People seem to assume that the solution to lack of socialization is forced socialization. Hey, employees don't talk enough? I know, let's make sure they hear each other all the time!
Personally, I strive for balanced contact. I love locking myself in a corner to get something done, but once I'm done, I actually have the desire and the energy to socialize. Differently from when I'm actually forcibly socializing while trying to work.
"People seem to assume that the key to lack of socialization is forced socialization. Hey, employees don't talk enough? I know, let's make sure they hear each other all the time!"
It's exactly the same when the big shots think there is not enough innovation. Let's just hang up a few banners "We are innovative" or run some off-hours, unpaid "hackathons" while shortening deadlines even more.
I have participated in several hackdays and we were encouraged to work on something relevant to the business. I thought that smelled bad so I always made a deliberate effort to do something as opposite of the day to day as possible and I encourage anyone participating in an employer-sponsored hackday to do the same.
Generally I tried to do something with hardware and the experience was always extremely gratifying. I built great relationships with coworkers through those projects.
The Christopher Alexander solution described in Peopleware sounds like a good compromise, having both individual and group spaces.
"People cannot work effectively if their workspace is too enclosed or too exposed. A good workspace strikes the balance."
"fashion space explicitly around working groups. Each team needs identifiable public and semiprivate space and each individual needs protected private space. The team members and their space counselor could work out the possible ways their space could be arranged."
> space counselor
Does anyone have a "space counselor" how is not their manager? I've always taken my "space counselor" issues to my direct manager.
Their idea of a "space counselor" wouldn't work in a startup or even a small company. In a large company like Google or IBM or Microsoft then having someone who just specializes in knowing where all the buildings are, their floorplans, and who is currently using which rooms would be quite important. When you form a team (of 3-5 people, ideally) in this company you would go to them and find a spot where you could all work together. They would help you pick out furniture, design the layout, recommend putting in a couch and coffee table, etc. They would basically be the front-end UI for the entire facilities department.
This would indeed be happening completely independently of your normal manager (except that your manager probably told you where to find the space counselor, made an appointment for you, etc).
I find myself and some of my peers working from home on days we need to keep our head down. I agree, organically interaction and social time will exist regardless of open/closed space. The problem I find for myself is that debugging complex problems or designing new complex systems is extremely difficult in an open space. These situations lend well to either booking a meeting room for myself or working from home.
The problem is that neither is ideal because I want to be at my desk. My desk is setup in the way I like and want it to be for my maximum productivity. Now my bookbag becomes a mobile desk with all the fixins so I can get work done in any of the above scenarios without much effort.
This is a problem and frankly I don't see the pros outweight the cons for open office.
getting work done is NOT why I come to the office. I don't like to be one of those guys who sells half of his day to somebody. I come to work to have fun, meet people etc.I also have to work sometimes... but it is easier to mix the 2 of them in an open space. Sure, I'm not very productive, but that's not what I want.
Did I miss a sarcasm tag or are you serious? I honestly can't tell.
Remind me never to hire you
I guess every open office has at least one you. Pray that one only..
That's the way to go. I work in a cube farm and I get a ton of noise from neighbors and most people eat lunch at their desk. Nothing social at all.
The irony is that in order to get things done it's better to work from home. How's that for socialization?
OA mentions that the boss moved you all back into a 10,000 sqft space with offices.
What was the space before the move? i.e. in Open Office phase?
A data point as to alleged space saving might be useful ammunition.
Best of luck with it all.
Too bad it takes a lot of logic to understand such thing.
A lot of the comments here seem to focus on socialization and feeling like you're in a community, but closed offices don't preclude this.
I work at Wildbit (the company referenced in the article), and we have family-style lunches around a big table and plenty of common areas where socialization happens in the mornings, during lunch, when people make coffee, and plenty of other times.
The key is that when folks are working, they can do so in their office and stay focused. It's a balance of the two. Quiet space when folks need to focus and social space for other times. Having private offices and half the team working remotely doesn't affect socialization. We just tend to have better separation between the two so that they don't blur into each other or impact others who are trying to stay focused.
Like cities and human development, there should be different areas for different types of work and different people.
Maybe you're a programmer and you want 100% silence, that should be available.
Maybe you're like me, who gets a lot more done in a small, focused group. You should be able to squat in a collaboration room all day and get shit done.
Maybe you don't mind ambient noise, and like to sit on a couch to work so people can stop by and visit and interrupt you for a chat and to share an idea. That should be available too.
Like most things in life, it comes down to having options available to people, and letting them make choices versus trying to predict or control behavior for "performance".
That's one of the main takeaways from the story tho. In an open office those who need silence cannot get it, even if there are private rooms available: "Some of us even feel that escaping to a quiet room is a sign of weakness" and "it can feel as if we’re not pulling our weight if we’re not present"
One thing that that would bother me in that situation is I do not enjoy doing work on laptops. I prefer to work from a desktop where the monitor (1) reasonably sized, (2) at eye level. I also prefer a full sized mouse and keyboard, as I feel handicapped by a trackpad. Most quiet places do not have this, so I am effectively chained to my desk, where my desktop is.
At my company, we are fortunate to have quiet spaces that have dual monitors, keyboard, and mouse, for your laptop. I agree, it's a necessity.
2 Monitors are great
Yeah the worst is when they want all the work done onsite and expect extreme hours at the open office space total recipe for disaster
Over ear headphones are a pretty good workaround if you don't want to be distracted by the noise.
They're really not, though. In addition to "hey, hearing damage!" if you're listening loud enough to actually counteract the din of crap around you, it's a profoundly isolating thing to be wearing them for six hours a day. It's symptomatic relief that pushes the buttons of way worse problems, IMO.
Which is why I just bought some of those Bose noise cancelling cans. Listen at a safe volume and block out noise. They're great.
That you have to block out noise by strapping things to your head for six hours a day is the problem that you are steadfastly not solving, though.
You can't get around needing to strap things to your head when you're operating a jackhammer. Nerd at a desk? At the least we should fight for a little dignity.
Agreed, I know that noise-cancelling headphones are a solution to noisy offices for some people, but for me at least it's almost as distracting to have something (anything) strapped to my head for hours on end. And yeah, no one should have to do that in the first place.
There is a huge overlap in my experience between people who like open offices because it's easy for them to socialize and ask questions, and people who like to pester their busy coworkers with questions they could have figured out themselves. Also people who get bored easily and like to pester coworkers because they need a break from whatever they've been working on for the last 15 minutes.
Basically whenever I hear someone say, "I love open offices because when I don't know how to do something, my coworkers are right there to help me", I can't help but think, "yeah, I bet you do, and I bet your coworkers are ready to claw their eyes out when you come around asking something because you couldn't be bothered to read a man page". Every time someone touts coworker accessibility for questions as a critical reason to have open offices, I can't help but wonder what the ratio is between the time they spend asking other people questions and the time they spend answering other people's questions, because it always sounds like it's pretty huge.
Same thing goes for availability over Slack, HipChat, etc.
"We should all be on the Slack/HipChat channel so we can get instant answers to all of our questions!" - the people who have lots of questions
"Great, all I need, another source of interruptions!" - the people who get asked lots of questions
(Guess which one I consider myself to be?)
Il take async communications over interuptrupts any day of the week. Just disable notifications and check it when you're not balls deep in something.
Additionally, it's not a universal work-around. Noise canceling gives a significant fraction of us nausea
Or some people are very sensitive to the (white?) noise that noise that NC headphones still generate.
>...noise cancelling cans...
Active noise cancelling systems generally only suppress continuous steady sounds, e.g. fan noise or motor hum. It actually makes conversations and other transient activities _more_ audible by reducing the background sound.
Depends on the model. QC20's from bose (in-ear noise canceling) are basically magic in that regard - turn them on, add relatively quiet music, and I might as well be deaf to everything, including conversation.
That does lead the the annoying problem that I have to have something stuck in my ear (vs on, which isn't quite as annoying) for 6ish hours a day. Also, they're expensive af, and require frequent charging since I never remember to turn off the noise cancelling when I'm done with them.
Solution: sit near your most monotonous colleagues.
They're expensive too. I know it's not a concern for some but it is for me.
It isn't just the noise that is distracting though, visual stimuli can be more distracting than noise; at least they are for me. I guess we could solve this problem via headphones and VR goggles with views isolated views of your desktop, but if you're going to go to that extreme, why not just work remotely or in a closed office?
No, they're not. Headphones are a marginal improvement over listening to all the conversations in the room, but not nearly as good for concentration as an actual quiet room.
A visual barrier may be needed also if you've got people roaming around. At one place we had large black fold out cardboard pieces to alleviate that. Was kind of absurd, but better than nothing.
Watch your volume levels, though, if you're listening to music. A few years' worth of listening to metal with noise cancelling headphones trying to drone out the noise has probably contributed to the slight tinnitus I'm having.
One problem with that is that in an open-plan office, meetings can be de-formalized into open conversations and you'll have to monitor those if you don't want to be left out or might have something to contribute.
I once worked in an office where the founder would stroll out of his office (natch), and have a conversation with one person, extending to a second person, into a decision-type meeting with more people. Call it an evolving standup.
Even if you're locked into headphones this is can be a big distraction equivalent to not wearing headphones at all.
tl;dr: sometimes "the noise" is not noise.
I've found IEM-style headphones are better. Since they already block out some of the ambient noise by plugging your ears, much lower volume levels are required to block out distractions.
I find any kind of headphones to be painful/disturbing after a while. On-ear are the worst (who the F * * * thought pressing your ears into your head was a good idea?), followed by in-ear. The only ones I can wear for any amount of time are over-ear but eventually (if nothing else) your ears will be all warm and that will be disturbing as well.
Besides I really enjoy just silence sometimes, being forced to listen to music does not necessarily improve my focus.
I sometimes wear my headphones with no music, just in noise-canceling mode. Just like you, I think music can be distracting or tiring after a while. My Sony headphones have such powerful noise canceling that it silences even the slightest hum, sort of a anechoic chamber. It helps me concentrate and I like keeping my ears warm. If I'm in the mood, I also put some white noise sounds on (youtube has plenty of it) including rain, beach waves and train rides.
And I work in my own private corner office.
> On-ear are the worst (who the F * * * thought pressing your ears into your head was a good idea?)
There also exist on-ear headphones that don't apply so much pressure. So it rather seems to me that the model that you tested simply does not fit your requirements.
I also prefer over-ear over on-ear, but did not have the problem with on-ear headphones that you described.
And for those of us who get distracted by visual noise? Maybe blinkers (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blinkers_(horse_tack))?
No one outside of trendy Bay Area tech startups respect the 'headphones = DND' social guideline. Open offices suck for this reason because people just take it as open season to come up to your desk whenever they want to ask a question. I'm forever interrupted by this, not just the movement around me in my peripheral vision and the noise (particularly social converstions in the hall behind me near the printer).
I often do this, but find it enclosing. I also can't stand headphones when I leave the office. I like to listen to music while I work generally. When I work from home, I leave the speakers on. I can move about while I work, not tethered.
I once interviewed over a video call. I asked, "I notice you have an open office there. Where do the developers sit in relation to the sales and customer service teams?"
They cut the interview short, and I never heard from them again.
They know we don't like sitting next to someone yapping on the phone all day. They just don't care.
Bingo. They know it reduces productivity but apparently the productivity hit is worth the cost savings. And frankly, from a business perspective, they could be right. Just don't tell me its "to enhance collaboration" [don't pee on my leg and tell me it's raining].
Perhaps I was too harsh, there probably are some businesses that actually don't know that developers are much different from customers support, accountants or typists when it comes to the need for sustained concentration and focus.
(I mean no disrespect to customer support, accountants or typists.)
Somewhat meta and not being contradictory to your message; but accountants are very much like programmers and need their quiet spaces. Managing complex Excel spreadsheets is about as close to programming as other office work.
Ironically, speaking of accountants, I at least have found that in most businesses, the accounting staff do in fact have their own isolated working space. They justify it because of the "sensitivity" of their data, which is true. But the cynic in me thinks it's because they know developers tend to make more money (on average) and so they influence the situation and pitch to the CxO's to "reduce costs" by moving everyone (except themselves) into public spaces.
Your first point is correct -- it's because of the cost savings. But cost savings only applies to those critters who dwell at the bottom of the org chart.
Accounting often requires huge amount of folder/files which is next to impossible to organize in an open office -- also there is no QA/automated testing for misfiled numbers/reports.
And last but not least, significantly fewer accounts are necessary in a software company compared to the sheer amount of developers. (monkey ones or otherwise)
There are a lot of businesses where the social status hierarchy is much more important than productivity.
As long as the company can survive, they just don't want to give the bottom-rungs much at all.
I was afraid I might get some flak for mentioning accountants. I apparently have/had an incorrect or at least dated view of how an accountant works.
In the context of my own work as a developer, focus for me entails trying to come up with the math to do something new. This entails hours of thinking about it in bed but also trying to juggle the ideas in my head. (I'll be the first to admit that thinking is probably not my strong suit.)
