem.

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.

Meetings, yes we need more meetings, thats the answer!

I swear that was the approach Microsoft took to not having an open plan office.

One person's anecdote does not make good evidence. Business decisions need to be based on real data, not anecdote, or worse, arrogance from people who think they know a lot more than they do.

I wasn't saying it was good evidence. I was saying it suggested the rational behind the decision and it wasn't cost cutting.

This is a good post, but I'd make one additional point. Devs are often measured/reviewed based on productivity, so it's not surprising there is pushback on a decision that diminishes their productivity.

Ok. Just because you have a private micro-office, doesn't mean the team doesn't need to communicate regularly, e.g., agile-standups.

Or IM or email. There are very few things that are so important that they literally require everyone to drop whatever they're working on for 30+ minutes at a time.

The desk space recommendation almost certainly no longer applies. In the '70s, it was not uncommon to work with printed listings of code and printed memory dumps for debugging. These were printed on large fanfold sheets.

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.

I gotta say it - those 160 column printouts of code were awesome for debugging over a cup of coffee...

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.

I recall debugging a monstrous web system (it woudl require more that one entry in the daily WTF to do it justice) by borrowing a large conference room and laying out the code over about 20 feet linear length of table

I'd say another point for using oculus rifts for development.

A Rift, a Leap Motion, and a wooden crate. Office is done.

It's all fun and games until your programmer starts vomiting...

If only their resolution were better...

Isn't the same true of most of the Oculuses out there? :)

In time. I do worry about putting 2 screens 3" from my eyes for hours on end though.

Apparently, the main issue with eye strain from close monitors and such is the fact that your eyes have to focus closer. But the oculus has two screens and optics, which they use to let your eyes focus at infinite distance. Hence, eye strain is not an issue.

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.

> Hence, eye strain is not an issue.

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.

Isn't that mostly a matter of adjusting IPD and other calibration?

There are software issues caused by the game / simulation camera FOV mismatch.

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.

have you tried this yet? i'm curious

I tried one. The screen isn't there yet for long term productivity, or even long term gaming. They'll get it there though, the motion tracking and field of view are wonderful, it mostly would just need to be much higher res for non gaming activities.

Or a 50" TV screen.

  Or a 50" TV screen.
For that to be of any practical benefit, it'd have to be 4K resolution, right?

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. :)

The modern equivalent, of course, is big monitors and maybe more than one.

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.

Note to those who want to tilt their monitors into portrait mode to get more height (I have two tilted 1080p monitors jammed together to make one squarish screen), take note of vertical viewing angles (which now become horizontal). Your average TN panel is simply not going to cut it. Get an IPS display or equivalent.

Hey, at least you get a reasonably complete keyboard out of it.

4 screens, some testing hardware, printouts, lunch at desk while reading... 30 square feet is reasonable. Not everyone works on Macbook Air.

It also depends greatly on what you work on. It's not unusual for me to have several towers in various states of disassembly, a few embedded boards, numerous JTAG probes, and a laptop fighting for space around my 2 monitors. In this case, I could definitely use 30 square feet of desk space.

You bring up a great point--my desk is none too large (20 sq. ft. tops), and still it's pretty sparse: phone, keyboard, mouse, laptop (stand), monitor, picture of the kids. Nothing that requires 30 sq. ft.

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.

I wouldn't even know what to do with more than ~20sqft of desk space. Even 15 (5'x3')is pretty roomy.

Useful information. Do you have an URL for this?

Open office plans suuuuuuuuuuuck. They are soul-crushing, productivity-destroying disasters. Especially if you are trying to code while the telemarketer android is right next to you, repeating his or her script for the 90th time that day. But even if its just developers. Everyone talks about productivity, but its also the lack of privacy. I find that just draining.

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.

We are only 8 to 9 people in our room here. We have our own conference-space inside this room, without separation. I am siting between editors, but I am a data-wrangler. I do code (ok, ugly code, but code non the less). I try to wrap my head around sql-commands, awk, sed, grep, python and so on.

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.

"Accounts Payable, Nina speaking! Just a moment!"

"Good morning, thank you for calling Initech --- JUST a moment!" Yep.

I believe it was corporate accounts payable.

I can vouch for open plans being terrible even in a non-dev intensive environment... Open plans stifle the ability to have the ad-hoc meetings that actually allow things to get done, since having that conversation at a person's desk disrupts the entire floor within a large radius.

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.

