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Death To The Open Offices Floor Plan (fastcolabs.com)
46 points by bernatfp 1260 days ago | hide | past | web | 69 comments | favorite

Every time an article like this gets posted, a huge discussion ignites over the "better communication" of open office plans vs. the "less distraction, more focus" of offices. (A microcosm of this is "wear headphones if you need quiet" vs. "Why should I need headphones?")

Anecdotally, the open-office haters seem to outnumber the others.

Personally, (and this has been said before), I think an arrangement where you have private spaces, and a common central space, like a large/long table, would be best. The common space would be great for times when the team needs a lot of communication (i.e. bootstrapping a project) while the private spaces are good for more mundane tasks.

Allow teams to move between the two. Just my speculation, but the real culprit behind the productivity killing seems to be forcing people to work in an environment they don't like.

Exactly. I love working in a collaborative space sometimes, and it's really helpful for me sometimes. It's also basically necessary for me to spend at least one day a week entirely in a private room. Luckily that's an option where I work.

> "wear headphones if you need quiet"

Headphones provide an alternate type of noise, they don't make things quiet.

I agree. Big ole' screen monitors at the private spaces. All employees have a laptop. Makes life so much easier.

I think you are correct. I'm pretty sure that people prefer each at different times.

fully agree. personally, I think this is an issue only because of cheap, crap architecture. open planning requires careful consideration, not just stuffing in as many seats as possible. look at the work of Herman Hertzberger, for instance..

Some of these open offices are like factory chicken farms. You can just imagine those chickens going: cluck, this is better than cubicles, cluck, cluck, cluck...

To the people who prefer open offices I have two words. Cognitive. Dissonance.

:-) More seriously: It is somewhat a matter of personal preferrence but I think all/most people need some space and are not comfortable by others being constantly inside their personal space. You can do this experiment. Go to an empty meeting room and work there. Then ask your coworker to sit exactly behind you while you work. How does that feel?

I've had some of my best team and communication in an environment with offices. Need to talk, get into someone's office. On most days we had the entire team in someone's office talking for hours about architecture, code reviews, etc. We weren't disturbing anyone else and it was just the right space for our small team. Most of the time though we were able to focus on what we were trying to do without distractions. I contrast this with open offices where people never talk to each other and seem unable to do work that requires any concentration.

Not everyone can wear headphones all day. Those that do I recommend that you get your hearing checked. Visual distractions are also a prolem.

To conclude again on a slightly humorous note, is Oculus VR the next step in open space? Get an office while we cram you one on top of another? Your very own virtual personal space? I just need my man-cave, sorry.

Edit: It's also very much a question of how much space per person is available in whatever scheme is used and how many people per open area. It's not a problem for me to share one large office. I once visited one large known tech company where they built a new space and offered people the option of going two per office or one in the open. All the offices were full.

Business, as a whole, seems fixated on eliminating every facet of introversion:

"Individual analysis is bad! Collaboration is good!"

"Thinking hard takes too much time! Instead, keep shipping!"

It seems to reflect a culture that prefers ambient noise to quiet reflection, focus, and productivity. It's almost as if people would prefer to see me typing over having the results of what I make. It is this notion that makes open offices a bit worrisome. I've been productive in both private and open office environments, but I'm very much an introvert. I need a certain amount of physical space that feels private; this manifests itself mentally as breathing space to explore whatever problem domain I'm working in.

Aside: it's amusing that SV prides itself on being progressive while not trusting their workers with a modicum of privacy. Guess it fits the whole 'privacy is not for plebes' notion that powers it, eh?

No cognitive dissonance here. I've tried both. I like open offices. Some people aren't exactly like you. :-)

Also, wrt. headphones, in addition to potential hearing loss, it's painful to wear them all day long, they don't block out all sound, and a lot of people don't respect the headphone rule.

That said, when I'm in the type of environment where I need to wear headphones, I think brown noise (e.g., from sox) is a nice alternative to music, and white or pink noise behind music helps create a consistent sound screen.

Here's my brown noise script for sox (it's supposed to sound a little like waves):

    play -q -c 2 -n synth brownnoise band -n 1600 1500 tremolo .1 30

At a previous job in an open office plan, I had set myself up in a corner, trying to create a sense of space and maybe get marginally more privacy than the spots in the middle of the room.

