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Why open-office layouts are bad for employees, bosses, and productivity (fastcompany.com)
426 points by jtoeman on Nov 21, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 239 comments

The best environment I've ever worked in was a combination open office, private space hybrid. You had your desk, whether you wanted a sitting desk or standing desk, you could choose from either, and you were by default in the open office area. However, surrounding this large room were a dozen or so closed offices where you could pop in and have a meeting or do some coding in private.

However, one of the organize-all-the-things guys on the internal operations team once caught me in a coding marathon in one of those offices and sent an email to the entire company "reminding" everyone that those offices were for God-knows-what-he-thought-they-were-for, not for work. So I returned to my ergonomic island and toiled away, surrounded by the noise of a hundred private conversations.

I've always thought since then that if that had panned out, that you could choose at any moment if you wanted to be in the open room or in a private room in the perimeter, that would have been the ideal layout.

This was pretty similar to (at least the buildings I worked in 2012-2013) Facebook Menlo Park: open space, but many of small side offices for coding/ad-hoc meetings/views.

Personally, however, I'd prefer the reverse: offices as the default (two people per office okay, as long as there's space) with open space (with portable white boards, bean bag chairs, desks) in the middle for ad-hoc design/discussions.

Cubicles do seem the worst of both world, however: an ad-hoc meeting is no longer so ad-hoc (as it requires hunting for an available conference room), but the noise/interruption issues are no better than open areas.

> I'd prefer the reverse: offices as the default (two people per office okay, as long as there's space) with open space (with portable white boards, bean bag chairs, desks) in the middle for ad-hoc design/discussions.

I've worked in environments like that. Unfortunately, the open space looks like "not working" to people and is highly visible. Since no one wants to be publicly seen as not working, they just ended up being a very nicely decorated and inviting ghost town.

> I've worked in environments like that. Unfortunately, the open space looks like "not working" to people and is highly visible. Since no one wants to be publicly seen as not working, they just ended up being a very nicely decorated and inviting ghost town.

FYI, this is exactly what happens to luxurious and inviting game rooms at videogame companies.

Exactly right: this was when I worked at EA. :)

I think my ideal would be small offices for people, with areas that are more open, but not a single huge open area. I could definitely see how what you're saying could happen.

I always like to think of the library my university had. It had rooms of all sizes going around most of the outside, and then little pockets of chairs and even some cubical type areas. The bookshelves broke everything up mentally, so I never felt in the open, but also never confined. Some of the rooms had white boards and some were just tiny rooms with a desk you could use.

For me personally, the key is variety and flexibility, and not assuming that one thing works perfectly for everyone.

So don't make it look like a break room.

It's not necessarily about how it looks; it's about default choices. If there aren't many people working there already, people are unlikely to join them.

> Personally, however, I'd prefer the reverse: offices as the default

This is essentially what I have now. We have four people in two very large rooms connected by an open internal corridor. There's chairs in each room, and a large table in one of the rooms. It's a very productive setup.

The best office space I've ever work at was like that. It was a relatively small part of one of MSFT buildings which Ray Ozzie carved out for the Mesh incubation. Everyone had a small private office with glass door/walls and in the middle there was big open area with couches, chairs, pillows, whiteboard walls and conference rooms.

Interesting! I worked in that same office when FUSE Labs was there in the post-Ozzie time (2012), and like some of the other commenters pointed out, I never saw a single one of my coworkers doing actual work outside of their offices. It was awesome for team meetings, though.

The large pharma I used to work for is still in the process of spending millions of dollars redoing all of their floors to open work space areas. Around the outside of the floors are "focus booths" which just have a small desk/phone/monitor setup for someone to work in for a few hours.

These booths are always full and occupied by folks for the entire day, since most people don't like the loud open area workspace and sit in these small offices so they can have phone calls and concentrate.

Every time I've been involved in an open floor plan office I look at the conference rooms. They end up occupied by the most senior person that doesn't have an office.

At one company where I worked management got offices, so it was senior developers staking out the conference rooms... at another, no one had an office, so the owner got the nicest conference room and some of the leads fought over the lesser ones.

Open office plan here.

We have a little room tucked down a hallway that maybe 5-7 people know about, and no one uses. I've been in here for 3 weeks, and it's wonderful.

We used to have one of those. It was called the "Tree House" because one guy filled it with plants. It was great. Then we moved offices - open floor plan - and we no longer have the equivalent. :(

most people don't like the loud open area workspace and sit in these small offices so they can have phone calls and concentrate.

FWIW, good acoustical engineering can make a significant difference in how loud an open-space "feels." Putting sound-absorbing materials on all architectural features and hanging sound-diffusing baffles from the ceiling can change a loud room into a significantly quieter and less distracting room.

It isn't a panacea, but it isn't hard to do. You will need someone experienced in room acoustics to design it for you. I'd still prefer small offices over an open space, but if management is stuck on having an open-space then getting good sound control in there will make the best of a bad situation.

You can hear the reverse in a lot of trendy restaurants nowadays where, for some reason that I can't comprehend, it is fashionable to deliberately make the dining area as loud as possible.


I could not agree more. Acoustic treatment can dramatically change a rooms ambiance in an almost imperceptible way. It's amazing how voice volume goes down, because the listener can clearly hear you, so you don't have to raise your voice over the other conversations to be heard. Once you experience a well treated room, you long to return to it.

I also have wondered why more restaurants don't use sound treatment. I have noticed that the high class restaurants always have sound treatment. Don't these other restaurants know that if you install adequate sound treatment that you can charge more? Obviously not...

I can't google for references now, but restaurants like loud dining areas because there is a linear relationship between the dB of background noise and the money customers spend on drinks.

I haven't seen the references you mentioned, but is it possible that the cause and effect here are swapped? It seems more likely that increased drinking leads to increased noise.

I believe the logic is that talking and drinking compete for the oral mutex, so limiting the ability to talk (by making it so loud that talking becomes pointless because nobody can ear you) increases drinking throughput. Or something like that.

I worked in a new office like that. The management were oh-so proud of how smart they were in selecting that design. Of course every one of them had his own office.

The problem with focus booths is that it's not "your" space. You don't come back to the same one every day, you can't have pictures of your family on the desk, etc.

Focus booths are a small courtesy to allow people to make phone calls and hold 1:1 or very small meetings, but that's about it.

It was an awful work environment, even though it looked very modern and stylish. It was one of the main reasons I quit that job.

I'm pretty sure I work in the same place. It's impossible to get a focus booth or enclave (is that what they call the small group rooms?) unless you get there early. Fortunately, they told me I would be mobile, then assigned me a desk in a lab space. Not being able to have food at my desk is a small price to pay for having a desk.

I worked in a hybrid environment at Apple (we had this office / common area setup in Infinite Loop). It was a great working environment, and I got a lot done. You could leave your door open and join in the conversation, or close your door and shut out the world for a while.

I work in an open space plan at Valve now, and it's pretty decent. The thing that makes it decent is that desks are mobile; there is no assigned space (want an office? find an empty one and move in) so you can very easily choose who to work next to. This cuts down a great deal on interruptions caused by people interrupting the people /next/ to you, which I found was the actual source of randomization in most cubical environments.

Also, stuffing more than a few dozen people into a shared area is probably bad. Don't do that.

A few dozen? More than 6 and you've got everyone's occasional quick chats adding up to constant distraction.

Depends on the space; if it's big enough you can get away with more people (remember, they can shuffle). Sound-deadening floor and ceiling material helps a lot. The most important thing is still attitude toward your cow-orkers, though.

I've had very good experiences with anything from 5 up to 20.

Mobile desks. Let people move where they want to. If nothing else I get tired of looking at the same walls from the same angle day in and day out. I like variety.

Overall though I prefer an open space environment with the ability to periodically go of to a quiet area for deep thinking. Sometimes you just need that solitude to do your best work.

I'd lov this arrangement if it were the reverse of how I've seen it implemented.

The meeting/private rooms should be in the center, away from the scarce windows, and the more frequently used common space should have the privilege of natural lighting. Too many conference rooms are allowed to hog the view.

This is how we've had our offices in previous companies, and the new office we're building will have this layout as well. It works great. You get privacy or you get sunlight :)

Yay, nice subtle way to make people hate spending time in their private offices: Make it feel like a punishment, akin to solitairy confinement.

No, a good private office should have natural light coming in through windows!

The worst is when, not only are you surrounded by private conversation, but forced to listen to godawful music blasting at full volume from the office stereo.

Thanks for sharing, I've always thought that seemed like the right compromise. If I was looking to build a similar space, would you have any advice or observations?

I've been in such an office, and I loved it. Some people, like me, spent most of their time in the main open space. Others camped out all day in a private office. Most moved between the two.

From a design perspective:

- Glass walls are nice. This office was a group space surrounded by smaller rooms (which had the windows). The offices were glass on the interior wall (facing the group space), which allowed light in, but opaque on the walls between offices, allowing for privacy.

- Variety was important. Iirc, we had like 4-6 offices that would fit 2 people at desks, 3 that would fit 4 or 5 people around a table, and 1 that fit about 12 around a small conference table. This was for a 25-person company, and seemed to provide about the right amount of space. - We ended up soundproofing a few rooms because people would use them for calls or loud music playing and it'd disturb the neighboring offices.

