How to Make Your Open Plan Office Suck Less

Open plan offices suck, but there are some easy ways to make them suck less. Here are three ways that simple desk positioning can make a big difference in the suckiness of your open plan.

1. Lower Density

Lower density means less noise. Put more space between desks.  

red16 Sucks:

High density sucks

yellow16 Sucks less:

Low density sucks less

2. Face Space

Don’t seat people where their line of sight goes through a nearby face. If you haven’t felt the awkward tension of having someone’s visible face right behind your monitor while working all day, then congrats, your open plan sucks a bit less.

red16 Sucks:

Face-to-face bad

red16 Sucks:

Face-to-side-of-face bad

yellow16 Sucks less:

Facing in same direction better

3. Watch Your Back

Don’t seat people with their back to a high-traffic area. People in this position feel constantly vulnerable and cannot have one moment of screen privacy. Ask these folks to wear headphones, and they’ll feel even more vulnerable.

red16 Sucks:

Back to the action bad

yellow16 Sucks less:

Facing the action better

 

If you’re committed to an open plan office (shame on you), then at least get these things right.

Remote Work Denial Is a Bad Look

When out-of-state recruiters email me about their awesome tech company, my first response is always something along the lines of, “You support remote work, right? I live in Grand Rapids, Michigan.” When the response comes back as a flat denial of the possibility, suddenly that hot tech company seems very old-fashioned. And old-fashioned is not a good look in the tech industry. I always think to myself, “Really, you’re one of those? Well, that’s embarrassing.”

If “Agile” could be said to have traditional values, one of them might be colocation. I’ve come to view this emphasis as a bit na├»ve or idealistic in the present day.

As Keith Richards says in an article for InfoQ about distributed Agile:

Most of the agile body of knowledge that has been written is based on the utopian situation of one team, one ‘product owner’ and one location. Although this is still often the case, is it the exception or is it the rule? Having worked for well over a decade now on implementations of agile I find that multi-team, multi-location, multiple business area and even multi-time zone agile is more the norm.

If agile is to thrive over the next 10 years then it not only has to work in a distributed environment (i.e. an environment where we do not all work in the same place), but it has to work well in order to deliver the most value to an organization.

Mike Cohn, in his book Succeeding with Agile, expresses a similar thought:

A few years ago, collocated teams were the norm, and it was unusual for a team to be geographically distributed. By now, the reverse must be true. Personally, I’m now surprised when someone tells me that everyone on the team works in the same building.

Not a good look

You can think face-to-face, in-person communication is most efficient, and I won't argue with you, but it ultimately doesn't matter as the remote work trend will not be stopped.

When I see tech companies taking a hard-line stance against remote work, I can't help but think, “Imagine how dumb you're going to look in a few years.” I truly do not mean to offend anyone’s sensibilities with what I’m about to say and hope my point gets across regardless of your particular political beliefs, but remote work denial feels very much to me like people vehemently opposing the legalization of marijuana or same-sex marriage at this point--do you really think you're going to stem this tide? With all due respect to your beliefs, this is happening anyway.

Get on the boat now before your company has been too badly embarrassed in front of the people it wants to hire. Remote work is still a differentiator in this moment of time. What are you waiting for...your competitors to do it first? You want to clean up in the talent wars? Figure out how you're going to make remote work effective for your company and then shout it from the rooftops.

From the closing sentiments of Remote:

Life on the other side of the traditional office paradigm is simply too good for too many people. Progress on fundamental freedoms, like where to work, is largely cumulative. There might be setbacks here and there from poorly designed programs or misguided attempts at nostalgia, but they’ll be mere blips in the long run.

Between now and the remote work–dominated future, the debate is likely to get more intense and the battle lines more sharply drawn. Remote work has already progressed through the first two stages of Gandhi’s model for change: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” We are squarely in the fighting stage—the toughest one—but it’s also the last one before you win.

Remote work is here, and it’s here to stay. The only question is whether you’ll be part of the early adopters, the early majority, the late majority, or the laggards. The ship carrying the innovators has already sailed, but there are still plenty of vessels for the early adopters.

Continuous Delivery and Management Pathologies

I believe continuous delivery is a foundational practice. In fact, it’s mentioned right at the top in the “Principles” section of the Agile Manifesto:

Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.

There’s a lack of trust that develops amongst stakeholders when the gap between “developer done” and “I can see that it’s done” is too great. In a perfect world, everyone trusts everyone, but that’s just not the case on real projects a great deal of the time.

