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Ending the open office epidemic (wildbit.com)
208 points by efedorenko on Mar 10, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 144 comments

I guess I'm in a real minority here, but I'm pretty happy with open-office.

Some qualifiers:

- The team has a good culture of respecting each other, and we're busy enough not to want to banter too much outside of certain times (e.g., lunch, when we see it already going on, etc.).

- I've got good headphones hooked to a 24-bit-DAC'd USB amp. I don't hear anyone unless I'm trying to.

- My screen's big enough where visual noise isn't an issue.

On the upside:

- Asking someone a quick question is really, really quick.

Downsides of my prior each-their-own-office experiences:

- I sometimes felt a bit lonely.

- I certainly felt disconnected from the rest of my team.

- I was disconnected from the rest of my team - there were always important conversations I would've liked to been part of.

[edited for getting the bullets formatted]

> My screen's big enough where visual noise isn't an issue.

> I've got good headphones

You may not have issues with open-office plans, but you did find a way to add the walls back.

sure, but they're more like screens that can be looked around or removed.

Asking someone a quick question while they are in the middle of something is a good way to break their focus. It takes a lot of effort to "get into the zone", so you will not only lower the productivity of the person you "ask a quick question", but you'll also make him frustrated. He may even get a head-ache. How can you live with yourself?

This mostly applies to jobs which involve a higher degree of complexity, like programming.. but as you are on HN, I assume you meant something IT related.

I reject this assertion that people get ripped "out of the zone". What are you doing that is so complex that you can't jump right back into it?

I've met plenty of people that like to act like they're some super elite programmer that is juggling complex class structures and debugging them inside their head. In my experience so far, those people are full of shit and make overly complex spaghetti code. Idk though, maybe this is different between web development and something like game engine development.

The phenomenon of being "in the zone" is considered real by most psychologists, as far as I'm aware. See here:


FWIW while I think interruptions are a real problem, I have certainly encountered some people who I think demand more quiet than is really needed. But some of this may just come down to differences in how tolerant people are of noise, or perhaps how stressed they are.

It seems there may also be a link between creativity and sensitivity to ambient noise.


It doesn't matter whether I'm doing something simple or complex - for some reason it always takes me 5-10 minutes to refocus after being interrupted.

Imagine you have a coworker who is always on the phone quite loudly nearby you with a very identifiable voice. That's what these people seek to avoid - specific distractions that humans have adapted for thousands of years to pick up on.


Adults have it; amphetamines help but don't cure it; the ADA requires reasonable accommodations for it.

It comes down to how quickly you are working. If under time pressure, efficiently completing straightforward sets of tasks - even writing Rails or Java boilerplate in all the right places - is complicated enough that I don't want to be knocked out of a flow state. Of course I can do those things without intense focus, but I can't get them done in under an hour.

Everybody with headphones on never notices how loud they are eating/drinking/coughing/murmuring/adjusting things however. Seems extremely petty but work beside somebody long enough like this and you end up joining the headphone club yourself to block it out.

Where I work there's a group chat for low priority questions you can check whenever you're not totally immersed in something. It's also anonymous chat so nobody is embarrassed to ask "stupid" questions.

> It's also anonymous chat so nobody is embarrassed to ask "stupid" questions.

That's awesome!

Wow, yeah, that's really smart!

(Though, I guess, with a small enough team it probably isn't all that anonymous)

The middle ground is small group offices, and many (most?) people are fairly happy there. Actual giant open-plan offices can be distracting beyond what's tolerable.

I thrive in the small group office. You get the flow of ideas that are trying to be achieved with the open plan, but without as much of the noise. And it's easier to call out one or two people for being difficult to work with than it is many. I hated a private cube(big effin cube with high walls and all) because I felt like I was in solitary. Sometimes I want to bullshit about what I did over the weekend, or discuss a philisophical question about what I'm doing. Seems weird to pop into someone else's private space to do so.

So you prefer to shoot he breeze with 100 people at once (80 of whom are trying to work at that moment) than with one other person who wants a break?

Our open office of ~30 developers and engineers is fairly happy, once we got managers out of their offices and stuck the noisy client services/salespeople into the offices.

You're probably one of the outliers, then.

> "Asking someone a quick question is really, really quick."

Ever wonder why that someone then complains about distractions and lack of productivity? This is why

I'm wondering if open offices are good for junior people (who need to ask for help more often) but bad for senior people (who get interrupted more often).

For me, it's almost so bad that I don't bother trying to get in the zone/flow, because I know I'm going to be interrupted.

A quick glance on their screen and facial expression, and you can tell if they're busy. If they're busy or if I'm not sure, I'll just ping them on chat. When they're ready, they look up, and we talk. Quite fast.

Yeah, I agree with this. I worked at a big software company with big open office spaces. I really didn't experience the constant frustration with interruptions -- I didn't feel it much and I didn't hear other people grumble about it too much, either. Everyone understood that asking questions makes the whole group more efficient, and everyone appreciated getting a chance to help their teammates.

Lots of people are commenting to your post and others about the inefficiency of frequently interrupted work, but I actually think the efficiency argument runs the other way. let's say I'm working on some problem and I run into some really obscure issue coming up from a system I've never dealt with. I might kill 10 minutes of your productivity by asking you, but I could also easily kill 30 minutes digging into stack traces on various servers I've never heard of before looking for an answer you know off the top of your head.