Unfortunately, I've only ever been a spectator in the design of offices, I've never played much of an active role in their organization. The best advice I can offer is to have the utmost respect for your developers, since they are your prized assets. Give them good equipment, choices, and solicit them for feedback on what they want.

> "The best advice I can offer is to have the utmost respect for your developers, since they are your prized assets."

Not just devs. Employers should have utmost respect for all their employees.

I wish I could upvote this more than once. It's too common for developers to assume they're more valuable rather than benefiting from a currently tighter job market.

There's some of that, to be sure, but different employees are different. Everyone spends some amount of time doing collaborative work, and some amount of time doing individual work that requires concentration and focus. Different jobs require a different mix of these two kinds of work. Developers tend to spend most of their time on the individual concentration end of the spectrum, which is why you see comments like the parent's. But it applies just as much to anyone who requires an equivalent amount of individual focused work time each day.

The logical outcome of this is that your office layout should be different for employee groups doing different types of work, but since having an office is seen as a perk of upper management, giving offices to some groups and open plan areas to other groups is seen as favoritism and elitism rather than simply providing the best environment for everyone's job, and I think that's a big reason why it doesn't often happen.

In economics terms, that's the same thing. Tighter job market, more competition for dev talent, devs have more choices, the good ones choose the environment that values them the most.

> In economics terms, that's the same thing.

Only in the most simplistic understanding – anyone serious will factor in limited information and human irrationality rather than assuming that observed market behaviour represents Econ 101 game-theoretical optimal decisions.

If you work at a large company, you might be well paid because you're working on the CEO's pet iOS project and there's a developer shortage. The market is working to give you higher pay but there's no relation to any sort of actual value. Most places don't even make a serious effort to quantify value or cost in a remotely scientific manner.

Employees are your most prized asset I wouldn't limit it to just devs.

I'm curious, why didn't you just tell the operations guy to piss off?

This is the problem of the commons in its classic incarnation. If the private offices are shared, pretty soon you will have people either squatting in them or accusing others of squatting.

Open layouts are a way to save lots of money per employee. They provide no tangible benefit over private offices that are big enough to have coding sessions in, but they cost a hell of a lot less. Next time someone tells you that they are more productive in an open layout office ask them if they had ever worked with an engaged and energetic team where everyone did have large private offices. Chances are, they did not and therefore have no basis for comparison.

Same here. If you needed privacy you have it. If you wish to have a collaborative work space you have it.

My mood changes, some days I can deal with others other days I just want to put my head down and program alone. This was a great option to have.

This is how my company works - we have our open office, with our "cubes" out amongst everyone else, but we have tiny little work rooms with TVs and adapters, and the ability to close a door (well it's a glass door but still), and work.

And no one's ever told me I can't work in one of them all day if I wanted to (I don't). I bet there'd be a discussion if I moved into one permanently, or even for more than a straight few days, but for now at least, we have the best of both worlds.

exactly my submission, many years ago, which matches what was ultimately used for our AWARD WINNING offices on the other side of the country. the local office is moving again and using low walled cubes in large rooms. It would be great for honest appraisal of office design and approval by the cubicle-bound-occupants and not the office-blessed-few.

Sounds like study rooms in college libraries. I like it. It solves the space problem and provides more flexibility than the office solution. Sometimes you do want to be around the rest of the team, and sometimes you're working closely with one co-worker and you need some one on one work time with them.

I agree that they are the same in concept. In my limited experience, the college study rooms were used pretty much exclusively in the week or so leading up to finals. Where I work now, the same types of spaces are constantly filled. It could just be a matter of balancing the need with the availability of those kinds of rooms.

Perhaps the worst aspect of all this, is the purposeful, or even casual, ideologue. An arrangement works for them, or they think it does -- or, BEST PRACTICES dictate that it should... and viola, a dictate.

I am one who needs some control over his environment. In the majority of cases, these means peace and quiet particularly/mostly from human noise, as well as a lack of visual distraction. (Although there are times when I work well -- best even -- in a frenetic environment; however, these are limited in both type and frequency.)

I'm a bit older, and I fell into a generation that was subscribing to and prescribing whole-heartedly the "open", "collaborative" environment.

It did not work for me. Yet I received unrelenting pressure, including from medical professionals, that I was the one who... "simply" needed to learn to adapt.

Well... now we know a bit better. (Although I don't trust society to have truly "learned" this in any permanent fashion.) But the chronic stress of this situation has caused for me major adjustments in career and, eventually, rather run me down.

To put the bottom line at the bottom, here: If a situation is not working for you, IT IS NOT WORKING FOR YOU. TRUST THIS. TRUST YOURSELF!

"Professionals" of varying occupations and levels of training will all -- ALL -- tell you all kinds of crap. Even several years of medical school does not divorce most from their prejudices nor from cultural suasion.

Don't waste your time -- your life -- running yourself down trying to live up to someone else's idea of the "right way".

Definitely. I'd add, if "medical professionals" were telling you you were wrong from something you felt clearly, run away. You aren't incorrect or just "need to adapt". We are all not built the same and as an introvert I do fit the "only critics" mold but damn do open plans suck for me.

I'm in a large shared office of 4 desks. I have a single coworker that sits right next to me though him or I moving to the vacant lot doesn't really cross our minds. I am however consistently distracted as he's particularly fidgety, talks to himself (I do when I'm alone), and either chews really loudly or I've just grown to hate it. I have had no problems with him as a person but the effects of the constant disruption bring about a certain disdain towards others that distract him or myself. I can't divorce myself from it and my ears can't take a full day of headphones even if I severely enjoy the music I listen to.

I see open plans as facilitators in nothing but pain all around and where I am currently. We've always been in a open office cube farm of some nature but something about the move to a new place specifically designed to be this way was a bigger kick in the balls than I had anticipated. I can't think of any place that would prize distractions as a badge of honor either, at least not where developers are concerned. Yet that's exactly what we have now and that I've allowed some shitty process to make me this much of a shitty person is the real problem. Its like I can't ever correct it either so I just need to move on or it's going to continue to push me into atrophy.

Basically your last paragraph is key. Notice this early. If you can change policy for your sake, good. If you can't, run away. You don't deserve the inevitable downturn it'll have on your livelihood.

It's interesting to note most people don't know the history of the cubicle and why it was invented in the first place:


"The office cubicle was created by designer Robert Propst for Herman Miller, and released in 1967 under the name "Action Office II". Although cubicles are often seen as being symbolic of work in a modern office setting due to their uniformity and blandness, they afford the employee a greater degree of privacy and personalization than in previous work environments, which often consisted of desks lined up in rows within an open room.[1][2

Image of an office circa 1937: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Photograph_of_the_Division...

I've never liked the open office layouts anyways. The two companies I worked for used it and it was tremendously noisy and so I usually did anything I could to avoid having to work in the office. Either by going to the cafeteria to work, or staying home. It made both of the teams I worked on very inefficient. The exact opposite goal it was meant to address.

I worked in an office similar to that "1937 office" for a few months in the early 90's -- in Japan.

The desk layout on the "engineering floor" of the building seated senior engineers behind the junior engineers. All the way back to the VP of engineering in the back.

As a foreign visiting engineer from a California startup, I was seated in the back near the VP. I think they were trying to be respectful to me. Engineers then came back to my desk to ask me questions, although I was actually very junior to them. Hilarity ensued, when they actually took my advice.

EDIT: Clarified

It seems all the tech companies in Japan (or at least in Tokyo) still all use open plan spaces for engineers.

Does anyone know of any companies in Japan that offer their engineers private office spaces?

There's another huge reason the cubicle office is dominant: Cubicles are immediately tax deductible, while building out offices is considered a capital improvement, and therefore has to be depreciated over a longer period of time.

Tax law all too frequently shapes behavior, and this is one of those cases.

Honestly this is horrifying. The idea that companies are making damaging decisions because they have favorable tax benefits and congress probably didn't even realize it. Well that makes me sad.

Yikes. I'd never even considered that.

Do you have any other (terrifying) examples?

I have heard it asserted that the reason for poor construction quality of postwar US commercial buildings in their 39-year depreciation life: http://yourbusiness.azcentral.com/irs-depreciation-schedule-...

Hence the lack of much brick or stone, built-for-the-ages construction beyond veneers.

Reminds me of the office in the well-known Soviet film, Sluzhebniy Roman (Office Romance) filmed in the Soviet Union in the early 70's. But the senior manager did have her own office which doubled as a conference room.

My company gives all engineers their own office with a door. Recently four of us petitioned to be able to have an open office together. We collaborate better, feel generally happier, and knowledge sharing happens so much more fluidly.

I was going crazy the first 6 months here because I was holed up in a office by myself with little in-person communication. There was no benefit to being in the office versus working remotely. My first attempt was to get the company a HipChat account for engineers to stay more connected. I even pushed for a couple of monthly engineer events so I would have an opportunity to interact with other engineers.