You know what's even more soul crushing? Unassigned cubicles. Every day you come in, potentially to a new cube. Every day you leave, and it's exactly like how you found it that morning when you came in. There's a number of large companies moving to this, not just for people who are frequently out of the office, but the engineering and operations staff as well.

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.

Maybe... but I flat-out refuse to work in an office without natural light. It's just too soul-crushing to spend 5/7 of my daytime hours away from the sun, under fluorescent glare. (I'm sure that for many people, this doesn't bother them.)

Open plan offices certainly can have their problems, but I'll take natural light over a private room any day.

I can understand not wanting to work under fluorescent light all day, but having had offices of all types, from window offices with great views to interior offices with and without windows into the hall, to a basement dungeon that was actually supposed to be a telecom closet, there is a simple, magical transformative thing you can do to your office to make the lighting less soul-crushingly artificial: Get a desk lamp. Dead serious; try it.

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. 
Absolutely! Spending $50 (total) on some lamps and warm CFL/LED bulbs and turning off the soul-crushing fluorescent lights was huuuuge for me.

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.

Not to get into nit picky details, but have you found if color spectrum of your lamp matters?

I'm a fan of warmer lightbulb colors, even though they don't quite match the cooler tone of natural sunlight.

I'm sure it has some effect, but I've never really put any effort into comparisons. I currently have a cheapo LED bulb, but it's under one of those standard yellowish brown lampshades, so it still feels nice and "warm" to me.

A lot of open floor plans don't address natural light at all, in that there still isn't any or most seats are too far in to really benefit and most of your light still comes from florescent bulbs.

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.

Amen. Bad lighting is one of the things about my current job that make it likely I'm going to quit sooner rather than later. It's at the point where I'm often more productive using just my laptop (no secondary monitors) at home in controlled conditions.

Of course, if you don't have an open floorplan, it's easier to adjust your lighting conditions.

I love real sun as well. But, no need to suffer under fluorescent glare. Desk lamps and even white xmas lights are what I use in the evening, similar to a lack of windows. Coworkers may be an impediment, unfortunately.

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.

why wouldn't a private office have natural light?

Because most buildings have a large footprint, and only the offices on the parameter have windows. I am typing from a windowless, interior, private office. It is pretty depressing, but I prefer it to open space (which I could easily get here). Others, of course, like the person we are replying to, would feel differently.

One of Spolsky's articles pointed out that hotels are also large buildings that manage to get an outside window on every room...

If you think about it, that analogy doesn't really work. The rooms that guests stay in are almost all along the outside because guests are paying customers. The janitor's storage rooms, room service kitchens, elevator shafts, mechanical access corridors and other such workspaces are located on the inside in the less valuable parts of the building. Not every room has an outside window - only the rooms for VIP's, which is oddly similar to the situation in most office buildings.

Offices also have janitor storage rooms, elevator shafts, dining rooms, et cetera. They also have meeting rooms, labs, server rooms that can be located in the centre.

You can do a lot by varying the shape of a building. The office building that I work in is a giant H. I'm next to a window pretty much anywhere I go.

As desirable as windows are, they're also conductors of heat/cold. I'll bet that office is uncomfortable and very expensive to run.

Except many of those are new construction that are designed to be long and narrow. Most existing office buildings were not designed that way.

I think that was Spolsky's point. Why weren't they designed that way? They should be.

I guess I will just email the architect of my building and tell them they did it wrong. I should have sunlight when?

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.

Hotels also tend to have extremely long hallways, lots of relatively small floors, and few rooms larger than a bedroom.

A bit of a tangent, but this is the reason why there are no real high-rise buildings in Europe (The tallest building in the EU is only 1004 ft high). There are laws that determine the minimum amount of natural light an office should have. Since taller buildings have a larger footprint, at some point the interior offices no longer get the required amount of natural light, meaning they can no longer be used as a work-area, thus making the building uneconomical.

This doesn't make sense or I am missing something. If you find a floorplan and it has enough light, and then repeat it upwards, won't every floor have similar amounts of light? In that way high-rises are a GREAT way to have many people working in a single large building with everyone seeing light.

Yes, but higher buildings require a larger footprint. You cannot build a spire the height of the Burj Khalifa (828 m or 2,717 ft) with a floorplan that offers natural light everywhere all the way from the bottom to the top floors.

I'm starting to think it's a cultural thing. Why do you and other people think that not having natural light is depressing? When I see people from US or some other countries talking about lighting, they seem to almost worship natural light.

