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The Open Plan Office and the Extrovert Ideal (mattblodgett.com)
87 points by strangetimes on Feb 2, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 88 comments



Every time this debate pops up on HN, I find this quote from Bell Labs scientist Richard Hamming interesting to consider:

I noticed the following facts about people who work with the door open or the door closed. I notice that if you have the door to your office closed, you get more work done today and tomorrow, and you are more productive than most. But 10 years later somehow you don't know quite know what problems are worth working on; all the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance. He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions, but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important. Now I cannot prove the cause and effect sequence because you might say, 'The closed door is symbolic of a closed mind.' I don't know. But I can say there is a pretty good correlation between those who work with the doors open and those who ultimately do important things, although people who work with doors closed often work harder. Somehow they seem to work on slightly the wrong thing - not much, but enough that they miss fame.

Source: http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~robins/YouAndYourResearch.html


This is quite obviously a metaphor. He's talking about lone wolves without the habit of seeking collaboration. From the same source further down, regarding brainstorming:

There were a group of other people I used to talk with. For example there was Ed Gilbert; I used to go down to his office regularly and ask him questions and listen and come back stimulated. [...] Yes, I find it necessary to talk to people. I think people with closed doors fail to do this so they fail to get their ideas sharpened, such as ``Did you ever notice something over here?'' I never knew anything about it - I can go over and look. Somebody points the way. On my visit here, I have already found several books that I must read when I get home. I talk to people and ask questions when I think they can answer me and give me clues that I do not know about. I go out and look!

And he's speaking from a time before ubiquitous email and online chat.

Do you really imagine that the solitude-seekers' problem is that they want to avoid collaboration? Do you imagine that forcing them into the mind-blender type of office eight hours every day of the week is necessary because we need to make them collaborate more, to make sure they know the right things to work on?


This is not the same thing. Hamming worked with geniuses who knew the difference between "A moment Dick? Have you ever noticed how (some astute observation)?" and "Hey! Good weekend? (some bland filler)." See chapter 3 of said _Quiet_.


Still, I don't think Richard Hamming was arguing for removing doors altogether. If we are going to take his metaphor literally, then I say do it with moderation. Sometimes it's nice to have your door open for part of the day, but to close it when you really need to focus.

The problem is that in an open floor plan, a lot of people are stripped of the power to moderate themselves. This only benefits the person who would have never closed their door, not the person who decided they would keep it open for a while.


Great quote-- The obvious solution here is default to keeping your door open, but having the freedom to close it for short periods of time as needed is invaluable.

The problem with open office plans IMHO is that freedom does not exist. (well, maybe it does in the form of WFH if that is allowed).


This isn't a binary choice between an open office plan and everyone with closed office doors.


If you don't have an office door to close, then it doesn't matter which way you want to set it today.


though there are plenty of people out there that don't want any fame or any kind of prestige.


As someone with the authority to make the necessary changes to our office environment, it frustrates me to read these kind of blog posts. I have read a couple dozen similar posts which merely complain about open offices, but offer absolutely nothing in the way of practical solutions.

We don't have the opportunity or space to give everyone their own dedicated office, and cubicles I'm sure would be a living hell. I've looking into draping fabric from the ceiling, but you'd be surprised how challenging the logistics of setting something like that is (there are very few products in the market to support fabric like this, and we can't drape them from the drop ceiling due to weight). I've looked into free standing walls, but they tend not to have the sound absorption that is typically desired.

I'd like, for once, to read an article about practical solutions to this problem rather than just another person complaining about open office spaces thinking they've stumbled upon some undiscovered idea.


The practical solution is to spend more money.

That means high-wall cubicles (6'-8') or private offices. Those have been the known solutions for forty years. I doubt other solutions exist.

Yes, this will cost more. No, there isn't a shortcut.


As much as I think I'd like my cubicle to be tall enough to have a standing-height monitor (so, ~6'), I also have heard it's important to have line-of-sight to something "far" as in 20 feet or more away, and suspect that too-tall walls would also make it too dark.


This is a very interesting comment. I won't work open office (have found a new job specifically to get out of that environment) and all the cube jobs I've had over the years have had very high ceilings. I wonder what it would be like to work in a 6ft cube with only 8 ft ceilings, perhaps in a very tall skyscraper. I have a window cube right now and can see the sky from my chair, pretty nice and that takes care of the 20 foot rule...