Open office setups can go horribly wrong. Never allow anyone who spends time on the phone into the open office setup. That stifles all interaction due to the need for silence. Additionally, engineers are forced to listen to a single side of a conversation that likely has nothing directly to do with the engineers. Project and account managers have a valuable job, and engineers should not need to be distracted by work that is not related to what they need to accomplish.

Additionally, I believe an open office for engineers should be reasonably small (4-10 people), and there should be some common responsibilities or projects between the engineers.

Other steps can be taken to give people the appropriate space for the task at hand. I've used a stand-up desk for the past three years. I hardly ever spend a whole day standing. I alternate between sitting and standing as my body gives me signals. Similarly, having quiet space (alternatively headphones, if desired) to crank on certain work can be useful useful. That said, three of the four of us have not used solitary space in the past 2 months.

Basically all of this is to say the issue is not black and white. If you prefer to work in a private office, like more than half of the engineers at my company do, that's fine. If you prefer to work in the company of others, that is fine too. Not everyone wants to work at a startup, and not everyone hates working for big financial companies.

Team-sized open plans look interesting. Even better if there is plenty of private space (like meeting rooms) available for people never using all of them... But that arranjement is unstable - the meeting rooms won't survive office politics - much better to have private offices for everybody, with an open "patio" shared by the entire team where you could work if you want (yes, I did keep the arranjement, just changed the names).

As an afterthought, now that phones are all VoIP, are there WiFi endpoints available for sale?

Sure, just be sure your WiFi network has been deployed for voice (much higher density of APs). Cisco Jabber, Avaya One-X, Microsoft Lync are all available on PC, Mac, Android and iOS. For Asterisk and SIP based deployments, Bria makes an excellent softphone for the same platforms. I seriously cannot understand the lasting attachment people have for $400 plastic devices, but using a tablet or smartphone avoids problems caused by an unstable/busy PC. In 2005, at an accounting firm (conservative user base, broad mix of ages) voluntary / satisfied softphone users was 35%, today I would expect it would be nearly double. Never hurts to ask the IT department.

> I seriously cannot understand the lasting attachment people have for $400 plastic devices

It helps to have a phone that is not the computer you are working on. At least for me that excludes any tablet I have on hand (if I have it nearby, there's probably something there that I should read). I didn't think about using smartphones - bring your own SIP endpoints for work, could be nice.

> It helps to have a phone that is not the computer you are working on.

Agreed. A coworker of mine rolled back to a restore point, which caused his computer to get kicked off the domain. He couldn't log in at all, so he had to call IT. The problem was his phone was a softphone on his computer.

The problem is that your company is a cheapskate outfit just buy a separate ip based phone and plug that into the other port at your desk - oh you did follow standard practice and pull two cat5's to every desk.

We have hotel cubes now. We can't assign names to a hardware phone because a different person could be sitting in the desk every day, and giving someone a floating hardware phone would mean you have to carry it home daily.

Not sure if we have 2 drops per cube. There's 2 ports, but I don't know if they're active, cabled but not hooked up to a switch, or not even run to the cube. Haven't bothered to test because our old Cisco phones had a pass-through port, and now I only have 1 device that could use an ethernet port.

Totally agree with you. While there are times I'm very busy and wished I had a closed in office, 90% of the time I find it highly beneficial to be in an open office.

One of my biggest reservations with a programming career is the general lack of human contact. Open offices alleviate this somewhat, and make work much more tolerable to me. I do realize that I am significantly more talky than most of my coworkers though (Sorry guys!)

Heartily agree. At larger companies in the past, I was part of a cube farm. Absolutely hated it, so much noise and interruption. At my current gig, it's a LOT quieter, smaller, friendlier and virtually no phones ringing off the hook. I've left my office with a door to sit in the open area for more social opportunity as I started feeling lonely. I could get in the office and leave after a full day of work without talking to anyone. :(

Exactly! When i first started this job, there was no sitting room with the team. So i was assigned an office of my own near the Execs. (Its my first job after graduation). So obviously that was a privilege, but it truly is hellishly boring. I was so disconnected with my team.

Eventually i got shifted to sit with my team in an open space and its really great. It's a small enough room with around 20 people, people sitting in teams. i suppose The presence of other teams can be a bit distracting at times, but it also gives you more people to interact with. You get a grasp on more than just your current assignment. You connect with more people than just your current team. So it ain't all bad. there are pros and cons. I guess when you're a senior, you want more space to yourself.

The telephone is my main gripe at the moment. My line manager likes to conduct all his business over the phone. One of my colleagues likes to project her voice across the entire office despite the phone being less than an inch from her mouth. In addition to this many in the office have developed an idiotic system whereby the phones of absent colleagues are answered. When the phone is answered the caller is informed that the intended recipient is not there and a message is taken. For some reason my colleagues do not understand that they are doing exactly what the voice-mail service does.

All of this disturbs me while I'm trying to code.

At my office, if you don't answer your phone for an internal call (for example, due to being busy talking to another developer about a tough problem, or deep in concentration on a problem) the person who called you will get up and come in to your office to see why you didn't answer. Really makes it impossible to have any solid development time.

>I was going crazy the first 6 months here because I was holed up in a office by myself with little in-person communication.

I think the simple trick to this is 2 person offices.

Small aside but IRC works just as well as HipChat without the price tag. And if no one is logging on you can get a bot installed and talk to it :).

At my previous two companies I've found that HipChat is generally much more accessible to non-engineers. Ideally there aren't multiple communication tools for the same purpose, so I'd rather have HipChat than AIM + IRC.

Additionally, it has some nice features like cross-device chat history, various embed support, etc.

I can see the accessibility to non engineers being slightly better. At the same time HipChat does horrible things with XMPP support, so unless you are using their client, you are in trouble. Also, if I remember correctly their client does not support other chat protocols, which means I'd have to run two separate chat clients, which is increasing the number of applications I normally run by 33% (chat, terminal, browser). I can see its value, but I cannot recommend it over IRC or just your own jabber server.

@wbond made the office a whole heckofalot nicer to work at. I was there for two-ish years in the office, even hipchat makes a big difference.

I find it hilarious that a bunch of people who work on internet technologies apparently need so much face-to-face communication.

If you want my attention, send me an e-mail. Also: get off my lawn.

Face-to-face communication is the primary and most efficient way for humans to interact. Coming to a consensus in email with more than two people is a nightmare.

This is over-generalized. Most generalizations about the human race are based off of extroverted personalities, and not the introverted people that comprise the vast bulk of programmers.

This is now pure anecdotal, but the programmers I know prefer to communicate over email, if they're forced to communicate at all. Typically, because this allows them to take the time to get their point across perfectly before sending it.

Programmers have done amazing things while collaborating on massive projects across the planet using nothing but mailing lists and the occasional IRC chat. While this doesn't disprove they might not have communicated better if they were all in one big room together, I'd say it does shine some doubt.

Also, for what it's worth, I'm currently typing this from an open floor plan and I quite dislike it. I miss my quiet office.

I am an introvert but when trying to communicate something complicated that requires lots of roundtrips, I'll take a 15 minute face-to-face meeting over a day long email chain full of misunderstanding any day of the week. Any company where this is understood will move fast and kick ass.

I don't disagree with you. However, the problem arises when said company decides to stick everyone in a big room and says "go forth and collaborate." Before having my office moved into an open floor plan, we still had plenty of face-to-face conversations. Meetings, hallway talks, getting up and walking to another's office, and phone calls were still an option when email wasn't.

Taken as a whole, I think programmers realize that email is a tool like any other- it has its uses, and its times when it should not be used. I feel the same could be said for group settings- there are times it makes sense, and there are times when it doesn't. I'll never understand the tendency of corporations to say "This methodology is good in this particular set of variables, therefor we will use it 100% of the time for every situation."

the programmers I know prefer to communicate over email, if they're forced to communicate at all. Typically, because this allows them to take the time to get their point across perfectly before sending it.

What they often don't realize is that the recipients of their carefully crafted emails don't read them, or at best, skim them.

For one guy I work with, every email is a PhD thesis. They are WAAAAAYY too long-winded and nobody else even pretends to read them anymore.

I sort of dislike email discussion in many cases because I feel like I need to cover all points and consider all possible replies. Even for areas you know well, simply expressing your points understandably and concisely can take a lot of time and effort, and as you often don't really know exactly which points are important to the recipient, much of that effort might be wasted.

In a face-to-face discussion you can drill down and explore exactly those areas which need exploring... If it's a subject you know well enough to talk about without a lot of offline research, this is often way easier.

I've worked at a 100% remote company for the last 9 years - we generally prefer chat rooms.

Email, IM, chat have 1 big thing going for them: documentation. I can pull up the chat logs of every decision we've ever made in the company. Want to remember why we did something 8 years ago - is that a bug or a feature? We can find out if it is, and why.

On the other hand, putting it into an email gives a chance for people to digest and think about it offline, for the person who was travelling that day to be able to see it, for you to be able to forward it to the team who's working on the UI across the Atlantic from you.

Face to face communication definitely has it's place, but it can also lead to cliquish and insular behavior, and can lose out on some benefits of having a paper (well, electronic) trail.

And yet the world's highest quality, and most widely used pieces of software are developed between thousands of people on email lists everyday (Linux, FreeBSD, etc, etc).

