Tech Life Avoiding the true explanation

Your Best Work (2015)

I take issue with the deliberately inflammatory headline that Google is to blame for destroying the workplace since open office style workplaces were around long before Google, but the topic is worth debating.

I have a variety of issues regarding the open office trend. Let’s start with the fact that the folks often making the space decision are managers who already don’t spend much time at their desk because they are, by necessity, in meetings all day. They’re already in a quiet and private conference room where they can focus on the task at hand. They (we) don’t intimately understand the daily tax of constantly being interrupted because they (we) are not living it on a daily basis.

These same managers are often ones who are staring at the bottom line with the best intentions. With the increasingly painful rents in technology hotbeds like Palo Alto, San Francisco, and New York city, it just makes good financial sense to reduce the square footage per employee which means less walled offices because they consume valuable square footage. Don’t worry about the sardine factor, this smaller space will help create a more connected workforce and drive greater collaboration and innovation.

I appreciate the math because I’ve done it, but I get twitchy when fiscal responsibility is used a justification for maximizing productivity. This, my friends, is called a rationalization – a defense mechanism in which controversial behavior are explained in a seemingly rational manner to avoid the true explanation.

It is also bullshit.

In the past five years, the teams I’ve seen work at impressive speed are the ones who self-organized themselves elsewhere. They found a dark corner of the building, they cleared out a large conference room, or they found an unused floor of a building and made it their own. While this might strike you as a case for shared common open space, it’s not. It’s an argument for common space that is not shared because these teams have work to do and don’t want a constant set of irrelevant interruptions. This is why I’m in favor of pod-like set-ups where teams working on similar technology and projects have their own enclosed space. I believe this is the type of set-up that encourages the most efficient forms of collaboration.

A question: when do you do your best work? What are your ideal conditions? They vary by your personality type and whether you’re a introvert or a extravert or a stable or a volatile. If you’re a software engineer, your craft is code and you’re at maximum productivity when you have long uninterrupted minutes and each unexpected visual and auditory interruption is a unique opportunity to completely lose your train of thoughts, context, and hard to recover mental momentum.

The advantages of open space are undeniable: low friction access to the team encourages valuable serendipity, a lack of hard wall offices reduces perceptions of organization hierarchy, and there is an immeasurable subtle joy being able to look across the room and realize this is my tribe.

It’s a business and there are good fiscally responsible reasons as well as culturally ones to move to an open space, but who is doing the math on productivity? Who understands the compounding productivity interest earned with each consecutive uninterrupted minute of work? It is there in those hard to capture collective minutes where your best work is happening.

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15 Responses

  1. JL Rivers 10 years ago

    I am pretty much done with this topic. The acceptance or not of open spaces falls squarely within the expected mindset of introverts and extroverts.

  2. Allen 10 years ago

    The Johnson’s Wax building (completed in 1939) is still the poster building for “open office” design. Why did we shift from that huge open floor plan in the 1950s and 60s to the smaller and quieter office layouts? Management then recognized while there is some additional costs, the lower level of distractions and interruptions lead to higher productivity. So now the amateur managers want to go back to a less effective floor plan.

    I call them amateurs because they haven’t haven’t done the essential homework that a pro does. Searching out what was tried before and why was it discarded.

  3. THANK YOU! I wrote about this topic and came to similar conclusions.

    Anyone who is curious can read it here:

    — david

  4. “there is an immeasurable subtle joy being able to look across the room and realize this is my tribe.”

    This is only true up to the point where your tribe is behind an IM window or VOIP dialer. When the people you can’t help but see in the “open office” are less co-workers and more merely employed by the same legal entity, it becomes quite clear that the only group that gets consistent productivity gains from the Open Space plan is Site Planning as they’ve got far more flexibility to fit all the local employees into the building in ways less constrained by conventional physical architectures.

  5. Karellen 10 years ago

    See also “Peopleware”, by de Marco and Lister, Ch. 9 – “Saving money on Space”.