BTW: I'm looking for a New Hampshire based CPA for my sole proprietorship if you know of anyone. :-)
> Bingo. They know it reduces productivity but apparently the productivity hit is worth the cost savings.
Or the cost savings are reaped by different people than those who bear the productivity hit.
I bet accountants fall on the side of people who like uninterrupted quiet to do their work well.
Wait wait wait, are you suggesting that not everyone conforms to the same needs? Where did you hear this blasphemy at. Seriously though, I 100% agree that businesses should not treat employees like sardines that all fit in a row and be more accommodating to different people's preferences and needs.
Strangely, open offices with cubicles can be more expensive than building drywall walls to make closed offices. And the much-vaunted flexibility of cubicles is way, way overrated. In my experience, cubicles sit in the same place for years. Any benefit of re-using them is lost. Also if the company is growing, new ones get bought all the time, so old ones aren't re-used anyway.
Its obvious on the face of it: re-usable walls and shelving are going to be more expensive than simple stick construction. You have to be re-using it constantly (reformatting office space every month or quarter) to make it pay. And then you're tanking everybody's productivity.
I think open-office is some brain virus that keeps infecting managers everywhere. We need some kind of vaccine to combat it.
>We need some kind of vaccine to combat it.
The vaccine is a startup that is 10x (or even just 2x) better than everyone else because they use private offices.
Since that hypothetical business hasn't yet proven that idea, all the articles from journalists writing about "open offices bad" are just preaching to the choir.
Even the common cited reason for open offices being "saves real estate costs" is questionable. As an example, look at Mark Zuckerberg's old Harvard photos when building Facebook. Look specifically at the 8th and 16th photos.
See how everybody is literally in an "open office" crowded around a kitchen table?
In Mark's mind, that collaboration "works" for him and helped make Facebook successful. Therefore, it should also work for future hires. This is why cash-rich Facebook that has money to build private offices equal to lawyers' suites eschews that and opts to build an open plan instead. The new 2015 headquarters is expansion of that "2005 Harvard open office" on a grander scale.
Mark Z works still works in that open warehouse concept instead of a private suite.
I see very little commentary from HN that directly deals with executives who really believe in their hearts it's a superior way to work.
 deep link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l--zev_37QA&feature=youtu.be...
FogCreek / StackOverflow might be an example of this. https://stackoverflow.blog/2015/01/why-we-still-believe-in-p...
First, Stackoverflow was not successful because it was built by programmers in private offices. It was successful because Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood had popular blogs followed by a large population of programmers sick of ExpertExchange. Stackoverflow is a demonstration of guerilla-SEO via a ready-made audience to make a site instantly popular.
Fog Creek has(had) 3 major products:
- FogBugz: profitable but less of a success than Atlassian
- Trello: not profitable (sold to Atlassian)
- Stackoverflow/StackExchange : not profitable yet 
According to the open-office "distractions/interuptions" theory of killing productivity, the Atlassian programmers should have been severely handicapped and as a result JIRA should have evolved at a snails pace. Instead, the opposite happened and Atlassian JIRA released more features than FogBugz. Both FogBugz and Trello lost to Atlassian.
That Joel Spolsky post about private offices gets repeatedly cited in threads about its benefits but I recommend people not mention it. It undermines their point. It's ineffective at convincing executives. However, it's very effective at making other programmers reading it nod in agreement (aka "preaching to the choir").
Don't link ineffective articles devoid of business evidence that happens to confirm your desires. Instead, study the way some executives actually think. Too many programmers dismiss companies' rationale for open offices merely as "saves square footage costs" or "it's a way to spy on employees because of distrust". Yes, some of that may be true but others also have different reasons. (Take a look at the Mark Zuckerberg video I linked and listen to what he's saying about his desk in the open floor plan. Is he trying to recreate that elbow-to-elbow collaboration he had at the Harvard kitchen table or is he just trying to spy on people? Would that Joel Spolsky article convince Mark Z to build private offices? No? Why not?)
>> We need some kind of vaccine to combat it.
> The vaccine is a startup that is 10x (or even just 2x) better than everyone else because they use private offices.
At Trello everyone is either remote or has a private office. I'm not sure how to prove that they're 2x (I'd say it's too vague to be provable), but they've managed to do well without taking large amounts of investment, which speaks well of their productivity.
>they've managed to do well
I think you're inadvertently undermining your point. Trello wasn't profitable. They were "cash-flow break even" which is also another way of saying they still had not earned enough "free cash flow" to pay back their past internal investments that got them where they currently are.
Trello has private offices.
Atlassian has open offices. They are also profitable.
Atlassian was the one who bought Trello. Trello didn't buy Atlassian. Trello did not perform 2x better than Atlassian JIRA. (E.g. the ideal narrative would have been, "because Trello programmers have less interruptions than Atlassian programmers, their productivity was proven to be 2x superior and they made Atlassian JIRA obsolete.")
If you want to change the hearts & minds of people like Mark Z, the Trello example is not a case study to use.
Wouldn't you also need to include things like, time from founding, revenue per employee, growth rate, return on investment, etc. to evaluate whether Atlassian or Trello has been the more productive business?
The GP's point still stands: closed offices _may_ make for more productive employees (for some classes of employees), but it is not obvious that they translate into a more productive _business_.
Instead of using Trello, you could compare Atlassian against Fog Creek. Fog Creek was founded two years before Atlassian, and both companies are more or less in the same space - they make productivity tools for developers. And yet it's hard not to look at Atlassian as the more successful business so far.
An "open office" for 5-7 persons is different from an open office for 30+ people. In fact, I think an "open office" for 5-7 persons (e.g. the typical software development team) is quite ideal.
I disagree. I've worked in 1,2,3,5-7 and 30+ ppl offices and my view is that 1 is superior in every way, 2 is possible (but it's quite easy to talk away hours if you have common interests), 3 starts to be quite disturbing (especially since it's now possible for three completely different discussions taking place at the same time) and the difference between 5-7 and 30+ is minimal since it's the 5-7 ppl closest to you in a 30+ office that are the most disturbing anyway, the rest are just white noise.
There is a weird call out to this work environment in The Social Network, where Zuckerberg is talking to a visitor, but has to keep shooing him away from the programmers on the couches, huddled around the kitchen table, saying "Don't interrupt him! He's in the zone!"
So, recognition of need for deep concentration and focus, but in an environment totally inimical to those.
They may work when people have enough work diciplin to not interrupt with irrelevant things. Which it looks like they can manage in the pictures. But when you have a constant stream of people interrupting with things that should just have been an email or slack message, it kills productivity.
Email and slack are interruptive.
> Email and slack are interruptive.
Only if you "decide" to be informed immediately when an email/message comes.
While it works to decide to check email only 2-3 times a day, it doesn't work so well with IM. IM discussions are typically much faster and there's a big risk you miss out on giving your POV before everyone has moved on, if you only check it every now and then.
If everyone moved on, was it really important to give your input anyway?
With IM you can turn it off if you need to focus, and turn it on when you are doing busy work anyway.
I have no popup or sounds when I get an email, and when slack is in dnd, it might as well not be open. My point though, is that I control if I want to be interrupted.
I agree. I used to design voice and data networks for call centers and I would always be part of the planning phase. A lot of times I would have to go with call center owners when they would go inspect cubicles they found and potentially wanted to buy, so as to answer any questions about how they will be connected to power, network, etc.. I was always amazed at just how expensive cubicles were. I mean, for what they are. One of the call centers was owned by a construction company. They originally went with cubes but in their next call center they built cubes out of drywall, not quite offices obviously - but looked really good, at mere fraction of the cost.
As a person that has worked in both open and closed floor plans, ill just say this, I miss working from home and cant wait to go back.
I love that idea and I'm glad someone realized it. The dry wall helps with the noise, which reduces stress in that environment.
Last time I wanted cubes in the Silicon Valley, used ones in excellent condition were available for cheap. Thank you, Internet Bubble!
Any benefit of re-using them is lost. Also if the company is growing, new ones get bought all the time, so old ones aren't re-used anyway.
5-10 years after the initial deployment, the same models are no longer available and the new cubicle system isn't compatible with the old one so they're stuck with the now obsolete setup and are forced to either work with it or scrap it and start over.
Event though dry walls are cheap, you cannot just install them as you can do with cubicles. You'd have to change ventilation to work for all rooms, have proper lights for every cubicle, adhere to fire restrictions (probably alarms in every small room) and will likely need to use more space per employee.
Cubicles or open plan is by far the cheapest way to set up an office since you only have one room that you need to set up. And that's the main reason people use it, it's just cheaper. If you look at flexible working spaces, desks in closed rooms often cost twice of what you pay for a desk in an open floor layout. I don't think there's a way to set up closed offices at even close the price of open offices.
And I must admit as much as I don't like open offices, sitting in a tiny private office of the size you have to yourself in an open office would probably lead to anxiety.
I had a couple office spaces built out. While we used cubicles for odd spaces (no light/no sprinkler) we tried to use built offices as much as possible. Because it was much, much cheaper. Hundreds of dollars instead of thousands.
You can always double-up in a 10X12 office if you grow. And until then, its very nice. And cheap.
One former employer doubled up but only if the parties were opposite "early bird" vs "night owl". My officemate left work at 2 every afternoon to pick up the kids (even in the summer, whatever), then VPNed in from home, and I abused flex time to a level of almost working 2nd shift, so we each had nearly private offices for at least half the work day. It was a small office, couldn't have been more than 10 ft on a side, but remember we didn't need endless collaboration and meeting spaces because we had offices, so the net real estate used was less than cubes or open offices. Also it was cheaper because cubes or open offices falling apart is just being cheap, but a 150 year old building falling apart is financially valuable "character"
Flex time with small group office is nearly ideal. I can spend hours a day with the door closed concentrating or meeting, or hours a day working as a team, it just seems ideal.
Its like the difference between college dorm life with a roommate or two, vs military barracks grid array of 50 beds packed together.
>> so we each had nearly private offices for at least half the work day
The problem is someone noticing that and then sticking 4 people in your office.
At one place I worked we went in on a weekend and rearranged all of the cubicles in our work area to better suit our work style and needs. (moved openings, created a central collaboration area, etc) Our boss was ok with it because he said he was responsible for the budget for that floor (including real estate) and if we felt it would make us more productive he was all for it. Unfortunately the corporate bureaucrats got wind of it several months later and came in from HQ (which was 1,000 miles away) and ordered us to put them back in the official standard configuration. They didn't care that our team worked better and was more productive the way we had it. They had official standard configurations and our cubes had to stay that way.
Could it be that one of the team members made a complaint privately (or anonymously)? Otherwise it would be a stupid move (and would be easy to fight by taking the case to the next level of bureaucrats -- "bureaucrats have greater bureaucrats to go to .. " :) )
Teammates of mine have very occasionally been able to fend off a stupid edict by a mid-level manager with a simple (and literal) "Fuck off, we're busy" and/or "we have real work to do". They're usually to embarrassed to respond or escalate. It's hardly a recommended procedure, or appropriate for every situation or combination of people.
The more polite - "We're 100% contracted out right now" is somewhat less effective - they come back a month or so later.
Was there some complaint from another team or something? That is just so illogical.
I have no idea if someone complained or not. There were regular visits by senior management and remote team members. Some of whom were jealous that we had cubes at all.
...or they said that they were jealous to toe the party line.
The furniture police!
There is a tax benefit as well. Cubicles are considered "furniture" which depreciates faster than walls. Companies get to deduct a greater percentage of the cost of cubicles each year than they would for the cost of building a wall.
This is one of those cases where middle management is harming the company's long term interests for personal benefits. An annual review or resume benefits from saved X$/year as long as other costs are hidden. Many managers also just like walking past the cube farm to their office.
Are you sure this is a middle-management thing?
I always got the feeling it came from some C-level exec giving the thumbs up to the Facilities exec's hateful (but ignorant!) Powerpoint about openness and collaboration and TCO and the fungibility of talent.
"Well of course we value openness and collaboration just as much as Facebook does, and they're open-plan!"
And they may honestly not know any better, if the developers haven't come out of their shells to complain to him, and he's seen the photos of Facebook and knows they are maybe the most successful software company on Earth.
You might be comparing to the wrong thing. These days, lots of open offices I see do not involve expensive (low) cubicle walls and desks, they're just simple tables. You can't get much cheaper than simple fold-up tables.
What about the cost of those special collaboration rooms that no one wants to talk about?