You want to know how to cultivate trust? Deliver consistently. Perhaps, continuously.

I believe one of the greatest causes of managers behaving badly is a fear that the things that need to get done are not getting done. This is one of the great causes of micromanagement, which technical folks tend to hate (I know I do).

By reducing this fear, you can head off several management pathologies. You can prevent a hundred status meetings by sending a URL to someone and saying “see for yourself.”

I’ve come to believe that on most software projects, the speed of progress is not particularly important as much as steady progress. Optimize for steady, externally-visible progress.

CD is the ultimate progress indicator of your project. As Jenifer Tidwell says in Designing Interfaces:

Experiments show that if users see an indication that something is going on, they’re much more patient, even if they have to wait longer than they would without a Progress Indicator. Maybe it’s because they know that “the system is thinking,” and it isn’t just hung or waiting for them to do something.

Note that this is the same lack of trust that makes otherwise intelligent software organizations hesitant to embrace remote work. What if my daily work produced artifacts of working software that you can look at every day whenever you wanted? Would that assuage your concern that I’m sitting in my pajamas and watching cartoons all day?

I see CD as a sort of great equalizer. Working software in front of the people who paid for it levels all arguments.

Your Problem Is Not Unique

As I approach my 10th year as a software professional, one of the things that frustrates me the most about our industry is the way in which people chronically overestimate the uniqueness of the problems they’re facing, and the frequency with which wheels are reinvented.

Designers, developers, and managers all have a habit of approaching common problems as if they’re the first one to do so. There’s an expression about “standing on the shoulders of giants.” We’re not all giants, and not all of our problems require herculean efforts.

Begin rant…

Your UI problem is not unique

I think the most common and ultimately harmful way this manifests is in user interface design.

Reinvention at the UI level is particularly insidious, as it doesn’t just waste the time and money of the team developing the software, but it confuses users (and we’re ultimately doing this for them, right? Right?)

I’ve witnessed bored designers coming up with the most elaborate one-off UI components to show a list of items or tabular data as if that’s a unique thing to do. Your typical line-of-business web app is not going to succeed or fail based upon the clever, innovative concept you’ve invented for showing a list of items to a user.

The thing is for the 99%, familiarity trumps cleverness. Every UI element that has to be explained-- especially when you could have swapped in one that people already know and accomplishes the same purpose—is one check against you and your product.

For example, I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent on teams debating the look and feel of the primary navigation for a web app. Grab a copy of Don’t Make Me Think, read the chapter on navigation, do what it says, and then move onto more pressing issues. You’re doing a big disservice to your users if you don’t copy the familiar style of navigation that your users have gotten used to on popular websites for the last decade.

One more example: your web app is not the first one to need to notify users of events that have happened in the system. Roughly 1.4 billion people--including the people who use your web app--use Facebook and are desperately familiar with the way that Facebook handles notifications. Rip their design off as closely as you can, and move on to something that can differentiate you from your competitors.

fb-notify

There are good catalogs of established UI patterns out there, such as the book Designing Interfaces. Before you have a long, long, like cruelly long series of meetings and email chains, whiteboard sessions, and the like, identify the pattern that relates to your requirement, find some well-known examples of the pattern, and copy them as closely as you can. If by some fluke your unique problem has not already been solved in a nice, familiar, recognizable, warm-fuzzy to your grandma kind of way, then by all means proceed to your brainstorming session(s).

Your development problem is not unique

For developers (and this includes me), I know that working day in and day out on that accounting app is not always particularly exciting, but avoid the temptation to write your own object-relational mapper from scratch to shove ledgers in and out of your SQL database. If you want to break out of the mold and roll your own thing from scratch, choose an area where you can really make a difference.

If you really want to differentiate yourself, be the person that knows the lessons of 40 years ago rather than a person who’s obsessively implementing TodoMVC over and over in this afternoon’s hottest JavaScript framework. The former is much rarer than the latter.

Tweet from Giles Bowkett

I know a lot of devs are entranced by the technology for its own sake. And there’s nothing wrong with nerding out over programming languages (my personal favorite), or JavaScript frameworks, or NoSQL databases or whatever floats your boat, but it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture.

“Barb, I know this thing is a pain in the ass to use, because the navigation makes no sense, no thought was put into the information architecture, and we didn’t consult with one actual user before developing it, but you’ll be happy to know that we’re using Riak on the back end. You’re welcome.”

