So one thing that bothers me about this is they talk about not going back to cubicles and creating transparent dividers. I do not like this not one bit, I enjoy the privacy and distraction blocking of a cubicle, an office would be optimal but a cubicle is preferable to the open office hellscape that was looming before Corona stopped it.
But going from open office to plexiglass dividers seems to be far worse than a cubicle in every conceivable way.
Open offices are, and have always been about, control. Not about productivity, but exclusively about control (well maybe with a touch of thrift thrown in there).
We say this all the time but act as if it's some secret, or just a cynical remark, but it's not either of these. As a general rule your boss likes that you can feel their perpetual gaze as you work, even if in practice it means you are working less.
Because of course you aren't working all the time, and of course you are not 100% being productive. Everyone knows this. It is not a secret that even the most productive engineer spends a huge amount of office time doing nothing.
No worker (as I general rule, I know there are exceptions) prefers open offices to either cubicles or real offices (I wonder how many HN have ever had these?). Nobody feels that they work their best when someone is watching them. Everyone knows that part of working in an open office is figuring out how to create the illusion that you are working.
The only reason to have an open office is because the people making the decision for how the office should be, and the people reporting to them, do in fact like to watch you work, because they like the control that they feel when they do this.
Please let's stop pretending that we don't all understand exactly what open offices are about.
I hear where you're coming from, but have you been a part of a real estate search process for office space?
Open offices are crazy cheaper, and most retail developers don't build real offices anymore (and or when they renovate a commercial property pull all these walls out).
It is about cost, for anywhere I've worked or any clients I worked for. I haven't ever known a manager that wanted an open office to control or oppress their staff.
This is (mostly) why new occupancy tech exists as well btw -- the "crotch sensors". Not usually for specific employee surveillance, but to map occupancy trends and determine what parts of a space can be hot-desked or otherwise over-assigned to further reduce space requirements.
I haven't ever known a manager that wanted an open office to control or oppress their staff.
The way it works is similar to attitudes toward remote work (until a few months ago): barriers help people waste time and get away with stuff.
Control is not all about what an authority can do (which is actually the least efficient form of control), it's also about what other people are prevented from doing, sometimes structurally so, as in the context of office layout and design.
if you are flipping burgers, sure, you are expected to work continiously every hour.
but for salaried people - it doesnt make sense, sometimes you just need to sit on a problem for some time to solve it, or just sit and think about it. Salaried people arent paid by the hour, so why control them? this I dont understand
You say that salaried people aren't paid by the hour, but that's arguably a fiction. There's always a defined work day. Some employees end up "working" for inordinate amounts of time. And some employers do push employees to be more productive.
So if the standard is 40 hours per week, I'm just saying that you do the work whenever, not eight continuous hours per day, for five days per week. That decreases control of employees by employers.
I think the common counter-argument is to ask whether it's cheaper when purported productivity drops are factored in. A lot of people work more poorly with distraction but it's dressed up as collaboration.
Even if the floor space itself is open, that doesn't mean that decently high cubicles (or even floor to ceiling dividers) had to go along with it. How much is it really saving to shave 1-2 feet off cubicles for your six-figure staff? Smart workplaces don't think twice about $400 for a second monitor.
Say occupancy costs (all in) are $60 psf. Now assume occupancy is around 1 employee per 200 sf (inclusive of indirect circulation space). That means occupancy cost per employee is $60 x 200 = $12,000. Now make some assumptions about the total labour cost (salary, bonus, benefits, etc) - say $200k - and look at how little the occupancy costs are relative to that - 6% with these examples.
Jam more people in so you get it down to 1 employee per 150 sf, and you've saved $3,000 per employee, or 1.5% occupancy to labour, which can easily be lost in terms of decreased productivity with people shoulder to shoulder.
Lesson: You need only a very, very small change in productivity to counter any savings in relation to occupancy. And not just in terms of productivity of existing employees, but also the cost of lost productivity due to lower retention, or lost productivity due to more sick days given the closer proximity. This is why I've never understood why companies go anywhere but the best locations with the nicest office space... People really are the major cost and the only asset a company has. Do everything you can to make them love every second at work. The added cost of free food, nicer office, better location, etc is insignificant.
Manager here: keeping a physical eye on my directs screens seems like a lot of work that’s above and beyond my actual responsibilities. The thought of it tires me out. I’ve always assumed that it’s about land cost, especially in expensive urban areas.
The principal of the Panopticon Prison design is economic. Because the Guard can always, theoretically, be watching the prisoners assume themselves watched. It's economical because the Guard need only be plausibly watching at any time, and not actually watching.
Some of this has to do with people feeling qualitatively better by being in a small space that feels like it is part of a bigger space. Compare an American hotel room to a tiny Japanese hotel room. If you can't give actual space, make things transparent or cut down the size of the walls so there is openness when you stand up. It's a balance between openness and privacy.
> well maybe with a touch of thrift thrown in there
In my experience thrift is the overriding factor. The cost difference between an open office plan and individual offices is staggering. It can be an order-of-magnitude difference, especially if you factor in the additional cost to build individual offices into a typical open floor plan. Few companies choose to put their money there. Many could not afford it at all.
In leadership teams at many companies I've heard very little talk about control in this way, explicit or covert. Open office plans aren't necessary for control. Doors are not a shield from control. People in individual offices can be controlled in similar ways.
I don't like the feeling of being observed all day, either. I think it's damaging to some/many people's ability to work. It can turn into an artificial hegemony; it certainly can be used for control. But so can many things, from salary to coffee supplies to bullying. Control will always find a way to control. Open offices are about the money.
"In my experience thrift is the overriding factor."
It sure is. It's like the idiotic startup I worked at for 6 months that gave everyone i7 laptops with 32gb ram and 5400rpm 500gb hard drives to save $100/laptop. True fucking story. The dude who ordered them told me it himself.
I think companies will do some stupid shit to save some cash sometimes.
Besides, all this talk about productivity and stuff? It might be true, it might not. It's a lot easier to just add air conditioning to an old warehouse than it is to build out a divided up office. Right? They're not going to spend all that money to see if they're more productive.
However, back when Apple's Infinite Loop buildings were constructed (in the early 1990s) they were mostly full-sized offices. I was told that Apple had done a cost study and determined that hard-walled offices were cheaper than cubicles in the long term because divisions were always incurring costs by re-arranging the cubical walls every few years, and you just don't do that to sheetrock.