Group Instant Messaging works very well for those situations, in my experience.

Why then saying important things is much harder than writing a letter? And why it's easier to read hard things than keep up with the person that talks about them?

That's what meetings and meeting rooms are for. Otherwise email is perfect: you can't consult face-to-face communication for reference months after.

  > Face-to-face communication is the [...] most efficient way for humans to interact.
I'll bet my progress in five thousand years of human history against your progress in fifty thousand years of human prehistory.

It depends who you talk to.

For some people, id rather shoot myself in the face than be face to face or try to comprehend their "email".

Its all "lean", "agile", and "we need to test your test cases manually just to make sure they work, thats what tests or for".

Heh. Open layouts were a response to the cubicle system which isolated people and gave the impression that you are nothing but cattle on an assembly line. It also reinforced status (size of cubicle/office/location). Just watch any 80s or 90s movie. Now the pendulum is swinging the other way. Have the original problems with cubicles been solved?

The problem is that people look for ideological purity and look to absolutes because an unambiguous answer seems simple, whereas the reality is quite grey. The reality is that some people work better in cubicles, and some prefer open layouts. To complicate things even further, some situations call for one, others call for the other.

I see a similar debate going on between proponents of traditional schools (rows of desks, and teacher in front) and structure-less/self-pacing schools. Which is better? Well, some kids thrive in one, others thrive in the other. Worse, some kids get absolutely destroyed within the wrong king of system.

There are no simple answers.

> Heh. Open layouts were a response to the cubicle system which isolated people

And cubes were a response to open layouts which were noisy and provided no privacy. Shit's cyclical.

Offices were a response to open layouts.

Cubes were much cheaper than offices.

Open layouts were much cheaper than cubes.

I have a laptop that easily connects with my external monitors at my desk in the open layout, but when I really need uninterrupted work time, I just go to one of our private rooms and hook up to the projector in there. Gives me a nice blend.

Strange. Never seen cubicles here in Europe.

Really? In the UK it seems to be pretty normal in the newer buildings. My first experience of them was at a city bank shortly before 2000. Very nice interview, all going swimmingly, "Let me show you around our offices"...

The programmers sat near the printer so that people could hassle them every time it ran out of paper. You could identify where the sales team sat before you entered the room. Everybody above the rank of team leader had an office elsewhere.

The next interview I went to was also open plan - in the sense that 5 programmers shared a decent size office. Stayed there for almost 10 years.

Where in Europe? The electronics company I worked at in Belgium back in 2004 had plenty of 'em.

I've never seen any either. Most offices tend to be open plan with fairly limited size rooms, varying from 6 to 20 desks.

My last company visited a company with open office and took pictures to prove to us how great it is. In the pictures the people are hunched down behind their screens, to avoid the distraction of the person facing them, and 90% have head phones on because of the noise distraction.

Basically, they were in mental cubes when they were lacking physical cubes.

P.S. The company I worked for went with the open office, productivity plummeted and the office is now closed. When I pointed out the above issues in the pictures I was told: "You don't like it? Maybe you need to work somewhere else". Well, now, they all work somewhere else.

They had open-office layouts 100 years ago, too. Back then, though, they called them sweatshops.

Hah, nice. I sometimes think that..

A few years back I worked for a prominent design company. Our small group (of 4) had a nice little corner of 1/4 of an entire floor. "Oooh, nice, brick walls and people that look busy" I thought when I first joined. Not even a week later, reality started to set it. It was so ridiculously noisy.

And there were, of course, a few people that contributed to everything. I would sometimes get in around 8, it would be quiet and the usual offenders were actually working. From 10-6, it was like, forget it, noise non-stop. After 6, back to quiet.

This became really frustrating and after asking the offenders to chill, I made a trip to HR to ask wtf? HR was basically like, meh, nothing we can do. I ended up wishing those offenders would quit or worse. It was so bad and they were so loud.

After that I was like, never again an open floor plan. It was the worst thing ever and a total sham for those that want to focus and just get things done. Requiring the people whole want quiet to put headphones on only adds insult to injury.

Too bad quiet just isn't valued anymore..

Sounds a lot like a place I was at for a bit. My observation was that the noisy people killed productivity for the whole place. Not only because no one else could focus enough to get work done, but also because the noisy ones never really did anything (yes, I checked commit logs). Passing cat video links around, playing music through laptop speakers("your headphones broken, bro?"), bro-style fist bumps because they put a sheen on a button, but no real actual coding.

I see a lot of people entering and exiting and their usual reason is taking a break. Emails about jokes and social activities get sent around the office fairly frequently as well. I'm just wondering how do you draw the line between allowing the employee freedom vs just clamping down on shenanigans.

For coders, check commit logs and the like. They can email cat video links to each other all day long for all I care, but if their last commit was last week then we've got a problem. IOW, you don't cut down on the shenanigans, you make sure the work is getting done. As it often turns out, if there's a lot of cat video links there probably isn't a lot of work and vice versa.

Were I appointed to be king, if you're noisy then STFU, full stop, whether you're getting your work done or not. Indoor voices, people, or take it somewhere else.

You don't clamp down anything.

Are those people productive? If yes, you keep them, if not you warn/fire them.

We've had issues in our office where a new employee (actually a co-op was completely incapable of controlling the volume of their voice. People on the entire other side of the office, with earbuds on under their over-the-ear headphones, were having a hard time working. That person ended up leaving, and I ended up sending some frustrated IMs to other people on his team. Eventually, I just moved my desk and the co-op learned to keep his voice down, but for that length of time it was impossible to concentrate for more than ten minutes at a stretch.

Point taken, I suppose, but this is sort of like saying "you try to have breakfast every morning, do you? Well you know who else tried to have breakfast every morning? Hitler!"

No, it's not. It's more like someone trying to sell you on the idea of a patriotic youth league and then... well, you know.

When my last company did the Open Office thing, they gave us little tables, and told us that personal items were not encouraged.

In every open office I've worked in, desks were huge, and personal items were welcome. (Well, maybe not at my current gig; I haven't seen any personal items yet. But it's a pretty new team of mostly externals.)

In my open office, I currently code next to some project managers, who spend all day on the phone negotiating.

This is a bit bad, but I just wear PPE Ear Defenders all day, on top of in ear headphones. With both of these, I can't hear a thing.

The eerie quiet is great for short bursts of concentration, but it also means I can turn my music up to a normal level without worrying about escaping noise annoying my colleagues.

It looks very nerdy, and people need to email me or wave if they want something (which cuts down interruptions a lot). I take them off about half the time so as to be social, which I guess is like leaving an office door open.

Sort of sad it's necessary though. Hope this helps people with a similar situation.

Ear defenders, buy good ones -> http://goo.gl/NlgnPv

Unfortunately for me it's not that simple since I'm also very distracted by visual noise. Someone who passes by in my peripheral view can bring me out of flow as will the feeling of having someone behind my back do.

I recently was fortunate enough to have my own office for a while and I haven't been as productive since...well, since last time I had my own office some five years back. It's an awesome feeling to enter flow almost as you enter your room...

It's interesting to think back at my 15+ years long career and realize that the times when I've been most productive coincides with the times I've had my own office.

I'm the same. Can you put some pot plants to the left and right behind your screen? (more socially acceptable than other barriers) Request a second or larger monitor for your work? You can argue that it'll improve your productivity; you don't have to tell them that's because it'll block out your FOV, not because you actually want to display stuff on it…

Another thing that would help is moving to a different desk, but I'm guessing that might be a bit more difficult to negotiate.

(These days I'm self employed and work from home but that's what I did when I worked in an open-plan office. Also, if you can, come in to work before everyone else, while it's still very quiet. Usually more acceptable than coming in later than everyone else and staying later.)

Thanks for the tips.

The sad thing is that even if you look at it economically it doesn't make sense. Say that in order for each employee to have their own office you need 10m2 extra space per employee. Where I live, that would amount to ~2.5% of the employees salary, i.e. if a private office makes your emplyees more than 2.5% more productive you're profiting from private offices. In my experience my productivity boost when working in a private office amounts to maybe as much as 25% or more.

Oh, definitely. But then there are plenty of other ways of increasing programmer productivity which don't look like busywork so non-programmer managers won't have them. I guess try to get out of employment situations like that...

Perhaps "potted" plants. :)

Hah, yes, sorry - I'm not encouraging cannabis growing in the office. Pretty sure that's a standard name for a houseplant in UK English, didn't make the connection with the US term at all when I was typing it.

Sounds like you need to find a way of working remote (at that company or somewhere else). I figure if much of your life is spent at work, life is too short to work somewhere you can't achieve your best.

>This is a bit bad, but I just wear PPE Ear Defenders all day, on top of in ear headphones. With both of these, I can't hear a thing.

Good lord, this is not an elegant solution.

It also really does not work for people with ear problems (I am one, I can't wear headphones or earplugs for more than 10mn at a time anymore, it starts hurting like the blazes and I have to remove them for a few hours)

>It also really does not work for people with ear problems

Have you ever worn over-the-ear headphones for 10 hours? It's uncomfortable.

And that's not even the worst part. Drowning out coworker nonsense with loud music is permanently damaging to your hearing. Focusing on writing some crappy Ruby isn't worth sacrificing a sense.