One day I came in and a new person (non developer) had set up shop directly behind me in the same corner (about 4 feet away). It was so jarring and distracting--I couldn't get anything done all day. I eventually had to move to a different corner.

I also hate being seated in a restaurant with my back to the room. It makes me so uncomfortable. So maybe I'm just more sensitive to this sort of thing in general.

Open offices are great if you have a bunch of weird computer people who don't know how to talk to each other. It's easier to reach over and physically walk into someone's space to make them acknowledge you than it is to just walk into a closed office (or, worse, schedule a "meeting" to talk to someone).

Open offices also require trust on all levels. Management layers must recognize the reality of an 8 hour work day involves many breaks of non-work browsing. If you have an open office plan with management demanding you be on-task for 8 hours a day, that's a recipe for nervous breakdowns (or a recipe for people fighting over desks where monitors face windows instead of the open hallway areas).

Another endless plus for open offices: If you sit with your team, you have open-air information sharing. "Oh, X is walking over to talk to al of us about problem Y. We can collectively address their problem in 5 minutes instead of three days of emails back and forth."

You're probably not as important as you think you are. You only need an office if you're dealing with sensitive HR materials. (Or: if you have an annoying laugh. Or if you have flatulence problems. Or if you talk on the phone all day and have an annoying voice. Or if you bring your loud kids to work. Or if you video chat over speakerphone all day long.)

Can we give each employee their own office cube like these? They're not very roomie, but they do provide noise isolation and also save space. If we can just arrange them in a line in a warehouse or maybe even stack them vertically.


Probably not, because cubicles and open-floor plans are really about saving money, not about providing workers with the best environment.

I interviewed at Fog Creek once and probably the coolest thing about the company is every developer gets a private office. Notably, these offices (as best as I can remember) are not particularly big. They may not be much bigger than a cubicle. The main distinction is they have glass walls extending all the way to the ceiling together with a door that closes.

Do they take up extra space compared to normal cubicles? Probably, but not significantly more space--certainly not nearly as much space as traditional "this is 5x as much space as I actually need" offices, with unused couches sitting around just to fill the room.

But this sort of construction is expensive, so it's almost never done.

> cubicles and open-floor plans are really about saving money, not about providing workers with the best environment.

It's staggering how I had to wade half-way through piles of double-think comments until someone finally spoke the truth.

A cursory glance at current office floor plans brings only a few options:

1) Cubicle Farm. In the article, this was voted as "even worse" than an open floor plan.

2) The Open Floor Plan, which is getting a pretty bad rap on HN as of late.

3) Everyone gets their own private offices yay! If you're not working at Sterling Cooper & Partners (where there are private offices for pretty much everyone but "creative" and the secretaries), this might be unfeasible.

4) Some sort of hybrid pseudo-open-but-still-private layout that engenders the best of both worlds. There are a few silicon valley companies that hit this one on the head, and that's awesome.

To get to the point, I think I'd rate each option I've outlined above (using their numeric value) as 3 > 4 > 2 > 1. But it ultimately comes down to a comfort/feasibility ratio. Cubicles are the most feasible, but also the most hated. Private offices for all(TM) is the most desired, and the least feasible. Option 4 is somewhere in the middle, leaning toward less feasible (need a lot of space, etc...). It would seem that the open office is (currently) the most feasible option for companies with little creativity and a tight budget. This is the way I see it. Love them or hate them, in my opinion, open offices have the highest comfort/feasibility ratio.

Thoughts? I'd love other people's opinion on this.

Edit: formatting

I'd personally rather have option 1 over option 2. The fabric walls absorb sound, block visuals, and give you at least some privacy. Of course, I'd prefer option 3 more, but I think the problem with cubicles is more of a perception problem than actual problems with the cubicles themselves.

> Everyone gets their own private offices [...] this might be unfeasible.

OTOH, millions every year in executive bonuses is not only "feasible", but apparently preferable.

or maybe

5) Small offices with 3 to 5 people in them.

Peopleware has some good information on quantitative value of private offices vs alternatives: http://www.amazon.com/Peopleware-Productive-Projects-Teams-3...

Their discovery was that people who had closed door offices were more productive. In general people with less interruptions got more done.

The book is somewhat dated, so this may have changed since, but one of the interesting things they found was that there weren't really any studies showing that open offices helped productivity for software teams. It was purely a cost saving measure by execs wrapped up in wrapping of "being collaborative".