One thing that makes open environments manageable for employees is to make the desks movable. At Valve, the desks are on wheels, and the culture is to move next to the people you are working with. Just shut down your computer, unhook power and network wires and wheel your desk over. Those little wheels make a huge difference.
Open office has a feeling of a lab, the research lab, where undergrads do whatever, while grads are suffering their way to Master/Ph.D. and those that do research as a paid job get some privacy to make sure the grant money keeps on coming.
You can't force a research result, so watching that everyone is "busy" just doesn't make sense practically. If the undergrads don't learn how to convert their time into an expected result, they just wasted _their own_ time.
Taking an open office without this sort of research mentality is simply making everyone uncomfortable, and is setting up unrealistic expectations.
If a team is result-oriented, then it doesn't matter if one didn't type N number of lines, or closed X number of tickets in a day. At the end of all, one reports to the team, not just a boss. You trust your team for the result, not for their not reading HN instead of resolving another bug.
I understand how you feel but I think 99% of the time its just about cost. Of course the problem is it's hard to measure the cost to productivity and very easy to measure the cost of real estate, and usually whoever has solid numbers tends to win the argument.
I also had the felling that it was somewhat a US tradition.
Open offices a much rarer in e.g. Germany. Through then
Germany also has more strict labor protection laws wrt. office "safety/healthiness" so it might just not be as profitable to do an open office? (Note that I'm mainly referring to regulations about chairs, desks, light and noise in offices. Which exists but are in practice hardly if at all enforced on small companies. But from time to time in larger ones.)
I'm not high up the ladder, but like many others here, I am a boss myself. I don't think all of us have such terrible motives. I know my boss doesn't.
And yes, we also were in an open office before all being sent home. Though I may be missinterpretting, and you may mean more high level c-suite types. But even then, my impression of them is more busy than anything else.
Having worked with competent and incompetent managers. I can tell you a competent manager increases my productivity by a significant fold.
By shielding the team away from dumb political games, providing technical / architecture / design input, and controlling meetings and direction for meeting. Ex: one of the competent managers I knew could always “win” the argument for our team, I saw them convince an otherwise unshakable team to make changes by themselves (convincing an entire team to make a necessary change).
The best managers I worked with were less about control, they trusted you, and ensured no one got in your way, and they were also skilled at architecture / coding themselves.
I don't think you can reduce it to one factor. A lot of people bought into the idea they could create a new Bell Labs for their advertising/CRUD app/whatever by using open offices. And as many others have mentioned it was cheaper. I don't think your argument is wrong but it comes across a bit myopic.
Control is a huge part for some companies, yes. Those companies are actively evil, IMO.
I believe that most companies are just cheap-ass bastards that don’t know any better. They do it because everyone else is doing it, and they believe the lies they’ve told themselves about how everyone loves it.
> No worker (as I general rule, I know there are exceptions) prefers open offices to either cubicles or real offices (I wonder how many HN have ever had these?).
I guess I’m the exception then. I had an office to myself with a closeable door once and I HATED it. So quiet and lonely. Everyone around me had closeable offices too so you had to get up and deliberately make an effort for human interaction, or you’d spend all day without seeing another soul.
Occasionally as we would staff up and down I’d end up sharing the office with someone else and that helped tremendously. But when I had the room to myself it was awful.
It drove my so loony that I basically abandoned it and set up a makeshift workspace in the break room where there were always people coming and going. You’d have to put a gun to my head to go back to a traditional office room.
I've worked in an office where one of the managers was truly interested in seeing what everybody was doing all the time. He managed tech support, and he drove them like someone would drive cattle. He never sat down, but constantly paced the aisles. He setup cameras so he could watch the night shifts. I wouldn't have been able to work in that kind of environment for 5 minutes.
That's what control looks like. Arguing that the typical manager is like that man is like arguing that Obama or Trump are dictators. Only people who have never lived under a dictator would say that.
IME with all the managers I've ever had, and with what little managing I've done myself, few people care what you're doing at your desk as long as you're getting your work done on a weekly or monthly basis, and are responsive to your coworkers. Most of the anxiety you feel is imagined, though in no way does that diminish the anxiety. (I hate open office plans, too.) The reasons for open offices are obvious: cost and convenience. Not only cost and convenience for the employer, but also cost and convenience of the building owner and the next tenant.
Put yourself in the shoes of the property manager. If it's a big tech company, organizations are constantly growing and shrinking. If you're a leasing office, you may have to deal with any particular office space turning over every 2 or 3 years, and spending weeks or months trying to find a new tenant, who will have quirky requirements about how many groups they have and how they want to arrange them. At some point you'll just say, "fsck it", tear down all walls, ban new walls, and make management of the physical working space somebody else's problem once and for all. Bonus points if there's pseudo-scientific research circulating that makes your solution seem like a brilliant, pro-worker innovation; but you truly couldn't care one way or another because your fundamental motivations are entirely different, driven by simple economics. Again, you couldn't care less what people are doing; the whole point is taking yourself out of the equation and making it their problem.
>He setup cameras so he could watch the night shifts.
You know, I've always envied US salaries but at least stuff like this is illegal in Europe.
Not that we have a shortage of autocratic and incompetent managers/seniors who try to spend the better part of their day micromanaging you and staring over your shoulder, at lest they can't use tech to make this easier for them.
I'm hoping that the crisis will be a forcing function into offices with more privacy.
Companies will be competing with an increasing number of "remote first" or "ultra flexible" workplaces. These companies may think they want plexiglass dividers now. But new candidates will have offers between "work from wherever" or a plexiglass labyrinth that looks like a modern supermarket checkout on steroids. Why would a candidate choose the plexiglass open office? If the company had a flexible arrangement between the plexiglass jungle or a chill WFH environment, who would work in the open office? As companies realize that many don't want to live in their city, and many others don't want to go to their office, they're going to have to compete to make their office more enticing if they want a world where people still go to an office.
Of course, this depends on the broad WFH trend coming closer to gaining critical mass.