> Have you ever worn over-the-ear headphones for 10 hours? It's uncomfortable.

I can barely wear 'phones for 10 minutes. Because it physically hurts.

I have worn 'phones for hours on end a decade or so ago (my weapons of choice were K271s before my ear issues flared up and made that a non-option). They could get pretty hot around the ears, but they were very comfortable.

> Drowning out coworker nonsense with loud music is permanently damaging to your hearing.

There are cans and buds with good isolation (or noise-cancelling).

I would bet that the highly-blocking in-canal earbuds are actually less damaging than cheap ones that sit on top of your ear. Reason being that without any external noise, you can turn the level down on the music and get the same perceptual loudness.

I know for a fact that when I got some nice etymotic earbuds (-20dB of outside sound), I was able to turn the level down from my average of about 70%, to more like 40-50% on my ipod.

That's my thinking as well, but I'm not a hearing specialist.

It's my understanding that sound pressure is the damaging element we're concerned with, however, does blocking the ear canal with a headphone increase the pressure (, and damage,) as there's nowhere for the frequency to dissipate?

Good question - maybe I will post it to /r/askscience.

Even though I don't own a gun, I own two sets of ear protection for this very reason! Just as effective as Bose but for $30, could be worn throughout flights (before recent FAA changes), and needed no batteries.

Highly recommend this option as well.

Edit - best-seller on amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00009LI4K

I recently bought Audio-Technica ATH-M50 studio headphones. Highly recommend! Even with the music turned way down, I barely hear other people talking. If I don't need to be in hyper concentration mode, I use regular head phones. Amazon link to the Audio-Technica studio headphones--> http://www.amazon.com/Audio-Technica-ATH-M50-Professional-Mo...

Don't forget the blue-collar alternative: http://www.amazon.com/3M-WorkTunes-Digital-Protector-Compati...

Oh yeah, if you look for 'recording headphones' you can find regular headphones rated not to leak sound. Apparently it's pretty important during recording sessions. I liked the look of these: http://www.extremeheadphones.com/

Aren't those bit uneffective in the speech frequency range? While wearing such thing angle grinder sounds bearable but I can still hear people talking.

Err... electronic active noise canceling headphones don't work on speech, only against simple droning noises. I'm talking about headphones that use thick pads of material and a strong seal around your ears to straight block sound.

You can just about hear people through them, whisper quiet. But if you are also wearing some in ears, then music, or white noise at a comfortable volume will eliminate it completely.

You want headphones that do like -30db noise attenuation.

I'm talking about simple passive air defenders that look like large headphones, have seal around the ear and padding. I think those are optimised for noises outside of speech range. After all you want to still be able to hear people while operating heavy machinery.

Fascinating. I know the ones I wear work, but they were 'borrowed' from a server room, so might be somehow different...

This blog talks about the 'filtering' you describe, completely new to me... http://eardefenders.org/2011/07/filtered-v-s-non-filtered/

I use Shure earphones (SE-315) with custom molded ear inserts (see your audiologist). Not nearly as quiet as shooting range earplugs + muffs would be, but more socially acceptable and very good audio quality.

I work in an open office with no dividers. Unfortunately for me I don't have selective hearing, so 95% of the time I'm trying to drown out the buzz by wearing over-ear headphones (usually with no music playing). I also spend a lot of time fending off product managers and testers who just refuse to acknowledge the headphone rule and constantly bug me about trivial things that can be put in an email or an IRC message.

The other 5% of the time is great - as other people have already mentioned, it's really easy to listen in to conversations and get an idea of what everybody is up to.

    work in an open office with no dividers. 
    Unfortunately for me I don't have selective
    hearing, so 95% of the time I'm trying to
    drown out the buzz by wearing over-ear
    headphones (usually with no music playing)
My wife has the same problem (no selective hearing). And while I understood it intellectually, it never really made sense. Of course you can focus your hearing, you just have to try... never said that, but that was my thought.

Then recently, an odd combination if sinus infection, cold, and related ear troubles inflicted this on me. I was attending a company/community even with several hundred attendees. Quite suddenly, it was like every conversation in the common area was happening right next to me. It didn't matter how close or far, or how loud - it was all happening at once, and I while I could still hear the person I was talking to, I could no longer distinguish what they were saying as there were too many other conversations that my brain was trying to interpret. This went on for about two hours, then my ears popped, and things were roughly back to normal.

Ho-ly crap. Even with that experience, I find it difficult to fathom living with that nonstop - I don't know how you do it without going insane, particularly if you have to work in an open office.

TL;DR: I finally understand the experience of lacking selective hearing, and sympathize. While hoping it never, ever happens to me again.

"I don't know how you do it without going insane, particularly if you have to work in an open office."

You end up tuning out everything, and can't have a conversation in a noisy area.

> it's really easy to listen in to conversations and get an idea of what everybody is up to.

That's why I prefer something in the middle of open office and having a private office: One office per team of 6-8 people. Then one is always in the loop of what's happening, not stuck alone and don't have to listen to that much noise.

A good thing with such an arrangement is to have designated "person of contact" per day that handles all disrupts from outside that team's office, leaving the rest to work uninterrupted.

> A good thing with such an arrangement is to have designated "person of contact" per day

Usually this is the job of the 'manager' (assuming that the role of 'manager' is filled by a specific person, and not just another one of the engineers).

I wonder, is it possible to learn how to have selective hearing?

I think I learned it by working in a loud dorm, then a loud house, and then a loud work environment. It's no issue for me to ignore other people now. It's actually a joke in my office where people struggle to get my attention while I'm focused.

Cornell did a study of open-plan offices for software engineering awhile back. It's well worth a read if you're interested in this subject.

It's definitely not anti-open. They basically found that closed offices benefit individual engineers the most while open plans benefit the team. Interestingly, while noting the need for concentration, they note a whole bunch of ulterior careerist motives for developers wanting to work in private.

They found that the nature of communication was markedly different in each environment. Open was not only more frequent and immediate, it raised the bar for what was considered a frequent amount of team interaction, suggesting greater knowledge-share. The conversations were also shorter and subject to "cues" about whether it was a good time to interrupt someone. And the stronger social bonds encouraged more people to ask for help and bounce crazy ideas around.

They do note that it comes at the cost of distractions, and in the end they call for a balance.


I currently work in an open office and I really hate it. I've previously had jobs with cubicles and one job where everyone got their own full fledged office. Of the three, I actually think cubicles are the best.

Everyone having their own private office was detrimental in the opposite way. Everyone was closed off and really inaccessible. Knocking on someone's door felt invasive and wrong, so people would avoid doing it.

Cubicles give everyone privacy and space, but not so much that it stops collaboration dead. The impediment to interruptions seems to be at just the right level.

I'm also interested in offices that have open collaborative spaces combined with private offices. I've never had that and I think it could be a good compromise too.

An other nice option is small shared offices, 2-6 people in a room, ideally working on related things (not necessarily together). Avoids the noise and discomfort of an open office, but also avoids the complete isolation and frustration of singles.

People closed their doors? I work in a everyone-gets-an-office environment and basically all the doors remain open 24/7. It's basically an unspoken rule.

You only close the door if you're super focused and want absolute silence, if you need some privacy for whatever reason, or you are having a group-discussion/phone-call and don't want your voice to carry down the hall.

An alternate story in favour of open-office layouts. Here in Aus, the Department of Human Services (DoHS, has had many previous names) is responsible for welfare. The old offices were an arrangement with a counter - staff on one side, clients on the other. Aggressive incidents rose and the counters ended up having old-school bank bulletproof windows installed.

Some bright spark changed that - got rid of the counters, and made the offices all open-office plan. You wait off to the side, and when it's your turn for whatever, someone comes and fetches you to their desk in the open-office plan with some space between desks. Instead of shouting your personal issues across a counter, you could discuss it in a normal tone, and if it was private, you could be quieter or more subtle about the topic. Aggressive incidents dropped off a cliff - and there was much less of an 'us-versus-the-gummint' mentality seeded by the demarcation line of a [fortified] counter.

So in this particular use-case, an open-office layout was clearly superior for employees, bosses, productivity, and clients.

As an occasional DHS client, I partly agree, but there's one crucial thing they severely fucked up in the new layout: the "client" has no idea when "someone" will come fetch them. So you get an intensely frustrated mob of people waiting off to the side, wondering if they'll be stuck there for 10 minutes or three hours, and straining to hear when every few minutes one of the geriatric case workers shuffle over and mumbles horrible mispronunciations of random last names. Which means you can't work, can't listen to music or concentrate on anything, really, just sit on the edge of your seat.

Compare with the normal take-a-number bank queue system, when you have a fairly good idea of how long it will take to go from "now serving 123" to "your queue number is 567".

These are not exclusive, you can have both. In fact, last time I had to visit an administrative office they had an open office for the employee workspaces with numbered desks and a traditional waiting area with a take-a-number queue system (well, actually an online appointment booking system) that directs to you a specific desk if it's your turn.

How many more times is this "open plan is the best!" "open plan is terrible!" cycle going to continue to receive your clicks? This has been an ongoing topic literally all year! These sites are playing the community like a piano, and the comment threads all read exactly the same: anecdotes.