There’s an episode of The Changelog podcast that came out recently in which they interviewed DHH about the decade long history of Ruby on Rails. With his trademark bluntness, he lets loose on “unique snowflakes” in a quote that I would guess was inspired by Tyler Durden’s speech from Fight Club:

They want to believe that every single application is a unique snowflake. That they're so brilliantly unique, too. That their value comes from their careful selection of which template language, which data mapper, which whatever the hell it is...

There are lots of applications out there trying to be needlessly novel to satisfy the egos of programmers who do not want to feel like they're working in cookie-cutter domains. That they somehow attach their self-worth to how novel their application is.

That’s a little harsh—what would you expect from DHH?—but I think the point is valid. It’s all too easy to focus on the minutiae of technology when in reality, we’re in a people business. And now I quote from Peopleware, as I often do:

…the High-Tech Illusion: the widely held conviction among people who deal with any aspect of new technology (as who of us does not?) that they are in an intrinsically high-tech business. They are indulging in the illusion whenever they find themselves explaining at a cocktail party, say, that they are “in computers,” or “in telecommunications,” or “in electronic funds transfer.” The implication is that they are part of the high-tech world. Just between us, they usually aren’t. The researchers who made fundamental breakthroughs in those areas are in a high-tech business. The rest of us are appliers of their work. We use computers and other new technology components to develop our products or to organize our affairs. Because we go about this work in teams and projects and other tightly knit working groups, we are mostly in the human communication business.

Managers, you’re not helping

Project managers, stakeholders, and other people who manage software efforts are not off the hook here. You also need to be honest about the product you’re making and accept that sometimes your unique take on logo placement is not what’s going to sell your software. You folks hold the keys to the backlog and how work gets prioritized. Spend those precious developer-hours on things that matter, not reinventing the same basic features and conventions that nearly every application has in common.

What’s worth spending time on?

The way that your bread is truly buttered in 99% of applications is through insights into the business domain that come from years of domain expertise accumulating slowly.

If you want to futz with some new technology and try something new, that’s great. But be honest about what you’re doing. Most of the time you’re doing it for you, not for your users.

I wish a standard role on every software team was the “That Thing’s Already Been Invented” Czar. Or “Code Historian” or “User Experience Historian”. Now that person would be worth their weight in gold.

Instead of Not Invented Here (NIH), how about Proudly Found Elsewhere (PFE)?

But what about innovation?

Innovation is a necessary thing and I would never suggest that people should never try anything new. If you never try anything new, the industry can never move forward.

The question of when to innovate is so context-specific. If you’re writing an early iPhone app during the wild west of that platform, by all means, try some new form of navigation. If you’re Facebook and having the (good) problem of 1 billion users hammering your database every day, by all means, invent your own database.

I think “20% time” or something similar may be a good solution. Spike some crazy idea you had or some bleeding edge tech on a pet project one day a week. If it happens to have practical implications for a product, then awesome. But it’s ok to just have some fun and learn something new. Scratch your itch--we know that’s important for its own sake.


Postscript: Why make Ruby on Rails?

It’s funny—when I started writing an outline for this post, I couldn’t stop thinking about DHH and Ruby on Rails, which I think is one of the few true game-changing innovations in the field of web development since I joined the industry. I kept thinking back to the early days of Rails’ creation and how difficult it would have been to justify such a project. It seems like such a strange case of yak shaving. Really? You need to take this weird Japanese programming language no one has heard of and write the umpteenth web framework in order to write yet another project management tool? How can you possibly justify that? What did your business partner, Jason Fried, think? You guys are the “do less” guys. What the hell?

In an interview from 2005, Fried says:

I had some natural hesitation about using Ruby at first ("What the #@!* is Ruby?" "Why don't we just use PHP--it served us well before?"), but David Heinemeier Hansson, the first engineer on the Basecamp project, cogently made the case and I bought it.

In the podcast episode I mentioned earlier, DHH also discusses his motivation while writing the code that would become Rails. It turns out that a major motivation for DHH was to remove all the wheel-reinvention that happens with each new web project. He wanted to make a “batteries included” full-stack framework that gave you sensible defaults and convention over configuration. Because it’s not necessary, for example, to invent your own naming conventions for every class and every property and how they map to the naming conventions of your database tables and columns. Because what the hell does it matter? He’ll think carefully about the problem, pick one, make it the default, and then you can move on, because you have more important things to worry about.

Should Managers Share an Update in the Standup?

