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Cargo culting works great when things work and we don’t know why, downright embarrassing for when things don’t work and we do know why.
Reasons why I work remotely.
Amusingly I work remotely but rent a desk in an open-plan shared space. Completely different vibe though; you’re not actually working with the people around you, and there is no restriction on whether or not you actually have to show up there.
If it doesn’t work at Valve, with its open allocation, then it can’t work anywhere. So I think that it’s time to abandon the concept. I actually held out on forming an opinion of whether open-plan can work in an open-allocation environment, although I doubted that it would work anywhere.
That said, it’s not “locally optimizing bean counters” who are to blame for open-plan offices, at least not at first. Founders like them because their job is to manage up into investors, and it looks better to investors to have an environment that looks like a busy newsroom or a trading desk than a CS department. The mindless cost cutting comes in later but, at first, the cramped open-plan atmosphere is deliberate. It looks like a lot of work is being done. The reason why this awfulness is metastasizing into the rest of Corporate America, however, is a mix of cheapness and cargo-cult mentality (“Silicon Valley does it, so we will do it, too”).
Founders may blame the bean-counters and economic constraints, but they want that open-plan image. So, yes, if you’re a startup programmer, you’re more valuable as office furniture than for what you can actually do.
Oddly enough, I think that open plan offices cause more goofing off than private offices. Why? A few reasons. For one, I’m more likely to police myself if no one’s watching. Second, my model is that I have a fixed amount of goofing off that I want to do (check the news, read that article I didn’t finish at breakfast, etc.) and the open-plan environment makes that goofing off take several times longer. With privacy, I could scratch that itch and be done with it. In an open-plan office, I have to look busy and thread my goofing off and actual work, and all that context switching makes it really inefficient.
Moreover, open-plan offices create a climate in which visible action is over-rewarded, and that often leads to technical debt. Writing code in an open-plan environment is possible: it probably won’t be anyone’s best code, but it can be done. Reading code in an open-plan office is nearly impossible. Hence, no one does. Hence, bad code quality and rapid software rot. Unfortunately, most tech startup founders don’t care because they assume that they’ll either be gone or paid-off before any chickens come home to roost (and with companies increasingly buying back execs' stock, that’s often true).
I can see open office plans working well for a small startup, or even a small, focused, isolated team at a larger company. Everybody is focused on a small part of the same thing, and there’s not much going on, relatively speaking.
The problem is that it doesn’t scale past 5 or 6 people. Management decides to put hundreds of people, on a bunch of different teams in a big open area, and the result is a big, noisy, distracting mess of people, where nobody can focus and do their best work.
My experience does not mirror the author’s. I’ve worked in an open spaces workplace with 75-100 people for nearly 7 years and wouldn’t have it any other way. For five of those years, I was a frequent visitor to other companies' workplaces for consulting gigs. I’ve seen cube farms, cabal rooms, individual offices for each person, and more. I feel like I’ve spent enough time in each to conclude that an open spaces office works for me.
But I do want to address the author’s list directly, as it relates to my open spaces experience:
What is it people want instead? A private office for each individual? Cubicles? I’ve been in open offices a few times (actually, I guess all of my jobs), and they have never made me this angry. What’s the alternative?
Also, North Korea is the new Godwin’s law.
It’s important to recognise that open plan has different effects on different people. If you’re more on the introverted end of things, to the extent that it’s even a single axis, you may find yourself able to deal with less external stimuli during your day. Activity beyond your particular threshold, which may also ebb and flow during your work week, can be exhausting and stressful.
Some of the more extroverted folks love to give talks and interact with people a lot – it seems like they draw some of their energy from doing so. Too little stimuli can be draining. Our head of Sales is extremely upbeat and energetic, and I think it is one of the characteristics that makes him a great salesperson.
I think part of why open plan is so widely deployed is that some of the people in the decision process are driven by a lot of constant interaction with others, always connected to the pulse of the room. For them, it seems like a fantastic idea. Couple this with a probable cost savings compared to building private offices for everybody, it seems like a win all-around. Except for the people for whom it is not great, which is probably more people than anybody really expects: hence all of these studies we keep reading about.
I had my own office for a while at the University I used to work at, and I miss it every day.
Maybe that’s the big difference? I guess I’m a social butterfly or something, which is why I generally like open offices. I want to know what my neighbour is having for lunch every day. Sometimes I’m curious to know what music they’re listening to or how their private life is going. I love this sort of thing.
At my current office, it’s just six of us in an open office, three programmer-types and three admin/sales types. We barely say anything more than “hello” to each other each day. Communication mostly happens through email and chat thing, although once in a while, when absolutely essential, we’ll break out into spoken communication over a particularly delicate technical point. We only really interact once a week for one hour during a team lunch. I crave that interaction all week.
Is that the way most of those oppressed under the North Korean open office plan would prefer? Only one hour of mandatory interaction per week? Or is even that too much?
I think it’s a bit less black-and-white than that. It’s not just different for everybody, but indeed potentially different for one person from day to day or week to week. If I’m becoming ill, or recovering from illness; if I’m stressed because a project is overdue, or because of some personal life event; these can all change the amount of noisy social interaction I’m up for. I’ve also found I have a different experience with one-on-one conversations in quiet places – I feel less like I need to perform, so it’s less exhausting and I can do it for much longer. But I still have more of a stomach for social interaction than some of the people I know and work with.
I don’t think there’s an ideal, homogenous workplace layout that meets the needs of everybody – open or private offices. I’d love to have my desk in a small office, but be near the folks that would rather operate in a bull pen. If I needed to be in the thick of it for a bit, I’d take my laptop out there. At the moment, for me, things are on backwards – I would have to leave my personal work space (where all my work stuff is set up) to find quiet to work in.
Private offices are definitely my favorite. That used to be pretty standard in engineering jobs, same as in other upper-middle-class, white-collar jobs like academia, finance, law, etc. My dad’s a chemical process engineer, and he had a private office (with a door! and great view!) in the Amoco Building for many years. Seems to have gone out of fashion in recent years in tech and engineering though, first in favor of cube farms, and now open-plan offices.
Academia still typically gives private offices, which is a nice perk. Pay is less, but hey, you get a real office, with your name on the door.
Is it even financially possible for every single employee at a startup or a large company to have their own private office? I can’t imagine how much bigger Facebook’s buildings would have to be in order to give everyone a private office and not merely a cubicle, and they’re already gigantic.
I think it would be, though it’d be interesting to get better numbers on it. it was done for decades at engineering and tech companies: Exxon, IBM, Intel, etc. all gave employees their own offices. And for most companies, the cost of providing the physical offices isn’t that high up the list of expenses. They can be small offices anyway, although probably still a bit more sq ft per person than a cube takes.
I think the change was less for space savings and more due to a mixture of changes in management theories, and changes in the real-estate market. On the 2nd part, a lot more office space nowadays is investor-built and treated as general inventory, which therefore they prefer to keep flexible. Big open spaces with nothing but easily movable insubstantial partitions are better for that, because they can be cheaply reconfigured for new tenants without having to deal with building and tearing down walls.