At my previous cube farm employer, we had maybe 75 cubes, a giant 30x30 cafeteria/lunch/meeting room, oh 16 tables to eat lunch at least, a large conference room we literally called the large conference room of 20x20 and a small conf room we called the small conference room of 10x10 and there was an engineering team meeting operations room (really a lockable storage room / lab) that was 20x20. Because coats and boots "can't be stored in cubes" although we did anyway, there was a row of 50 feet by 3 feet of coat closet that was basically unused. That's a lot of square footage allocated to no individual therefore "saved" but offices would result in 2000 or so sq ft of shared space being eliminated. Now figure a 10x10 office shared by two people, thats 40 people's private offices just being wasted in the shared space required by cubicle life. So of the 75 people in that office 40 are in the new offices and 35 are distributed in the space formerly occupied by cubes. Certainly cube walls are slightly thinner than private office walls but the space savings won't be a factor of two. Definitely the employer was throwing away a considerable amount of expensive rent by using cubes and meeting rooms instead of private offices. If they junked the cubes and went private shared office they would have still had extra leftover space maybe for fancier larger offices or some people could have solitary private offices or maybe some "neutral ground" meeting rooms.
This depends entirely on the employer and what they provide for in the office.
Yes, if they provide special "collaboration rooms", that's going to add to the cost. But if they don't, then it's not a factor. If your employer just gives you one big open room with a bunch of tables, and that's it, that really doesn't cost much. And there's a bunch of employers these days that do exactly this.
(As for coats and boots, you can put your coat on the back of your chair. Or drop it on the floor under your desk. Yeah, it sucks, but again there's plenty of employers that treat engineers this way these days.)
The open office is terrible for having meetings, calls and conferences. All the companies I've seen had to allocate about half the building space to meeting rooms only. That totally ruins the alleged space savings from having a single cheap hangar full of people.
There wouldn't be need for that many rooms if there were proper offices.
I don't disagree, but I'll also point out that it isn't much better with cubicles. When I worked in a giant company that had cubicles in the 2000s, it was the same: a significant part (not half though) of the floor space was dedicated to meeting rooms, because you can't have meetings in a cubicle easily, and for privacy, serious discussion, etc., you really need a meeting room. So a company like that, which is already set up with the 1990s standard of cubicles and meeting rooms, could easily see an open-office plan as a way to save money and pack even more people into the office buildings they already have. All they have to do is take out the cubicles and stick a bunch of tables in, and leave the meeting rooms as-is.
But yes, if they had proper offices, they wouldn't need many of those meeting rooms, only some larger ones for meetings that are too big for the offices (more than 3-4 people perhaps).
The vaccine already exists. It was introduced to the US in 1786.
Metaphorically speaking, many of our peers believe that this vaccine causes autism. It occasionally does cause illness more severe than those vaccinated against.
It's collective bargaining through a cartel of skilled laborers. Unions.
But like Brundlefly, those infected managers don't believe they have a disease. They're not getting worse, they're getting better (as they turn into monsters).
> It's collective bargaining through a cartel of skilled laborers. Unions.
We don't need unions - we need developers who strongly refuse to work in open offices. Since there is a shortage of developers, this should suffice. The large problem is that too many developers are willing to compromise.
So you're saying that we need a category of workers to agree to refuse certain working conditions, but as a group so that individual compromisers don't undermine the action?
...but we don't need unions?
If we can rely on a shortage of desperate workers, we don't need to send mafia goons after them.
The ethical, nonviolent way to reject bad pay or working conditions is to quit, accepting that the employer might find someone else. That's not what unions do.
The historical behavior of unions is commensurate with the historical behavior of employers and strike-breakers.
Your adversary is not going to be ethical and nonviolent.
Unions resolve the prisoner's dilemma in favor of the prisoners. The game is set up like this:
In each trial, 3 players distribute $300.
A and B vote on whether E gets $100 or $150.
E can cast a tie-breaking vote.
E decides how to distribute the remainder to A and B.
| A gets | B gets | E gets |
| $100 | $100 | $100 | A $100, B $100
| $150 | $ 0 | $150 | A $150, B $100
| $ 0 | $150 | $150 | A $100, B $150
| $ 75 | $ 75 | $150 | A $150, B $150
Some, like myself, strongly prefer open offices.
I mean, I get why some people don't like them, but let's not pretend that the sentiment is universal.
Is someone building 4x4' drywall "offices" somewhere?
Right, the cost savings in going with cubes over offices is not in materials. It's in the amount of people per sq ft you can jam into one office.
Build bigger; double up. Its still better than sharing with 50 people.
If you just build a bigger office and fill it with cubes or desks is that really much better? The biggest issue for me in my open office was that devs feel the need to play instruments to start standups for some reason. Usually bongos but in the past it was a giant gong. Really made my client phone calls interesting. My biggest WFH issue is dogs.
That sounds incredibly aggravating, if I have to work in a library, why do I have to work in your library an awful commute away, instead of my nice suburban public library around the block?
"We're doing this to increase collaboration, although we don't allow talking" So watch my bee style interpretive dance of how to reverse a linked list. ... On today's PBS Nature documentary, when the queen bee wiggles her abdomen thusly, that means push the current array index onto the stack and then ...
If you forbid working remotely, then force your employees to centrally work remotely, then you're doing it all wrong and capturing all the disadvantages while capturing none of the advantages.
Also if you junked the special purpose offices and break rooms and phone rooms and lactation rooms and meeting rooms you'd have plenty of space for individual private offices. I've seen this happen multiple times, the team meeting room gradually converts into the team office complete with closed door to get away from noise.
> Working remotely is one solution, but many companies don't think it would work for them.
My prediction is those companies will go out of business eventually. Working remotely not only is more healthy in every possible way, it's also much more environmentally friendly. It's a key solution to a whole lot of societal problems in industrialised countries, not the least of which is traffic and all the negative side effects that come with it.
They key aspect for businesses though is this: It's much more efficient and much less expensive as well.
Working remotely is a competitive advantage. If a company says that working remotely is not for them they're missing a crucial advantage enabled by technology. If they don't others will certainly make use of that advantage.
If remote work doesn't work for a business they should ask themselves why that's the case: Is physical presence really necessary or is it just perceived to be necessary due to cargo cult thinking about what work should be like?
> Working remotely not only is more healthy in every possible way, it's also much more environmentally friendly.
You sure about that first part? Everyone working at their home office sounds like the next step of neoliberalism-induced isolation, with its horrible effects on mental health: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/oct/12/neolib...
I commented elsewhere, but I've been working remotely for 2 years and have never been happier in my entire career, even though it's nowhere near the most interesting job I've had.
I have yet to miss the office. My dev team has a 1 hr meeting each week just to hang out and talk shop, things learned, discuss ideas, etc. And there are impromptu Slack/Skype session throughout the week, as needed. That has been more than enough for me.
But if it wasn't, there are lots of mitigations if I need them: I can go to a coffee shop, meetups, hop on Skype calls with the team, etc.
I'd much rather the impetus be on me to stay mentally healthy than be on some HR person who doesn't have a clue about what introverts really need in a work environment.
Not to mention... no commute... I'm out walking my dog or cooking with my wife while most of the world is stuck sitting in traffic.
The cross section of introverts and people who are able to work remotely (by nature of their job) is much smaller in an economy than you imagine. Can you list at least a dozen jobs that don't require physical presence?
To put it bluntly - your use case is a very small minority, and proving otherwise to people in charge of office space is an uphill battle to say the least.
People had social lives before there was large-scale use of offices. There are several ways in which a home office allows for a richer social life:
- You're not stuck on your commute for several hours a day. That time can be spent much more beneficially, for example for having social interactions.
- Working remotely actually requires you to communicate more and better than when everyone's sitting in the same office.
- Remote work has the potential to do away with the "contiguous 8 hours, preferably from 9 to 5" notion of work.
If you don't have to sit around in an office all day in order to pretend you're "working" anymore only the results count not the hours that went into those results. So, pervasive remote work could lead to a general reduction in working time but at the very least it allows you to do other things throughout the day (and get back to work later).
I'm not saying that all of this will happen but working remotely has the potential to shake up preconceived notions of what work should be like.
> - You're not stuck on your commute for several hours a day. That time can be spent much more beneficially, for example for having social interactions.
My commute is 20 minutes. I can barely read my newspaper, so I'd not mind a longer commute, actually (as long as I can use public transit).
> - Working remotely actually requires you to communicate more and better than when everyone's sitting in the same office.
I have to do that anyway. My team is spread across multiple cities.
> - Remote work has the potential to do away with the "contiguous 8 hours, preferably from 9 to 5" notion of work.
But why? That's the killer feature of an office for me. When I leave, I leave the job behind and focus on my personal life until next morning.
Of course that's just personal taste. It shall just be noted that some people genuinely prefer working in an office.
> My commute is 20 minutes.
Wow! Good for you, but you're truly a minority then.
> When I leave, I leave the job behind
Also good for you! As a software developer I find it quite hard at times not to think about how to solve a work related problem.
True, I do that, too. But I consciously don't act on it.
Gathering large number of humans in the same place (factories then offices), well away from their homes, is a relatively new thing. For hundreds and thousands of years, they have been working in (craftsmen) or around their homes (farmers), seeing mostly family and close neighbours.
In my experience, open offices are ok when they are treated like libraries, where quietness is enforced. "Shared area for solitary work only" describes this very well. In some rare teams, there can be oubursts of goofiness at predictable afternoon times without it affecting productivity, but it takes the right team for that to happen, otherwise it's just a source of frustration.
But it's so unnatural.
If I need to discuss something with a colleague and (s)he's sitting right there, I have to hit myself not to just blurt out loud what I wanted to say. A lot of times the mouth is quicker than the mind and I'll upset ppl. If OTOH we're sitting in separate offices I have to physically leave my office and enter my colleague's office to do that. A lot of the times I realize that I can figure out a solution by myself by the time I reach my door. The other times the discussion takes place in a private office and no one else is disturbed.
> A lot of times the mouth is quicker than the mind and I'll upset ppl.
Let's introduce a policy: Talking even one word in such a public space (except for emergencies like fire hazzards etc.) costs 100$ each time. This way everybody should learn the lesson very soon.
Yay! Let's make miserable workers even more miserable!
We can also implement a policy that any software developer who writes a bug gets a $100 fine, that should teach them!
I wonder why no one has thought of this before? Hey HN, I have solved the problem with bugs in software! If you implement my solution there will be no more bugs! Ever! Now give me my Nobel Prize!
> We can also implement a policy that any software developer who writes a bug gets a $100 fine, that should teach them!
I seriously doubt that this would help to reduce the bug rate. But let us for now assume that it really did reduce the error rate.
First: What does one consider as a bug? The interface of typical functions is not well-specified. So let's create a function that creates a C# IList from passed parameters. Now consider that IList<T>.Count returns an int. What is supposed to happen if the list that is generated will have more than Int.MaxValue elements? Is the not-consideration of this a bug in the code or something that a caller of this function should never do?
So one consequence would be that we additionally define a contract of pre and post invariants for each function so that it becomes clear whether something is a bug in the function or a bug of the user of the function.
Of course we would have to do the same for all libraries that we use, implying that we can hardly use any available library (at least not until libraries also begin to implement such a strict policy). So a lot more code to write.
I don't want to begin to talk about bugs in parts of the stack one has no control over (e.g. OS, compiler, browser) and code whose whole purpose is to circumvent these bugs one has no control over (how do you even detect in this kind of code parts what is to be considered as a "100$ bug"?).
Nearly every programmer will say: "if I really have to deliver such a low error rate because otherwise I lose money, at least I have to be allowed to use methods that enable generation of code with an error rate that is so low that it is affordable for me to submit to a 100$ per bug policy". So at least being allowed to create a giant test suite for the code or even better being allowed to use mathematical methods of formal verification.
So we get code with indeed an extraordinarily low bug rate - but on a pace that is so slow that few companies can afford it.
TLDR: Things that one would have to do to even implement such a policy would increase the quality of the code a lot. I personally believe if these were implemented a 100$ per bug policy would not be necessary anymore because the bug rate becomes so small. On the other hand these actions would increase the development time by a lot - thus increase the cost by a lot. So except for, say, software from avionics, medical devices or military this is probably not affordable.
You just typed an awfully large reply to someone being sardonic.
> You just typed an awfully large reply to someone being sardonic.
I agree, but this way readers of HN get something that they can refer to if some manager gets an idea like:
- We can also implement a policy that any software developer who writes a bug gets a $100 fine, that should teach them!
- Let's measure how many bugs each programmer produces so that we can give bonuses for programmers that produce few bugs
For my company, we went with a semi-open design, in the spirit of your quiet rooms: Desks with huge glasses in front, forming rows of floor to ceiling cubicles. Think small offices with no doors and with glass walls. It allows natural light to flow through the office, while reducing noise. Noise reduction ceiling and a policy of quiet zone in the development area complement the solution, for what I think is a great work space.
We used Peopleware's (IBM's actually) ratio of 10 square feet surface area per employee and 100 square feet of dedicated space per employee. Not cramming people up is mandatory for success in high performing work spaces.
The only thing I'd add now would be a couple of extra non-assigned 4-pax work rooms, for when you know your team will be noisy for a while, or for those periods when you know you'll be on the phone a lot.