Also, usually in a fairly close-knit team most people know who is going to be irritated by the interruption and who isn't, and they go to the folks who are friendly about being interrupted. I get these theoretical concerns about open office spaces but in real life I just don't encounter them that often.

I agree with all your points. I don't mind open-plan either, but my noise cancelling headphones and three 27" monitors do well to block everything out when I need it. It's quite good, because I can join into collaboration on the fly if I want to, but ignore everything otherwise.

    - The team has a good culture of respecting....
The problems I've personally found with the open office setting is that there are a lot of people out there who don't respect the quiet and peace of others.

For instance, in my office, there is someone here who will literally speak to their team members despite having an ongoing LYNC chat open with them, in a voice that you can hear from a football field away (opposed to a whisper/quiet/ "inside voice").

I think respect and consideration could go a LONG way to making open office plans tolerable for most.

Personally, I loved working in an open office at my last job (a software consultancy).

Knowledge sharing by osmosis was a very real phenomenon there. I can't count the number of times I discovered interesting new technologies or was enlightened on some architecture tradeoffs thanks to a discussion taking place around me.

I realize that the whole experience around open-offices is very YMMV but I feel it can have many tangible and valuable benefits for the right kinds of people (i.e. those who are not too easily distracted and/or can easily context-switch back and forth).

You are conflating a small "team room" with a 50+ person "open office"

If you are listening to headphones loud enough to block out other conversations, you are almost certainly going to damage your hearing.

Etymotics. They're also part ear-plug. I run them at very low levels.

Not if the headphones are good at noise isolation, which most are.

I wonder how people are so confident when they spew bullshit.

Another negative about open office plans that I don't see people mentioning is the hearing loss due to having to wear headphones up to eight hours a day. Headphones are generally not recommended to be used more than an hour a day and even then, they need to be at a low volume, something that's impossible in the open-office plans I've seen/worked in.

"As a rule of thumb, you should only use MP3 devices at levels up to 60% of maximum volume for a total of 60 minutes a day" (http://www.osteopathic.org/osteopathic-health/about-your-hea...).

> "As a rule of thumb, you should only use MP3 devices at levels up to 60% of maximum volume for a total of 60 minutes a day" (http://www.osteopathic.org/osteopathic-health/about-your-hea...).

Out of curiosity, is there a peer-reviewed study on this? Moderation sounds good, but I'd like to understand at what intensity (dB) for what period could potentially constitute hearing loss.

The 60% cited in that link seems to be based on a 120dB max (so: 72dB), which is a fair bit higher than most consumer devices (with consumer headphone impedance levels). Some cursory research shows that it's a bit closer to 103 - 109dB for an iPhone (and similar devices), which puts it around 63dB.

For context, I use canalphones for the isolation, and so I can keep the output down. I also understand that these aren't viable and/or comfortable for everyone.

TL;DR: How long can someone sustain ~63dB without potential hearing damage?

85-90dB seems to be the where the concerns for hearing damage start, if sustained for 8+ hours.

Some useful (official) tables and charts: https://www.osha.gov/dts/osta/otm/noise/standards_more.html https://www.osha.gov/dts/osta/otm/new_noise/images/fig3.gif

And this has a nice listing of levels/safe listening times: http://www.dangerousdecibels.org/education/information-cente...

IIRC, it's just the dBs/time and not headphones specifically that contribute to hearing loss. If your ear drums are getting 100 dBs from speakers or 100 dBs from headphones, it should cause the same amount of damage over the same time.

Also "60% of maximum volume" is a poor metric due to differences in headphone impedance and sensitivity.

60% of maximum volume is a poor metric due to a complete ignorance of decibels, power and how the two are related together.

If 60% means 0.6 times some maximum number of decibels, then this is not scale invariant. For instance 60 dB versus a maximum of 100 dB ("60%") is not the same power ratio as 30 dB versus 50 dB (also "60%"). In the dB scale, we subtract to show ratios; we don't indicate ratios between decibels. For instance, 10% of the maximum volume (in terms of power) means 10 dB below.

If 60% just means 60% of the volume position between 0 and MAX, that is also hokey because it depends on the actual taper curve. Analog volume pots use various ad-hoc "audio taper" curves. Digital volumes tend to be better: the steps based on dB increments. The increments are not always the same across the volume control range.

The maximum volume varies between amplifiers and headphones. What does that even mean? Maximum level at what percentage THD? Many sound systems can go a notch louder, if you accept greater distortion, and some people listen to rock that way.

A sensible starting guideline might be, say, "at least 20 dB below the maximum output intensity which 'typical' headphones can reproduce without distortion". That is still hokey in a number of ways, an important one of which is that the user usually has no interface for dialing in a 20 dB drop; such markings are only found on the controls of some pro audio gear.

If you get big cans instead of little bitty earbuds you can keep the volume down lower, not to mention noise cancellers.

(I'm partial to sennheiser, but just get something nice)

I have big ears, but the Audio Technica ATH-A900 fit comfortable around the ear. I would definitely recommend.


> Another negative about open office plans that I don't see people mentioning is the hearing loss due to having to wear headphones

Oh, it has been mentioned. https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=5078314 I remember :).

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=5078026 http://theheadphonesrule.com/

Oh man, I'm going to be screwed by the time I hit 30, at 27 I've been listening to music about 7+ hours (realistically) a day, at about 40-50% volume, for the last 9 years. Maybe someone will invent a bionic ear?!?

