1. 15
  1.  

  2. 7

    The biggest issue I have with open offices is just sound. I’m probably a bit more sensitive to that than most, but blocking it out takes significant mental effort and when trying to do some hard work I really need to think about it’s almost impossible; I just “can’t hear myself think”. Earplugs have worked in the past but they’re not perfect, and I’ve also has “swimmer’s ear” from them, so meh.

    Co-workers who insist on having music played are the worst.

    Another issue is just the lack of privacy. This is something that’s far more subtle and noticed only when I started working remote. When I’m working from my home office I can do … whatever. Make “weird” sounds, move or sit however I want, maybe stand up and pace a bit for 30 seconds to think about something, adjust my environment however I want whenever I want, etc. etc. In an open-plan office you need to be much more mindful of all of this, and doing this for ≥8 hours is a subtle but real pressure.

    I’m not sure if I can ever work in an open-plan office again. I’m not saying remote work doesn’t come with its own set of drawbacks (it certainly does) but overall I’m much happier as a person because it’s just so much stress. It’s not like the effects from that stress stop once you leave the office…

    Private offices are the best solution, but I appreciate it’s not an easy thing to accomplish even if you want to; my former employer had private offices for every dev initially, but had to resort to an open plan solution for quite a few devs eventually just due to space restrictions (they hired a lot of devs in a short span of time, which may not have been the best idea anyway, but that’s another story).

    1. 1

      Seconding. There are so many things wrong with open offices.

      One hypothesis: We’re not wired, instinctually, to focusing on work when our backs are exposed to others for extended lengths of time.

      Ever had to do that in a video games, like in Bioshock? Go heads-down on solving puzzles in real time while enemies continue to move around behind you? It’s nerve-wracking but the same in open offices. Instead, we’re just scared of our managers seeing us on Reddit instead of in an IDE because that could (or feels like it could) get us fired in real life.

      And noise-cancelling earphones are not enough. I have tinnitus so I just trade background noise for a constant whine.

      We’re also hyper-sensitive to conversations that could be relevant to us, like how we can pick our own names out of a cacophony. In the same way we can concentrate in a coffee shop because there’s probably no one talking about us, we can’t concentrate in an open office because any conversation within earshot could matter to our careers.

      tl;dr open offices might as well be purpose-built to prevent deep work.

    2. 5

      Thanks for the post! Open offices can really hamper my productivity as I can get distracted easily. Shifting my hours is an interesting idea that I can try. My current job is transitioning to a new open office, but COVID has thankfully been hindering that transition. My hope is that I can remain remote for as long as possible, but I do like non-open office spaces. It is really nice getting lunch with coworkers or being able to hash out ideas with a coworker in person.

      This is my second job and both jobs have gone from sectioned off areas with only a few people in them to open offices. Besides how distracting open offices are, management going to open offices without getting any input from the workers (or just being honest and saying they are forced to because of money) makes me feel belittled/unimportant as a worker. I followed your final tip at my last job, but this current job has enough going for it for me to give it a try at toughing it out (also, how could I know that my next job wont transition to open office after I have been there for a year like these two jobs have?) </rant>

      1. 7

        By installing libre office? Oh! Oh! Oh. Sorry, I had to make this bad joke

        1. 0

          Wasn’t OpenOffice better than Libre Office, or is my memory playing tricks on me? Or maybe I was just more content with those kinds of GUIs when OpenOffice use to be popular.

          1. 1

            From what I remember OpenOffice was great, but over time feature development and stability started to get worse. LibreOffice became the response to OpenOffice

            1. 7

              LibreOffice was forked from OpenOffice around when Oracle acquired Sun. Shortly after, Oracle dumped OpenOffice onto the Apache Foundation, where it’s still being updated.

              LibreOffice is considered by most to be better maintained and more actively developed, though.

              1. 1

                Thanks for the context!

        2. 3

          Although if you’re in tech I would highly advise mentioning that you need more money if there’s an open office in your next interview (somewhere around 20% as that’s what the estimates say they’re saving in the short term).