I think you're right in that there's no cheap, quick fix here. With tech companies so flush with cash/funding, can they really not afford to do something? I don't think cheapness can describe what's going on.


The practical solution is to spend more money.

This is immensely frustrating because it is clear the OP doesn't have the money. So how do you do this if you don't have money for anything but Lucite tables and chairs?


You don't. You set up your open plan office, and you take what employees are left over after the ones who are skilled enough to have their choice of working environment. This is still quite a lot of very skilled employees. Leverage them as best you can to make enough money to give them offices.


Our solution is to keep everyone remote till we can build good spaces, however that is not possible for everyone. It seems ridiculous that people think there are only binary options here.


I personally would be fine with an open office if it were truly quiet. A monastic level of sound courtesy. No talking in the main room. No phone ring tones. No desk phones or phone conversations. Put sound isolated phone booths somewhere for calls. If there are doors or elevators nearby make sure they don't bang or beep when used.

I used to study in a big open, well lit room at the university library that was filled with people, but very quiet, and it was fine.

You would have to establish a culture of seriously chewing out people for making noise. The problem is, introverts are not likely to do that.

The only other factor is everybody has to have a proper wall to their back. Something in the mamillian brain freaks out when there are people moving about at your six.


I've encountered the "truly quiet" environment a few times, and really found that the worst of all: Every noise of the most meek activities, from the clicking of a mouse button to the quiet clearing of a throat, rings throughout the area. After you realize that, concerns that your own minor noises are irritating others puts you on edge, as you try to click the mouse button as softly as possible, ignore that tickle in your throat, etc.

If there isn't good sound suppression, I've found the best alternative is sound camouflaging -- the HVAC fans always distributing noise, or even something as ridiculous as an area fountain. Something to make a base level of white, ignorable noise that stops you from focusing on the small noises.


I agree that absolute silence is a bit stifling. The spot I'm working in currently is very quiet and I actually prefer when the HVAC kicks on and covers up all the little sounds (mouse clicks, chairs creaking, etc.) with a base layer of white noise.


This is immensely frustrating because it is clear the OP doesn't have the money.

Many organizations pay headhunters tens of thousands of dollars for a hire. Each person costs $100K+ (often significantly more) fully loaded. Yet somehow the price of some tall cube walls is the issue? It's flawed math, people scrimping on the environment and then maximizing head count, getting less out of the latter by cheaping on the former.


This is hilarious because in other places you'll hear that salary is the most important thing and that as long as you're getting paid well then nothing else matters.

Main takeaway: Find the best people who will work for the salary and environment you can offer.


And the corollary is probably that it was exactly because private offices and cubicle walls are expensive that somehow open office formats ends up being branded as a "cool" way to work.

Kind of like small apartments when advertised for rent or sale are never "small" they are "cozy".


In other words, you don't have the authority to make the necessary changes.

For best results, a commitment to private offices and natural light must be taken when office location is being chosen. It generally requires CEO level commitment. I've been lucky enough to work for a company that had this commitment. It was wonderful.


I think you chose the least cheritable interpretation of this person's post. My guess is that they have the "authority" but probably don't have the resources, aka the majority of startup founders.

Your company was probably also very well funded ($>500k) if it could pull that off.


If you don't have the resources for a proper office, you probably have fewer than 10 people, so you're probably in a situation where the advantages of open plan outweigh the disadvantages.

If you're paying salary to more than 10 people, you have the resources to pay for proper office space. Without proper office space, you're pinching pennies but burning dollars.


Nope, fully bootstrapped. Sacrificed location for the nice digs, though, so the commute was very annoying.


Increase the budget. It's pretty simple.

The deal is: If you provide a crappy work environment, there had better be other compensations (interesting projects, money, great cow-orkers, etc.) or I'm going to leave. And I have done this, with no regrets other than feeling bad for the people I left behind (some of whom I try to recruit).

And at some point, when a project is done or someone really good bails for a better place, people "wake up" and realize they've been had, and the exodus will start. And you'll be left with cheap digs and the people that haven't left might not be the people that you actually want, and the decline will start.

Being cheap is its own reward. I'm actually okay with cheap, cheap is great stuff when everyone is on board with being cheap, but I'm not okay with people telling me stuff like "This space is designed for collaboration and empowering communication" when the first design goal is actually cheap, and all that other stuff is just post-facto justification for a work environment that is noisy and sucks hard for people who need to think for a living.