Yeah, the transparent modern panopticon. They think that when people feel watched produce more. Im in no way more productive this way. I have to make a hard effort to zone out into coding, and this effort is consuming a lot of energy in itself. I think its our time to bargain and not allow this to happen when we all go back to work. I hope for partial or full time work from home setup. The value extraction machine should keep that in mind
Since the other comment where I replied trying to unpacking these two comments got flag-killed and it seems some are haranguing over the stylistics of the posts here, let me try running with this:
I think workspace design and office ergonomics are a potentially easy win for collective bargaining in the information workforce, especially now-as stated by others this is a unique opportunity and in my opinion the incentives align between worker productivity and public health.
I still think they bring an interesting bit of salt and pepper to the discussion: open-workspaces bring out a lot of opinions from workers and employees, and in my opinion are pretty low hanging fruit for a newly collectively-organized white collar workforce in 2020.
I think you're not getting many responses because few people agree with you or don't care. or because you are threadjacking. you may think your post is on topic but I don't think a lot of people would.
Also I can't parse most of your message. I think you are so far into your belief in this premise that no one can follow what you are saying; you are making a LOT of assumptions that others aren't.
For instance I have no idea what "newly collectively-organized white collar workforce in 2020" means. or "open-workspaces bring out a lot of opinions from workers and employees"
You’re certainly free to clear up what you were referring to versus being intentionally vague, but instead of a protracted debate over unclear drafting versus poor reading comprehension, let’s just get back on topic:
Do you think collective worker action is a valid path to take during this pandemic to improve working conditions as areas consider reopening and lifting quarantine restrictions?
I do, and I agree with others who say this opportunity is a good one to explore some of those options and begin having some of those dialogues to build effective coalitions.
I'm not who you're responding to, but I agree with you completely. I just wish the posts upthread hadn't cluttered up the thread with vague dance-around-the-subject language, instead of just stating what they thought and why they thought it.
I apologize if asking for your opinion on unionization was read as having made the assumption that you were full-on against unionization, the purpose of me asking for your input was a precise attempt to avoid assuming what your opinions were.
If that’s what you thought I said, then this is on me to phrase myself better in the future.
plexiglass dividers with or without being combined with low height dividers just brings up feelings of being in some television show call center. Both provide the image of a seating arrangement created to allow management to scan for people not working as management expects them too, they are not designed for sharing among each other.
>from open office to plexiglass dividers seems to be far worse
it would allow to even more increase density, even beyond open floor office, so it is "better" for a specific corporate definition of "better". The definition that has been driving the density increase during the last 3 decades from private offices to open space. If not for coronavirus, the next density increase would have taken like a decade too. Now we're going to jump straight into it. Into our personal cozy aquariums. Office dress code - goldfish. Or crabby.
I used to work in an office where there were speakers in the ceiling. The company used them, too. "Call for Mr. Gibber on line 10, call for ..." all day long. ALL DAY LONG while you're trying to concentrate on writing code.
Funny how the speakers always seemed to be failing in the engineering areas. Simply cannot imagine why :-)
I think the biggest problem with cubicles is they seemed to either come in the colors of prison gray, 1980s beige, or 1970s green. Cubicles were fine for all the reasons this poster mentioned. Just try not to make them look like despair is all. And yes, fuck open design.
I would take a vertical coffin of office space if it came with a door. Something to block out the audio and visual noise and supported whatever horizontal space was needed to host my monitors.
I realize some people could not handle the claustrophobia, but for those that can this seems like an easy win to minimize footprints while isolating those who are bothered by the distractions of others.
Peopleware also covers the subject of the working space quite well.
People in charge just don't want to listen. You spend millions of dollars paying the people and after that you cheap out on office space. But hey, the people responsible for the office can point at how they saved money and it's also really hard to measure the productivity loss so it must not mater.
open offices never have coat racks. I've been told it's because they don't like they look nice. In one office I worked in people just threw their jackets on the floor, especially when it was rainy out and they couldn't be kept on the back of a chair.
Just be aware of where the air is coming into your apartment from. If it's coming through the walls or attic and being 'filtered' through decades old insulation potentially filled with animal droppings or carcases it's probably not that great for you. Modern builds have HRVs which bring in fresh filtered air from outside.
You just have to remember that you're not confined to that space. So you close that door and you crash out what you need to do. Then you stand up, and you go for a walk outside that space to relieve the cramped feeling.
What also helps is to also have a Window that looks out into something green. If I'm sick of looking at my screen and need to think, I get to look out and watch dogs play at a daycare which is immensely relieving.
I am willing to put up with so much more shit having this peaceful environment, I feel like it is win win for my company+clients, and myself.
It is unrealistic to expect that everyone could have a private office with leather chair and fish tank behind it, however it would be great if people could have smaller spaces,lets say 2-4 people per room ,which would have a door and etc. Open plan office,the way it is now, it's just a one level up from a hen battery.
This was the standard when I started working in the 90s. 2-6 people in an office and gasp a window with daylight. You could actually really collaborate in that environment and have a discussion without bothering neighbors. Much less meeting rooms needed because often you could talk out things straight in the office. For me the best setup I have ever worked in.
The leather chair and the fish tank part wasn't about the cost. What I meant is that there's no need to go the radical way claiming everyone should get a private office, however even having only small number of people working in a room would be a huge improvement to open space planning.
Microsoft used to have private offices as well that didn't take all that much seniority to get. Much like the FAANGs, it was a competitive place to get into and stay in, so productivity monitoring wasn't a thing.
I did some googling and found this article (I don't care much for the layout, but stay with it for the pictures). It seems like the 70's you're thinking of is a blip in time, and we've instead regressed back to the open office plan of old.
I don't think there are a lot of good normative answers -- I dislike open offices and cubes aren't much better (and at present, I'd especially have trouble regarding a management team that's still on board with them with either respect or trust).
But I'd guess the descriptive answer is that the open office is essentially the new factory floor. Many information age jobs look "white collar" but at a certain level, they function and are viewed through a widget-factory management lens.
I think a lot if people don't realise that they are the new factory workers,only the production line is at their desks. It makes me laugh how some office people think they are very smart and often look down to those who don't work in an office.Ffs Jenny, you just sending emails to people all day long,you aren't doing rocket science here..
This is a good point. As supply of commercial real estate is restricted, rents increase and the impetus to reduce sq footage per employee increases. Also, open offices have been around - and common - for a long time. They called them bullpens and engineers, reporters, stock traders, and many more low-level professionals worked that way. We think of office professionals because they are the ones movies get made about.
> I also wonder how many people really had private offices 30-40 years ago.