I've been a part of several agile teams in my career that did a daily standup as part of their process. I've come to view standups as a must-have for software development teams. The payoff is large for the minimal time commitment.

The idea is that the team gathers together every day for a brief meeting (typically 15 minutes or less) just to update each other quickly on what they worked on the prior day, what they plan to work on today, and if they’re hitting any roadblocks that the team may be able to help out with.

A standup in progress

In some teams, I've noticed what seems like a strange phenomenon to me, which is where managers that attend the standup don't share an update with the team, but merely attend to hear the updates of everyone else. This has always bothered me a bit, as I view the Agile philosophy as an egalitarian approach to making software, where everyone on the team is an equal.

I can distinctly remember on one team, where one of the developers had recently been promoted to management, and almost immediately stopped sharing an update like every other member of the team in the daily standup. As we had worked together for some time, I good-naturedly asked him to share an update, which was greeted by nervous laughter from the rest of the team, as if this was an odd request. He obliged and shared an update, which turned out to be packed with helpful information for the team. But after doing this a few times, and each time feeling like I was violating a cultural taboo somehow, I relented to the idea that he was now in a different class from the rest of the team that did not need to share an update.

I saw this pattern repeat a few times, where managers who attended the standup would listen to everyone else, but rarely speak about their own work. I may find this strange, but what do the experts have to say?

Scrum—the most popular agile methodology—has its version of the standup called the “daily scrum.” According to the official Scrum guide:

…only Development Team members participate in the Daily Scrum.

According to the Scrum Alliance:

Though interested parties are welcome to come and listen to the Daily Scrum, only the Scrum team members, including the Scrum Master and product owner, speak during this meeting.

In my experience with Scrum, the Product Owner has always been someone in management. The quote above indicates that the Product Owner speaks during the meeting, but it’s not clear if this means answering the three questions development team members answer:

  1. What did I do yesterday that helped the Development Team meet the Sprint Goal?
  2. What will I do today to help the Development Team meet the Sprint Goal?
  3. Do I see any impediment that prevents me or the Development Team from meeting the Sprint Goal?

In James Shore’s highly-rated book, The Art of Agile Development, he has a fictional transcript of a well-run standup:

A programmer:

Yesterday, Bob and I refactored the database pooling logic. Check it out—we made some nice simplifications to the way you connect to the database. I'm open today and I'd enjoy doing something GUI-related.

The product manager:

As you know, I've been away at the trade show for the last week, getting some great feedback on the user interface and where we're going with the product. We need to make a few changes to the release plan; I'll be working with the other customers today to work out the details. I can give a lunch-and-learn in a day or two if you want to know more. [Several team members express enthusiasm.]

A domain expert:

After you guys [nodding to the programmers] asked us about that financial rule yesterday, I talked it over with Chris and there was more to it than we originally thought. I have some updates to our customer tests that I'd like to go over with somebody.

A programmer responds:

I've been working in that area; I can pair with you any time today.

In this hypothetical standup, not just programmers but the “product manager” and a “domain expert” are both chiming in with relevant updates for the team.

Scrum expert and author, Mike Cohn, has this to say in the comments of a blog post on daily scrums:

I have no idea why the Scrum Master and Product Owner would not give updates. That sets up a complete us-and-them division between the team: "You have to share what you did, but I don't." A Scrum Master and Product Owner could easily within a minute (total) update the team in a way that kept things brief but didn't create that division.

In another comment on the same post, Mike continues:

I view the Scrum Master as a committed participant. I coach Scrum Masters to give (brief) updates on what they did. For example, if a Scrum Master never reports on removing impediments he's told about, other team members may never mention them. They'll think, "Why mention my impediment? I've never heard our Scrum Master say he's resolved anyone else's?"

Finally, here’s a comment from Gunther Verheyen, author of Scrum - A Pocket Guide:

I tell that Scrum Master and Product Owner are allowed to join the meeting. This seems to have a positive effect on the team; it shows they are connected and committed as Scrum Team members. But if they join, behave as every other Scrum Team member. So, don't start leading the meeting. I ask them to answer the 3 questions from their perspective. It keeps the others informed, and it helps to keep the Product Owner to be accurately informed which is quite helpful for his/her stakeholder management.

Let’s consider the chickens and pigs analogy that Scrum practitioners are fond of. If a person is so invested in the success of a project that they are attending the standup every day, then in my mind, that makes them a “pig” and their input is needed just like every other member of the team.