It really is simple.


I have the solution. It's simple, and humanity used it for a few hundred or thousand years.

If you want to see it in action, visit the University of Michigan law library. One of the top schools in the country.

"Be quiet." A huge building, full of people working, being quiet.

For the people who need to talk, put them in their own office(s), open or otherwise, separate from the people who need to be quiet to work.


That makes sense in a library. Usually studying is a single person activity.

However I am sure most software engineering / programming jobs require programming, as well as discussing the problem. That's a fairly essential part of the job, and you can't expect to do that in quiet.

To me the ideal solution would be a library at work. I worked in an academic institute that had one. We had 5 or 6 people in an office. Fine for normal work, but if I needed to concentrate and read up on something new, I would go to the library, and get the silence I required.


"Usually studying is a single person activity."

Really, what school did you go to? The main reason to go to the library to study was because there would be other people from your class studying there too. So lots of collaboration, working through problem sets together. Yet it managed to stay quiet.


At the school I attended, the quiet parts of the libraries were the parts where people were studying alone. The places in libraries where people studied together (small rooms for studying or larger open rooms with lessened sound restrictions) tended not to be quiet at all.


We had tutorial rooms for that sort of thing. We were expected to be quiet in the library.


This is a cultural thing, though. Since childhood, we are taught that you are absolutely always quiet in a library.

Open office plans tell a very different story (with the OP underscores--collaboration), so I suspect it would be a long, difficult transition to move from a noisy, collaborative space to a quiet place.


In a lot of cases, not even possible. Maybe it's different if you're at a web startup that pulls the "we don't have a phone number, email us for questions," but part of my job is fielding technical calls and providing design guidance for clients over the phone.

I sometimes feel bad about being on the phone with other people trying to work in here, but that's the nature of the open office. At least we have low partitions.


Drapes? Are you being facetious?

The main problem with open offices is noise, not line-of-sight; specifically, the noise of conversation, because we're always trying to make sense of it, which prevents any other kind of intellectual activity.

I think I would prefer working in a sewing factory with the sound of machines, than in a semi-open office where I can hear people talking. (I have worked in factories for short periods of time when I was young, and mostly kind of enjoyed it; I have worked in many open offices for extended periods of time and have always hated it).

So, what about solutions?

Let people work from home (save $$ and save the planet at the same time!)

Buy office space in less expensive parts of town, or less expensive towns.


> the main problem with open offices is noise, not line-of-sight; specifically, the noise of conversation

It's related, because we are visual creatures.

When you block line-of-sight, those people who would have otherwise conversed loudly across the shared area are more likely to take it to a breakout-room or to use quieter, digital means.


> Drapes? Are you being facetious?

I'm not sure if you are, yourself, but hanging fabric would actually block a lot of noise - it would cut down on noise reflecting from walls, and reaching you to begin with.

It wouldn't make things silent, but it would change the acoustics significantly.


I'm not. It would maybe "change the acoustics" but what is needed is to make your (nearest) neighbors' conversations unintelligible, not reduce the overall amount of "noise" as measured in db.

Noise is not the problem per se -- noise is what people put in their headphones to block out intelligible speech.


I would take a cube farm (with decently high walls) over an open office any day, all other things being equal.

Saying you don't have the resources is a bit of a cop out, IMO. Pretty decent cubicles can be had for $1000-$3000 per person. For a tech company, it's the same ballpark as what you paid for people's computers. They take a little more space, but not so much extra space that it should be a big deal. If you lease 10k square feet, get 11k instead.

And not having the money is even more ridiculous for some of the larger companies using open floor plans. Google, Apple, Microsoft, etc., all have the money and the resources.


Here's (part of) a solution: Let people work from home.

I have to work in a loud, noisy, open plan office with barely enough room. At home, I have a nicely decorated, well set-up, spacious office with all the equipment I need, sitting unused.

If you let people work from home, those that want to get can quiet, isolated environments in which to work. The people who still want to work in the office can do, and they now have more space. Plus, you can now hire people remotely from other areas of the world, rather than just a few miles of your office.


It still amazes me that this doesn't get tried more often.


That really solves a lot of problems. Need quiet time -- work from home. Need collaboration -- go to the office.

It's what I generally end up doing.


I've thought a lot about this.

1. Noise -- ironically, I can concentrate in a loud coffee shop much better than in the open office, because the sounds of the former blend into a general din, while in the latter, various conversations grab my attention. There seems to be a desire to eliminate noise with barriers or whatnot, but I wonder whether that simply exacerbates the problem by making the conversation next to you that much clearer.