That sounds great. I've wondered if people used high transparent walls or partitions for exactly this.
Can you put up pictures?
The problem for me is, I need to be generally around people during the day. I want to be able to work productively but have people to talk to face to face when I leave my office, go to meetings, lunch, etc. I don't dislike people and couldn't tolerate being too isolated. I just want a few walls around me.
that's pretty much what everyone wants. the problem is it's expensive.
> that's pretty much what everyone wants.
Not me at least. I'd strongly prefer to work completely around and not be among people. I accept that there are good economic reasons why companies want to have their employees in the same office suite, but if asked for my preference, I'd strongly object.
The problem is that management thinks it's more expensive. But if we're 15% less productive (as the article suggests and I think is a low estimate) it's actually more expensive with open space.
Some companies also assume that nobody really works unless they're at the office
> Open offices are awful, but they're here to stay for the same reason more adults are living with roommates and relatives: high real estate prices.
There is no proof that open office are cheaper. There never was any decent study done on that topic.
The biggest issues I've seen with working remotely are perception and emotional validation.
Regarding perception, managers who have poor management skills, and employees who are lazy, create an illusion of productivity just by being visible. However, when you take away that visibility, the illusion seems to fall apart.
I believe this occurs because it is easy to conflate presence with productivity, so some managers don't look any deeper than that. When you take away that physical presence though, they start looking at the next easiest metric (e.g. Git commits, lines of code, or some other equally pointless measurement), and find these to be less reassuring.
If you have a good manager, who knows how to manage remote teams, working remotely isn't an issue. When you have an unskilled, butt-in-chair manager, it quickly becomes one.
Regarding emotional validation, I've worked with several managers that seemed to be emotionally validated simply by having their minions around them all day. In these cases, the remote vs. in-office arguments are always decided based on emotion, rather than any physical evidence.
Remote work has been brought up time and time again as a possible way to allow employees better work-life balances and the freedom, leading them to have higher morale and motivation to work. And yet, most SV companies do not institute it. For a tech scene that's all about disruption and contrarianism for the sake of it, they sure don't like disrupting geographical proximity. (Locating their offices in San Francisco or the Valley to be closer to VCs is another dogma.)
> no eating at work areas
As a person who hates the sound of people chewing loudly, when you eat at your desk, please be considerate of people like me. Chewing with your mouth open bothers more people than you think. Should fall under standard don't-bother-people decorum like showering and brushing your teeth but it doesn't.
For me it's gum (especially completely open mouth chewing... like, seriously?!) when working in close quarters like conference rooms. I don't say anything, because I don't want to seem rude or controlling. Chewing coming from nearby cubicles is also very noticeable to me. When I hear it, I have to escape with headphones. I try to keep in mind that for the person making the noise, it is a positive thing in their perspective (as it is for me when I eat), and not think "should" statements.
A cube and an office take up nearly an identical amount of square-footage, so real-estate prices ought not have an effect.
In addition, the material cost of drywall is much less than that of cubicles, and the total installed cost will usually be less than all but the crappiest low-height cubes.
We have this shared area for solitary work at our office. All developers sit in a "quiet zone". It doesn't work. When you have 10 people in a room, you will get interruptions, even with the best of intentions.
It's not just high real-estate prices, it is also short term savings by squashing everyone together - the execs save money.
Strangely enough, top management in most places I work at always have their own offices.
The cost is also that of reduced productivity and reduced code quality. I know that if I can't concentrate properly, I write buggier code, designed for the short term.
"no eating at work areas"
Coworker eating with mouth open at desk next to mine, a special kind of torture.
> Coworker eating with mouth open at desk next to mine
Isn't it strictly forbidden to eat near computers where you work? At the university's computer labs it was and at the place where I had internshipss it was also.
no. if you experience these types of rules, you are in the wrong building and need to leave
Yeah! And then burping loudly in between the loud chews. Gotta love your open office!
> no work discussions longer than a minute at work areas (use a conference room, take a walk or Slack)
Nope. I've had so many "just a minute" talks that turn into 5- or 10- minute chats, and there's no way we're going to break the flow of the chat at the 1-min mark to go and hunt for a free conference room, or take the lift out of the building for a walk. And the reason we're chatting in the first place is that Slack isn't good enough for the needed information transfer, otherwise it would be there.
These are great suggestions.
Open offices are awful, but they're here to stay for the same reason more adults are living with roommates and relatives: high real estate prices.
Working remotely is one solution, but many companies don't think it would work for them.
Personally, I'd make the shared area for solitary work only: no work discussions longer than a minute at work areas (use a conference room, take a walk or Slack), no eating at work areas, no audible media. I'd physically isolate people who have to make calls from their desks from other employees as much as possible. I'd also provide a break room for eating and install some retro phone booths in it for semiprivate personal calls on breaks. Also, a private room--not necessarily big--for breast feeding and pumping, taking medication, calling doctors' offices, and the like.
Can you provide an estimate of total build cost / employee?
It's a nice looking space, but likely only attainable for high margin industries like software engineering.
Exactly. Where do you put your 10 junior developers in an office like that and still be profitable?
I had the privilege of working in this environment and I can vouch for Chris here. The design of the Wildbit space works exponentially better than any open office layout could ever work. Communication was isolated to where it was needed, and conference rooms exist for when communications need to be had in private. It's the perfect mix. It may have cost more to do it right, but the bottom line wasn't money, it was productivity and the ability to have heads-down time to get real, meaningful work done.
> The design of the Wildbit space works exponentially better than any open office layout could ever work.
By what metric?
Disclaimer: Though that's not hard to measure, I did not personally measure it.
All I can attest to is that in terms of the macro level of productivity, it was a better experience. The slider between focus work and social interaction across the team went closer toward focus work when working at the office. Social bonds aren't diminished at all by the fact that everyone has a space to do the best work they can. They're strengthened. Team members feel trusted.
I certainly have some street cred here too: I have been in this industry long enough to have experienced the misfortune of working in an open office. A few years ago, I worked with a company that had private offices -- then moved to an open layout. In my experience, productivity tanked for a majority of the engineering team. The problem with that floorplan? Distraction. There was nothing but "stuff" happening all around you at all times. Imagine debugging an issue, or responding to a particularly precarious situation after a PagerDuty alert comes through, all while the following items are happening:
* Nerf darts randomly flying through the air with a frequency of about 10-30 per hour.
* People using their outside voices.
* People walking around (getting coffee, going to the bathrooms, getting something to eat).
* Journalists trying to advertise the company walking around getting tours.
* Hour long discussions right in the middle of the work area, even though we had conference rooms within distance.
* The constant feeling of being "surveilled" by the management team.
As I stated originally, I've been in this industry for a long enough time, and -- at running the risk of sounding too self-congratulatory (hopefully not) -- I'm primarily intrinsically motivated. No amount of management is going to change my level of motivation, because I find motivation with or without the presence of any external forces. They might sway me just a hair, but generally speaking, for me personally, the MORE I feel managed the more demotivated I feel. That's just my personalty.
I bring this up for a reason: It's not great, it's not terrible, but in my observations, it (intrinsic motivation) also happens to be a trait in the personality of a lot of the great engineering talent I've had the pleasure of working with over the years. People who aren't intrinsically motivated don't typically put in the time and effort required to be a great engineer who gets things done. Intrinsic motivation means that you put in your "10,000 hours" in earnest, with a pure desire to constantly improve because you're enjoying what you're doing. It takes time, blood, sweat, and even tears to be a great engineer, and if you're doing it only because someone else is making you, I just can't see how you're going to be anything more than "passable". Therein lies the challenge in hiring and focusing great talent on a unified goal.
All that said, when you hire for skill and talent, get the cream of the crop, and then put all of those bright folks in a room where they feel like they're being monitored, that leads to a feeling that "I'm not trusted", and that feeling of not being trusted leads to a feeling of "I don't trust them if they don't trust me". It's a very visceral and primal feeling. You see security cameras pop up in your neighborhood, and you first think, "They're watching me", then you think, "What are they up to watching me?". Distrust (even the sense of it where it may not exist) breeds distrust. It sows a feeling of distrust when you configure your company like a panopticon, and that's essentially what many open floor plans end up becoming. The modern day version of a factory line, with a foreman looming at all times.
You can see where I'm going with this. A lot of folks felt like they were being watched when working in the open floor plan, and I'd argue it sapped from their more useful, more lucrative creative energy. This isn't something that's talked about a lot when discussing the pitfalls of open floor plans because it's a sociology subject, but I observed it as a very real, very prolific problem in the organic culture (that is, the bottom up culture) of that organization.
My point is, I have seen and worked in offices that are designed wrong, and Wildbit got this right.
The office looks really good!
I enjoy working in an open office atm, it's nice having everyone so close. It is also a necessity for me to have a "no distractions" environment while coding. I'll throw on headphones and turn my desk so I have no visual or noise distractions.
The stairwell is a sound bus, you might consider rotating the column 90 degrees and leave room to wrap it in glass now or in the future.
Looks like a dream office to me. Well done!
Hey everyone, Chris Nagele here from Wildbit. For some background, I wrote about our reasons for moving to a private office plan. In short, it's more than putting on some headphones.
And a tour of the office itself:
No offense, but I would suggest that you are highly atypical as a programmer. The vast majority of programmers (including myself) that I've spoken with prefer quiet, static backgrounds. Now, that's not to say that you need your own office to provide a quiet, static background, but it's just a whole lot easier that way.
I interviewed last year at a very "tech-bro" type office in downtown Seattle. It was exactly as you described your office. It was not even three in the afternoon, and they had some loud European techno playing. None of the people there seemed to be actually doing work - it looked like they were lounging around for the sake of appearances rather than actually working. I ended up ending the interview early (the first time I've ended up doing that) because it became very clear, very early that it was a bad fit.
Now, that's not to say that the only form of work I'd tolerate is work-from-home or private offices. Open offices can work, as long as everyone sticks to a shared set of rules. My personal preference is "library rules": if it'd be considered rude to do in a library, it'll be considered rude to do in the office. I feel like that gets about 80-90% of the benefit of a private office, while still delivering the floor-plan efficiencies of an open office.
> No offense, but I would suggest that you are highly atypical as a programmer.
This is probably true, but whenever this subject comes up on HN people tend to forget that programmers tend to be fairly atypical people. Many people - mostly not programmers - find that a number of people around them with a shared purpose and even background noise actually helps them concentrate, and find casual conversations with people on adjacent desks motivating as well as useful for conveying work-relevant information. A working environment designed to the preferences of people who like listening to loud techno music is certainly an extreme way of catering for those tastes, but separate offices and silence is also an extreme.
And the pervasive myth that the only reason anyone would choose to work in an open plan environment is cost-efficiency is rather dented by the number of self-employed people paying (and commuting) to work in shared office space when they could have had more peace and quiet staying at home.
> the only reason anyone would choose to work in an open plan environment is cost-efficiency is rather dented by the number of self-employed people paying (and commuting) to work in shared office space
Does anyone have numbers for this. I doubt the majority of work from home employees use such a service.
>more peace and quiet staying at home.
Is this also true? Homes with children are rather loud places for example.
The size and recent growth of the multibillion dollar coworking industry is a pretty good indication that the number of people wanting a big open shared workspace is pretty high.
I mean, you've got a survey here finding over a million people using coworking spaces, of which more than half are single founders or freelancers.
I'm pretty sure most of them aren't there mainly to avoid noisy kids.
As a piece of anecdata about coworking spaces. I use coworking spaces when I'm working remotely from a location other than my home. When I'm in my home city, I work from my home office. The beauty of remote work is it enables me to travel, but because I'm traveling I need to define a space that is "work" vs "play". That and stable fast Internet are what coworking spaces provide. It's not that I /like/ open floorplan designs better than my home office, it's that I like the flexibility of working from Bogota, Colombia this week and Lima, Peru next week instead of being stuck in my suburban house every day.
Due to my experiences I've met a LOT of people in coworking spaces all over the world and I would say that my general take is pretty consistent. People pay into a coworking space to guarantee a space that work can be done when they're traveling. Very few of my fellow coworkers permanently reside in the same city as the coworking space they frequent. This, also, is why networks of coworking spaces like WeWork are doing so well. WeWork in particular enables me to go to many destination cities and have a spot to work without needing to pre-plan to work with a local space.
I agree that WeWork has a good deal of this vibe. Some notable WeWorks have more of the vibe that the rest of us are talking about (community, action, high-aesthetic open plans, late nights, people who love open plan), including the epic 175 Varick in downtown Manhattan.
However, the other major NYC WeWorks (SoHo, Midtown, Madison) have much more the vibe you describe. Well... Madison is basically just offices.
If WeWork is your only or primary experience of co-working, I think you picked the right space for the vibe you're saying you like.
However, other major open plan office spaces - TechStars, Alley, and so on, do very much specifically cater to and create an affirmative open plan vibe and the people who prefer that.