    “[IBM researchers] watched programmers, engineers, quality control workers, and managers go about their normal activities. From their studies, they concluded that a minimum accommodation for the mix of poeple slated to occupy the new [Santa Teresa facility] would be the following:
    • 100 square feed of dedicated space per worker
    • 30 square feet of work surface per person
    • Noise protection in the form of enclosed offices or six-foot high partitions[…]
    The rational for building the new laboratory to respect these minimums was simple: People in the roles studied /needed/ the space and quiet to perform optimally. Cost reduction to provide workspace below the minimum would result in a loss of effectiveness that would more than offset the cost savings.”

    “In order to determine whether attitude toward noise level had any correlation to work, we divided our [Coding War Games study] sample into two parts, those who found the workplace acceptably quiet and those who didn’t. Then we looked at the number of workers within each group who had completed the entire exercise without a single defect.

    Workers who reported before the exercise that their workplace was acceptably quiet were /one-third more likely/ to deliver zero-defect work.”

    Actually, you should just find a copy and read the whole chapter^Wbook if you have not done so already.

  6. I’m an extreme introvert who develops software of a sort (websites), and my ideal work environment would be library-quiet. Where I work, most employees sit in cubicles with low walls that don’t block sound. Higher-ups have private offices. I find that the collaboration potential afforded by the open office is outweighed by the distraction. I do like the “pod” idea—there should be designated areas for spontaneous and chatty collaboration, but the default workspace should be quiet. Being situated near incessant phone users is somewhat of a drag, but I am finding some relief these days in my noise-cancelling headphones worn over foam earplugs.

    This piece reminds me of a great cartoon by Jason Heeris that gets right to the heart of the matter.

  7. »Library-quiet« gives me a cue: Perhaps it’s not about the layout of spaces per se, but rather about the social norms observed by everyone in whatever space they are wring in. A library reading room supports uninterrupted work despite its open layout and the number of people present. The social norm there is to be quiet and avoid any distraction of others. To make a phone call or have a meeting, one needs to leave the reading room and find a place elsewhere, such as the cafeteria. A separate office, on the other hand, can be pretty busy and rich in interruptions if coworkers drop by too often.

    As a case in point, I enjoy working during longer train rides. The social norms on train are, at least in my country, similar to those in a library: when a stranger is staring at his computer screen, leave him or her undisturbed. This norm breaks down when I travel with colleagues on a business trip. Unless I signal to them I do not want to be interrupted, they will expect they can talk to me at any time.

  8. Justin 10 years ago

    I had a quiet private office for my first five years working in this career. I know that I felt more productive, and when my next job switched to a quiet cubicle with that “library” feel, I remember only a slight loss of productivity. However, in my third job, I switched to a noisier cubicle environment, and remember feeling like productivity dropped through the floor. Next I moved to a large open environment with high noise levels, and felt another precipitous drop in productivity. So much so that I organized a revolt, and managed to secure moderately quiet cubicles for the team. (A small group had requested the move to the open environment a year earlier, and common feeling was that everyone was happier. I didn’t believe it so I set up an anonymous vote, and received 16 votes to return to cubicles, 1 vote of “don’t care”, and exactly 1 vote to keep the open plan.)
    I worked in those cubicles for eight years, but recently quit to start my own company.
    Now that I have a private office again, my only distraction is the cat, and I’ve noticed increasing productivity each week. The most telling thing is that I’ve started to have days where I can stay “in flow” for 4 hour chunks. It feels like I sit down to start writing, type for 5 minutes, take a lunch break, type 5 more minutes, and then my actual 8-10 hour day is done.

    That said, I have mixed feelings about it. Poor management decisions like this are part of the reason start-up companies have a chance to unseat established players in a market.

  9. Peter 10 years ago

    I was also going to mention Peopleware by deMarco and Lister. Written in 1987, it covers exactly this issue.
    Their solution was neither individual offices nor open plan. The best option was a “workteam sized” (8-10 people) space with reasonably high partitions and individual spaces within. As I remember (it has been some time) the partitioning was also flexible to allow different dynamics for different teams as projects come and go.
    This sounds very similar to what you have described above.
    The idea being that those people who work together can collaborate without interference from outside. And with the space each person had their own corner to retreat into.

  10. It’s an interesting debate to be had on whether it’s best to have an open space or closed off, and it’s going to depend ultimately on what kind of business is being run there.