So perhaps one counterintuitive suggestion is to make it _louder_. Pipe in music, get an espresso machine and a cash register... ;) (I'm half joking here, but I'd be curious to actually try this). Some have suggested white noise -- I have a DOHM machine at home that's great: http://www.amazon.com/Marpac-DOHM-DS-Natural-actual-Machine/... -- not sure how it'd work in an office, but might be worth an experiment.

2. Free standing walls or movable screens might not block all noise, but still may be worth a look -- I think they may give people a bit more sense of privacy and help reduce visual distractions.

3. Breakout areas -- separate those needing to discuss things from the rest, or vice versa. Having options is nice.

4. Culture -- you can foster a culture that respects people's need for concentration. Favor async communication (email) over direct interruption when possible. Requires some discipline, but is possible.

Finally, what I've found most frustrating is the feeling that despite years of complaints about open offices, nothing has changed and nobody seems to care. Even if items above are only partial solutions or placebos, they might at least give the impression that someone cares and is trying to help. That, in and of itself, is worth something.


> Finally, what I've found most frustrating is the feeling that despite years of complaints about open offices, nothing has changed and nobody seems to care.

Perhaps that's because the extroverts are the ones at the top of the org chart? The best counter-example I can think of is Microsoft during the Bill Gates era.


>and cubicles I'm sure would be a living hell.

That's a rather bold assumption. I bet if you just asked employees, you'd get mixed responses. The best part about cubicle walls is that they're easy to put up and tear down. Why not let team leaders choose whether or not to have cubicles for their team (with team member input of course)?


I'll take cubicles over open-plan any day. It's not ideal, but it does cut down on line-of-sight distractions and noise.


(Full disclosure, I work for The Lighting Quotient)

A generally overlooked factor in the open plan is lighting. When you dump a bunch of desks under a grid of 2x4 troffers or direct/indirect pendants, it becomes a very impersonal space. And the employees all know their offices went away as a cost cutting measure, the "promoting synergy" talk isn't fooling anybody.

One of our product lines is Tambient (contraction of task and ambient), a series of light fixtures that take all the lights out of the ceiling and attaches the general lighting to the office furniture. It won't solve noise problems, but having a light that's yours gives back some ownership of your personal space. It gives you personal dimming too, so you have some control over your environment instead of dealing with whatever the overhead pendant wants to do to your area (and the 8 adjacent desks).

Really energy efficient, works with benching or panel based systems (we even have one that mounts to VESA arms), and looks great too. A couple of pictures and our quick start guide for reference:

http://thelightingquotient.com/files/portfolio/OpenPlanOffic...

http://thelightingquotient.com/files/portfolio/OpenPlanOffic...

http://thelightingquotient.com/files/portfolio/OpenPlanOffic...

http://www.flipdocs.com/showbook.aspx?ID=10014685_237854

I'm more on the engineering side so I don't have the whole sales pitch down, but I'm happy to answer questions if you're interested.


I think I am in your same position in that I have the authority (CEO/Founder) but not the money. Our solution is to keep our workforce remote until we can afford the right office spaces.

This might not work for everyone but so far everyone is happy with it.


Let them work at home. With the ones who cannot work at home or remain at the office anyway, you'll have a lot more space per person to implement offices.


How about telling people that they should treat the office area as if they were at the library? Well kept libraries are fairly silent places because everybody knows that they should keep their voices down and not unnecessarily disturb the visitors.

You could lead by example by keeping a low voice and going to a meeting room if you need to have a long discussion with someone.

Your superiors probably wouldn't be fond of the idea. Whispering isn't natural to them and having them adapt to the programmers, which they out rank, would be tough.


I think some of the suggstions here were great.

Don't know if this will ever be read since it seems this post was flagged off the first page or something, but:

> As someone with the authority to make the necessary changes to our office environment,

I'd say that is a bit of a stretch. The older I grow the more I try to point out that I cannot be given responsibility without authority. If you aren't allowed to

* get some kind of silent offices for those who need it

* or agree with people to work remotely

then you don't have "the authority to make the necessary changes to our office environment", do you?