Office spaces that share with or are primarily incubators often have a set up that allows for pitch practice right on the floor. This is a little hectic even for me. :-)
My own anecdata about coworking spaces involves a space that only allowed permanent residents, so needless to say the group of people I met had very different motivations
Still, if nomadic workers are finding it easier to "guarantee that work can be done" by booking a coworking space rather than spending that cash on a bigger AirBnB/hotel room promising a desk and fast WiFi it's an indication that at least some of the time they consider an office shared with other people working a preferable working environment to the solitude of an empty bedroom.
> rather than spending that cash on a bigger AirBnB/hotel room promising a desk and fast WiFi
This is a risk you can't take as a business-person in a lot of ways. There's many places in the world that are great to visit and travel to, but that simply don't have acceptable quality of residential Internet connections. For example, I was in Rabat, Morocco a few months ago and was able to work effectively because I had a coworking space with fiber Internet connectivity, meanwhile the best broadband connection on offer to residential addresses was similar in performance to 56k dial-up in most of the rest of the world.
The part that makes a coworking space a preferable working environment isn't the lack of solitude, it's the guarantee of high performance Internet connectivity.
For you (and even then, I doubt you went on Remote Year for the inside information on wireless connectivity...)
I worked from Morocco last month, so I'd be the first to concede their internet isn't particularly good by developing world standards, but there are an awful lot of remote workers for whom a 200 dirham dongle would do the trick. Not to mention an abundance of coworking spaces in London, where domestic wifi tends to be excellent, many of which are geared mostly or exclusively to permanent residents.
> It was exactly as you described your office. It was not even three in the afternoon, and they had some loud European techno playing.
...but that's... not how I described the office in question.
From the grandparent post:
We stayed up very late, listened to loud music
To me, the two are related. You stay late because there's loud music playing. If it was quiet, you'd get your work done and go home at a reasonable hour. Instead, you have to deal with loud music, co-workers playing foosball, people coming and going behind you, and as a result, you don't end up leaving until 9pm or later.
> To me, the two are related. You stay late because there's loud music playing.
That's a presumption, unstated in the comment, and it is incorrect.
I have worked at... I don't know how many co-working and incubator spaces. And of those, some had a very socially lubricated environment at night that sometimes included loud- (or even live-) music.
But never have I experienced loud music during the day except on some special occasion (ie holiday party or something).
I dislike all music, not just in a programming setting. I would not be productive in such a situation.
"We stayed up very late, listened to loud music, and did some of the best work of our lives."
No offense, but that sounds like some kind of boys club, not professional working environment. Staying up late = no respect for private life (unless you've signed for it), loud arbitrary music = forced culture implications (why do I have to listen to the music you like?). Yes, probably our work place expectations differs immensely.
"Hey let's all take turns picking the music that gets blasted. I choose Arnold Schoenberg."
5 minutes later...
"Everyone, we've decided that music is a personal taste, and that to maintain a professional working environment, we will not be playing music over the sound system."
In practice what I've seen is a "music clique" develops. If I went to put on some ambient Eno or whatever (because it's the closest to "no music"), it would probably be weird because I'm not in the music clique. I'm not really sure how you get to be in it, it would feel weird to me to put on music, effectively saying "everyone else, you must listen to what I choose". Just so rude, I feel.
I doubt that many of my co-workers would endure Dark Funeral or the like that gets blasted at my home. It's for their sake I insist on music on headphones only.
I've made an app that fairly regulates this!
Sorry, slightly unrelated to the discussion, but it could be used for open offices :-)
Part of the inspiration was when I was taking it in turns I'd have to sit through loads of abrasive pop music and then when a beautiful death metal song came on everyone would complain and skip it.
Why is the solution "everyone has to listen to some music that makes them not able to work"?
Exactly. If we're going to have shared music, it needs to be what I want to listen to, which is likely to either be thrash metal or baroque. If someone tries to play country or 90s alternative or any kind of modern pop, I'm going to pitch a fit. No, I will not tolerate that crappy music while I'm trying to work.
I really don't expect a lot of people to care for listening to my thrash metal, so the obvious solution here is to simply not have shared music. It's just a bad idea, and just like you say, reeks of a boys' club and not a professional working environment. I don't go to work to bond with a bunch of people who I did not explicitly choose to be my friends; I go there to earn a paycheck and do interesting work within my profession and build my resume.
Your comment doesn't resonate with me.
Have you worked in an early- or mid-stage startup in NYC or the Bay Area in the past... 10 years?
> No offense, but that sounds like some kind of boys club, not professional working environment
That's a strange value judgment; I'm not really sure what to think about it. At the end of the day, the company is still growing and meeting its goals. It is also still facilitating the development of open source software.
So something is working.
> Staying up late = no respect for private life (unless you've signed for it)
Reelio is one of those clients that excited me to show up early and stay late.
They also welcomed my wife and our baby to join whenever they wanted.
Hardly disrespect for private life.
> loud arbitrary music = forced culture implications (why do I have to listen to the music you like?)
Well, sure - this doesn't work in the middle of the day when the entire company is there.
But at 1AM when it's just a half dozen developers?
Have you never had the experience of hearing new music at someone else's recommendation in a teamwork setting? It's a beautiful feeling.
If you're at the office at 1am, you probably need a union, not music. Work ends, at latest, 8 hours after you get there. People actually died for that a century ago, and now people are just throwing it away.
I enjoy long days. That doesn't mean I'm throwing anyone's efforts away.
I am able to demand very high compensation, even among programmers. I am able to demand a work schedule that fits me (5-12 day stretches of long days, followed by vacations of a length of my choosing).
My position is a mix of blessings, for which I am grateful, and work to gain the esteem and trust of the python (and larger programming-) communities.
My heart goes out to those who struggled (and in some cases gave their lives) for better working conditions; I am nowhere near their plight and can't even know their struggle.
> Have you worked in an early- or mid-stage startup in NYC or the Bay Area in the past... 10 years?
...why do you think I have no desire to move to either of those parts of the country or to work for a startup? I like to describe Silicon Valley as "degenerate" for a few reasons, and this is one of them.
I'm perfectly happy working in the suburbs of Texas in a corporate environment (~500 employees, B2B telecom industry).
> and our baby to join whenever they wanted
Screaming baby in the office = I quit. I'm glad my current employer has "no children in the office" as written policy in our handbook.
When I worked retail, one of the cashier brought her (12 year old?) daughter to work one day and left her in the break room the whole time.
One of the CSRs had a previously criminal history, but was a nice guy and did good work. That day, the daughter accused him of molesting her. Because he had a criminal record, he ended up going back to jail. I don't know if he did it or not, but the daughter should not have been there in the first place. Had the cashier followed company policy, the situation couldn't have happened.
I'm not judging anyone, and no matter what actually happened, it's a horrible tragedy.
That's really fucked up.
It's not impossible to imagine a scenario where the daughter playfully started flirting with the cashier and that ended up fucking his life over.
The problem is rather that people get jailed without really strong independent evidence (more than "his word against hers").
> Screaming baby in the office = I quit. I'm glad my current employer has "no children in the office" as written policy in our handbook.
Clearly different environments work for different people. I'm not trying to suggest that I want to try to concentrate on software development next to a screaming baby (that obviously wouldn't be an ideal environment), but I would be pleased and encouraged to have an employer who was open to allowing families into the work space. That's the sort of thing that truly motivates me, far more than foosball tables and free snacks.
FWIW, not every company in the Bay Area is like that. I work for a small company in Palo Alto (< 50 people) where most people get in around 9 (some come earlier, some come later), and people will leave around 5 (some also leave earlier - SF people tend to leave around 3 to beat traffic). 1/3 of our company is also remote.
Unless I'm missing something, you weren't the person I was responding to, right?
I'm not saying that the startup environment is great for everyone, but it has produced a compelling critique of the corporate environment. Clearly.
Shared music, late nights, open plans, families, ping pong / pinball, and so on... These aren't per se the mark of a "boys club" in contrast to a "professional environment," they are a critique of the industry-style work environment, and one that has been enormously successful in two the most economically active cities in the USA.
This startup scene so far never made sense to me, but now thanks to you I can see the light: it was an artistic militant happening! Hurray!
"...industry-style work environment, and one that has been enormously successful..."
Seems to be confusing correlation with causation.
> Hardly disrespect for private life.
Your are mistaking respect for private life with being a "company man".
Instead of setting professional boundaries the company in this case integrated themselves into your identity/family/life.
Yes, I suppose you are right.
And today, I have moved on, retain equity in the company, and am proud to watch projects that I started there continue to grow and expand.
They're doing great; I'm doing great.
What's the problem?
I think the issue is not to invalidate your specific experience, but to highlight that your experience is pretty atypical and further that your experience should not be the norm. For every person like yourself that had a great experience in this mode, there are 500 people who are having a very BAD experience.
It's fantastic that it worked for you and your team, in that time and space, however, the combination of factors that created that were unique and not easily repeatable. So, in absence of a formula to replicate that, we should instead be working to normalize a baseline that is conducive/comfortable for most folks.
You did sign up for it if you took a job there with full knowledge of the office culture. A culture of staying up late is no less respectful of private life than a culture of starting early. The former is better for people who do better work late, while the latter is better for people who do better work early. It seems to be that companies ought to exist for both types of people, and it's perfectly alright to encounter the wrong type of office and simply choose not to work there without disparaging it.
There's plenty of people who like open plan. I think the main issue people have is the idea that open plan is superior, and how companies have adopted the plan without any thought or scrutiny (coming up with all sorts of bullshit reason, to rationalize a decision which is really about trying to save money)
For a startup or small company doing mostly plain development, and especially if it's a tight-nit group that stay up late and have fun like you describe, it's probably great.
For engineers working 9-17, with a family-life, with complex multi-faceted work.. it can be a nightmare.
I prefer sharing an office with 1-3 others. You still get the social interaction, but without too much distraction. It's a pretty good compromise.
> I prefer sharing an office with 1-3 others. You still get the social interaction, but without too much distraction. It's a pretty good compromise.
In the past, I've shared an office with one other, and I've shared an office with three others.
Sharing an office with one other person was great, especially when the desks were arranged so we both had our backs to the wall. I'd gladly do it again.
Sharing an office with three others was a nightmare. It could have been worse: at least I got along with my officemates, but the lack of privacy got to me badly, especially given that the desks were arranged so none of our backs were to a wall (I even faced the window... beautiful view, but the glare got to me).
>"coming up with all sorts of bullshit reason, to rationalize a decision which is really about trying to save money"
Yep, the general line is "it fosters openness and collaboration"
I hear you. I prefer floor plans that cater to the mood of the team, rather than setting out some one-size-fits-all-every-day notion of productivity.
Thus, it's nice to have open space, but also cozy, comfortable environs for solo- or small-team work.
W+K in Portland accomplishes this masterfully.
Have you considered that the team's mood might not actually be as good as you think that it is? It's generally inadvisable to bring up environmental things that are making you unhappy at work, it could mark you as "not a team player" or "not a culture fit". People might be keeping it internal and just waiting it out until they can leave (I'm doing this now, actually).
I've worked with quite a few programmers who absolutely wouldn't bring up things that put others in a bad light.
I worked with a Chinese guy that routinely put up with many of the others making jokes (all nice, IIRC) about his ethnicity. I noticed that he didn't look happy about it, and tried to help, but he refused to do anything about it. He eventually stressed out and quit, and I can't help but think that was at least part of the reason.
Likewise, I've seen it for noise, conversation, and even once someone finally snapped and complained about a co-worker would trim their finger and toe nails at work in his cubicle. He did it for quite a while before someone finally got fed up enough to say something. He shrugged it off and kept doing it, and nobody did anything about it.
So yeah, I agree that many people simply won't do anything about the things that make them unhappy.
Well, they do something - they find a new job.
I definitely understand that "culture fit" is probably often used as an excuse to wrongfully discriminate against qualified employees. But at the same time, isn't it there some validity to the concept? Is it really wrong for different companies to have different distributions of personality/lifestyle types (e.g. working late vs. starting early, open plan vs. cubicles vs. walled offices)?
>>> I prefer floor plans that cater to the mood of the team, rather than setting out some one-size-fits-all-every-day notion of productivity.
Certainly agree that avoiding a one-size-fits-all attitude is best, but I think that picking something at the granularity of "the team" is part of the problem here.
Likewise, people who answer a bunch of tricky questions with "the team decides."
The things that I enjoyed at 25 years old are not the same things that I enjoy at 40. Well, some are. But not all.
That's weird; the things I enjoyed at 25 are almost all the same things I enjoy now at 40. The only thing that's really different is that I eat better food now and I've cut out the sodas and junk food, and I'm more diligent about getting exercise (mainly on the weekends). I also seem to do better with dating for some reason than I did at 25. But my interests are pretty much all the same, from musical tastes to literary interests to hobbies (electronics, programming), though perhaps a little better developed.
What things do you still enjoy?