I'm guilty of participating, too, but no more. My assumption will now be that any article with a headline that presents an absolute for a subject that is a matter of preference is garbage. It's all part of growing up, I guess.

To be fair, some people also punctuate their anecdotes with irrelevant experimental data from people working alone on well-defined toy projects.

It's an everlasting controversial subject. Perfect material for page views and ad revenue.

It's not controversial that some people like it and some people don't. Eliding this fact means the writers are doing their job in bad faith.

Totally, man. All absolute statements are garbage!

I sit in an office with desks with half-height dividers. I enjoy it. A while ago our company expanded into another floor, and my product's team was moved there (dev, QA, product, services, support). Previously the layout was arranged more by department than product.

Pretty much everyone on the team loves it, and has felt a major boost in productivity and team cohesion, as virtually anyone you might need is "right there" in the room with you, and you can tune in to some of the chatter for an organic understanding of what everyone's up to. I imagine if everyone were in offices it would feel dead and empty, and totally kill the team spirit.

I think the only thing we're missing is more ad-hoc space - more conference rooms for breakout groups and individuals seeking temporary escape from the floor.

Given that environment, what do you do when you're trying to concentrate on a particularly challenging issue and you need to tune out the chatter and what others are doing?

For me personally it's not much of an issue, it's just not that distracting. I just don't listen, and if someone addresses me directly I tell them I'm busy. I don't use headphones either because I tend to focus too much on the music.

I realize that this isn't viable for everyone, which is why I think we need more rooms for people to have that isolation when they need it.

edit: There certainly are times where I experience a lot of interruptions, and I'm glad for the after-hours when most people have left. But those interruptions are generally pretty necessary, because important things are happening. On the whole I think it is a net positive for teams that work together to be "on the floor" together.

I think if you have a good culture around open offices, then it's a lot better. If you have a bunch of people who have loud conversations without moving it to a meeting room, interrupt you constantly, don't respect the headphone rule, micromange and shoulder surf vs. treat it as the quiet library environment it should be then it can pretty bad.

Why should people have to worry about all gross lame situations? What is open office delivering to overcome those limitations? A bit of serendipity?

Money, it's cheaper to do open offices, especially in a startup vs giving a good chunk of people private offices or even shared offices.

It may not be for everyone, but for people like me it really boosts productivity. The last office I worked in was a massive open-office in a warehouse which sounds just miserable, but it was great. If I ever had a question, I could just lean over and ask the person I had a question for. No waiting for emails to bounce back and forth or for people to get back to their IMs. If I needed to make a private phone call, I'd just walk out of the office to do it. Plus, having people around me made it easier to focus on work instead of fucking off on Hacker News or Facebook.

Now, as a self-employed individual I rent a seat in a shared open office to maintain that focus. It's far too easy to turn on the TV or play a video game or linger on the phone with a friend when I'm working from home. In a different setting -- with people around: all focused on work -- it's much easier to maintain a focus on work and getting done what's important.

Just to play devil's advocate, your productivity might have gone up but what about the people that you've been directing your questions to? They might have been disturbed and thus, their productivity might have gone down. I get asked a lot of questions which always breaks my train of thought.

I'm not advocating for an open office or a closed office but I do appreciate something balanced. People around me are always collaborating and discussing a great number of things which really makes me lose my focus. I usually come in early when it's really quiet and no one's in yet to get things done. After that, headphones on but even then, I miss the sound of silence rather than drowning out noise with more noise.

>but what about the people that you've been directing your questions to?

That was actually going to be my response. Speaking as the person typically on the other end of the "hey, quick question" it's crazy-distracting and it typically takes me 5-10 minutes to get back to whatever I was coding. It's demotivating that my time in the office is split between meetings and interruptions (direct or just general office roar), as well as why I'm currently receptive to interesting job offers.

And I have a habit of just putting in headphones with no music if I want to be left alone...

Absolutely valid point. But I think most of us just put on headphones if we wanted to be left alone. And in those cases, I'd absolutely email someone instead of interrupting them -- unless it was both important and urgent.

Small or urgent is the same level of distraction http://heeris.id.au/2013/this-is-why-you-shouldnt-interrupt-...

I read this argument a lot, but closed offices work easily with a chat room. We have an IRC channel (and we create separate channels when we need specific group chats). No one feels alone, communication is instant.

It's all about balance. Open offices work for certain occupations but not for others. When it comes to software development I think you need a combination of open office and cube farm. The best balance I've found is open office with all communication happening in a place it can be persisted (Campfire, HipChat, etc.) for others to see and benefit from. Occasionally the entire team can break into talking in the open office area but this should only be done if the entire team is participating. If the entire team isn't participating then communication should be handled in a chat (preferably) or in a conference room.

If you're trying to build software in an open office where people are constantly talking then I'm sorry, good work will not get done. Decisions to change your office layout should be in the interest of boosting communication, team cohesion and productivity. Cubicles are too restrictive, completely open is too distracting.

As far as I'm concerned, a cube farm is an open office. Both provide the same amount of quiet: none.

I think open offices are a terrible idea with huge productivity hits that are not made up in any way by the small advantages they provide, but they aren't going away any time soon.

This was a good article, but again, it won't have any effect. The bottom line means we all have to suffer in noisy, distracting environments whether it's helpful or harmful.

When it comes to software development I think you need a combination of open office and cube farm.

And I think that developers should be in private offices, with doors. However, I will add that I think that a good environment also features plenty of open spaces, conference rooms, breakout areas, etc., where group can coalesce on an ad-hoc / temporary basis, on those occasions when people benefit from the high-bandwidth, face-to-face communication.

Personally I want to be in an open office with the team I'm currently working with, an no one else. While IM works, it's a lot less band with in IM and you miss out on a number more spontaneous design discussions. A good team will not interrupt you with questions they could just as easily goggled.

On the other hand, I hate talk from other teams or projects. The mostly unrelated and in worst case interesting (thus 10 times as effective in distracting me.). So the current open office plan with 6-7 teams in an open area is occasionally really annoying.

"That’s what work is: It is a vacillation between collaboration and solitary exploration."

It's weird that the author notes that, but then proposes that the solution to focusing on one half of the vacillation is to just focus on the other half instead. Surely the ideal is to support both.

If I could I would run an experiment like this:

1. Have a large number of small, quiet office-like spaces. 2. Have a big open plan area. 3. Have a fixed schedule during the day where for a certain number of hours, everyone is required to be in the open plan area.

You can still hack there if you want, but you're expected to be there, and you understand that during that time you're free to interrupt and be interrupted.

The reason for making the open space mandatory is so that people actually go there. If it's optional, then it looks like people only go to the open spaces to not do "real" work. Since no one wants to be seen slacking, the open space just ends up unused.

" Have a fixed schedule during the day where for a certain number of hours, everyone is required to be in the open plan area."

You make it sound like solitary confinement cells around an exercise yard.

> The reason for making the open space mandatory is so that people actually go there.

Doesn't that tell you something? Why force people to work in a less productive way?

Perhaps there are greater long-term gains from some collaboration that don't seem as obvious as the immediate gains from "cranking away" in an office alone.

I think this is a great idea. I'd add that the idea of the mandatory hours in the open plan be sold rather than enforced.

A second point. There is a design challenge here too. How much open is too open? How many cubicles is too closed?

peopleware was written 27 years ago. why on earth is this still news?


On my first day on one job, my managers invited me to lunch. I thanked one for assigning me a desk next to a corner in their open office. The other supervisor could not resist chiming in that they could move people around at will. The other manager averted his eyes. I never expressed gratitude for my working conditions again.

Headphones would be too distracting for me--however I am developing tinnitus, which has become a blessing in disguise. Although I find it difficult to listen to music now, I would rather listen to the ringing in my ears than office chatter.

Something not brought up often: smell.

I don't work in an open office, but I wonder what it smells like. When in closed meetings or an elevator I can keenly smell people, sometimes good (women's fragrance) but most of the time distracting (perfume, odor). I'd hate to be surrounded by distracting smells all the time.

This can be fixed with proper ventilation (and proper hygiene let's hope), but ventilation can be hard to come by in the non-summer months. (without freezing everyone out)

This is great - in theory. Let me bring up something which the article brings up right away but none of the comments seem to discuss.

Look at it from the startup's side of things: The ideal office that we'd all love to work in - that perfect 4-6 person bullpen with private offices surrounding (x number of 4-6 person teams), is _expensive_. Very few companies can afford a build-out like this until much much later in company-life.

If we're talking about an Apple or Google, fine - let's have the debate. But for a vast majority of early-stage startups, this simply isn't a viable discussion to have. Office space is very limited in many parts of the big tech hubs, and often it's a matter of just getting an affordable space in the first place, much less being able to build out the perfect working environment. And the fact of the matter is, most spaces are open and filled with $200 IKEA tables because that's all the company can afford.

So I'm not sure what the answer is. On the one hand, you can say "well, budget more for office space", but we all know it's not that easy. It's not a small expense -- big buildouts for private offices costs tens of thousands of dollars (or more), precious capital for a small business.