> We don't have the opportunity or space to give everyone their own dedicated office,

That sounds reasonable. Have you considered trying to balance the advantages so that dedicated office doesn't also mean nice view, status, etc etc? E.g. "That end has open floor plan, coffee machine, gets new gear first and has a nice view. The other end looks straight into the industry but has single or double offices."

For some of us the point about an separate office isn't the status, -my last office looked straight into two containers and I was really happy because that meant nobody needed that office.

> and cubicles I'm sure would be a living hell.

There are quite a few ways to do cubicles wrong, yes. For a lot of people I guess they would be a whole lot better than a similarily bad open floor plan.


When you say cubicles "would be a living hell"...do you mean to pay for/set up or are you speaking to the actual cubicle work experience?


Ideas for some "softer" approaches:

1. Rearrange people to try to match similar "cultures" of interruption and speaking-at-desks. The first step is usually separating the salesfolk from engineering, but sometimes people in the same field have different styles.

2. The same way the company has mice and keyboards, offer headphones. Not necessarily noise-canceling or anything fancy, but decent ear-buds / over-ear stuff that can reduce the decibel level.

3. Create an IRC-channel-like mechanism for people to communicate. This supports different use-cases than e-mail or one-to-one IM communication, and is better suited for the "Weird, am I the only one having problems with server X?"-type questions.


My practical solution is a nice pair of noise-canceling headphones.

I don't know what your office culture is like, but at ours it's 100% acceptable for the developers to wear headphones at pretty much any point when we're at our desks.


I have a really nice set of Sennheiser headphones. They don't have active noise canceling, but the physical insulation they provide is good enough to drown out most noise, even without any music playing.

Though I rarely play music very loud (I'm a musician, and very protective of my hearing), I still find the headphones to be tiring to wear for hours at a time. I've found this to be true even when I'm not playing any music at all. It seems to be something about the air pressure, or perhaps not being able to hear any background noise at all, that makes them tiring to use.


Sennheisers tend to clamp down pretty hard. Especially the 280's and 380's. Maybe another brand would work better.


Thanks for the tip. I do have a big head (physically and metaphorically). Any particular brands you would recommend? I love the sound quality of the pair I have.


Beyer Dynamics Dt770 is extremely comfortable, but you'll need an amp. The isolation isn't quite as good as the HD 380 Pro.

The ATH-M50 is a popular choice, but I haven't personally tried them.


The article, and the linked comments, indicate why headphones are not a universal solution.


They aren't, but they're definitely a within-personal-budget stopgap solution. If my only options are headphones vs. hearing the VP sitting next to me making sales calls all day, I'll opt for the headphones.


With potentially negative long term consequences, and it's not even a stopgap solution for people who need silence, not music/white noise masking their VP.

I'm not saying that it is the wrong solution for you, but it's not a viable solution for everyone.


"cubicles I'm sure would be a living hell"

What does this mean? Why would you think this? That's the practical solution you're looking for, this is really a solved problem.


We don't need pages of workplace psychology to explain the open plan office.

Open plan just has lower visible costs. Twice as many workers per square foot is very compelling math.

The cost of lost productivity is hidden. The reduced cost of your office lease is very visible.


We had a presentation on the new "Studio" buildings at Microsoft. A snappy team from the folks responsible for designing them told us about color schemes and that each building had a theme, in stone and wood and so forth. They waxed eloquent about carpet and the cafeteria and I was thinking, what are they hiding?

Then they got to the places where we were going to work. "We call these six-packs." Pods of six people crammed into a small area with low partitions, very little space for personal items, and little regard to our actual work (e.g., whiteboard space, or room for equipment, or even sufficient power).

They tried to retract the word six-pack. "Oops, we weren't supposed to say that. We're supposed to call them 'Villas'".

Villas.

I called them "moo towns".

If you were lucky you were in a six-pack with people working on the same thing as you, and then the conversations around you probably had something to do with work. If you were randomly assigned a six-pack the chances were that you were being continually interrupted by stuff that you didn't care about.

And of course we ran out of space, and even the walls in the six-packs were removed, and all the book-cases, and now there were eight people in a space designed as a tight fit for six, and places in the building started to smell bad (I wish this was hyperbole). Let's not even talk about security, as in having to lock stuff up at night . . . um, where, exactly?

Open plans are horrible.


This is the kind of shit that makes me angry. Microsoft should know better. Slick presentations about bullpens being the future of work, like it's self-evident. A generation of software engineers are going to come up with the belief that these sorts of working environments are standard, and then wondering why they're so stressed out and tense all the time.