IBM (and presumably any other company of that ilk) certainly had one person per office up through 1990.
One thing that people forget is that you had a land line phone. And you spent a lot of time on it. And haranguing people was considered a negotiation tactic. So, being able to close your door to not bother others was important.
I absolutely love this little piece of flavor. It takes me right back to that time.
I think this is an important point I haven't heard discussed before: The cell phone kind of enabled the open office explosion. That really explains a lot. Before if you needed to be reachable in a company, you needed a physical location from which to engage in phone calls.
AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Wait, why am I laughing? Oh, God, it's to keep from crying from how old I am ...
In 1990 corporations? Goodness, no. Most companies didn't even have a corporate email system. IBM was probably one of the few exceptions. And external network access required signatures from 3 VP's (one senior), your firstborn, and probably your left ovary/testicle--it basically just didn't happen.
Programming teams were colocated or they didn't communicate. CVS was an advanced idea. C and UNIX were those toys from academia--real programmers used mainframes and COBOL or FORTRAN. If you had a forward thinking team, they might circulate useful technical articles and ideas via inter-/intra-office memos. Otherwise, you bought a book or went down to the corporate library and borrowed a book. At IBM you could pull up old issues of the IBM Journal of Research and Development (which were gold--and still are).
A 128Kbps (yeah, that's 12 kilobytes) dedicated leased line was considered pretty fast and was pretty expensive. A 250MB SCSI drive was considered pretty big and local networking at 16Mbps (Token Ring) was godly and ferociously expensive.
I can go on and on ... but we're already well into "Back in my day, we walked uphill to school--both ways. And we counted our bits by hand." territory.
Even in universities, 1988-89-ish was just at the point where using ftp to pull a .tgz from somewhere might actually be faster than sending a physical letter through the mail and having them mail you a magtape in return. And you sent a physical letter because very few people in a university at the time had an email address that was generally accessible. For God's sake, in 1988 /etc/hosts could still enumerate in an actual file every single host on the ARPAnet.
The amount of technical change from 1990 to 1999 was ENORMOUS.
There is a limit to the number of skyscrapers within a square mile before you've reached a dystopia. People confuse sane citizens not wanting a dystopian skyscraper-city with nimby-ism - wouldn't you rather drive with half the number of people on the roads? People who live somewhere feel the same way about their neighbourhood.
Who's supposed to build new towns and cities? Gasp I'll say the forbidden word - government.
Gasp the government can be a solution, not a source of problems? Yes my dear friend - you only need to implement a few laws, such as public hanging of corrupt politicians and businessmen. Gasp but aren't those the same people who decide the laws? No my dear friend, we the people decide, and we've decided to be a bunch of selfish, lazy, pathetic losers lately.
Maybe this pandemic will be a wake-up call to some of you.
yeah. the fish tank would be overkill. but to have a private office is totally doable. factor in the productivity gains and it's not only doable but it's actually cheaper than the current clusterf open space situation.
also, up until 5-10ish years ago this was the standard at Microsoft for example where you would get your own office, or if you were a newb you had to share an office with someone else. let that sink in. the current state of affairs is something we have concocted in the last 10ish years - because savings.
I've thought for a while that conference rooms with desks would work pretty well. Though it definitely depends on your team. Wouldn't need to go grab a room everytime you wanted to have a team discussion. Could play music if you all agreed. Etc. Maybe they could even do themed rooms. This is the rock & roll room, this the country room, etc. Ha!
One of the best collaborative environments I've ever had was a repurposed conference room; the three of us, all in our early 20s, two devs and a consultant who did what we would now call the "product owner" and some of the coding, had the small space to ourselves. It was off in a corner of the building, so nobody would "drop in while passing" either. We called it the "war room", after Dr Strangelove.
It was a huge success and we got a complex product built in a few months. Unfortunately that was 2001 and the client went bankrupt without ever paying the invoice and we were all made redundant over the next few months.
My company still does this when something really needs to be done. Several people who are working on the project in one room with full focus. But weirdly as soon as it's done the team gets dispersed into the cube farm and the headsets go back on.
My first programming job back at Corp hq (not client site) was like this : three people in a room with an external window, a door and private cubes. It was great for morale and productivity. That was 20 years ago.
While I would prefer a private office with a window to an open office seat, I much prefer an open office to a cubicle. Not being able to see any windows and being in a small, depressing space alone for 40 hours a week sounds terrible.
But above all, I like working from home, where I can have a nice space with windows and no distractions. Of course, I am lucky because not everyone has a space like this in their home.
My office is in a ~95 year old skyscraper, so even when we used cubicles everyone was close to a window. Instead of the current style in which office buildings have huge rectangular floor plates with elevators in the center, new office tower construction can take design cues from the old days with H shapes or central light shafts.
> nstead of the current style in which office buildings have huge rectangular floor plates with elevators in the center
I think you hit the nail on the head, this is why cubicles were hated, it wasn't the cubicle, it was the sprawling cubicle farm that was hated. Even a private office in the middle of that farm is not pleasant, so the the private offices went around the outside and made things even worse in the inner cubicles. Hopefully this campus style building dies.
At least around me the trend has been towards much thinner but taller office buildings for a while now, partly out of necessity as city plots of land get smaller. These accommodate cubicles and/or offices with natural light really well. The often derided glass and steel architecture also helps because you get floor to ceiling natural light.
I've long thought it illogical that people slave away in wretched conditions for 8 hours per day, bookended by long commutes, in order to afford a nice home that they don't actually spend many daylight hours in. Sometimes, a non-working spouse and children get to enjoy the home, but in the more normal two-income or single-parent family, even that is not the case.
Ah yes, and at home I am not obligated to use the company desk/chair that everyone else has, so I have a more comfortable setup. Plus I get to pick the temperature, and I can use my speakers instead of wearing headphones.
I can take my own mouse/keyboard to the office, but I'm sure someday that will be forbidden in the name of information security. Sigh.
Still, my home office is a lot more comfy! Plus I can open the windows!
I guess I'm in the minority. Whenever this discussion pops up everyone laments the horrors of the open office, but I have no difficulty focusing in that environment and find it more lively and attractive when compared to alternatives. I don't need a black box to focus, and the feeling of being social (even when I'm not) really helps my morale.