It's not too far off. We're about five years away from standard stem cell treatments to regrow parts like eardrums and corneas.

I remember the library at my university being excellent at getting me in the "flow". It's not so much about "open office vs private office" as it is the expectation in those places.

I'm toying with the idea of recreating a library-like environment that is super quiet and zen-like, but not limited in number of people. Go there for flow-type work. On the flip side, have a cafe-like environment for animated collaborations. Of course, there needs to be a great insulation between the 2, perhaps have them on a different floor.

I had the same revelation in an actually quiet library v. libraries co-opted by study groups.

The first time I studied in a quiet library, I was blown away by my ability to sustain a flow state. The atmosphere, the minimalism and reduced distractions helped tremendously. That said, I had to keep my guard up and avoid falling into a routine of "going to the library" with the expectation of GTD automagically. To that end, I would consciously sit in different places (to mix things up) and make sure I had a To Do list which I worked through.

Edit: Another key revelation is the expectation that if someone needs to make/take a call, it was expected for that person to step OUT of the room. Remarkably, this was the status quo.

You also need private 1-2 person conf rooms for folks who simply can't work in an open environment even if it's quiet.

Also some people need privacy lots of the times (i.e., HR, senior management) as they discuss sensitive topics. Unless your organization is structured to be completely open, some folks are going to need a near-permanent office.

That's a great point. It reminds me of the "Library Rules" at the 37 Signals office: https://signalvnoise.com/posts/3357-an-office-with-ldquolibr...

At the same time, I think visual distractions also need to be taken in consideration.

Visual distractions are huge. Huge huge huge. As someone who has trouble concentrating in the first place, tiny visual distractions (even just someone shifting in their seat in the peripheral) are enough to pull me out of flow.

I manage that with three 27-inch monitors, arrayed slightly concave towards me.

I'm jealous that your workplace springs for such luxurious accommodations :)

I could get them for $250 each, so combined they came in cheaper than the standard Apple branded monitor.

There is a point when super quiet environment with other people becomes uncomfortable. We often keep music on quietly even if there are just a couple people in the office.

I hope they also publish a follow-up after living in their new office for a year.

Specific things that I'm interested in:

1) How would folks relate the understanding of what is going on at the company now, and compared to before?

2) How do folks compare their effectiveness in getting things done for themselves? for others? as a group?

3) What is the one thing they would change?

When I joined NetApp it had just acquired a caching company, the original company had open plan, NetApp had offices. They kept the open plan for the caching employees for the transition and then offered anyone who wanted to move into an office or a cube that option. A number of people took them up on that offer.

In the non-open plan version the same people got less done and felt more out of touch than they had when they were open plan, but they enjoyed their work environment with an office more than they enjoyed the open plan space. From a company perspective it was clear that it was in the company's interest in doing open plan, and in the employee's interest it was better to do offices. Of course as an anecdote it provides no statistically valid data to the debate. But it left me with the questions above which, in a different experiment like Wildbit's I would love to have another data point.

Can you quantify "got less done" in the non-open plan? Fewer projects?

My anecdotal data is that people in an open plan sling more code, but better architectural decisions that don't require as much rework down the line (and as a result smaller 'output') come from private offices.

That is a good quantitative question. The 'sling less code' is the metric I was using.

I would love to come up with a good architectural quality test that was more quantitative. I've got a script that can go count how many times a given function or module was rewritten but running that on our code base of a few million lines of code really doesn't correlate with a 'gut' feeling of good architecture or bad architecture. For example, the Blekko crawler has essentially been rewritten from first principles three times over the 7 years we've been doing this. Generally that was not a result of "bad architecture" so much as it was unknown unknowns, basically writing a crawler that can run unattended for weeks or months is a really complex and often subtly nuanced problem. And sometimes is clear that the rewrite was just because someone didn't understand how something originally worked and so re-implemented it in a more understandable way. What I'm getting to is that code "touches" are not the quantitative measure I'm looking for.

These are great questions. I'll be sure to do a follow up post in a year and see where we are. I know that the biggest reward when we went from 100% remote to having an office was the feeling of being in touch with what was going on. It was also the spontaneous conversation. I am hoping we don't lose that.

It's actually the biggest reason why we have a chef prepared lunch. We found that it forces everyone out of their desks at one time to hang out as a team. We usually don't even talk about work, which is the way it should be.

The other assumption is that the break out rooms will become longer term project team rooms. So if a couple of people are working on a feature for a few weeks they can take over a room to focus together.

I can say for sure that being a remote team enabled us to work around a lot of these concerns. It's easy to feel isolated when you are remote, so we work hard to make sure all communication happens asynchronously or in chat, even if we are in the same room. We also use video a lot, and my hope is that we can use it even more in the new office with remote team members.

Open office "advantage" is the story owners who can't afford to pay for a better location tell the developers.

Sort of like the guy whose car broke so he is taking his tractor to work. He would tell the world how tractors are so much better and have all these great advantages compared to regular cars.

I think that is a bit unfair or cynical. I loathe open offices, but plenty of people who have no financial ties to the layout advocate for them (such as my immediate boss).

For some reason people believe the "collaboration" argument without evidence, but dismiss the evidence that productivity is lower in open offices. I suspect they are extraverts or high stimulation people that cannot grok introverts or low stimulation folks. When I was in school I could never study with music, for example; others require it at loud volume to even settle down.