          I really like the sound of this (surprise!), but I don’t see how you could make a plausible argument for it. The employer is using an open office to save costs, so paying you more negates the benefit to the employer. Why would they do that? Particularly as open offices are now the norm (at least in my experience) you’re not likely to have a BATNA on this front.

          1. 2

            The argument is: “Cost-saving to the detriment of your employee’s is not reasonable, so you can be cost neutral and I will suffer through, or you can deal me out with some form of shared office or personal space”.

            Basically, why should the employer unilaterally save on costs? they’re already trying to get you for as cheap as they can, this is a negotiation tactic.

            I know it costs them roughly 20%, so you can pass on the savings to me or I will pass on your “opportunity”. We have a lot of power in tech right now, we should absolutely be using this to improve working conditions, especially as that will actually make some of us more productive.

            1. 2

              So the argument depends on the employer thinking you’re >20% more valuable than the next applicant. I could see that working in some markets. It seems more plausible to me if I were already an employee and the office layout was changed to open plan.

              Is this a common attitude to negotiations in the US? It seems uncomfortably confrontational to me. I wonder if it is a cultural thing. Or I am terrible at negotiating and am imposter-syndroming my way out of non-trivial chunks of cash.

              1. 1

                I’m not from the US, so I wouldn’t know if it’s a common attitude or not.

                I understand why you’d think it’s confrontational. And it can be if it’s coming to blows.

                I’m just trying to convey that they should not think that they can get away with ‘saving’ on you, if they’re willing to pay upwards of $3k for a device that makes you more productive, but put you in a meatgrinder to save a buck it’s a little bit hypocritical; the point you’d be making is that there is an added cost for them, it’s not just all savings.

                1. 2

                  if they’re willing to pay upwards of $3k for a device that makes you more productive, but put you in a meatgrinder to save a buck it’s a little bit hypocritical

                  If you want to be overly charitable: some people can’t get their head around the fact that open-plan offices are not a net cost savings. Maybe they just never had anyone point this out to them, or maybe it just bounced off their brain. Your bringing this up in negotiation is making them aware of a cost (to themselves) that they’d previously incorrectly assumed was zero.

                  1. 1

                    I’m not from the US, so I wouldn’t know if it’s a common attitude or not.

                    Sorry for the assumption.

            2. 4

              I wish that open offices constituted an OSHA violation. It feels like the office equivalent of asking construction workers to just do without scaffolding because it’s “cheaper” and “makes spontaneous collaboration on window installation easier.”

              1. 4

                Except that it’s a different scale. Construction workers have significant risk of death, especially if they’re working in violation of codes or without union representation.

                I hate open offices, they hurt my productivity badly, but let’s keep things in perspective.

                1. 3

                  Agreed that it’s a different scale and that this was a metaphor.

                  But would you disagree that tech workers need to be protected from their own harmful environments?

                  Open offices are disproportionately stressful and contribute to the spread of disease. In the age of COVID, would it be unreasonable to limit or ban them as a matter of public health? How much can we prioritize employer profits and pride over their employees’ mental and physical health?

                  1. 1

                    I hate open offices, they hurt my productivity badly, but let’s keep things in perspective.

                    I think it’s possible to keep things in perspective and also acknowledge that not just the most serious issues (resulting in a risk of death) should be of concern to OSHA. Office conditions that have the potential to result in long term health damage should, in my opinion, also be considered important.

                  2. 2

                    Someone elsewhere made the point that open offices should constitute ADA violations, too.

                  3. 2

                    I may be one of the rare person here that actually enjoys open offices. I feel like they bring dynamism and experimentation when it comes to group work and inter-team cross-pollination of ideas, especially when there’s a lot of things going on like pair programming, and even mob programming. Is it because devs don’t want to interact with their coworkers, or simply don’t want any distraction at all, or simply don’t like interactions. I never really grasped why people hate them so much. When it comes to this, the only reason I prefer working from the office is exactly because of the intermingling of ideas with coworkers which is very hard over chat or phone calls. It lacks the team spirit and camaraderie. Can someone comment on this, how their day unfolds, do they simply get tasks, go at them, and then sign off?

                    1. 2

                      In my case, I have a much harder time pairing with people in an open office than in a closed space or remotely. Active open offices present too busy of a social environment for me to concentrate effectively on both my pair partner and the work at hand.