> The ideal office that we'd all love to work in - that perfect 4-6 person bullpen with private offices surrounding

Not all of us. My (and I assume many others) ideal office is a room with a door, with my computer hooked up to 2-3 monitors and a bunch of other things I find useful to my work. Moving out of the open space to a side room... losing my monitors, taking the time to setup my keyboard and mouse, etc. That is far from ideal for me.

The earliest commercial electric distribution systems in the US used direct current. This was the only technically viable option at the time, but voltage drop made it necessary for power plants to be close to the user -- even in expensive locations -- which in turn required the continuous transportation of fuel to these power plants.

In the 1880s, various inventions made it possible to use high-voltage AC to transmit electric power without significant voltage drop. It became cheaper to put the power plants near the fuel and move the electric power. Furthermore, it became possible to generate electricity from power sources, like great waterfalls, that could not be moved at all.

The moral of the story? If anyone ever invents a way to move code from programmers to employers more cheaply than moving the programmers themselves, Silicon Valley is doomed.

Perhaps rent a family house on sub-orbs instead of an office.

Office space would be a lot cheaper if you would just move out of the big tech hubs! Even Silicon Valley has its distant suburbs where rent is cheaper, and commute times are lower.

For people working in open plan offices or cubicles: Would small hoods help? (Especially if combined with headphones / earplugs?)

Here's an example. (Ignore the desk, which looks a bit fragile. I'm just asking about the hood.) http://www.designboom.com/design/gamfratesi-the-rewrite-desk...

No, it doesn't address peripheral vision or noise.

It's a hard one to solve. In the company I work in I've sat in 3 different places as teams expanded. Given the density of employees you can achieve in an open plan office vs individual offices, it is hard to justify to an employer.

However one thing we do is, that it is perfectly within your right to work from home if you feel you have enough to get on with and people do this often.

As to headphones, we have golden rule, if they are on, the building better be on fire if you disturb somebody. Not quite a sackable offence but damn close. :)

I've also found that sites like www.coffitivity.com offer a 'break' from the music. They can kill any background conversation distraction. ANY. Investigate white noise.

As to socialising, jokey things still get passed around. We're encouraged to use IM, and we also go in groups to the coffee machine which is kept in a cafeteria area, away from workers where you can chat freely and loudly.

I personally hate open plan offices, but in my 20+ years of working, I've only worked in an office once and that still had 4 people in there because they could squeeze that number into it.

"As to headphones, we have golden rule, if they are on..."

Man I hope that's not the rule here, because when I have headphones on it's to wake me up, not keep the world out; I really don't care if someone disturbs me. Maybe I need an additional indicator...

(open plan office, I like it fine, clearly some here would like more seclusion though)

The real lesson is that there is no silver bullet. No matter what {office layout, technology} you choose, there's going to be upsides and downsides. There's no one-size-fits-all solution. We had a backlash against separate offices for a reason, and we're having the same sort of backlash now (and will likely have plenty more in the future.)

It's the price paid for what often seems like blind fad-following; rather than analyzing whether X really makes sense given the attributes of the organization (people/culture, type of work, department, etc.), it's adopted, used, and eventually, revolted against. A more thoughtful, situation-specific analysis might produce better results.

The best tradeoff I've found is 1. Open-office layout two (specified) days a week; perfect for collaboration and meetings. 2. People work from home three days a week; perfect for those coding marathons.

Obviously you can still code in an open-office and you can still collaborate working from home, but it's sub-optimal. With the setup above, you're in the right environment for the right type of work most of the time, and employees love it.

Lots more about this here: http://www.archonsystems.com/devblog/2013/09/19/open-offices...

I dig working in an open office. I see my work as very collaborative, so I wouldn't want to be in an environment where I was siloed off. That being said, headphones are critical.

headphones are critical.

But headphones can't replace quiet. They can just replace one source of noise with another. And they aren't necessarily comfortable to wear for extended periods of time anyway.

Headphones help mitigate the grotesque and evil nature of "open plan" offices, but they are no panacea.

This is such a big, important topic that surely not all tech firms have settled on the "open plan" which intuitively and in my experience is awful.

I think the breakthrough will come when workplace interiors get much more modular and flexible. I'm envisioning different teams getting to choose (within reason) what types of setups they would like from enclosed offices to bullpens to cubes to open desks.

And I can even see planned re-arrangements every 6 months or so to eliminate the moss.

I think the reason this persists is because everyone is doing it. Thus your open-plan, inefficient office is only competing with other equally open-plan, inefficient offices. We are all in a less-productive equilibrium together.

This of course gives those willing to make offices for everyone (like, say, Fog Creek) a competitive advantage. But your average corporate manager doesn't care about that. They still get their office and get paid.

The opportunity costs from an open plan office are invisible and difficult if at all possible to quantify, but the savings from cramming twice as many people into the same space are very real and tangible.

Open office schemes has been around awhile. The earliest research that, I know about, into them is by Allen & Gerstberger from 1973 [0]

In essence they found that performance was roughly the same as before but the employees preferred the new arrangement and that communication was improved.

Here is part of a summary of the article, made when revising for an exam:

> "The most important and most obvious conclusion that this paper found is that the non-territorial idea works. It not only reduces facilities costs by eliminating the need for rearranging walls, air ducts, etc. every time an area is re-organized, but it also allows for the allocation of space based upon an expected population density at any point in time. More important than the cost savings, however, is the fact that people find it comfortable to work in."

The open plan arrangement is not only to benefit the employees, which it may or may not do, but to reduce costs. Office space isn't exactly cheap in many locations.

[0] http://dspace.mit.edu/bitstream/handle/1721.1/1866/SWP-0653-...

Open office layouts are bad for some employees and some people's productivity.

Having a private office is bad for some employees and some people's productivity.

I went from an open office that I loved to having my own office, which I hate.

I could write this same article saying the opposite things and it would be no less correct.

I hate my office. In the almost 2 years I've been at my current company I feel like less of a team member than I did in 2 months at my last job.

For me I want to work in an open space, but have somewhere private and quiet I can go hide and get down to business and focus.

I cannot stand the selfish arrogant thoughtless behavior shown by the few that destroy the productivity of an open office. Your constant sniffing and playing drums with your fingers is not respectful or mindful of others trying to work.

Has anyone thought about doing a study on the effects of people wearing headphones all day to drown out these distractions? I mean ear infections and hearing loss must surely be long term side effects.

End rant.

Haha. You just reminded me of when I worked in an open plan office with a developer who would continuously, rapidly click his left mouse button on text as he read it. The day was a constant click-click-click-click-click-click-click. Like double click speed but hundreds in a row, and for long periods sprinkled throughout the day. It was one of the most infuriating things I've ever experienced.

My company does the open-office thing really well. The building we're in used to basically be all offices so everyone has an "office", but most of us share a room with someone else. This leads to "just enough" exposure, for me, to other people while still leaving me time to get work done. Rarely are people coming into my office to talk about things that don't pertain to me. When that does happen, I happily put on headphones. There's also a large common area with couches and bean bag chairs you can sit on, if you want a larger place to work, and we have a whole wall of ideapaint if we need to do a big meeting of some kind.

This is in sharp contrast to my last job, a fully open office where it was pretty much one gigantic room and everyone was LOUDLY talking over one another. Pretty much had to have the headphones on the whole day just so people wouldn't bother me. I'd even have them on without playing music just to signal to people not to come around...that's how annoying it was. It was truly interruption-driven development at that place.

This is also not very interesting question. It was recognized ages ago that mechanical, manual labor, such as assembly line or McDonald's , should be organized in an open-space, while thinkers must have their private comfort zones (which is very expensive) and occasionally meet in a small groups to share ideas.

The balance is quite subtle, as usual. So-called brain-storming sessions (which in the language of normal people is called a discussion group) could be very effective (only if participants have something to be stormed) while meeting of committees of idiots is always a disaster. The first activity is centered around subjects and goals, while the second is dedicated to the action itself and a sense of self-importance.

In other words, for those who think of software development as an assembly line (which is very wrong) mass-production best practices are quite appropriate, while others, who think of it as a process of writing poetry, the best practices appropriate for a writers and thinkers should be considered.

Unfortunately, idiots dominate the world.

The best office layout ever is the one that allows me to works from home.

I came here to say exactly that.

If you want privacy and focus, nothing is better than remote work.

In my current company, I work from home and go to the central open space something like once in a month or couple month. My productivity is way lower in open space, but I get to know my coworkers and share thoughts way easier (those thoughts being wild ideas, because written asynchronous language is always better to make very specific suggestions).

In my previous company, we were working remotely too, and twice a year, we were joining together in a villa next the sea. Those sessions were unambiguously called "team building", and it did a very good job at that. We were chatting a lot, laughing, and at evening, we were playing videogames together or having a beer in a bar, and we were becoming closer that way. I think this is very good to raise solidarity and friendship between coworkers. And once at home, we got the real job done.