Does your immediate boss plan on giving up their office as well, and sitting out in the open with everyone?

We've been in this office for almost a year. Everyone sits in the same big room.

I've seen managers with a huge budget rip out the tall cubicles and replace them with the small ones, to get these "advantages".

Result: Everyone was unhappy

Kinda like when 'Office Space' and 'Idiocracy' had a bastard child.

Literally getting all the disadvantages and none of the advantages of open office plans. Love it.

That doesn't seem to explain, say, Facebook's massive new office with an open plan. I suspect they could have afforded more walls.

It's in part this as well. You can find open office space for dirt cheap even in places like SF.

Open offices instantly "out" anyone who comes late, leaves early, takes a 2.5 hour lunch breaks, or surfs the web instead of working.

And that's really the whole point.

It's why they are popular in Japan, together with the fact that thanks to the open structure, transgressor can apologize in front of everyone at once.

Chris from Wildbit here (author of the post).

Half of our team is remote. Using physical space for controlling productivity (or lack of) is not a solution. You and the rest of your team should keep each other accountable through performance metrics that are mutually agreed upon. Being a remote team for so long (15 years) has forced us to find alternatives to traditional office babysitting and it has helped us design our new office as well.

Is that really issue in SV?

I never noticed anyone caring that someone came in early, arrived late, left early or left late or taking a long lunch. They cared they got their work done in a reasonable amount of time.

That certainly the attitude I saw at Google. I assume it's the same at Facebook. Work wherever (office, home, coffee shop) and whenever you want. VC in for meetings if you're not on site. Get your work done.

Note: I also worked in Japan for 7 years. Both Japanese companies, both there was at most one other non Japanese employee in my division. One had strict hours, the other not. Of course the strict one effectively took roll call. But the other didn't. The strict one started with team cubes, switched to open office when they moved to a smaller place where there wasn't enough room for partitions. The other had personal-ish cubes. Most people had their own cube with partitions high enough you couldn't see over them when sitting down but could when standing up. A few at the ends of aisle shared a space for 3.

>Open offices instantly "out" anyone who comes late, leaves early, takes a 2.5 hour lunch breaks, or surfs the web instead of working.

that is what basically everybody is doing around me. In that respect open office has helped to get rid of any sense of shame we may have been able to feel before. "Mass presence effect reinforced behavior" i'd say.

This is a crude way of handling low performing employees. It measures time spent at one's desk and not productivity. A good manager shouldn't be worrying about how their employees spend their time but should be worrying about whether or not their employees produce.

If there is an employee an employee who is constantly leaving early, coming in late, and not working, management needs to deal with this directly. An open office plan is not a good replacement for good management.

At this point, I come in late and leave early without feeling any shame at all. I bang out the work I need to and get going.

Any office or managers who feel the need to make note of when I enter and exit is a great red flag for the rest of the organization. Just a personal observation!

You leave out the too common expectation in Japan of spending long hours, working on only looking busy. Which is probably not helped by an open office

Do people at your workplace actually have anything to get done, or is their performance entirely based on hours spent in a certain fenced off area?

Except you're sitting next to your coworkers - not your boss. Your coworkers don't want to out you - that only hurts their reputation and gives them more work.

If anything, this prevents one person from being singled out because it's difficult to get mad at one person for slacking when everyone is slacking to a similar degree.

At least, that's my experience being in a 4 person cubicle. It built trust between coworkers and against the company.

Four person cubes are not quite the open office concept, or don't represent all instances of it. In Japan, open offices include everyone. You look away from your monitor and there is your boss ("buchou" -- department head) looking back at you! If you have to leave before the buchou, you apologize, e.g. "O saki ni, shitsurei shimasu".

If the boss is not there, then it's not quite the open office; it's a slightly strawman version of the open office which doesn't quite include everyone. Even so, the boss can come out peek at the workspace at any time and tell at a glance who is there and who isn't, and who is doing what.

> Open offices instantly "out" anyone who comes late, leaves early, takes a 2.5 hour lunch breaks, or surfs the web instead of working.

Looks at HN karma. Yeah, if only they did that.

I guess a lot depends on company culture, but I'm yet to work in an open-office space where I could actually focus on anything harder than the most mechanical coding tasks.

It's absolutely this. We've mandated something similar at our org. I hate it, but there's still something about being surrounded by people who aggressively work together for 10h a day, that's a lot of peer pressure to stay afloat and do what you can. Builds more of a team spirit as well. It's basically a way to squeeze more work out of people. Not that it doesn't have downsides, but it's really hard to make an accurate calculus here.

"As a company grows, the cost of restructuring an office to accommodate more people in different layouts is time consuming and expensive. By having desks in an open plan and telephone rooms for quiet time, the idea is that you can solve the cost and flexibility problems while still offering a quiet place to retreat if needed. From a growth perspective this is smart. If I planned to add 30 employees to our office in the next 12 months I might not have a choice otherwise."

Well said. Some people like to blame it on founders too cheap to buy decent furniture, but rearranging people every few months is time consuming and disruptive (It can also kill morale when someone loses a window or gets stuck under a vent.)

I still prefer to just stay home when I have to actually get stuff done. Offices are weird.

It's not even about open or not. But I can only be really productive if I'm completely alone.

This is the elephant in the room in these open office debates.

Yes, for programming at least, concentration and productivity is better when you move from an open office to something slightly more insular... But you're still thinking within a traditional office paradigm. If your goal is truly increased productivity, let's talk about remote flexibility.