This seems like less of a general open-plan problem, and 100% idiot management problem. Why would they separate people working on a single project, instead of corralling them into the same six-pack?


Anecdote: Working IT in an open cubicle environment is absolute pure fucking hell. Nevermind that the last guy left me with cable management that would make a three year old sick to their stomachs, not having an area that I can cordon off and close when I absolutely MUST shut out the world and focus on a task has been a mental and motivational drain. (This is compounded by being 1 IT staff in a company approaching 120, but that's a different affair)

I agree with everyone who says "Sure you may be saving leasing costs but you're sacrificing so much more". A perfect example of this is my sales center: an open office plan with desks lined up and about 60 people in a room the size of a large 1br condo, all talking at once, not to mention this obsession with having music played over speakers during business hours and loud annoying gongs going off whenever someone makes a big sale-I may as well be working on a trading floor (first the dashboard TV makes a big gong, people applaud, and then the person who made the big sell goes and bangs a physical gong, more applause. If I were a sales person trying to work through all that I'd quit immediately. I wonder if an exit interview survey of the sales people we've lost in the last month alone would testify to "productivity" related causes for their departures, and in high numbers). Customers can rarely hear agents, agents can rarely hear customers; I looked at my last inventory purchase and we blew $2000 in a month on replacement headsets because people kept slamming theirs down in frustration, ultimately damaging them because of the inability to hear sales calls. If my Android sound meter app is accurate at all, fully staffed the sales wing reaches 92dB in ambient/background sound.

And a litany of other problems that would be solved could I get senior management to take conditions as seriously as I do, and express a willingness to invest in the worker beyond a "Here's your paycheck, get back to work".

Open spaces are good. A commons area lightly equipped, maybe with a phone and a tv for quick 'huddles', I'm all about. 100% open office however I can't wait to go away forever. Thankfully we're moving offices soon. Regrettably, it's just a larger "open" design.


If your measurement is correct, then your office environment violates OSHA regulations.

https://www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_tab...


That's quite valuable information to me; given I'm sick of troubleshooting that damn wireless music box and have been trying to get rid of it for months.

This is ammunition much needed.


That gif https://www.osha.gov/OshStd_gif/10gfg_9.gif could do with a bit of love.


Stop making this an introvert / extrovert thing. I don't care who you are. You can't concentrate when someone's talking on the phone.

http://healthland.time.com/2013/03/14/why-overheard-cell-pho...


Someone at Dropbox made a great suggestion to me the other day. What about having something like the Quiet Car? (http://www.amtrak.com/onboard-the-train-quiet-car)

Basically, you'd have a part of the office where you could take your laptop and go work in complete quiet. No conversations louder than a whisper, no music playing, no bringing food back to your desk. If you need to do any of those things, you go elsewhere.


I've seen this before. Capital Factory in Austin had a quiet room just like you describe. It was full of people when I was there.


A basically excellent post. With one minor nitpick:

"A building filled with individual privates offices and no common areas would go all the way to the introvert end."

I've been there, and the reality is people in extroverted moods crowd into one office, or schedule endless meetings in a conference room, or just hang out together.

Also, its mood in addition to personality. I'm probably 90% introverted and 10% extroverted in feeling. I don't mind a quality meatspace discussion, just keep it to a reasonable fraction of my day, not all the time or when I'm trying to concentrate or when I'm trying to do actual productive work.

I'm a bit miffed at the author for missing the obvious on-call analogy that if open plan offices are so great, then every time I get an "emergency" call at home or jump on a conference call when I'm out of the office, then I should run to the nearest playground or daycare and sit in the center of the loudest most disruptive room. After all, that noise is supposed to make me productive. I can only imagine in horror one the result of those architects redesigning the study areas or labs back at uni.

When I'm doing my own work at home in an environment designed for me to be ideal, when I'm concentrating as hard as possible, it probably shocks some open office stockholm syndrome victims that my near perfect home conditions don't involve 25-50 televisions blasting reality TV at full volume, simultaneously, while I work.

And there's also the denigration factor, not mentioned in the article. You mere proles don't really think, so you don't need conditions to think. Us managers are paid to do all the thinking so we have offices. You proles belong in your sweatshop, you losers. Its a very intense, negative message. Architecture has meaning, and designing a daily kick in the nuts into your office is just inhumane. I'm sure its very funny for our superiors to watch us suffer a la Mr Burns style (oh how cute, they think we care about how badly we're treating them, ha ha as he strokes his villain cat). Mixed offices of management in offices and proles in the inhumane open area results in feelings similar to having "regular" and "colored" water fountains back in the old days. "We know is sucks, but it keeps you lower animals in place."