I'm living in Sweden, and at least in the northern parts some people do get clinically depressed during the very long and dark winters. Maybe if you live in e.g. India, southern Europe or Australia, you have enough sun to never really miss it. But when sunlight is scarce, it definitely affect you.

Well, sunlight has a big impact on people.

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.

Because some private offices are more like dungeons buried in the bowels of a soulless building than the happy home of Fog Creek. :)

I totally agree. But I like the cave idea so I would prefer caves along the perimeter of the floor. (Though you might not call them caves anymore.)

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.

And I am just the opposite. Every time I get a new job I pray to be in a windowless place, specially if it's a small room in a corner.

There's no price for the peace it brings.

People in the software industry keep rediscovering this all the time. Managing software teams without having read Peopleware is like coming back from Paris without having seen the Eiffel tower.


I completely identify with this. Certainly, some of this is introversion, but more of it is science. Peruse Hacker News for a few days and another article will pop up justifying what we all feel when we're at work: interruption is poison, and casual environmental talking sucks brain power.

I like the idea of caves. We share our office with another company, Southtree[1]. 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.

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. A single day working from home might equal 2-3 days of productivity at the office (provided you can seclude yourself at home).

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.
Yes, this! Also, I hate to admit it, but I haaaate the idea that somebody could walk up from behind me while I'm deep in concentration.

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.

I'm currently working in a support position for a relatively large building, both floors of which are almost exclusively cubes except manager's single desk offices.

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.

Affirming both your experience and the parent poster's.

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.

The eternal "open floor plan versus programmer-friendly caves" debate makes it painfully clear: there's no one right answer. Why is this hard to understand?

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?

> 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.

We do exactly that. I've never been more happy and productive in my life.

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 :)

Where do you work again? (looking to escape open office hell)

Are you hiring?

Yes, it is. Your back and/or hands will explain why soon enough.

I've been working exclusively with laptops for > 6 years now... how long do I have to wait?

laptops are not productive (for me). I like the Valve approach of putting your entire workstation on a movable desk, and you just wheel your entire desk to where you need to be at the time. Collaborate for a few weeks? No problem. Go off to a closet for three weeks while you solve a difficult algorithmic problem? Just unplug and go.

(this is not me disagreeing with you, just expanding on your point)

Honest question: Why are laptops not productive for you?

I would hate having only a laptop as my development workstation, or having to take my laptop/keyboard/mouse around to different Thunderbolt displays throughout the office. My work setup is a Macbook Pro, but I very rarely unplug it from the Thunderbolt display (and thus keyboard, mouse, etc.) on my desk.

A company a friend of mine works for does something like this. You have a desk, at your desk is a laptop, monitor, keyboard and mouse. Your desk is yours to personalize and it's in an open area. Want a quiet room? There's a few dedicated working rooms for individuals or small teams, grab your laptop and move there. Work in an office but want the collaborativeness for a bit? Grab your laptop and move to one of the unused desks.

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.

It's funny... that would be awesome for me. 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'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?

Valve is said to have workstations on moveable desks - you need to work on other project or in quieter place - unplug your desk and roll it to other location.

  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 get it; I'm one of those types. I do like a small amount of space that's "mine." :)

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.

If you want to understand everything that everyone is working on, where does the time and energy come from to do that? It comes from everything else you are trying to do. It is not "free".

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?

I've worked in open settings, as i am now, and worked in an office with two other people spaced out comfortably. In both we used irc or another similar chat to communicate regardless of the distance, so we didn't distract others. The open office i can't stand. I can never focus, and every time personX is looking for personY, they just pool the whole floor, which is annoying. i get noise cancelling headphones and what not, but i also get that if you're not wearing them and personZ is trying to get personY's attention, you have to listen to somoene yell. I wear headphones but get sick of wearing them after about 3 hours straight. I'm in a corner and face a window, which is nice, but i would rather be shut in a quiet room, working. I have also worked from home 5 days a week. love/hate there.

We had a caved in office in our last space, and the expected downsides from now having enough casual conversations bit us. Engineering did not know what client services was doing, client services did not talk to sales, and leadership was hard/nonexistent. Our new space is night and day - we have a big open floor plan and enough conference rooms so that you can always find a quiet place to brainstorm. We still have some of the old cultural problems that the old space created, but we are trending upward.

My favorite past employer had a sea of 8x8 cubes. The solution to communications issues like this was all you can eat Friday night pizza parties. People stayed to 11 PM hashing over issues of the week. One day, the beancounters decided to put a 3-slice quota on the pizza. That was the end of that.