If you're on some brand new project in a brand new space, it can be all exciting and you can rush forth into great productivity... in the short term.
For longer term stability after the rush has worn off, and when individualized tasks branch off from what others are doing, having more physical isolation certainly is beneficial.
I prefer the open plan — I love it! In my 30+ years of corporate life, I have the smallest working space ever (36 inches of desk space), and I think it's awesome.
I work at a place that does pair programming, so I'm always engaged in some form of communication.
I worked from home on occasion, but I didn't like it: I got lonesome, and was easily distracted and my productivity suffered.
Sometimes it gets really loud. Yesterday my pair said, "It's too loud; I can't think." I hadn't noticed.
I'm not an epidemiologist — I don't know whether working closely makes people sick more often — but I do know that in the last 5 years I only took 3 hours of sick leave when I didn't feel good one afternoon. Other than that I've been has healthy as ever.
I'm not a one-size-fits-all guy — I realize that an open plan doesn't work for many people (one of my talented peers is now working at Uber partly for that reason), but for some of us it's a godsend.
Yeah. But then you like your colleagues. You don't have stress and you don't have a management layer stressing you
I'm somewhere in between. I prefer a shared office setup where offices are shared among 3-5 people. Ideally these are team members or people with a similar job function to mine.
This is the best setup that I've found for balancing the social isolation of private offices/WFH with the distractions of an open office setup.
> We stayed up very late, listened to loud music, and did some of the best work of our lives.
You must be kidding. What did the other 100 people in the office said when you put up the sound???
Well, after midnight, 75-90% of the people leave, typically.
It's much easier to get 6-8 people to agree and enjoy on music than 60-80 people. :-)
How big were the companies you worked for? Some studies show that the benefits of open offices exceed the drawbacks for small companies.
Am I the only one left on HN who prefers open plan? I've done some of my best work for open plan companies.
I have a particularly fond memory of when Reelio rented space at Blueprint (healthcare incubator in NYC). We stayed up very late, listened to loud music, and did some of the best work of our lives.
I remember one night in particular, listening to the soundtrack from "O Brother Where Art Thou," when asynchrony and mutexes finally really clicked for me.
The decision maker always spins open office as some kind of collaborative, productivity enhancer. But we all know the real reason is cost.
I've always got the feeling more often the reason is trust, they don't trust their employees to work without someone looking at them all the time.
Through many experiences I think you're right. However that is an issue that could be solved by being better at measuring productivity.
If I can produce better results while playing games for 4 hours and working for 4 hours in a closed office than I could while "working diligently" for 8 hours in an open office, then it's hard to argue for the value of visually supervising someone.
It may be hard to argue rationally, but the protestant work ethic is a strong influence on our culture.
> open space layouts have been driven by real estate cost considerations
Quantity #1: The price differential between the open space layout, and a good working environment for the rank and file.
Quantity #2: Total funds available for executive compensation.
Let's compare the two amounts and draw some lessons.
This is one reason I prefer to work in suburban office parks rather than urban mixed-use areas. Real estate is cheaper in the burbs, and I like my cube farms.
Sorry, I'm confused. If you like cube farms and cube farms are more likely in higher cost real estate and urban real estate is more expensive, wouldn't you prefer urban offices?
I want to avoid open offices where people sit on long benches shoulder to shoulder or just have a bunch of desks jammed together. A guy I know who works at Dell recently got moved from a cube to one of those, he's posted pictures of his workspace, and just looking at those pictures set off my claustrophobia badly.
The cubes at my company are huge. If company policy here didn't forbid photography, I'd show you. I'd guess they're about 6 feet by 6 feet. I have plenty of space to stretch out and more desk than I really need. The cubes are even designed to be able to support a visitor sitting on a bench without crowding out the occupant (it's nice for having design discussions with my coworkers... we can both have a conversation in one cube without being nose-to-nose).
>The cubes at my company are huge. ... I'd guess they're about 6 feet by 6 feet.
Is this seriously huge nowadays? 75 square feet should be minimum. Or do you mean 6 feet by 6 feet of open floor with the remaining area covered by desks/cabinets/etc. ?
I see, so cube farms are not open offices; my mistake.
>people sit on long benches shoulder to shoulder
How do you sit on a bench for 8 hours a day?
I doubt OP meant literal benches but more long tables with individual chairs. That's how I read it anyway.
Yeah, that's what I meant. Somehow the word "bench" just pops into my head when I think of those long tables. I'm not sure why.
Isn't that was cubicles are designed to solve? You take a large inexpensive space, pack in staff densely, than rely on cubicle walls to isolate everyone.
This is a good point. The psychology of office design is surprisingly nuanced and complex.
Practically speaking, cubicles solve a lot of the problems with open office floorplans. On the other hand, they introduce new issues. A big, silent cube farm can feel incredibly dehumanizing. Somehow a large open space feels more lively and human-friendly even if it's actually a way less efficient design for productivity.
Whenever I've worked in cubicles, I've always felt slightly resentful of the "office lords" who looked over the cube peons. It just felt like such a dehumanizing declaration of power and authority to have some people in fancy offices and the rest shoved into cubicles.
This directly leads to lots of office politics, as now promotions are not just promotions but also opportunities to get out of the cube farm. This realization might change every single aspect of your behavior at work. For instance, at one job, there was a manager track and a technical track for developers. They were supposed to be equivalent. But guess which one led to an office at the end and which one did not? They weren't equivalent at all in practice.
Getting rid of the offices and cubicles and putting everyone in a big open space can eliminate those feelings of resentment and anger and perhaps eliminate a lot of politics as well. But now we're back to where we started with open offices being horrible for productivity.
> But guess which one led to an office at the end and which one did not? They weren't equivalent at all in practice.
At my company, the technical track includes Architect as a director-level position, and they get their own offices just like actual Directors. I think that's even weirder. We have one architect in my department, and he has this giant office. It's one of the bigger offices in the area, even (about twice as big as the Director of Product Management's office next door). He doesn't manage people, and he spends most of his time designing software and writing code just like the rest of us. Going into his office is a really weird feeling, and it's outright surreal seeing my boss (who also has a cube, because he's a Sr. Manager and not a Director) go into his office to have a design discussion.
A fair few "open office" shops still have private offices for executives. Not all, admittedly -- and it may be a little easier to stomach if everyone gets the same deal -- but the "office lords" thing is still common.
Indeed and I agree with you but that might also be false economy in the mid to longer term. The savings in real estate can come at the expense of productivity and workers sense of well being as that open space starts to feel like a train car during rush hour.
The other option of dealing with real estate constraints is to embrace a distributed work force in addition to an office in places where office space is a premium.
Unfortunately, a large (if not the largest) reason for open office plans that rarely comes up is space efficiency, ie packing more people into the same space. Sure, there are might be some folks who also think about creativity, but in my experience, a large portion of open space layouts have been driven by real estate cost considerations.
As a matter of fact, that also works with private office.
Back in France, with private offices, there is a social norm in most companies that in the morning you have to go around and shake hands with everyone.
It's very efficient to propagate diseases. Private offices won't save you :(
I wish America had that. At my office, people never even say hi or bye, and I'd be out of place to be the one to do it (but sometimes do anyway).
That's why good managers will tell their employee to go home when they're ill. There are companies that have strict policies for that, to avoid exactly this problem. Even though it's a problem that probably mostly affects flexible working space. If you don't share your desk with anyone else, you should usually be >3ft away from other people, lowering the risk for contagion.
That's why good managers will tell their employee to go home when they're ill.
And that's why the employee under the "all time off comes from one bucket" PTO plan will say, "that's okay, boss, I feel fine" so that they can save their time off for that trip to Europe.
I hate these types of plans...awful.
The problem is you spend most of your contagious time feeling alright. By the time you're actually feeling ill, you've already infected everyone around you.
By the time the first person feels sick the infection has already started. Then by the time the second person feels sick, it's already too late.
Yeah, and this should be encouraged by everyone, not only managers. You should definitely tell your workmate to go home if he is sick.
My company does not provide sick leave or paid vacation. They replaced it with "PTO" to make it easier to treat a de jure salaried employee like a de facto hourly wage-earning employee.
I have no time-card code to use for hours that I cannot work, due to being involuntarily banished from the office due to illness.
So guess what, people? If I'm sick, and I feel like I can work, I'm coming in to the office. If I don't work 40 hours in a week, my pay gets docked. (Actually, the computerized system forces me to "request" that my own pay be docked.) And if I need to take PTO time for a sniffle, I can't use it later, in lieu of actual vacation. So if anyone orders me to go home, that order had better be accompanied by a check.
If Sneezy McHackencoff gets the entire rest of the office sick, that is a direct consequence of the employer's worker-hostile HR policy. Don't blame the messenger. Your company consciously decided that it does not want to provide you with a salubrious work environment, in order to move inconvenient "future obligations" off their balance sheets. If they gave out sick leave and vacation, they would have to keep some money in the bank, to pay you when you use it. And you could use it at any time, so it has to be very liquid. Obviously, they would rather earn a higher rate of interest on that cash, if they have it, and also not have to pay it to you if you still have time left when you leave the company.
Sick leave is just one of the benefits that even the simplest and weakest of collective-bargaining units can enforce, and one of the things that is becoming harder and harder to find around here.
Back when I actually had sick leave, I used it appropriately. I'm very sorry about possibly making my peers sick now, but if you keep using your own energy to cover things up, management will never get any firsthand experience with the potential damage their stupid personnel policies can wreak on the business. I'm not trying to get you sick. I'm trying to get upper management and HR to reinstate sick leave, without getting "at will" fired for being an uppity peon. Getting each other sick is the only leverage we have. Don't go around sneezing on other people's keyboards. That's malicious intent. Just go in to work, and go about your business as usual. If anyone suggests that you should go home, say "I would have stayed home, but I have no sick leave, and I can't afford to not work today."
I do tell them they should go home, but they never seem to go. I just want to shout, "it's not for you, it's for me. Piss off!!"
Diseases and sickness are the worst part of open offices. One day one person gets sick. The second day the person to his left also gets sick. The day after, half of the open office is sick. After a week, the entire office is sick. You can almost track the migration of the disease across the room.
I can't recall a time in the last 1-2 years when someone complained about it
Pick one (or more):
* they don't know the alternative
* they're afraid to speak up and sound un-cool
* they don't realize it's actually killing their ability to focus
* they do so privately and are ignored by the higher ups
Audio-visual distractions have proven to be detrimental to focused, "intellectual", work. Not by an article on Medium, but by actual research. Time and time again and again, ad infinitum.
Open office is the anti-vaxx of today's tech world, where all known data is ignored in favor of superstition.
> I can't recall a time in the last 1-2 years when someone complained about it.
I personally wouldn't complain about it, just quietly endure it until I find something better (I have done that at several previous jobs, and this one even. There's enough other good things here that I just deal with it, but I don't like it).
Just because no one is actively and loudly complaining about it doesn't mean there must be no one that has a problem with it.
Perhaps every single other employee has a problem with it besides you, and they're just not speaking about it.
I don't like open office plans, but they're so common in the Bay Area that there's not much avoiding them. I don't want to work remote, and office configurations aren't the only thing I look for in a gig. So realistically, I'm probably going to be working in an open plan as long as I'm here.
It works and it's not a crippling thing to have to contend with, but not everyone is ideally suited for an open office plan. I think it disproportionately hurts people that have skills in certain things, wider responsibilities, or institutional knowledge that a number of others have to utilize. You can have the best organized, most complete documentation ever and this will still be an issue.
Do you have a "shut up" rule, though? I have to endure shared music, discussions about sportsball or TV shows, people making calls, etc. while trying to use a debugger a meter away (pack 'em in!). I could possibly tolerate on-topic discussions, but off-topic stuff belongs in a break room.
Office is for work not play. At the really good/successful companies there's very strong work ethic, so people are not socializing on the floor, making calls, listening to music without headphones. In that case I'd say you have a culture/people management issue, not an office layout issue.
Maybe they're trying to be polite? I would think they it could come off as they don't want to talk to their co-workers when they say they don't like being in an open office layout.
I would hate working in an open office, but I still don't think I'd complain openly to everyone about it.
What do you do when you need to focus?
I've been working in open office environments for the last 5+ years, also at one of AmaFaceGooSoft. I find it's a non-issue, it doesn't bother me or others, I can't recall a time in the last 1-2 years when someone complained about it. Saying that o.o. is not effective is a bit fishy given how successful some of the companies employing it are.
I remember 10+ years ago at my first job we had a nice office building (it was an architectural CAD software company, so their offices were pretty okay). It was 4-6 people per room. In retrospect I wouldn't want that layout again, it kills XFN cooperation, eg. you have to go to another room and potentially knock just to talk to the UX or PM guy.
I prefer o.o. because it's better for fast moving, constantly changing teams building product; everybody's on the same "floor", working on the same product.
I will check out the book, but I don't know how it could help someone trapped in a distracting open office hell.