The individuals may have been more productive; did they measure the output of the teams?

I don't think anyone disputes that people are more productive without distraction. That's not what open plans are for though: collaboration helps everyone orient around the right thing, so all that individual productivity isn't wasted pursuing the wrong stuff.

That's a good point and I'd definitely like to see some quantitative studies on that.

heh - wait until Zuck moves his 3,800 engineers into that one, giant, single room at the MPK-West campus building.

Only his circle of 5 get private offices.

That building will be amazing - but it is the pinnacle of the open office idea... that's OK for them though because everyone at FB drinks the kool-aid.

Not to mention young people are just smarter so just ignore all these old fogies telling you there's something wrong with open offices (except for yourself because, ya know, you're special).


If your WiFi actually works (unlike at my office where it sucks and often is home grown supported) there isn't any reason for people to be stuck in one place. We had open office where I had like 10 sq feet of space, then moved to a cube farm (7x8 ft) which was much better. But I like the idea of random areas with lots of good places to sit and a mix of quiet/collaborative as needed. But if you had both offices and open seating, how many people would like which one?

I like my open office floor plan. I think it does a good job fostering communication, and I go crazy when I am isolated in my office ( yes I have both and I like the open part of the office _way_ more ).

Also in all these articles they say "its too noisy..." Has no one ever heard of headphones. They let each individual employee get the best level of noise they need. Want it quiet get a set of sound isolating headphones and put on quiet background noise. Do you like music to work to go ahead and put that on. Do you like the organic background of distant communication and the peaceful methodical hum of the ventilation system. Leave the headphones off and enjoy it. What I have found as the big turning point is you need to have an entire office that is respectful of others no matter what floor plan you have. If one worker insists on playing loud music or having conference calls all day no matter what set up you have chances are he will be annoying his direct neighbors.

As an aside as much as I like my open office I would trade it for a botanical garden. I love gardens and would gladly set up shop in a nice greenhouse maybe with some birds in it, and a nice central waterfall and river running down the middle.

> Also in all these articles they say "its too noisy..." Has no one ever heard of headphones. They let each individual employee get the best level of noise they need. Want it quiet get a set of sound isolating headphones and put on quiet background noise. Do you like music to work to go ahead and put that on. Do you like the organic background of distant communication and the peaceful methodical hum of the ventilation system. Leave the headphones off and enjoy it. What I have found as the big turning point is you need to have an entire office that is respectful of others no matter what floor plan you have. If one worker insists on playing loud music or having conference calls all day no matter what set up you have chances are he will be annoying his direct neighbors.

All of these items are fixed by giving me an office with a door. If I want interaction and noise, then I'll open the door, head out to the shared conference floor space and work from there. I'm not sure why more offices don't do this by default these days.

I prefer my brother in law's set up, it's an inverse of what you want, open office but with isolation caves assigned to no one that can be used when you need silence. I think making isolation an opt-in rather than opt-out makes for a much more inclusive environment.

I think "inclusive" is really getting over rated by so called "efficiency experts"...My last gig had these "focus booths" occupied by a single person all day every day. They used them as their offices because they wanted to concentrate in silence.

Inclusive? I'm not at the office to socialize, I'm there to focus and do work.

I think that's a false dichotomy. Without socialization it's very difficult to understand the people you're working with and this, in my experience, is often the root of friction between teams and departments.

I've been working from home with my distributed team all over the USA (and world) for over a year now. I haven't met a few of them ever in person yet. Our company and team are doing fine just socializing over Skype and conference calls / Google Hangout (occasionally) when needed.

Someone doesn't need to be sitting right next to me able to interrupt me whenever they like to "promote synergy"

This article[1], linked to in the first sentence of the posted story, specifically mentions headphones and also provides reason as to why it's an argument against the open office. Also, quality noise-isolating headphones can get pricey. Are those provided to the employee?

1. http://www.fastcompany.com/3022456/dialed/the-10-worst-thing...

I'm always surprised by the complaints about open office plans, especially from programmers. Am I the only one who tends to have programming jobs that rely on close communication between multiple team members? The idea of me having my own enclosed office just seems ridiculous.

Of course, I once mentioned this on HN and someone replied that the need to communicate readily with my fellow programmers is a sign that our code base isn't well-documented. I thought that was pretty funny.