The focus in an open floorplan feels fragile, sitting in one I have a constant low level anxiety. I hate feeling constantly watched, as someone can see everything I do. Any time I sneeze I'm bothering a couple of dozen people. My monitors are open for display. If I eat at my desk everyone needs to suffer through that. My only sense of any sort of privacy are my headphones, which people are constantly talking over, or I'm taking off because someone is talking to me. There's no office door to close and never any promise of any sort of flow.
I'm sure it varies based on place of employment and personal preference. I understand many people have some level of social anxiety that may be exacerbated by the open floor plan. I just personally enjoy it and hope to not see its demise. Glad we get to pick our employer!
Unfortunately, that doesn't help, since 100% of software employers with offices use open floor plan offices, or some variant of the same.
I always ask people in the industry what company has private offices for programmers. The only answers I've ever heard are "Fog Creek" and "maybe Microsoft?", but my friends at Microsoft say that's not so common any more.
Citation badly needed. We use cubicles rather than open floor plans in most of our office locations. Every commercial real estate discussion I've had has treated open floor plan, cubes, and offices as three distinct points on a spectrum.
It's not so much a social anxiety, as an awareness of others. You can't just be yourself without being rude. Even just basic body functions, like farting, is something you need to consider and manage before doing it. I'm not saying I want to constantly fart, but there's no privacy.
in my experience there are 2 types of people: ones that can focus with headphones on and ones that need silence. you are part of the lucky ones.
also, as far as interruptions go, acoustic interruptions are only one type of interruption. Your brain is physically wired to pay attention to things in your visual fields - it's physically wired to pay attention to people coming and going, continuously assessing the situation. just because you can function in an open space environment it does not mean that the environment is optimal.
Just a suggestion. Have you considered trying hearing protection to create a “low noise” bubble?
I have a pair of shotgun hearing protection ear muffs next to my bed. I only use them for emergencies when I really need to sleep and neighbors are partying very late. However, putting them on cuts any noise to a mumbling like in the distance.
Not the exact model or make but similar. Not electronic.
It can depend on the nature of the job. More creative jobs and those about figuring out deep and complex problems need more solitude I think. If it's more of a straightforward task that just needs to be done, it's probably easier to do it among distractions. Cleaning up code, refactoring, code review, etc are the latter category for me. Coming up with a new design or figuring out what problem to solve, how to frame the issue, what is the issue about deep down, taking steps back and looking at the whole picture, that's the former.
You know what makes an open office tolerable? Having lots of personal space! Where I work we have really big desks, with ~2ft tall frosted glass walls, so it's not so bad. I worked for a little while at a company that had small 5ft desks. That sucked. I could smell what my coworkers had for lunch! IT REALLY SUCKED! 0/10 not doing that again.
If the tech giants are truly ready to embrace permanent wfh for a large % of their employees I think we could see a land rush of innovation around wfh collaboration tools on the horizon, including some AR/VR applications. That is what I'm most excited about.
Someone shared with me an article  that some company is doing some of their meetings in Red Dead Redemption 2, around a campfire. While I don't believe it to be more than hype right now, it fired up my imagination. I think it has a nice ring to it, staying under the starry night, putting some meat on the fire, talking to the people in my team.
Then I got to thinking 5 - 10 years in the future when maybe VR Tech is going to be cheaper and more ergonomic, with Unreal 5  coming up and who knows what the engines a decade from now will look like, how awesome would it be to work from home and have the daily meeting in some amazing virtual space.
No point to my post really, only that work conditions are hopefully going to be more playful in the future.
Don't we have everything already? We have email, audio and video calls, chat including groups and file transfer. Wfh doesn't have an unsolved problem to innovate over does it? It's human behaviour and communication skills that are lacking, not the tech imo...
Liking an activity doesn't mean it needs to be an integral part of your workplace every minute of the day. I like playing the drums, but I would never do it in the same room as my coworkers while they're trying to write software.
I want to work at work. When I want to socialize (or do anything else which might distract others), I wait for a break and go outside.
Can't help to remind: each such cell would need proper ventilation.
Open offices circulate air in broad strokes of huge air ducts on the ceiling. This is not going to easily map to a grid of smaller cells where horizontal streams are impossible. This of course can be addressed, but it seriously more expensive than just plastic walls.
If you don't solve the ventilation, the workers will suffer from high CO₂ and overheating, lowering productivity and morale.
If you don't separate the cells enough to block the air flow between them (that is, leave them as cubicles), then the whole point of separation as an infection-resisting measure is lost.
As a software engineer, I don't see offices as something necessary.
Everything you do leaves a digital footprint: issue trackers, version control, instant messaging, e-mail. Everything is timestamped, everything leaves multiple copies.
If you want to check if someone is working, it is not necessary to see if someone is at their desk. If you want to grab someone's attention, you can have a meeting that does not distract people in adjacent desks.
You can still gather and have IRL activities. That is OK. But I don't need to that every day. Most days I need to get things done, and focus.
During meetings, the most important thing I need to get from that meeting is information in order to make decisions. I need to focus my attention on what's being presented, not on how people dress, their haircut, their age, weight, stature and other superficial aspects that have no impact on the product whatsoever. Likewise, I don't want the meeting to be interrupted by someone commenting about someone's haircut.
Then, there's non-verbal communication. Some will claim you need body language to perform sentiment analysis or to cross-validate what's being said, etc. But those activities take away attention from the points being discussed.
Then, there's legal liability. If you want to go "off the record", then you will not like things being recorded. If you are a honest person acting within the law, you don't have strong reasons to go off the record. If your modus operandi is to gaslight people, you won't like meetings that are potentially recorded. Overall, visibility is accountability, and accountability is key to keep things healthy and legal.
People's appearance and other superficial aspects of a contributor should have very little importance when compared to their deliveries. A remote culture helps people to focus on what's important.
I have seen many arguments like this, as if software engineers are automata that take requirements as input and produce software code. However an important part of being in a company is developing a shared team relationship where individuals feel accountable to each other and take some interest in the welfare of their co-workers and company above their own short-term interests.
Since we are humans this necessarily involves some socialization and shared experiences. I don't believe in 100% remote work - maybe we can do remote 3 times a week, and that might work. The idea that workers will replace their social interactions on their own is naive. There is an epidemic of loneliness among many once they are no longer forced to socialize via school or church.