Maybe it'd help the homicidal thoughts go away.
Anyone wanting to dig deeper into some of this might be interested in reading Susan Cain's "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking". 
It was a paradigm shifting book for me, made me understand some people in my life in profoundly new ways, and helped me discover stuff about my own personality. It's particularly interesting to think about introversion / extroversion in terms of managing energy levels.
Agree. Offices for small team are the optimal solutions.
Source: many years of experiences in open plan offices and team offices.
Do you have much experience of private offices?
I have some, it's only okay if you work alone for an entire project (that's rather uncommon). I don't mind being with 1-3 people in an office even if I work alone, bigger office, nicer.
I came from a world with shared offices and team rooms (about 10 to a room) and found the team rooms the optimal way to work -- with the ability to dive out into an office if you needed intense focus on something or privacy.
Open offices (note I'm meaning cubes here) can be done reasonably well, but I think they need lots of small huddle rooms you can dive into for focus, discussion and privacy and that everybody in your area of the open plan needs to be on the same page for noise and behavior.
Where open plans seem to really fail is mixing different teams in the same space and not providing any personal space at all. The warehouse full of big tables almost universally seem to be hated.
Open office is about economics and limits choice. Privacy does not preclude the freedom to socialize when required or work temporarily in common spaces for some project. The other way there is no choice. Most of us who have been to boarding schools have fond memories but that does not mean we prefer to live in dorms our whole life.
Will the person negotiating deals or employee salaries be in a open office? No because there are certain kind of jobs that require privacy.
Similarly creative thinking is not a group but solitary activity that requires privacy and warrants private space and programming and creating things from scratch is creative. Either the company does not perceive the work as creative or fails to respect its employees work needs.
Usually these decisions are taken in arbitrary ways by a few folks in management who hang on to their privacy. And once these decisons are made it's difficult to reverse.
Theoretically in capitalism if workers prefer private cabins companies who continue to offer them stand to attract a higher quality and volume of candidates but in the real world even before you can exercise that 'capitalist choice' its taken away from you by the race to the bottom, so you are effectively left with no choice.
That makes sense given the effectiveness of memory palaces.
"We retain more information when we sit in one spot, says Sally Augustin, an environmental and design psychologist in La Grange Park, Illinois. It’s not so obvious to us each day, but we offload memories — often little details — into our surroundings, she says.
These details — which could be anything from a quick idea we wanted to share to a colour change on a brochure we’re working on — can only be recalled in that setting."
I've been working remotely for the past 2 years or so, and am never going back. If I really need to focus, phone and Slack are both off, and I stand at my personal whiteboard and think. It's almost impossible (for me) to think without quiet and guaranteed lack of interruption.
this. Oh am I glad that I will never ever ever work in an open office again.
Open offices SUCK SUCK SUCK. The worst thing is when someone wants you to answer a question which requires a few moments of concentrated research. So then they stand there waiting on you but talking to the person in the next cube about their weekend or the weather or whatever. You can't tell them to leave because they are not in your office, but it's majorly distracting.
I think part of the difference for me as far as the atmosphere in a coffee shop (for example) vs an open office is the office has voices you recognize and listen to.
If a voice I recognized said something in the general drone of a coffee shop I'd be momentarily distracted while I turned around to see where the voice came from.
In my current open office I find myself working to filter out what people are saying a lot more than I would in a setting with the same amount of noise, but nothing concerning me.
I feel like I'm the exact opposite. I'll spend a good amount of my time during the day at work browsing Reddit, HN, and doing work that doesn't require a lot of time or concentration. If I really need to focus and get something done, I'll work from home in the evening or head back in to the office after everyone has left so I can buckle down and concentrate.
> That's why people go to cafes to work when they have to work "from home".
That's why some people (not me!) go to cafes to work when they have to work "from home".
Or maybe those people just like coffee?
I like open offices because I want to feel like I'm working with people, not in solitary confinement.
When I'm alone in a private room, I'm usually playing; not working.
I find it incredibly difficult to get into working flow when in a private space.
I'm sure I'm not the only one. That's why people go to cafes to work when they have to work "from home".
The workers have known this for eons and many issues from spread of illness thru to lack of privacy for work projects, so much against it. Odd as when I worked at the BBC they moved from a rather nice building with lots of office space to some open plan nightmare and many left.
But the real teller is I have never ever in my entire 50 years of life met anybody who actually likes open plan offices, ever! That right there says it all for me.
I react to the headline in that I don't think open offices are "bad" for people any more than coffee shops are. But I certainly resonate with the notion that different people have different styles. My own story was going from an office with a door at NetApp to a quad cube at Google. If there ever was a place that could afford to give everyone an office (regardless of the cost of real estate) it is Google but they wanted the socialization aspects.
My response was that I became able to completely ignore everything going on around me when I was working. That was helpful for me, but perplexing for some of my coworkers who could say something to me, mere feet away, and I would not react at all because it literally hadn't actually entered my consciousness. Basically I'm at the opposite end of the spectrum from the person who sits there and tracks all 6 to 10 conversations going on around them in real time. I find I can do that if I concentrate on it, but processing so much information which is irrelevant to what I'm trying to get done really feels like a waste.
When the company I used to work with switched to an open Office layout it didn't look like a big problem at that time, but after a year I became more irritated and less happy, If I was at a very critical call with a customer the phone rings, laughts and chats diverged my attention, with the time I quit for other reasons, but open office have some influence in that desition.
I think there's more to open plan offices than fashion. They are cheaper - you can pack a lot more people into the same place.
If they're all juniors that's great. As you start hiring more seniors do you give each of them an office? That changes office culture because now everyone wants an office to feel important. Having worked in a few places hat went from 5-6 staff to more than a 100, I've seen how difficult these transitions can be.
I agree that senior staff tend to be more productive in their own offices with fewer distractions, though.
If a senior dev cost 100k and an office increases productivity by 10% the office has to cost 10k for it not to be worth it. While I don't doubt
I do my best work after everyone has left and the floor is completely empty.
I hate distractions, and my brain is wired in a way where it processes every word spoken by a human to somehow be more important than abstract thoughts about an engineering problem.
I wish I had a quiet room with blank walls void of decorations, and sound isolation. I'd be so much more productive.
But alas, that is not hip.
I'm in the corporate world, and my managers were thinking about jumping on the open-office bandwagon (albeit a decade too late). I'm very glad it never materialized, because I love having my own cubicle without distraction. Unlike my open lab in academia, where it was difficult to work because I could hear the guy next to me eating nachos while I was trying to work on my thesis project.
I've found that http://musicforprogramming.net/ is also good working music, which I found from that same thread you mentioned.
One recommendation for everyone who suffers in an open office: BrainFM.
Not affiliated with it, but saw it here on HN on a thread about music, tried it out and I love it. I listen to it daily, have probably heard each track at least a hundred times, but it still helps me to focus. With the right headphones (isolating so that volume can be low), I can zoom out and ignore everything around me. Haven't found any other music that can do that, especially when I really have to focus (e.g. reading complicated texts).
Don't know if it really works or if it's just psychological, but I don't care as long as it helps me. Made my life in the office much easier.
People need focus and the ability to control (increase and decrease) their stimulation. Open offices do not provide that and when people are distracted, just trying to focus on focusing, it's hard to make memories.
Researcher Theo Compernolle wrote about the open office in his book Brainchains. To help anyone convince management and colleagues that the open plan office creates an environment detrimental to our well-being, he has published a free excerpt of his work:
Useful if you are fighting for change in your work environment.
Why not walk around the office, sit in the commons with a laptop, collaborate in a conference room, etc?
The office with a door is for when you need to focus, not meant to be a jail.
Because then people say, "I stopped by your office and you were not there!" It is a big campus so there is a benefit to people being able to track me down.
IM, email, calendar, mobile could help, no? If people are stopping by often, perhaps you are not so isolated.
Just thought of something, a post-it on the door that says, "I'm in XYZ."
I have a traditional office, but every day part of me misses being back in the giant cube farm that I used to work in. I still remember counting six rows down, then three blocks over, to get to the section of identical grey cubes where I sat. I had a computer just powerful enough to run a 3270 terminal emulator, a small bookcase, and a chair. What do I miss about that?
Any time that someone was not deep into a program they would stand up to stretch their legs and you would see them over the top of the cube. That was the time set aside where you could ask them questions about a project, talk about last night's game, or make plans for lunch. Over the course of a day or a week, you almost always had time to talk to everyone and it encouraged a great atmosphere. We all knew what each other was working on, and everyone had a sense of who was good at what when the chips were down and we needed to fix something quickly.
Those cubes are different from what I have seen in a truly "open office," but I would love to get back to that level of daily interaction. Productivity aside, being isolated in an office all day is really soul numbing.
Until your manager comes on a surprise visit :)
I can fart in my office without bother anyone and I really like that.
This reminds me of a lot of Stack Overflow's commitment to private offices, which I read awhile back. They too have an interesting take on the anti-open office idea. https://stackoverflow.blog/2015/01/why-we-still-believe-in-p...
Anyone working in an open office knows about the noise, distractions, interruption, attention fragmentation and unnerving lack of privacy.
Unfortunately, the office layout is determined by budget numbers related to office layout only (not including "cost of lost productivity"), and by people who more often than not do have their own offices.
The reduction in productivity is not a bug, it's a feature.
Your boss spends a lot of time in meeting justifying why he needs a bigger headcount. Having more productive employees makes his job much harder. Colloquially it's called 'Empire Building'
I started a new job where I work in an open office. I don't really mind it. We do have more open conversations about work and that's a good thing. These are similar to hallway conversations I've had in other places.
When I want to crank I put headphones on and get some music going. I've always done that though even when I had an office so it's not new for me.
My biggest peeve with the open office is that I have no room for storage. If you work in HW there are these junk piles because there's no place to put anything. I still use books as reference and there's no place to put them. I'm not a neat freak but I can't stand the clutter.
Agreed, it assumes everyone has read Peopleware, but most haven't.
I hate to be negative but this article is frustrating because it makes an argument without backing it up with evidence that can be followed up by the reader.
It makes claims such as 'it’s well documented that we rarely brainstorm brilliant ideas ... in a crowd.' but doesn't provide any link to these documents.
The only links it provides are ones to other BBC articles.
It also cites studies and references their data without providing a link to them.
It's a shame as I'm sure there may be a strong case against open offices but this is pretty lazy journalism and indicative of some major problems (in my opinion, anyway) with how science is reported (and used) in online articles.
I don't think the complaint is about difficult working environments but rather non-conducive working environments for knowledge workers. Programmers need the ability to focus and minimal distractions in order to keep the conceptual and logical model of their work loaded in their head. Anything that causes a momentary data dump and reboot is detrimental to their core function. A hot roof in the summer for a roofer is expected. If that roofer has to think about how to solve a [non standard] roofing issue while on the roof while thinking about the entire building's (complex) roof and how his solution will affect the other roofs he works on then I understand the complaint. And he should get down off the roof and sit someplace where he can reason and think out a proper solution with minimal distractions and external/physical stress.
"Think of the assembly line worker..."
While I'm grateful to service workers who must be on-site because of the nature of their work, there is a case to be made that some workers are more productive and happy private settings. And if the overall costs are similar then why don't information workers have a choice?
yes.. they deserve dignity on the job too. we can have both, no need to choose
Frustration with open offices is perfectly understandable -- I work in an open office and overall I would prefer to have my own office (most people would).
But the outrage about the trend towards open offices reeks of entitlement. Think of the assembly line worker -- he/she has even less privacy. And don't tell me that working on an assembly line isn't mentally exhausting. Try one shift and let me know how that goes. Think cook in a shady restaurant, think an illegal immigrant in San Antonio in July installing a new roof on somebody's McMansion. THOSE are difficult working environments.
If I'm interested in a position, that's one of the first things I ask about. If they're open and don't have alternative accommodations for people that despise open office, I just pass.
> Mullenix’s own office has sensors, placed 10 feet apart, that can track noise, temperature and population levels. Staff can log on to an app and can find the quietest spot in the room.
This sounds awesome.
It would be really cool to have this information for the coffee shops around town, similar to how Google tracks how busy a place is. IIRC, there was a Microsoft Research project like this once that distributed the audio collection over the microphones from smartphones present in a given place.
I knew this from years of experience, and I provided ample evidence (and research) on this problem to executive management at companies I worked for.
The sad fact is that PHBs, even well-intentioned ones, simply do not know what it's like to create multi-layer models in your mind and then develop from those models. They hear the marketing guys bullshitting all day about clients and thing that _that_ is work, progress.
In the end, it just means that the backbone of the modern company functions more poorly, and that revenues are potentially lower than they could be. Maybe the lower revenues are offset by the lower office rent costs; maybe the only real loss is the happiness (and loyalty/tenure) of the thought workers of the company.