Do you talk to your team members for 8 hours a day? I don't. I may catch up with them in the morning for something, perhaps go out for a coffee, or do some pairing when debugging etc but 80-90% of the time I am working on something alone. I can work far more efficiently in a private space. I cannot concentrate when I know that there are people around me all day who can interrupt me or distract me at any point in time without warning.

If the main benefit to open floor plans is to foster communication, why are you encouraging headphones?

Also, you may find it odd to know some people (myself included) typically prefer no noise while they're programming. I'll use headphones when my options are music or "loud obnoxious conference call on speakerphone" but it's hardly the best option for me.

>Has no one ever heard of headphones.

To some, headphones are just another form of noise and distraction and not a solution to the problem.

If that is your opinion then there is no viable solution. Unless tyou want to competly disconnect everyone in the office and seal them in anechoic chambers then your going to get noise. Headphones in open offices are a nice middle ground that can make _most_ people happy. Some people will never be happy, they appear to be concentrated on the internet.

I'm a teacher. We have open plan offices. When I need quiet (marking complex pieces of work or thinking up new ideas) I go to the quiet study area in the College library. Wifi (good speed) and staff to enforce the no talking rule.

So how about a library? Corporate space with study carrels and dead tree of a vaguely useful nature (books in mass on shelves absorb a lot of sound).

How about this? If you don't want to work in an [open office|cube farm|closed office|home office|etc], don't. You're a software developer. You have career options. Then companies can weigh the costs and benefits of these approaches (including financial costs like rent in busy cities like NY and SF, employee-retention issues, ability to call the layout a perk when recruiting, impacts of collaboration or lack thereof) and choose one that seems to fit their needs and the needs of their workforce (which presumably is something that will vary from employer to employer).

Oh sure, it's all well and good to whine about offices not being the way you like. While we're at it, I'd also like shorter work weeks and higher pay.

Whether you program or not, sometimes you just need to sit back, maybe close your eyes and think. It's weird to do it in a open office plan where your desk is across someone else! Let's not mention the coughing person a couple desk away or the open-mouth-eater next to you! A cubicle may not be cool and in some offices, it may seem too dull, but in the right conditions, it not only gives privacy, but also a little protection from those little annoyances. The only way I know an open floor plan works is when it is help by a SINGLE and SMALL company, where all desks are against nice tall windows and everyone respects each other enough to not be loud across the room in "their own space".

This is why I like the idea of shared private offices / team rooms. It strikes a good balance between the two. I can handle sharing offices, but once it goes beyond a certain amount of people it becomes distracting.

It really depends on who you're sharing an office with though. If you get trapped with one loudmouth, it's much worse than being in an open office because they're more likely to be right next to you.

Every time I read complaints from people dissatisfied with open office layouts, my first response is inevitably, "Have you ever had a roommate?" The ability to isolate is great when you need it, but I can't help but get the notion that at least some cases are people avoiding learning how to work in close proximity to each other. Thereby using cubicles or offices as a crutch for that. If I'm right, doesn't the company benefit from people having to hash those differences out?

Traipsing around botanical gardens with my laptop sounds divine, but what if I need (yes, need) a multi-monitor PC and wired network?

If adjustable sitting/standing desks are all the rage nowadays, how about cubicle walls that raise/lower (all the way to the ceiling)? Scrum time? Lower the walls. Need a bit of quiet contemplation? Shields up!

I'll bet that somebody with better time/money/smarts/connections/looks/luck/location than me could get funding for this invention ;)

"Traipsing around botanical gardens with my laptop sounds divine, but what if I need (yes, need) a multi-monitor PC and wired network?"

That's what docking stations are for.

The vertically adjustable cubicle walls sound neat, though.

The crappy part of the article is that it provides shallow criticism with no real alternative or solution. There's a link at the bottom to "look" at the most "innovative" workspaces and they're OPEN FLOORPLAN!

So, open floorplan sucks, cubicles suck even more, can't give everyone offices (reduces collaborative work). WTF is one to do?

I've heard great things about Valve's system, of desks on wheels and no set floor plan.

Idea: what about movable wall sections to complement this? Whenever you want to go heads-down, move a few partitions to your desk and block everything else out.