(In terms of productivity, I feel like remote optimizes individual throughput over system throughput, due to degraded avenues of cross-communication.)
I hope that this cheering for remote dies. Many managers read Hacker News and they might actually take it seriously. The less tightly the team is bound via social connections the more likely the job function can simply be outsourced to an external contractor.
Also, speaking purely of my own self-interest, I like where my job is located and don't want to move so I can equalize my standard of living with similarly smart and dedicated developers in eastern Europe, Asia, or even the deep south or rural midwest.
Some people treat engineers as automata even if they're in the same office. Even if they work at an adjacent desk. That does not have anything to do with offices, it has to do with personality traits like lack of empathy and excessive ego. If you are not a jerk and were not raised by jerks, you will have respect not only for the engineers, but for everyone, even people in modest occupations.
Then, working remote is not the same as working remote from a different timezone. The latter can make collaboration more difficult.
I have worked with remote engineers, and over time, I have learned to appreciate and respect their work. I know many of their names, especially the brilliant ones that I can trust 100%. I know from their deliverables that they're dedicated and reliable and I would write them a recommendation letter any day if they asked for it, have lunch with them if they're in town, and I am honestly interested in learning about their backgrounds and perspectives on life.
On the other hand, at the office, there are people working some few feet away that I have never talked to. I don't know anything about them, or their lives. Some of them even work on my team :)
So, no. Offices are not magical facilitators of friendship and cohesion. And when two people decide that they don't get along it can become quite miserable to be present in a tense environment.
I have no problems working with people living far away. If they're good, I want to work with them and assimilate what I can from their knowledge and problem solving skills. Also, secret santas with them are the best, try it.
If you are concerned with jobs going away, or wages being depressed, these are a list of things you have to worry about in addition to outsourcing: lower entry barriers to programming, coding camps, AI. In the end, the only effective way to protect your job is to acquire and polish your skills, and the best way to do it is by working with as many strong engineers as you can no matter where they are from.
It is not necessary to hold someone's hand to socialize. Working remote can contain just as much people as a regular office.
There doesen't need to be a social obligation to force you to work proper. Feeling appreciated and important is a hell of a morale-boosting drug. Gaining some breathing room to do your own thing is the best way to achieve that
This is a huge straw man. Non-verbal communication is limited to shallow observations? Sentiment analysis and cross validation?
I don’t think engineers, particularly programmers, have the communication skills to pull of remote work. Only ones who I’ve seen do it well are those who had a liberal arts background. As in they are already good writers. Our profession as a whole has such bad writers and communicators and that’s why remote work is so controversial
It’s definitely gonna become the norm, so I think it’s worth investing time into becoming a better writer, even to the point of gasp a liberal arts minor
Open-space offices are bullshit. Everybody should be given a separate room. Whoever is not worth a room should work from home. Nevertheless an office should have a number of places where people can meet and communicate freely in groups of whatever size they want.
It would be nice if the article did the math on cost per sq. ft. of 'usable' open office space vs. cost for individual offices. When an open office can only be filled to P% capacity then private offices start to make a lot more sense.
Yeah the question should be "do you want an open office in this attractive location with easy access to public transit, or do you want your own office in this office park 10km outside the city that you have to drive to every day?"
The open office plan is only there so that employers can control their employees. There is literally no other reason for it, it removes psychological safety which most people need in order to think while they are working. It allows obnoxious employees to create distractions in order to slow productive employees down. It allows clever employees to waste the executive function of people they don't like by flooding them with behavioral cues, gestures and body languages that has inherent meaning (This is particularly dangerous and devastating if done in a targeted fashion). I'm sure if you talked to a psychologist they could give you a million more fun games you can play with people in open office environments. They were never good for people to begin with or for getting work done. In small startups they are perfectly fine but in medium to large sized corporations they are only abused.
(BTW, none of the above bothers me in particular but I know this happens on all the time and I've watched people in large corporations play psychological games with extremely good employees just to make them miserable in open office environments.)
What’s very interesting is that in an era where we’ve all been shown exactly how many businesses could operate remotely, we also now have a situation where the value proposition of returning to the office is rapidly dropping at the exact same time. A lot of these more pandemic friendly offices appear to have the worst of both worlds; a total lack of privacy on top of extra restrictions on movement.
My company is setting up rules for how we’ll return to the office once the govt. says its okay, and it involves basically pretending that we’re working remotely from the office, plus the need to Lysol down conference rooms once you’re done with them. A few months ago I’d be happy to return to the office, but now I’m genuinely wondering why we should bother.
I work at a fortune 500 financial company (the boring conservative kind). They're not even considering coming back into the office this calendar year.
Speaking only about my own department, I find the little awkward home distractions lovely. The other day in the middle of a conf call someone's kid popped into the video and asked about potato chips. It was really important because the other parent had informed them there were no chips, but they had to get a second opinion. These things are really humanizing. Instead of "Chuck from the integrations team" it's "Chuck whose kid loves chips." For what it's worth, our time to market for new integrations has improved by almost 30% with everyone working from home. And we're not the kind of shop where work from home means working all day.
I hate having to wear anything on my face, much less a pair of screens beaming the simulacrum directly into my eyes. To me, there is so little gained in visually looking at others in presentations I find it shocking people care so much. With people I’ve never met, I do one introductory video chat to show I’m a real person. Anytime after it’s purely voice or screen sharing.
All the emotional cues are there in the voice and with less lag from not having video hog up all the bandwidth, I find the smaller latency aids in smoother conversations.
I am not able to fully pick up on emotional cues without video. There is a reason we use facial expressions when talking in person. For a technical discussion it doesn't matter - for a personal connection it does.
Another advantage of video is you can distinguish "thinking" from "frozen". Plus, you can tell when they're confused, or have a question.
I also have a "thing" about putting things on my face, I don't even like touching it. I absolutely hate the idea of having to wear a mask, and having hot breath steaming up my face... makes me cringe just thinking about it.
Thankfully I'm one of the lucky ones that was working from home even before COVID.
That's a hilarious title :) I can't imagine how anyone (without a death wish) would be OK now in an open-plan office. We'll know more this fall, but COVID-19 may be around indefinitely. And even if it peters out, another coronavirus or whatever could pop up at any time. Given that zoonotic events have become far more likely.
My workplace has a white noise generator built in to the ceiling (we track how long it takes new hires to figure out that it's not a really loud fan). During blackouts, it shuts off and we're amazed at the difference.