Yet... for stake holders, it just seems wrong to have your workers be too independent. "Company culture" and "we're all in it together" is great for company owners, but at it's core it's really just a now widely normalized practice to get workers to invest even more energy and mindshare.

I can only imagine an increased openness to remote work setups (for geographically local workers) in the coming years. Makes too much sense.

This is the elephant in the room in remote work debates: remote makes you more productive at work work, on-site makes you more productive at office politics.

Which is better for your career? Hint: it's not remote.

+1 million

Really hard problem that needs to be solved real fast? Call me on my cell phone if a fire breaks out, otherwise see ya tomorrow.

If I had a private room (or even a cube on a quiet floor) I'd stay at the office instead.

I have been working (programmer - contracting) from home for 3 years and these have been the most productive 3 years of my life.

Yes, the seven years I worked from home every day were without question the most productive of my life so far.

It was interesting to see how different coworkers liked to communicate. Some people strongly preferred phone calls, while I strongly preferred IM - I can carry on a conversation or two via text without fully dropping out of my flow, while engaging speech/hearing seems to require a full context transition.

"the cost of restructuring an office to accommodate more people in different layouts"

From actual experience having been there, we saved money by simply not doing that. We did move cubes and offices on a fairly regular basis such that someone "tortured" by the air conditioner wouldn't suffer for long and likewise I only had a nice office for about a year.

WRT colocated teams, a long time ago I sat kitty corner to a guy who programmed FPGA based ISDN channel PBX cards for a living, and I should care why, exactly, as long as we were good neighbors to each other, which we were? I sat next to the guy who was in charge of OSPF internal routing despite my being a BGP guy and my BGP partner in crime sat fifty feet away, and it didn't really matter much because some of my BGP peers sat two thousand miles away? When I got a call in the middle of the night to fix something, I fixed it, not drive to one of my teammates houses so I can sit next to them before starting work.

Architecture decisions can help. All cubes must have a visitor chair preferably 2 or 3, although people "illegally" stacked manuals or threw coats on their chairs if they wanted to keep people out. A bit of work is necessary to stop people from sneaking up on you by orienting desks facing the cube entrance.

One of the most shocking things I've seen in open plan offices is the visual clutter. Its like working in the dirtiest most distracting looking house I've ever seen. I have junk laying around on my desk, but most open plans look like a tornado struck a Walmart. What a heap.

The pics showing what-it-looks-like and what-it-feels-like made me chuckle. Very true.

I got to visit Autodesk in Northern California in mid 1990s. In that office each employee was in an enclosed office.

Down a long hallway were rows of offices with enough room for a desk/chair and 2 chairs in front of the desk for visitors. Wall facing the hallway was glass. Wall between rooms were actual dry walls.

I remember some friends who were even the most junior level engineers were given an office. When they were working late, they could just put down a sleeping bag under their desk and take a nap. None of the shared napping room non-sense.

I think that arrangement is the best.

One of my favourite anecdotes about open offices is 22m in to this video[1], where Gabe Newell of Valve talks about his desire to have one office per person and how it didn't work out in practice. Bonus: he mentions Peopleware.

[1] http://youtu.be/t8QEOBgLBQU?t=22m

I will say that not all open offices are the same. The one I work in currently is constantly noisy - people will wander around on the phone arguing loudly, for instance. But others I've visited were wonderfully quiet, with the few conversations occurring in hushed voices.

That said, what annoys me the most about the open plan office is also having a boss who cares a lot about what's currently on my screen. (e.g., hacker news rather than vim). I hate having the instinct to cmd-tab every time I see someone walking by. (even if I'm already doing work!)

I do that whether or not I have a boss that cares. It's easy to feel judged by people walking behind you glancing at your screen. A little privacy is amazing.

A chap in our office runs to work each day, changes and leaves his damp sweaty clothes around his desk to dry. This means people give him lots of space, and practically his own office.

In my opinion, a good office should have (a) shower(s) -- unless it's right next to a gym, a spot to take naps, and a spot to take private calls. In addition of a layout fit for the way teams are organized.

I looked into building small rooms for offices with necessities like that. I even considered if you could use old containers and build it out of them, but there is problem with protecting against rain, wind and the lack of windows.

My old dorm-room had this layout: http://i.imgur.com/FB3PGYT.jpg which would work great for a two person office.

I do like the idea with having showers available.

This seems like a good rule - but it would be easier to look for office space near gyms than build those out yourself, I would think. Or perhaps it's a business opportunity waiting to happen for some pop-up gyms to open amongst office towers...

I know at least of one company in San Francisco, AKQA, that a shower installed (in their previous space) at the request of employees.

That sounds awesome. Just from my own experience, having some intermittent activity throughout a day can help a lot. Walks can help for small breaks, and then you can maybe go for a jog during lunch, and maybe a jog/cycle for coming to and from work. Not to mention naps for people who get that noon slump.

I wouldn't be surprised at all if having such facilities, and allowing for naps, would have a measurably positive effect on the work environment. Assuming of course that the people who work there are willing to and wanting to use such facilities.

Some people might be very active and healthy in their free time, but I wonder if allowing for more healthy habits during those 8 hour stretches of often very sedentary work would even be a boost for those people.

If this chap put on freshly laundered running clothes every morning, it wouldn't smell. The main cause of the smell problem is re-using.