Its not just that open office advocates are wrong, its that they're so wrong that a thoughtful discussion will inevitably appear to be parody.


"I'm probably 90% introverted and 10% extroverted in feeling."

IOW, you're a fairly normal introvert, then. Most introverts like people, enjoy conversations and parties, et cetera. But such activities take energy, so after a while you need some time alone to recharge. (If you're lucky, your SO is similar, so time spent with them also lets you recharge).

Extroverts are similar -- they can enjoy time spent alone, but it saps their energy, so after a while they have to go talk to somebody to recharge. That's why they're so annoying in a software development shop -- their job is "alone" with a computer, so every once in a while they need to interrupt somebody to play ping pong or have a conversation, et cetera.


The counterpoint he tries to consider at the end of the article is missing the point. No matter how those successful companies operate today, how did they operate when they first became successful? If it was an open plan, how many people were in the room, and how many different things were they doing?


"If getting a desired product of work requires collaboration, then people will collaborate."

This is one of the main points of contention between the various parties, and defining whether or not something needs collaboration is often ignored.

The entire project might need degrees of input from multiple parties, but often what's needed is for one person to actually get something done, the invite collaboration/feedback/input. Forcing people to work together at every single step to get "collaboration" is simply wrong, but it's one of the justifications for "everyone in the same room."


There are a few comments here and directly at the article which mention the concept of a balanced work area, with open spaces as well as private spaces. So far, nobody has given an example of this.

I happen to work in a balanced office. Our desks are all located in a former warehouse. We're all mostly developers in my area here. There's a culture of ambient noise and conversations, frequent interruptions for collaboration, etc ... all WITHIN the warehouse area.

HOWEVER, we also have dozens of small phone booth (one person) rooms where people can go to take calls or work independently PLUS dozens of 4-6 person collaboration rooms PLUS adequate meeting rooms for larger groups PLUS a couple quiet rooms where anything louder than typing is heavily frowned upon PLUS a reasonable work-from-home policy when employees require it.

Yes, this is Enterprise (so not that exciting, but they can afford to provide such a location). Yes, there are tradeoffs (you are still expected to be in the office a reasonable amount of time, dependent on your individual manager and management chain; sometimes the warehouse noise is pretty distracting; etc). Given all that COULD go wrong here, I have been pleasantly surprised by how RIGHT this company has gotten it. A good chunk of this has been the work culture allowing employees to adapt the available space to what is needed for each individual team.

I'm sorry so many of you have experienced the horrible implementations of open office. I've been there previously. I only hope that more companies see wisdom in mixed and balanced work environments in the future.


This is a GREAT article, not so much for the extrovert angle (I don't know, I'm extroverted sometimes -- I just can't concentrate over people yelling), but because of the headphone parts at the bottom. So many times does "just use headphones" get thrown at people who protest the open office reduction, but they don't realize that wearing headphones all day is uncomfortable (and probably dangerous), even if we love music - and it's also distracting.

When we have things like IRC/Hipchat/Slack, email, and video chat, having a door is no more a problem, because we can get a hold of anyone asynchronously.

Therefore, if anything, it should be EASIER to have doors now.

Sadly, the best office environment I've seen was at AT&T in 2000-ish. Employees had HUGE cubes, with quite a lot of office space for managers. Cube size reduced significantly over the last decade and a half until now cubes are viewed as somehow decadent. We laughed at cubes relative to offices then, we would LOVE to have them back now.

I'm looking for the work-from-home revolution to take over or companies to at least realize what they are doing with the open plan stuff for development. Technology makes doors not exist - so we should at least be able to have quiet.


You know what I really liked about my time at University? There was a wealth of options to suit your study style. Imagine your University only had open floor plan libraries, where the only place they gave you to study was a loud, visually distracting environment. Or, you could go the other way where the only place to go to study was the quiet floor of the library. Universities are great places to study because they cater to many different personal styles of study. Your goal is to learn and they provide different styles of learning environments in which to study. It baffles my mind that employers, most of whom, one would assume, went to University, then create a single style of work environment, and think their jobs done. Providing many different styles of office spaces for the many different types of people in your employ would seem to be a prudent decision. Allow your employees to find the style that works best for them instead of forcing a one size fits all solution.