Long story short, talk to your boss about investing in one of these. It helps me a lot personally.
Omg I'm not the only one. I've tried and tried and tried white noise and brown noise and pink noise and yellow noise and every kind of noise people can come up with, and I can't stand them. After 10 minutes my brain is screaming for silence, it's exhausting.
I've found rain sounds and ocean sounds to work alot better but of course they're easier to puncture.
PrezsHub's entrance was that old 'Apple Store' style, but somehow more brutalist. Just glass, but at that angle that just reflects and doesn't let you see in. Faux-invitational, Terry called it. The front door was frosted glass. It was that special kind that would be clear when you put a voltage to it. The giant windows directly next to the door were like that too. Or so Terry heard. He'd never seen them frosted all at once. Some would be, some wouldn't. Faulty wiring, he guessed.
Terry stood in line to get into PrezsHub. There was always a line. They got rid of the badge scanners, too unsanitary. His turn. He waited as some scanner somewhere read his face. At first Terry had smiled every time he stood in front of the door. The massive door of plate glass on tiny little hinges with a tiny little motor to swing the thing. The smiling stopped soon enough though. Terry had thought his boss actually cared to see the smile, or that maybe someone did. Nope. The scanner took it's time, you never could tell how long it would take. Terry shifted his face this way and that. Finally, the door defrosted and tried to open. Slowly, inch by inch, all the way open. Terry ducked inside long before it had taken the full three minute twenty-two seconds to complete a cycle of opening, pausing, and then closing and refrosting.
After passing by the Wellness-Entrepreneur-And-Sanctuary-Expert team's front desk, the cavern opened up. PrezsHub was ultra cutting edge. The CEO was one of those unicorn people that really believed he wasn't going to die. He had escaped taxes, so why not death too? So, slowly at first, he had gotten rid of almost everything at PrezsHub.
First it was the cubes. That move was nice at first, a bit more air. Long tables sure. Then the noise, the chattering, the gossip, the microwaved fish. Ghastly. After covid21 subsided, everyone came back to the office to find, well, nothing.
The CEO had ripped up the floor, put in charging ports and wifi, and then covered the whole thing in hardwood. No desks, no chairs, nothing. Even the toilets had been replaced with Japanese ones, bidet and all. The walls slowly sloped up to the roof too, it made a great half pipe, but there was nowhere to put a back against. The whole company was now 'floor gang'. The CEO said it was great for your body, just you and the hardwood. He sat there for three hours in a yoga position that first day back. By the end of the week, he was working from home for a bit. He almost never came in anymore.
Terry's butt had gone numb before the first 15 minutes had gone by. Everyone's had. People started bringing in camping chairs and card table desks. Then one day the Wellness-Entrepreneur-And-Sanctuary-Expert-Team said no more camping chairs. The CEO was concerned about them scrumming up the hardwood floors they had paid for. People started to bring in cushions and even more low budget camping equipment. Again, the Wellness-Entrepreneur-And-Sanctuary-Expert-Team stopped people after getting past the door. Those were creating dust and some were staining the flooring. The CEO was 'wigged out' about it. As his video address echoed off the walls of the empty building, he said everyone needed to be health conscious and just sit. So for the rest of the week, thats all Terry and the rest of PrezsHub did, they just sat. The CEO was adamant that no work be done, so that the chakras could align with Mars or something. Of course, half the company got put on a PIP for failing to meet deadlines.
So Terry went to find a working outlet on the floor and sat down with his bag and personal laptop, a perk. He plugged in, saw that it wasn't working and had to go get up and hunt around the room for a working outlet. Like at the airport, but more cliquey. He found a group, the Support And Development team; they weren't too Slack-y. He could get those tickets closed, maybe. He put on his carpal tunnel splints, opened his laptop, changed his password in the system yet again, hunched over, and got to work.
Don’t know why this is getting downvotes. It’s uncontroversially just fact that open-plan layouts do not save money, not even in the short term and not in high density urban centers. This has been written about so exhaustively for decades that at this point it’s not even worth engaging with people who say “citation needed” or “in 5 seconds of Googling I found this confirmation bias article” because it lends way too much legitimacy to the false idea that it’s even a close call at all or that there is any part of it left open for serious debate.
Open plan office designs are chosen so that executives can treat their office spaces like works of art - lots of signaling and often very little practical value.
They are often built at huge costs (way beyond outfitting the same space with offices or cubicles for the same number of people), often actively paying a lot of money to destroy existing privacy features, and they not only include but are completely oriented around opulent roof decks, party spaces, kitchens, game rooms, massage areas, and on and on.
It’s 100% about infantilizing the workforce and swindling them to accept greater degrees of counter-productive surveillance and total lack of privacy. It is not about cost reduction, flat out.
There's a consistent and strong tendency of companies, owners, and managers to avoid giving their professional-class-wage-earning software developers professional-class perks & (especially) signs of status. I'm not entirely sure why that is, but it does seem to be the case. Like they're all, consciously or not, just determined on some fundamental level not to let that happen.
On the flip side software folks tend not to exactly embody a professional-class aesthetic or attitude, but I think that behavior'd flip around damn fast if elevated social status became more easily available to those who did. But maybe that's not worth having private offices and assistants and deference to our professional judgement, and so on.
[EDIT] relevance being, open plan offices are notable for not just avoiding giving status, but for swinging way the opposite direction. Almost like passive-aggressive compensation for having to pay developers so much. "Well, at least I can seat them like minimum-wage call center employees, since for some reason that's considered fairly normal".
Personally I believe that software development is closer to a blue collar profession than a white collar one. Like blue collar professions we have standard outputs from our jobs -- we fix things and manufacture them, however ephemeral or abstract those things might be. It's more than just the "thinking" that groups together "knowledge work" -- our jobs depend very much on our level of output. There's a certain tediousness about both development and blue collar jobs as well. Our high pay is a simple result of market forces (and might be a historical anomaly in the long run), not of any kind of professional standing. I think this is also part of the reason that we have so few women in our profession (a quick google puts the amount of women plumbers at 1.5%) -- which is to say, whatever is keeping women from becoming plumbers is likely to be a big factor in women becoming programmers. It's easy to think that development is just another office job, but I think there is definitely a case to be made that it is not.