I would guess, also, that has outer wear (e.g. nylon shell jacket) that he doesn't bother washing at all. Am I right?

I worked with a fellow who did CrossFit and did the same thing.

I had to lay down a protective force field of Lysol when he came back from the "box".

office -> cube -> open floor plan -> next? what can be even worse than the open floor? Transparent floors? No walls at all? I'm sure in a few years we'll know.

>freeing spaces from traditional architectural limitations like walls, windows and roofs.

that is truely a hundreds millions (or even few billions) sales pitch (cue architectural sales pitch from "How i met your mother"). Now even i understand that those walls/etc... happened to be just "limitations" which our internal caveman was hiding inside.

office -> cube -> open floor plan -> next?


How about the entire company sits at one continuous "superdesk"?

"The challenge was to create the most collaborative, creative environment possible. The result? A desk that we could all share, literally--4,400 square feet of undulating, unbroken awesomeness to keep people and ideas flowing."

You can't make this shit up.


Pair programming.

Pair programming with daily shame meetings where you have to justify your job by how much work you did yesterday.

While the whole thing takes place in a 3D wireframe beehive.

> 3D wireframe beehive.

while progress can't be stopped, it is possibly to capitalize on it - i think you should file a patent together with the other guy who mentioned beehive :)

Maybe a kind of torus?

Is tuple programming a thing yet?

This open office obsession is essentially panopticon programming.

The future is years ago: jobs on many of the contracting sites require you to install software which allows employers to monitor your activity at all times.

It can't get worse until every typo is put onto a Jumbotron as you make it, and your progress is reviewed at daily standups where everyone is dressed except you

Transparent glass screens. So that you have no walls and no visual separation, and yet can still work.

for tech it's VR. Why have a 24 or 30 inch monitor when I can slip on a DK6 and have room sized displays?

3D is the open-plan future. Glass partitions at every multiple of 7 feet, going up to 35. (Those anachronistic things called floors will be ripped out, of course. You just need strong glass that can support the weight.) If you're female, don't wear a skirt to work unless you're seated on the bottom level.

I think the skirt advice applies to men too

Not if you're male either. Please.

So, I've worked at what is essentially a F500 company, and am currently studying at University. My feelings:

- I really like collaborative spaces/pods except when I'm trying to really hammer on work, independently. I don't like being isolated. If I come into the office at 7-or-8am before everyone arrives, those two hours will outstrip the rest of my day (except after 6pm). Noise, mid-afternoon, is especially bad and distracting. Some people in my group have taken to occupying entire meeting rooms just so they can focus in quiet.

- I am most productive at University in quiet spaces. The library, mostly. BUT, in an environment where I'm working with other people, bouncing ideas, etc, it's not a productive environment because libraries demand QUIET. My second favorite place to work is in one of our "group study" rooms. They're small, private rooms with space for up to 6 people. Whiteboards and TVs, outlets, etc are provided.

I think separating people into these rooms would be my ideal configuration. I'm not sure that I'd necessarily partition people officially (except in cases where people want an office to e.g. store belongings), just give people a notebook and say sit where you want. I can therefore sit in whichever room I want, and multiple people who demand quiet working conditions are able to share a space. This combines the nicety of social interaction, being able to discuss with someone about work-or-non-work related things, with long stretches of quiet, uninterrupted worktime.

The ideal office (or at least one I'd like to try working in) would be where there are many offices small offices that represent these group study rooms. Natural light (with blinds), comfy chairs, TVs for presenting, whiteboards, climate control, etc. Take one room and copy/paste it. Add some open areas as well, for people who prefer to work in those spaces. Destress/common areas.

Your first point reinforces our decision on private offices. We encourage only working 8 hours a day. This way you don't have a chance to stay late or work long hours to find that "quiet time" when everyone is gone. It's up to us, the founders, to make sure you are productive during the day.

We believe that when you come to work you should make the best of those hours so you can spend the evening with your family, friends, or just relaxing.

I'm glad that you feel that way! I'm a big proponent of work-life balance, so being able to be productive enough through the day so I can leave without feeling guilty is a huge plus. I wish more companies held similar views.

Hopefully, if there are enough productivity gains and as the startup transitions out of super-lean mode, you could represent that increased productivity with a shortened work day/week!

Agreed. I don't get it, why are they so popular? Some psychologists came up with this lame idea and now everyone runs to implement it. Crowded open spaces are distracting any time you need to concentrate. They impose a feeling of a factory and monotonous work.

My understanding is accounting - furniture is depreciated or amortized at a different rate than offices, and it is beneficial to the bean counters.

The book Peopleware call these people the `Furniture Police`: http://javatroopers.com/Peopleware.html#Chapter_7

Reduced productivity will bite it from the other end. Shouldn't accounting worry about that too?

Accounting doesn't worry about what they can't measure.

I think there's more to the open office epidemic than mere cost. Facebook is pouring tons of money into the largest open office in the world. Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg wrote in "How Google Works" that offices should be (and I wish I were making this up) "crowded, messy, and a petri dish for creativity".

I think many companies use open office formats out of principle. Misguided principles, but principles nonetheless.

Note that Schmidt and Rosenberg never worked in open offices -- they just decided they liked the idea after they bubbled off the top of the company and stopped doing any sort of desk job.