We have offices for every developer, if they want one. We also have an open space. I used to have an office (still do, it's just empty now). I work in the open space, but it's not typical. There's only two of us that work in this open area, so it's very quiet as we're both developers. I think it's an unusual setup, but being more extraverted, I feel less lonely as I can see when people are going to the lunch room, I can participate in conversations around the pool table, etc. If there were more than 3 people in this area, I'd head back to my office, but for now, it's a great environment. I also have to mention that our open area isn't very large, and the desks are tripods (three workstations to a pod); again, my pod is just me. I'm also surrounded by windows and sunlight, where as my office only had one window.

Not complaining, just sharing a different situation.

I like working in the same room as the rest of my team. It means I can ask them questions, they can ask me, we can quickly discuss little things without getting out of our chair.

I can imagine private office might be preferable if you really work on your own. But I work in a team, and I prefer working in the same room as them.

Though the stories about noise suggest that some people are sharing a room with a hundred people, and that's just ridiculous. 6, 12, or even 20 programmers in a room don't make a lot of noise. The occasional question or discussion really isn't that distracting (though nerf-gun battles certainly are).

Just keep it sane. Put people in a room with the people they need to be in a room with. Don't make them hide from their team. Don't put them in a crowd of noisy strangers.

There's good and bad ways to do this.

Never mind the inherent dangers of open lines-of-sight: http://www.theonion.com/articles/open-floor-plan-increases-o...

There is no one size fits all solution...for me personally, I require a mix of social and private time to maximize my productivity. Working from home half the time, and working in the other half tends to be best...For those who want to talk/meet, knowing I'm only there at certain makes them more likely to think twice about prioritizing meeting time. Also, the quiet of home and lack of distractions (no giggling coworkers or visitors to the office) leads to the best writing/thinking.

You just have to know how you work best, and hope your company can support it. If you're a startup, be flexible about optimizing workers' time...

I so agree with the author.

Autodesk used to give glassed off individual OFFICE to EVERY single employee, no matter how junior. This was in 1996 or 1997. I remember being very envious.

Do they still do that?

One commenter on the article on fastcompany.com left a condescending remark how the writer of the article does not need to collaborate (for simply writing an article) with others while the commenter (the almighty coder) needs to collaborate with other coders, hence open layout is good.

Well in office when 2 or 3 coders are 'collaborating' in middle of open office, everyone ELSE (including other coders) in the space not working on the specific task is being interrupted.

Open space layout is not good.

It's been one year since I joined my current employer, and we work in a big open floor. There are around 30 people in this big room, and its very distracting and we have no privacy. It is weird as someone who is setting next to me or walking by can just peep and see what I am doing and read my IMs. Since this is my first big office, it has been terribly distracting and has really crashed my productivity. But then again, this is a big company, and office space is pricey. I don't expect them to give us all more personal space of our own.

During my career, I went from office to cubes, to office and now open layout. I thought I would hate the open layout, but actually I like it a lot. I'm not easily distracted, so it's convenient being able to ask questions directly without having to walk around or knock on a door.

The other thing I enjoy that I didn't expect was the social aspect, where I can chat with everyone in the room before work starts in earnest in the morning, or after 6-ish when we're all ready to leave for home anyway.

One trick I've recently adopted: I use this site:


In particular, the "babble" generator. The babble blends with actual conversations so you can no longer distinguish spoken words and reduces what would otherwise be attention grabbing conversations a to coffee shop level din.

I often resort to this too, since I often find actual music distracting ("whoops, just spent 30 minutes listening to the music instead of programming...").

The sources I generally use are rain.simplynoise.com and a "nature sounds" playlist on Songza. The latter sometimes requires you to skip "Songs of the Whaaale" tracks you might hear in a crappy crystal-stuffed gift shop, but it's generally fine.

OK, that babble-generator is amazing. My wife is watching TV nearby and I can hear a bit of it but it's not nearly as annoying with the generated random babble drowning it out.

Team sized offices for the win. Team office doesn't have to have a door, but it should have small room with door very close for phone calls and longer (or involving more than two people) face to face chats. Short two person chats are initiated by one person getting of his ass, comming to the other persons computer and talking quietly.

Well, I write this from a quiet corner I escaped to from my open office area so I could have a sustained focus time.

I've worked in open office, half-cube, full cube, shared office, and sole office. Of all of those, sole office was best for concentration and shared office was best for collaboration.

Part 1 certainly is very strawperson in not addressing the real issue, cost.

Everyone knows open offices are worse but they are also far cheaper, if productivity is down 15% but TCO of the office space saves more then that's ok.

Labour is a commodity, it has value but so do many other factors.

Part 2 perhaps will talk on this issue.

In open offices, these are the things that are problematic (when it happens from the person who is sitting next to me):

- cell phones - chats - social networking - random web surfing

(when my neighbor does it)

Maybe I'm not just concentrating enough at work. But perhaps there is a way to solve these problems?

I think it all comes down to the employees and the culture. Some people thrive in these open environments and some down. For large companies a mix probably works but if you are a small shop might as well do what works for you.

At my office I always have someone looking over my shoulder, and to be honest, it keeps me on task. At my last job I had my own space and there were days when I just decided, "welp, not gonna do any work today."

I share a small office with 1 other dev. This is the absolute max I can handle while coding. I am in meetings a good chunk of the day. I really don't need to be sitting next to 20 coworkers the rest of the time.

I think the amount of time spent talking about this topic is bad for employees, bosses and productivity. Its been beaten to death and the truth is everyone is different so there is no ONE solution.

I've worked in all kinds of set ups, and I've never worked anywhere where everyone liked it. One problem with designing an office is having a diverse bunch of people like the same space.

It sucks when you want to considerate and someone flies a RC helicopter!

Sounds like it sucks for them when I decide to play King Kong and smack it from the air.

I miss having an office.

I also miss having 2 30" monitors in my office.

Who would have ever thought that working conditions for engineers would be more comfortable in florida than the bay area? Not me, and boy was I wrong.

I think people should have a choice. Can't stand a quiet office and much prefer it if other people have music playing. Other people can't work with noise. Everyone's different.

Many good points, but this doesn't touch of the issues of sickdays, lost productivity and how illness burns though open and traditional offices at very different rates.

Open office layouts always remind me of factories and conveyors. I don't like these short dividers as well, they aren't conductive for productivity at all.

I used to work in an open office and it was super annoying. People would throw stuff around the office and you could hear everything that was going on...

Forget these OpenOffice layouts. I think LaTeX is more flexible... oh wait, never mind.

I was in an open office for ten years and I can verify every thing that Jason wrote.

Different types of people thrive in different types of environments.

And the same kinds of people thrive in different types of environments at different times. It's almos like we need both.

Bad for health and lifespan too.

He is missing the point of Open office plans. Frankly, the blog post comes off as a little entitled when he says "we all deserve office of our own" (paraphrasing). Really ? How about a bed to nap while we are at it (well ok google has the nap pods). The point of open office plan is to try and encourage a culture of equality (in my opinion). I love open office plan because I could be sitting next to a college graduate and an executive director at the same time. Imagine the level of access you have if you have the balls to actually utilize it. With closed doors, even if the person inside is welcoming, it just creates a senseless fear of rejection.

All this point about not being able to focus and getting disturbed all the time is hardly an issue. Most co-workers are respectful of your time whether they are in open office or closed office. The ones that are not respectful will bother you regardless of where you sit. Behind closed door ? No problem, I will give this guy an annoying phone call.

Now is there a binary answer to this ? Of course not. But claiming that Open office plans are completely useless is stretching it a little too far.

I heartdly disagree... And Joel also :P

"Here's the simple algebra. Let's say (as the evidence seems to suggest) that if we interrupt a programmer, even for a minute, we're really blowing away 15 minutes of productivity. For this example, lets put two programmers, Jeff and Mutt, in open cubicles next to each other in a standard Dilbert veal-fattening farm. Mutt can't remember the name of the Unicode version of the strcpy function. He could look it up, which takes 30 seconds, or he could ask Jeff, which takes 15 seconds. Since he's sitting right next to Jeff, he asks Jeff. Jeff gets distracted and loses 15 minutes of productivity (to save Mutt 15 seconds).

Now let's move them into separate offices with walls and doors. Now when Mutt can't remember the name of that function, he could look it up, which still takes 30 seconds, or he could ask Jeff, which now takes 45 seconds and involves standing up (not an easy task given the average physical fitness of programmers!). So he looks it up. So now Mutt loses 30 seconds of productivity, but we save 15 minutes for Jeff. Ahhh!"

From here: http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/fog0000000043.html

certainly. I am sure there are many points against open office plans. All I am saying that there is no binary or "my way or the highway" kind of solution to this. It has to be balanced. You just should not dismiss open office completely. My 2 cents.

> Imagine the level of access you have if you have the balls to actually utilize it.

Ugg. The thing I want the least is to chit chat with you about random bullshit, beer or overhear you talk about your christmas, your hanukkah or your puppy or child. If you and I need to have a conversation, we can set aside a time and talk. This applies equally to whether the "you" is the mentor or the "I" is a mentor.

Just because two people work side by side doesn't necessarily mean access magically changes.

The point is for the facilities team to save money and get an end of year bonus and the effect on the rest of the compnay can go hang.

> How about a bed to nap while we are at it

My friends who did medicine get these. Apparently the hospitals have a number of quarters that the medical staff share where they can catch up on sleep if they need it.

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