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.

It was the bean counters that put the kibosh on the all-you-can work pizza parties?

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.

>People stayed to 11 PM hashing over issues of the week. One day, the beancounters decided to put a 3-slice quota on the pizza

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?!

We're the same way. Big open floor plan with conference rooms (although not enough). We have ~35 people in our big room and it's relatively quiet all day. People take phone calls in the conf rooms and everyone in the big room is usually working on heads down work (mix of programmers, project managers and data analysts).

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.

>> Big open floor plan with conference rooms (although not enough)

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.

Serious question: in these completely open plans that so many startups seem to favor, where does one pick one's nose or scratch one's nuts? [1]

[1] 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. [2]

[2] 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.

I worked in an open plan once.

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.

You might as well ask where teachers, or bus drivers, or college students, or any number of a wide variety of people who aren't alone in a room all day, pick their noses or scratch their nuts.

Recess; at the turn-around point of their route; between classes.

Right. The point is, all of those people have breaks available to them, and programmers in an open office plan are no different.

In the fart-room ... I mean ... kitchen.

I would love to work in an office that has caves like that as opposed to the open office I'm in now.

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.

We have individual offices at my company and it is quite excellent coming from an open office/cube farm layout previously. Being able to just close the door and window blinds to signal you want to be left alone work and think is something every developer should be able to do.

I'm not a big fan of open plan offices, but now 8 people are moving into two offices with no natural light, and 3 people right right next to them. Unless those hallway walls are glass, that feels like an awfully depressing place to work.

Nobody is saying there's no such thing as a bad non-openplan office. There are more than two choices between a sapping openplan office and a cramped windowless one. I mean really.

Sure, I was referring to the two particular offices in the original article's plan. I don't see those as an upgrade.

Reminds me of working at Worksmart Labs/Noom. They had a noisy open plan office, but still felt they should max out the stars on the Joel test in their hiring ads for giving programmers a quiet working environment. If you are going to have an open plan office, it is a cost cutting measure. That's it. Being honest about a lack or fault is better than lying about it. Good to see a startup doing things right in this article!

I don't think it's cost cutting - the price of office space is far outweighed by knowledge worker salaries. I think it's a whole range of factors, but the largest is this: when a tech company becomes successful, they grow fast and are too busy to do a search for a proper office. So you see a lot of successful tech companies with tight, open layouts. Then you simply confuse causation and correlation and say "oh it must be their cross team communication!"

In some places natural light is legally mandated, hard to use a large chunk of floorspace, have natural light and give everybody a room of their own at the same time. Especially older buildings can't be adapted to this.

Where is that? I never heard of such a law existed.

3-4 person caves are awful. They encourage cliquish behavior which translates into uncooperative competition. Completely open plans might be noisy, but 3-4 is too small a unit. You can always call the big bullpen the quiet room and the smaller rooms the conversation rooms. I've worked at several start ups where that was in place and it worked wonderfully. To blame the plan is to blame the tool - it was the hammers fault!

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.

Your redesign also needs walls around the scrum zone. Specify a high-density soundproofing insulation in those walls, and you'll be cut noise transmission all through the office.

> Iā€™m cognizant that this recommendation flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which says that open layouts lead to better organizations because communication is more free-flowing.

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.

Every time I see something about designing office space I struggle to be convinced that it is better than the format of Pixars. From now on, I will be posting this link as a reminder in the comments.


One of their innovations was to have the bathroom in the middle so everyone bumps into each other. Sounds gross but they say it works.

This postings instantly reminded me of this Dilbert comic from a few weeks ago


It is surprisingly easy to get nice quiet private office. I charge 40% extra for work in loud open-plan office.

What about a bunch of partitioned rooms with soundproof glass walls?

Oooh! The fishbowl approach.

Don't tap on the glass! It'll make their hearts explode!

It beats open concept warehouse space, although only for audio distractions

"Caves": why is he inventing a new term?

Rebranding. Cubicles are for Dilbert.

Maybe, because that describes his imagines layout/design/feeling best, when it comes to these rooms/offices.

It's not new. I've heard that term almost 10 years ago.

For holes in stone, or for _cubicles_?

For open office design. Desks all in the open and then "caves" for "private" rooms.

Don't forget to mix in some standing desks

hi guys -- i just wanted to say that this thread is fantastic. this is why HN is so sweet! Thanks all!

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