This leads to another problem that we all suffer (via bugs, hacks, viruses, and otherwise lack of software quality) - that people running companies really have no concept what software is. I see no solution to this problem, since ultimately even the companies started by geeks get absorbed by bigger companies run by PHBs...
Oh and here's another time when they SUCK: If they're not part of the "office culture" i.e. it's only IT who uses them. So, you have to play by both sets of rules. Get used to continuous interruptions because you'll be branded "not a team player" when you don't remove your headphones to say hi to everyone who comes into your area!
Just curious, do you ever need to be "in the zone" to get your work done? If you do and you're distracted, is it hard for you to get back in the zone? Is it hard to do several times an hour?
I personally love open offices. Collaboration benefits aside, I like people and I'd go insane working in a silent solo prison every day (been there!).
The meme of "open offices are terrible for everyone and it's only evil management that likes them" is bullcrap. Myself and a lot of other people I know prefer them.
Guess what, people are different!
The only times I've been in an open office, it's been with people who were answering phone calls all day. Wasn't a fan and my ears got sore form having headphones on all the time.
I feel like sharing an office with a small handful of other devs could work. But not with people who answer phones all day.
Joel Spoksky wrote about this multiple times on his blog, here's one of his first over 10 years ago.
I've worked a couple of jobs where I was working remote but the main office was open plan. In these cases, it seemed like the open plan offices really did help communication. Of course I was only there one week out of maybe every 6, and it didn't matter that I didn't get that much regular work done when I was in the office, since I was working from home the rest of the time.
I don't know if there's a reasonable compromise. You could have a team that tries to get everybody into the office one week out of every three and where most people work remote the rest of the time. I don't know how well that would work, and I don't know if it would be worth the trouble, but it seems to me like it would be better than open plan all the time or remote all the time.
OK, I think the perfect solution would be a huge open area plus some other specialty areas (conference rooms, kitchen, bathrooms, etc.) The difference is an unending supply of something like Everblocks. That way, management could have all the space they wanted but you could still build your own personal domain. And with different types of blocks (switches, display, whiteboard, etc.) you could customize your area with exactly how you, or your team, wants it. Heck, you could even change it every week if you wanted to. :)
This is so true.
So many people just can't seem to think (or read) without talking out loud.
The overall din of my open office doesn't bother me so much, but people talking to themselves under their breath as they work the copy machine certainly does. I don't know why 90% of my co-workers do this.
My open office is GREAT for my health. I don't know of any other open office where you climb literal mountains.
I like the solution from Microsoft for this problem in their new Munich building: They have seperatr spaces for intense work without any distraction, areas like the most common open offices and areas for group work and meetings.
Each area is its own floor and your are free to move between the areas.
"However, many companies that have open offices enjoyed an incredible success and some even achieved world domination (Facebook). How is that even possible is what I'd really like to know."
Many civilizations also thrived on the backs of slave labor. We don't look to slavery as the way forward today.
That being said, some people prefer the social aspects of working physically close to others. Ideally companies will provide what works best for each employee. At the end of the day business is both by and for people.
EDIT: Corrected typo
The success of FB is likely due to the networking effects of its users. Also, employees likely adjust by ducking into a conference room or working at home for a few hours to focus.
Imagine how big Facebook could have been if they allowed their employees to concentrate!!
I hate open offices with a passion, for reasons well explained in the article (and many others that regularly pop up here).
However, many companies that have open offices enjoyed an incredible success and some even achieved world domination (Facebook). How is that even possible is what I'd really like to know.
Amusing to think that this was probably* written from an open office.
*I used to commute through the BBC's White City campus; visible through large glass windows were open offices everywhere. (They were essentially open even to the outside!)
This article made me laugh as ive often worked really late at BBCs very own broadcasting house because it's far too loud and distracting for me during the day.
You also have visual distractions in an open office.
I've just had at least a dozen people walk past my line of sight in the last minute and and it's distracting as hell for me.
It's not just visual. You're often seated at a desk that's physically connected to another person's. I've been annoyingly distracted by the person across from me pulling on the desk to move their chair around, shaking my keyboard and monitors.
2x 35" screens for everyone!
You could just wear ear muffs and mostly solve the noisy office problem. I wear them when I'm not listening to music and have improved my productivity and happiness at work. (And this is at a cubicle office which is still quite noisy.)
If we could all raise our standards on workplace manners open offices are good for us.
PSA of the day: Please train yourself to fully exhale right before sneezing.
Open offices can be bad for you just like closed offices can.
It mostly IMO depends on the size and the layout.
Most places have both open spaces and places you can go to work in quite.
I think a lot of us needs to think about how fortunate we are working ona field that is our passion and not standing in a pile of shit and sweat all day long. Having open offices that makes communication easier means that you could communicate your need for no distruption or talk with your mates who are loafing around and brainstorm about future problems. If you have the brain capacity to focus on ambient noises, then I guess you are not focusing enough and just whining about your current situation instead of doing what matters. I've seen workers who couldn't hear anything since they were too immersed. I myself use earphones when I want to get into it and close out the entire world. If you think that it's a real issue and don't see the value of savings and closeness to each other, then maybe it's time to quit your current workplace.
I wonder if companies would consider segregated music and quiet open offices.
Jobs are bad for us
Open offices are worse for programmers
No. Fuck that. I don't normally curse on here, but I think it's warranted.
I own a great pair of over ear, noise cancelling headphones. But I shouldn't have to risk damaging my hearing because management thinks having developers sit in the middle of a bunch of salespeople and project managers is a good idea.
> having developers sit in the middle of a bunch of salespeople and project managers
So, about that...
I work in a cube farm, and I love it. But because we're running out of space, they stuck me in the only open cube they had, and so I'm not sitting anywhere near my team or even my department. I'm in network engineering, but the other people on my row are sales engineers (for a product I have nothing to do with), the inside sales department sits on the three rows to my left, and the marketing department sits on the two rows to my right.
As such, I'm now quite familiar with our sales pitches, and I pick up all kinds of juicy gossip from the inside sales team's daily standup. I'm at the point where "Net Promoter Score" no longer sounds like a real phrase (yay, semantic satiation!). I do have to admit that I've taken to listening to music on my headphones... not super loud, but it helps me get in the zone when the inside sales team is firing on all cylinders. I don't mind it too much... they're all fun people to talk to during our downtime, and I've actually become really close with one of the marketing guys, who I probably wouldn't have met if we didn't have space issues.
And it's not going to last much longer. We just took over another suite in our building, we're putting the finishing touches on renovations, and as soon as that's done the whole sales organization is moving there (the move will probably happen next week, or maybe even this Friday), and my department will move to where sales used to be. I'm hoping I'll get to sit in mostly the same place (marketing isn't moving, and I like those people), though I'd love to take over the window cube behind me.
The thing is, since you do different jobs, you can ignore the conversations around you if you need to concentrate.
If you were working in close proximity to people doing a similar job, you wouldn't have that luxury.
In my workplace, it seems rude to have headphones on.
A million time this. Ear damage accumulates over time. I am sure that excessive headphone usage at work will be number one reason of hearing loss in a few years.
Unless we turn things around.
One doesn't actually have to listen to anything through the headphones.
I've used noise cancelling without music in the past.
I also have a set of earbud rubber thingies that have been stoppered with hot glue and a short piece of hollow lolly stick.
Those fit better (don't feel itchy after long periods) and provide more isolation than the squishy yellow ear protectors.
Nose canceling headphones don't work for blocking conversations.
Not all, but some achieve very nice results.
E.g. Bose Quiet Comfort 20 are indeed good also for blocking more quiet conversations.
The only way NC headphones block conversations is because they are also acoustically isolating. That is, they would block conversations even with the NC feature turned off. The headphones you link to look like this: they're basically earplugs with headphones built in. Earplugs block conversations because they physically block sound waves from entering your ears. The same principle works with the big over-the-ear cans. It's not the NC feature that's helping, it's the fact that the headphones themselves are isolating your ears from the outside world.
I own them so I can assure that having them plugged in without NC does not block conversation voices. Turn them on and they are gone or way quieter.
Edit due to downrate:
I own or owned multiple over ear medium size NC models and the mentioned in'ear ones win by large.
Hmm, interesting. I wonder if it's because they fit in the ear, rather than sitting outside like more traditional headphones. This would allow them to cancel noise at higher frequencies since the driver-to-eardrum distance is smaller.
Have you used other, more traditional can-type NC headphones? Can you compare?
I edited my previous comment to address your questions.
Agreed - there's a big difference between having it on and off.
How loud do people turn their headphones at work?
That depends obviously, go ask araound. I would say some louder, some less.
True. I would like to listen to music when I like to, not when I have to. Anyway noise is not everything. It is so easy to be disrupted by people walking around.
I'm continually surprised how the smallest people seem to stomp the loudest up and down the hallway.
Headphones don't damage your hearing, headphones at high volume damage hearing. If you're using noise cancelling (or just closed ear in most environments), you can listen to your audio at a reasonable volume, if you're listening at high volume to drown out other noise that could be dangerous.
Noise-canceling headphones do not cancel out conversations, so you must listen at high volume to drown out that other noise.
The only thing noise-canceling headphones are really good for is canceling out constant drone, for things such as fan noise and jet engine drone. That's why they're so popular for frequent airplane travelers. They do absolutely nothing if you're in an office surrounded by yapping coworkers (at least nothing more than a comparable set of non-noise-canceling headphones).
In fact, I'll add that if I'm surrounded by a bunch of computers with fan noise, using noise-canceling headphones lets me hear coworkers' conversations even better.
Your right. When you consider it there has been a few million years of iteration of the human ear to attune it to the sound of the human voice. A difficult problem to overcome to say the least.
It's not just that, it has to do with the way noise cancellation circuits work. They work great on constant white-noise-like hums within a certain frequency band; they don't work on transients that cross a wide range of frequencies (as does human voice). They especially don't work well at higher frequencies because of the shorter wavelengths and the distance between the drivers and your eardrums (which can vary), and human voice has a lot of higher-frequency components. If you could stick the drivers right next to your eardrums with custom-fitted in-ear plugs, you could get far better performance, but that's neither economical nor desirable to most people for comfort reasons.
Sorry your management sucks?
That only looks at one side of the picture. Sound privacy is partially inbound, yes, and that can be solved with quality headphones. It's also outbound, though. If I'm on a conference call, I'd really rather not have to worry about other people listening to what I say.
Also, not everyone wants to listen to music/podcasts/video/anything while they work. The solution shouldn't be "just isolate your ears!"
Ironically, my only problem with individual offices is that people then seem to think it's ok to not use headphones, and to use speaker phone. The sound isolation between neighbouring offices is rarely good enough to allow this. The way the HVAC system in the Microsoft buildings that I worked in was plumbed, you tended to have great sound isolation from one neighbour and be intimately connected with the other.
Most of the time I'm not actually listening to anything, I just have my cans on as a sound buffer, and they're ready when/if I play something with audio.
To quote a former VP at a former employer, wearing headphones in the open operations center is direct and intentional insubordination and discipline will be applied as such, because the company is spending a lot of money to foster coordination and interoperation between teams. Its interesting that they had the will and the money to enforce architectural changes in the literal sense but not in the internal organization sense, we continued to primarily work against each other, merely closer together.
I take it this a (one, not the only) reason the employer was described as "former"?
The stability described in the article seems to be more visual, not aural. There's constant mental interruption when the mind has to process stuff going on all around you visually, determining if somebody's going to bump in you, vibrations through any shared desk structures, etc.
> determining if somebody's going to bump in you
I think the human aspect of that is a huge factor. I've always had a problem being around large crowds (anxiety, dizziness, mental strain). I think my nervous brain is constantly trying to determine how I might interact with the people around me, and when there are so many people I just get overwhelmed. Same thing happened in the (rather large) office I work at. For the first few days I was feeling mental strain only a few hours into the day, but after the office and the people in it became a known quantity I think my brain stopped trying to analyze everything.
I once had a foot-tapping chair-twirler on my left and a desk-drummer on my right. Very little work was accomplished until I moved away from them.
Having 2-3 screens completely occupying your field of view helps! Maybe this is one of the key advantages multiple screens provide, besides displaying useful information.
Except prolonged exposure to headphones makes you go deaf. I've got enough hearing loss as it is.
Good headphones for such a setup are tightly closed, DJ-style ones. They isolate you from outside noise, so you can listen to e.g. quietly playing piano pieces (don't like Schubert? try Rick Wakeman) and concentrate.
Prolonged exposure to unhealthy volume levels makes you go deaf.
Simply taking headphones out of the box they came in doesn't make you go deaf.
It's not headphones, it's loudness. Just don't crank the volume on your headphones and you'll be fine.
I don't like to listen to music when concentrating on anything, with the exception of driving.
I use mine without anything playing about 70% of the time I have them on.
They can block out ambient/office noise pretty well and can help concentration.
"Nearly 50% of people working in open offices are dissatisfied with their sound privacy"
Nearly 50% of people working in open offices don't have good over-ear headphones.