(This is an updated version of a comment from a similar discussion 3 years ago)

A layout I've worked in, and that I'd happily work in again, is this:

   |         |         |
   |         |         |
   +-----+  -+-  +-----+
   |                   |
   |     |       |     |
   +-----+       +-----+
   |     |       |     |
   |                   |
   +-----+       +-----+
   |     |       |     |
   |                   |
   +-------|   |-------+
The area in the middle is a common area for the group. It can have a table or two and chairs so people can hang out there, or even bring their laptops out and work there, when they are feeling social.

The bottom and middle side rooms are private offices. They should have doors that close and be reasonably insulated from sound, so that a worker can work without disturbance when they want to. Ideally, the wall wall facing the central area should have a big window (with drapes or blinds!) so that the person in the office can see if anything interesting is going on in the central area. Each office should have its own light switch capable of turning off all lights in that office.

The top two rooms can be bigger offices, or conference rooms, or break rooms for breaks that might be too noisy in the central area. The gap in the bottom wall is the connection to the hallway.

With this environment, you can easily work in private, no distraction mode (go into your office, close the door, and close the blinds, and you can even play some music on speakers without disturbing others if that helps you work), or in full social mode (take your laptop to the middle area), or in between (work in your office, but leave the door and window open, so you can keep an ear and eye on what's going on in the social area.

Note that if you have two groups working on different things, but that have a manager or senior engineer working with both, you can extend this concept and put the two groups side by side, with a large office (or more) in the middle connecting to both:

   |         |         |         |         |
   |         |         |         |         |
   +-----+  -+-  +-----+-----+  -+-  +-----+
   |                   |                   |
   |     |       |     |     |       |     |
   +-----+       +-----+-----+       +-----+
   |     |                   |       |     |
   |             |                         |
   +-----+       +-----+-----+       +-----+
   |     |       |     |     |       |     |
   |                   |                   |
   +-------|   |-------+-------|   |-------+

When we were searching for space this was our preferred choice. We wanted a large single floor space with offices on the perimeter. Each office would have a glass wall to see the open space. This way, as you said, people can see what is going on. Searching for office space is hard, so we ended up where we are and made the best of it. We still get the offices on the perimeter and the glass wall, but separated by multiple floors. Maybe we just put Dropcams everywhere so people can see when lunch is ready :)

Between industry, offices, and schools, I bring earplugs with me everywhere and hand them out to people who have to work in these types of environments.

A lot of the time, people can't get away to hear themselves think, and it stresses them out more than they realize. Imagine never feeling like you're as focused and productive as you're used to being and the impact that might take on your self appraisal; it's like never being able to get comfortable in bed, night after night. Using the plugs helps people get away mentally and maintain their focus when they can't separate themselves from their environment.

Also, the people who might more casually chatter at you stop when they notice you've got them in without you having to decide whether to be polite and acknowledge them, which besides sparing your focus might help the ones who have a harder time controlling their socializing reign theirs in.

Earplugs are not a panacea. I find when they're plugged up I can't breathe properly (seriously). Over-ear headphones are ok to isolate noise, but have their own comfort issues.

I'm glad someone's talking about this. There was some talk of moving my office to open-space, and I've tried hard to discourage it because it would make me less productive.

One recommendation to wildbit, though - that staircase with the neon-green diagonal lines may make some people nauseous as they walk down it. We have one similar to it in one of our offices and some employees have to avoid it because they get vertigo walking down it.

I guess you can judge what management really thinks about open offices by looking at how many line up to get their place out there.

Around here I have visited one company where it seemed like management where actually out in the open and I think I know one major branch office at one major telco that also does (or did? I haven't heard anything the last few years.)

Re: hearing loss, let an old fart offer some advice. I loved listening to music loud as you could feel it in various ways (physically and emotionally). However, the result is real expensive head jewelry and the need to run iPods at 95+% volume through good earphones to hear what I want. Trust me, you don't want to have this happen. No matter how good the digital signal processors are, they suck in restaurants and crowds.

Take an hour or so and get a hearing check done by an audiologist. This will give you a baseline. If there's nothing wrong, great, you can check again in 5-10 years. However, if there's problems you can alter your behaviour and hopefully preserve your hearing. And if "oh s*ht" results from such a test, you will find out that hearing aids cost 10-15x great earphones/headphones and insurance tends not to cover them. In North America at least.

I am a programmer with my own office. I like it better than shared space, especially if that space is shared with other departments. Especially especially if one of those other departments is sales. Those folks are great for a night out, but I'm not working beside that endless frat party ever again.

However, are we, the fans of private offices, claiming that our corporate overlords are not only greedy, but misguided? That in fact individual offices would be better both for their bottom line and our happiness as programmers?

I ask this only because I find myself increasingly suspect of all arguments which end by declaring that our stance "would be better for them anyway!" I call it arguing on both hands. As in, "on the one hand, this circumstance favors my position, but on the other hand so does this one!"

I have reservations on WildBit's approach based on single person office cores. In my experience 2-4 person project spaces has been the ideal size. But it's their business, that might be what fits them best.

"Why is everyone going toward open offices? I ask myself this question a lot. My main answers come down to cost and flexibility."

Cost. Flexibility is a very, very distant second.

That office plan looks fantastic. I was worried this would be another 'thinkpiece' about replacing the traditional open office plan with something which is more or less the same thing, but somehow has the best of both worlds and was pleasantly surprised.

Anyway - those offices look amazing. Great job.