                      Ever had a team take a conference call near your desk? It’s like that but incessantly.

                      I also find busy social environments overstimulating and exhausting. I still enjoy the company of people but only in small doses. It’s like how I can’t stay in a noisy bar for more than 45-60 minutes without stressing out, except that I can then leave the bar whereas I’m stuck at the office for seven more hours.

                      Dynamism and experimentation is still possible with separate offices, as long as they’re big enough to support pairs or small teams. IIRC, the research indicates that putting small teams in their own offices beats out open offices for actual productivity.

                      If you’re having trouble getting a sense of team spirit or camaraderie out of your teammates, you might have more luck connecting with them in groups of 1-3 instead of bringing them all together at once. Structured activities can also help, especially if teammates are still getting to know one another. Lastly, they might have tuned out because they don’t feel engaged in the work itself. There’s no social substitute quite like intrinsically engaging work.

                      1. 1

                        It’s the total opposite for me.

                        Ever had a team take a conference call near your desk? It’s like that but incessantly.

                        I do all the time but it’s not much of a bother. It’s kind of the background noise wherever you go in my home country, not only at work, everyone is on phone calls all the time.

                        I also find busy social environments overstimulating and exhausting.

                        Maybe that’s where the issue lies.

                        Structured activities can also help, especially if teammates are still getting to know one another.

                        That’s exactly what I don’t like, I prefer the unstructured part of open offices, the mingling between teams that wouldn’t usually talk to one another if they were in their own silo, a word here and there that sparks a heated discussion about a certain technology. Maybe it’s about the perception of what work is about, I don’t think it’s about fully focusing and engaging in a task, disconnecting from the rest of the world, battling out any outside interference, and sometimes having stiff and well structured meeting with colleagues to get a sense of direction. That’s kind of lame in my opinion, and doesn’t create a deep connection with the company, on the opposite I think it’s preferable to welcome outside interferences, making it all games and play, a real group of humans getting together to create something, not feeling like a cog in a well-oiled machine. I don’t think I’d enjoy work if I had a different perception. It’s probably a cultural thing, people are very open and social where I live and wouldn’t stand having everyone separated.

                        1. 1

                          It does sound like your cultural background plays a large factor in that. I’m speaking for US culture (at least southeastern and northeastern urban/suburban culture) and that kind of gregariousness seems common in certain environments, too, like most bars. Unfortunately for me, and for many trying to do deep work, that familiarity hasn’t made it any less distracting or exhausting.

                          I also enjoy socializing and bantering with my colleagues, but during meetings, over lunch, and at other structured times that don’t call for deep work.

                          Whatever one’s individual needs, it’s important to check in with one’s colleagues and employees to find the best setup. Basecamp, for example, had a library-like office environment with separate spaces for conversations and that worked well for them. I’d prefer a private office, myself, but I’d also function much better in a cubby with opaque walls at my back and sides than I would in at a shared table. In the end, giving employees real choice would get the best results.

                      2. 1

                        Is it because devs don’t want to interact with their coworkers, or simply don’t want any distraction at all, or simply don’t like interactions. I never really grasped why people hate them so much.

                        Please keep in mind that some of us have various sensory processing difficulties or other reasons why working in potentially noisy, dynamic environments could be distracting, frustrating or even painful. I certainly don’t think there’s anything wrong with acknowledging that some people, like you, enjoy working in open offices, but for the people who don’t, it’s not necessarily a matter of preference or choice (or culture, as you mentioned in one of your replies). Some developers, just as some segment of the general population, are simply neurodivergent, and have no control over their ability to handle situations like that.

                        1. 2

                          Thank you for your reply, it clarifies things.

                          1. 1

                            No problem. I want to be clear I’m not trying to say I speak for all developers or all neurodivergent people, or that this is the only reason people might not like open plan offices.

                      3. 1

                        You haven’t lived if you haven’t sat next to a person who likes crunching ice cubes throughout the day.

                        1. 1

                          I was kinda hoping this was more topical. IE: how to survive an Open Office during a coronavirus pandemic.