Private offices are a professional class perk. Large bonuses are a professional class perk.
Open plan offices with a deejay booth and free beer are the exact opposite, working class “perks” specifically meant to endow the workplace with an overwhelming infantile culture that ingrains the idea that you are compensated with hedonistic fun times and not with money, status, experience-building projects, or respect.
I've been telling this for years: an equivalent of a software developer in a different industry would be driven around in a company's car, dine on company's card and get fat bonuses every year.The problem is that developers,to most people,are well, the IT people. It doesn't matter if your code saves Netflix gazillion of money,to most people you on the same level as the guy who can connect the printer.Also sometimes almost cynical approach to anything financial or sales related doesn't help it either.
I believe the issue relies mostly on how value is quantified by company managers. It seems to me that any relatively modern practice or methodology aimed to organize and value work, especially in software engineering, is not focused on the added value of the work itself, but increasing middle management visibility - another way to "infantilize" the workforce, if you ask me.
Take a finance guy, for instance. You give him a set of rules and objectives, and there is no need to define what "success" is like, based on the output. Success is his ability to make money.
A software engineer may implement features A, B, and C in the product. She may even increase the performance of the pipeline two fold. But there is no way to objectively quantify the impact of such changes within the current work organization frameworks. These are tools for middle management to quantify a team's output, nothing more. Thus a good software engineer would get a nice bonus at the end of the year, and a compulsory, but meaningless, promotion.
Now, I'm not saying that promoting individualism is the way to go, nothing further from the truth. I understand that there are intrinsic differences between finance and software. Yet I believe that there are very few companies out there with the right tools to evaluate the output of software engineers, and recognize it accordingly.
My job is quite interesting in this aspect: I'm a manager,who has to set,monitor,and ultimately award results. Only one direct report is technical and it is quite challenging to quantify his outcomes. I also do development,as part of my role, and it's just so freaking hard to assign values to the work that'd been done. For instance, I did create an orders portal of sorts,which our corporate clients quite like and none of the competitors have anything like that.Our head of sales going from one company to another selling this portal as part of the offering and the execs love it. Sales get revenue, everything is nice and easy. Now what do I get for this portal? Would they have sold if it wasn't there? Did it help to close or was it just icing on the cake? The contribution is clearly there,but how much? 1%, 10%,maybe 0? And that's pretty much the same for most devs. What's the contribution of that logging feature? What's the value of some smart function?
Sometimes measuring someone's effectiveness is as easy as "I sold that, here's the check, that's my effectiveness" but I've also noticed that measurement is often incredibly sloppy in business, and people rarely seem to get called on it. Making a serious effort to eliminate confounders is unusual. I think a lot of folks in non-programming jobs do, to a fairly high degree, just make shit up, pretending that they can measure the effect of various initiatives much better than they can, and for whatever reason this is rarely considered a problem or questioned.
Some of them surely realize they're just slinging barely-if-at-all-justified BS, but I also think lots and lots of people are just terrible at reasoning about that kind of thing and don't realize how meaningless the numbers they're generating are. They're trying, they just suck at it and no-one's bothered to tell them (or seems to care).
Possibly programmers are more sensitive to this than most, and are reluctant to put forward "bullshit" numbers that would, if they did, in fact be accepted as reality by the folks "above" them. Meanwhile someone down the hall's being promoted for numbers that are even more a work of fantasy than those, and may not even be intentionally deceiving anyone.
Note that the sales folks don't sweat over how much of their numbers can be attributed to the people making the thing they're selling. Those numbers are theirs, period. "Did I sell that or did Feature X put it over the top?" fretted no salesperson ever.
I was a growth engineer for 5+ years and even though i worked closer with marketing and sales optimizing metrics, I was still an "outsider" because I'm so technical. It's a very strange and nuanced social barrier.
I'm a co-founder now (and only developer) at a small company that makes 7 figures and i still feel like a code monkey at times, though in a much better position than most.
It can, truly, be business-socially elevating in many companies (even "tech" ones!), to pretend to know less about technology than you do. The weird thing is it's not even like the "the CEO using bad grammar in curt emails is a power move" kind of deal, because it kicks in way down the org chart. Basically if the interview for your position isn't leetcode there's a good chance betraying you know too much about technology will lose you some status.
[EDIT] It just occurred to me that this is because programming is, so far as social pecking order, perceived as blue-collar.
>It just occurred to me that this is because programming is, so far as social pecking order, perceived as blue-collar.
Because 99.9% of the population have no clue what the job entails. For an average person,the best they could expect to see is the WordPress admin panel with a few lines in html.And for an average Joe, that's what the programming is. Who on earth goes to social gatherings and cracks a joke about how they write code for some controllers that are used in nuclear plants and some shot gone wrong? I never,ever talk or bring up anything technical unless they love that kind of stuff. People don't understand what you talking about and either think you are weird,or they feel so embarrassed by the fact that they have no clue, that they can't wait to get out. For the ones running/owning the companies, especially the large ones,the developers are merely an expensive nuisance that is needed run the business.
I think a lot of that's true of doctors and lawyers, too, but those are the epitome of professional-class jobs.
Maybe the difference is that we produce something that, independently, produces value after we're done. The value's in what the thing we produce keeps doing, not the work per se. Lawyer's gotta lawyer every case. Doctor's gotta treat each illness. Lawyer-AI or Doctor Bot doesn't need the developer anymore (OK maintenance or whatever, but you know what I mean). Closest a lawyer probably comes to that is writing contract templates. I can't think of anything a doctor might do along those lines, really.
In short, we build capital directly, rather than providing a service.
I worked at Google X from 2013-2015. During this time, we transitioned into a shiny tremendously expensively updated building at "The Rails" (a converted shopping mall off San Antonio Rd). You have described it perfectly. All signaling, no substance, tons of useless recreational space, engineers packed in cheek-by-jowl. I used to hide in the EE lab with my laptop so I could think. Couldn't stand sitting at my 5-foot-wide desk where my nice desktop CAD workstation was parked.
Other people would just camp out in (and fight over) one of the hundreds of conference rooms, because there were zero private offices in the entire building. A building that used to contain AN ENTIRE SHOPPING MALL.
Well if you put more people in a smaller space that saves money on rent. If you start using "productivity" or "output" or "net savings" that's effectively economic voodoo in comparison to "the rent is $10k per month vs $20k per month".