Multiple comments are mentioning wearing headphones with loud music. But what about earplugs (the disposable foam type)? I’ve worn them during physical work (with loud machines) and, at least for me, they were very effective. I felt I had more energy and focus. Has someone tried them for office work?


Those aren't really designed for long term daily use, can lead to accumulation of wax and serious infections if used repeatedly and continually.

Also in my case they put too much pressure on the canal which eventually gets quite painful. When I was a mechanic it was more of a hassle but much better for my ears to wear proper ear muffs instead of disposable ear plugs.


>Introversion—along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness—is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living under the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.

I say this as a highly introverted person who spends most of his free time alone with this thoughts: Jesus. Are we just looking for ways that the world has been unfair to us? Is that what open offices are now? A way for the uncaring society to oppress us special snowflake introverts? That quote is so insulting to me as an introvert because it takes such a solipsistic and ego-stroking view of the world: that people who are successful are successful because they fit into the world better, not because they are comfortable and adapted to living in a world that isn't perfectly suited to them. I enjoy my quiet and find working in an open office discomforting. But I can't imagine the person who's so fragile that they have to invent ways the extroverts are oppressing them to deal with that discomfort.

>Is this a true story? I don’t know. Is it a bit overly dramatic to compare an open plan office to a sweatshop? Perhaps. But I think there’s a valid point in there: quality of life matters.

If you want people not to take our profession seriously, keep comparing what we do to working in a sweatshop. Software engineering by and large is one of the cushiest jobs around. Sitting in a chair (or realizing that sitting all day is too dangerous, so choosing to stand (on a padded mat)) in a climate controlled office with access to bathrooms, running water and in a lot of cases, food on demand is about the farthest away you can get from sweatshop. Our quality of life is so good, we're focusing on the last 1% of the problem; the fact that we're complaining that the layout of the office isn't ideal for our psyche should clue us in to that. Let's keep some perspective here.


The word "sweatshop" is improper, you're right about that. But is it really unfair to compare modern software factories to, well, factories?

Most factories today are very clean, and safe. But they're not organized to help foster original thought, which is what software (should be) made of.


> That quote is so insulting to me as an introvert because it takes such a solipsistic and ego-stroking view of the world: that people who are successful are successful because they fit into the world better, not because they are comfortable and adapted to living in a world that isn't perfectly suited to them.

This was my reaction too, but I was delighted to find that _Quiet_ does not have that tone as a whole.


I say this as a highly introverted person who spends most of his free time alone with this thoughts.

How much of your work time do you spend alone with your thoughts? If this isn't a problem you have at work, then I'm not sure how much you really understand the point of view of the demographic under discussion.


There's one place where an open-plan office makes sense: a trading floor. This applies even to many species of algorithmic trading. That's because you have cases where a message (such as "our quotefeed is giving us stale data") needs to get out quickly.

The trading day is also, I'll note, only 6.5 hours long. And people who don't get 25% raises (or more) per year leave. It's a stressful job and unless you're making $750k+ after 6-8 years in, it's not worth it to deal with the negatives of being on a trading floor.

Open-plan began to go into vogue as a backdoor mechanism for age discrimination, due to studies showing that older people were quick to associate them (and visibility from behind) with low status and therefore leave. Two decades later, I doubt the intention behind tech companies using these plans (and almost all do) is so negative as that. I don't think there's any negative intent anymore; it's just something that's done because (a) it's cheaper, (b) it's more tolerant of rapid growth, and (c) it's how things have "always" been done.

As long as people can step away without stigma or punishment, I don't think that open-plan offices are inherently evil. The problem is that few offices have enough quiet space to allow for that.

As for "the extrovert ideal", I don't know what to do about that. It seems to be human nature. People with families, non-drinkers, introverts, women except through the immense effort needed to be socially available but not seen as available in other ways... are never going to be "the cool kids". What I've learned, though, is that while "cool kids" get a quick start, they don't hold it and "cool" doesn't last. It's not useful to envy them because, while they may appear to be moving fast at one time, the 5-year picture is not especially desirable.


> Open-plan began to go into vogue as a backdoor mechanism for age discrimination, due to studies showing that older people were quick to associate them (and visibility from behind) with low status and therefore leave.

Do you remember where you read this? The bit about visibility from behind being associated with low status is especially interesting.




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