This open/closed office argument has rapidly become an Android/iOS, emacs/vim sort of pointless opinion-stating circle jerk. Why are we upvoting this crap?

No, I think it's pretty much a CVS/SVN "Why are people still using this crap?" type of situation. I don't see much actual debate or argumentation happening around this.

No, no death to open plan. Cube farms are desolate places, offices isolate. Open plan fosters good communication. Need solo time? Put your headphones on.

I shouldn't have to drown myself in noise to drown out the rest of you. Your choices are not just 'open plan or cube farm'.

No, and in a civilised open plan people keep it reasonably quiet most of the time.

Note that I did't say put your music on, headphones are enough to say 'do not disturb'

It works great, I spend a lot of my time with noise cancelling headphones on but nothing playing, it mutes the outside discussion enough that I can focus and signals I shouldn't be disturbed unless necessary.

Treat your employees like adults and provide options. The best employers provide a mix of all three: open space, offices, and working remotely.

This seems the only way to satisfy everyone. There are clearly those who strongly prefer some degree of open office space, and some who strongly prefer private space. However, few of the articles I've read give open+optional private offices as an option.

Currently, some at my company use unused meeting rooms as quiet space but generally prefer an open environment, with headphones on or off. A growing number prefer a casual, social environment like couches and tables rather than desks.

A strong influencing factor is the amount of collaborative work. Those who are working alone on projects tend to be solitary, while those who make many collaborative decisions want to be closer to others. This may reduce the need for formal meetings, which allocate blocks of time for a whole group that may not be necessary or efficient.

Adults are respectful of an open but communicative workspace. Conference rooms are a good idea but folks don't need private offices unless they are a noise hazard to other people.

My sentiments exactly. Although I'd add it's a good idea for companies to set aside some closed offices for times when people really want to avoid distractions and/or have some permanently set aside for those who really can't work in an open office environment.

I just can't imagine going back to cubicles, or isolation. The distraction I get is more than made up for by the camaraderie and communication that naturally occurs. Although to be fair I've never been in a seriously dense open office environment -- that might change my perspective.

Headphones may help with sound, but it doesn't hide movements from other people. I'm next to the Admins in my office, so there are people always going to their desk, talking, moving, making copies, and I have to look up often to see if they are going to my desk or somewhere else.

I like open offices. I grew up with cubicles -- no thank you. I'll take the downsides to open offices to the downsides of being isolated. Just use headphones. And for companies, have rooms where people can go for focused, quiet work when they need that.

I was apprehensive moving from cubicles to open space, but I actually find that I appreciate the social aspect of it. I'd rather not be alone all day in my tiny enclosed corner of the world. There's a good reason movies like Office Space exist.

I don't personally care, but the headphone argument doesn't take into account that many people don't like working with music either.

Also, not everyone likes wearing headphones all day long either. It's like saying "oh, you don't like the smell of cigaretes? wear a gas mask!"

True. But cubicles don't completely eliminate noise either. If you're working in a space with people, some noise is inevitable. Unless you have your own complete closed office, which is just really unrealistic in most cases.

@ericd If you're working for a small company, and that company can actually find an office space setup like that, good for you. It will not work for larger companies because the real estate footprint would be unwieldy. I have yet to work at a company for which closed offices for everyone was even remotely possible, given the fiscal and office space availability constraints.

The companies I'm describing range from fortune 500s to research organizations to small startups. They didn't have it for 100% of people, but they did for every dev/researcher that I could see. They don't have to be huge offices, and two to an office was fine, it's really the full walls/lack of noise that mattered.

How are offices unrealistic? I've worked at a number of companies where I either had my own office or I shared an office with one other person. It requires spending more on office space, but it's not a huge expense compared to dev salaries.

I also don't want to risk long-term hearing damage by cranking up music just to drown out ambient noise. No job is worth that.


That said, I think all it would take is one successful lawsuit alleging such damage and the open office plan would die a quick and merciful death.

You don't have to listen to music with your headphones on. Sometimes I listen to rainy mood, sometimes a podcast or a tech talk, most of the time I'm just wearing them listening to nothing, they are over the ear and noise cancelling.

"focused, quiet work when they need that"

Aren't you supposed to be doing focused work all day? The "social aspect of it?" Again, you're at work. Work is for working. I don't want to socialize at work, I want to get my job done and go home. That's what I'm being paid to do.

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