Anything you can do to keep the entire company on the same floor is a good idea. Putting different people on different floors is enough to get an "us vs. them" dynamic going on. That's the only concrete thing I'd want to improve on from the office plan they described.

Perhaps instead of one or the other we should have a choice of our work environments instead of the other side dictating how to work. I, for one, prefer the open office environment.

The office I want is two big well lit rooms, one quiet one loud, and rolling desks assigned to emplyees.

lets talk practical concerns. this company is based in Philadelphia, where real estate is still relatively affordable. If your company is based in New York or San Francisco you simply cannot afford an office like the one described in this article.

I'm coming in late here, but I have experienced an open office environment that I found relatively productive. This was at Sun Micro's drop in center in SF (about 15 years ago now).

The drop in center had three separate rooms. Two were loud rooms, with phones at each desk. One was a smaller "quiet room", with no phones, intended for people who do quiet, focused work. I suppose there was some "back visibility", since the workstations were set up on round (might have been hexagonal) tables, so it would have depended on where you sit. Another big factor in the success of a quiet room was an office manager who absolutely enforced the noise rules, since a lot of people who would push the limits if allowed (when spaces in the loud rooms were all taken)

There were also a few offices/small conf rooms for meetings and so forth.

I think it worked, but that's probably because it didn't have the same goals of "collaboration" or "openness" that modern open office proponents often claim to provide. Most importantly, the open office and quiet room was clearly not intended to keep an eye on workers in any way. It was a drop in center in the first place, so while you might see the same people around, nobody was really monitoring anyone else. Also, there was no status associated with where you sat - open seating, grab what you like. And of course, the quiet room showed a great respect for people like developers who need extended periods of quiet focus.

It's also clear that the "open office" quality of this drop in center wasn't based on flawed notions of increased communication or collaboration. At that time, developers at Sun had their own offices (well, I did, and I wasn't high on the org chart), so the drop in center was for convenience. It was set up so that people who had meetings in other spots, or who wanted to telecommute, had a place with a workstation if they needed it, and had a phone or a quiet room, depending on how they needed to work that day. The idea that the office would be a place for constant open communication wasn't part of the plan - in fact, the quiet room ensured that this sort of thing didn't constantly distract the developers.

Kind of depressing, now that I think about it, that the only time in my life I had my own office was my first job. The industry has really moved away from that model over the last 15 years. Facebook has moved into the old sun offices… did they tear them all out and replace them with open offices?

I also had shared offices quite a few times, and I enjoyed those (actually, I liked them more than my own office in many ways, provided I shared with another developer). Cubicles and open offices are pretty horrible, but I think that if we had a "quiet room" approach to them, they might not be so bad.

The open-plan monster is now self-reinforcing and runs on its own sort of cargo-cult momentum, but historically there was an under-reported and rather offensive motivation: backdoor age (and, to a lesser extent, gender and disability) discrimination.

I think that 90 percent of companies that are now using them are doing so for more respectable reasons (either they believe that "collaboration" shit, or they are aggressively cutting costs... which is unpleasant but not evil) but, for many in the past, one of the motivations in the move toward less workplace privacy over the past 20 years was... to push out older programmers.

It doesn't make sense when there's a lot to do, because the older programmers are often the most efficient in terms of value per salary (i.e. they get 5 times as much done, but only cost 2x as much). You want old programmers when you have too much work to do. But when you have a slowdown and don't need high-end work, those older programmers will be seen as (expensive) excess capacity. If you're also looking to shave costs, moving to a crappier office space kills two birds with one stone.

All of that said, I doubt that open-offices have the discriminatory effect now that the entire tech industry uses them. They used to push out older developers, but now, the people who absolutely can't stand them (or whose health can't handle them) have long-since left, and they're just making everyone's life hell.

Of course, these offices also discriminate against people with a large array of health problems, and they aren't exactly pleasant for women... and I wouldn't be surprised if there were a massive class action suit in the next 10 years over it. It'd be hard to prove discrimination in most cases, but I'm sure that the bigger tech companies have discussions about office layouts and age that wouldn't look good in discovery.

They're also not a great economic trade. Office space is really cheap in comparison to having your people be distracted. $40/SF per year would be high-end commercial real estate, and you only need 150-200 SF to give developers a decent layout.

"is now self-reinforcing and runs on its own sort of cargo-cult momentum"

Loads and loads of stuff in business runs on cargo cultism.

It is very, very hard to say what precisely causes businesses to be successful or to fail. Correlation does not equal causation, etc. As a result, you have lots of "fewer pirates, higher global temperatures" type conclusions being drawn.

The discriminatory motives you cite factor into it -- correlations get promoted to causation when doing so will reinforce one's worldview or otherwise lead to a desired outcome. Sometimes this is subconscious.

Real heavy cargo cultism kicks in when someone with "juice" (a "thought leader" -- gag) draws such a conclusion and codifies it, or when a sufficiently large number of people independently do so and a herd mentality kicks in.

I want some of whatever their investors are smoking.

Edit: Is it the smoke from all those dollar bills going up in those flames?

That's the best part, we are not funded at all and are building this office after eight years of profits from our products: Beanstalk, Postmark and dploy.io. We count every dollar that goes into the space and it is purely an investment in our team and culture. I'm personally researching everything from glass panels, to steel sourcing to carpet with our architects to keep costs down.

Imagine the increased labor costs and missed deadlines if they went open plan and everything sloooowed dooooown.

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