Chickens & pigs

If you're a committed member of the team, then you have important work to do to make the project successful. Tell the team what you're doing! In my mind, the standup is partially about keeping the team members accountable to one another, so that everyone is clear about the team's goals and that each person is contributing on a daily basis to make those goals a reality. If you're the Scrum Master, for example, tell the team what impediments you removed the day before and which ones you're removing today. If you're the Product Owner, tell the team about requirements that you're gathering or priorities that you've shifted. Tell the team about demos that you've given or discussions you've had with stakeholders that are relevant to the team. How are you helping the team meet its goals? What impediments are you facing?

When a manager attends the standup every day but doesn't feel the need to communicate what they've been working on that's relevant to the team, it indicates to me that the person thinks the standup is an old-fashioned "status meeting" where underlings account for what they've been doing while management listens and judges. I would argue that the best place to see the status of work the team is doing would be to look at the backlog in whatever tool the team is using to organize work (Pivotal Tracker, for example). There’s no need to be in a certain place at a certain time each day to find out the status of work. Pull that status any time you like.

What do you think?

What Would Christopher Alexander Think of Remote Work?

I was intrigued by a comment someone from Hacker News wrote in response to my post about office plans:

People tend to enjoy private alcoves with a view on the action, which is kinda best of both worlds. Christopher Alexander describes that pattern in _A Pattern Language_.

I felt an immediate connection between this idea and the feeling I get when working remotely. I think this "private alcove with a view of the action" applies in a non-physical sense as well. I wanted to see if I could make a more direct connection with Christopher Alexander's writing, and track down this pattern the HN commenter mentioned in the literature, and see if it jibed with remote work.

A Pattern Language

I bought a copy of Christopher Alexander's classic architecture book, A Pattern Language, and started hunting. And then...since the physical book ended up being ~1,200 pages in a format resembling an English dictionary in dimensions and typeface, I quickly found a nice, searchable electronic copy at the Internet Archive.

A Pattern Language

Alexander mentions workplace design in several of his patterns, and alcoves are sort of an ongoing theme throughout the book, but he never really ties them together in a way that captures the feeling I mentioned above. In fact, one of the interesting things I learned reading through dozens of patterns in the book, is that it's clearly a book that was conceived and written before remote work as we know it today was even on the horizon. In one section, he speaks of how Xerox and IBM typewriters have played a vital role in how he and his co-authors produced the book. This is an age before the Internet, when remote work meant having a personal typewriter in your home.

1970s IBM typewriter

It's frustrating to think about how the accumulated knowledge about human work activity pre-Internet is so tied to physical constraints and the built environment. A great deal of a masterpiece like A Pattern Language seems out of place, for example, when you can no longer take for granted that a company must have a central office where people gather to work together. Many of the foundational assumptions of a work published in 1977 would not exist in a work published in 2015.

The modern concept of remote work / telecommuting is so new, that the masterpieces that will describe this new world have not been conceived yet. Christopher Alexander is still alive, at 78 years old, but I couldn't find anything online about his views on modern remote work. I'm dying to know what he'd have to say about people working 100% remote for companies like 37signals Basecamp or Automattic.

So I didn’t find anything in A Pattern Language that seemed analogous to the modern remote work experience, but let me take another stab at it…

Evolutionary Aesthetics

Below is a landscape that people universally find pleasing to the eye. Why?

Gran Sabana, Venezuela

Several years ago I learned about the field of evolutionary aesthetics, which provides some fascinating insight into people’s preferences for certain landscapes over others. Here’s a quote from The Routledge Companion to Landscape Studies in a section on evolutionarily driven landscape preference:

A landscape form that affords somewhere to hide and look out from is the kind of landscape in which we feel safe.

How do you feel about the workspace pictured below? Quite a view!

Desk with city view

And here’s a picture of someone’s home office setup. Not quite the same view.

Home office setup

But, in a team that has a lively remote work culture, this setup can feel very similar to that wonderful city view. This is where you go to view the human activity of your team. To me it feels like I'm in a "private alcove with a view of the action."

Remote work tools

Going back to A Pattern Language for a moment, in the pattern called "Hierarchy of Open Space", Alexander says this:

Outdoors, people always try to find a spot where they can have their backs protected, looking out toward some larger opening, beyond the space immediately in front of them.
...
Simple as this observation is, there is almost no more basic statement to make about the way people place themselves in space. And this observation has enormous implications for the spaces in which people can feel comfortable. Essentially, it means that any place where people can feel comfortable has: 1) A back. 2) A view into a larger space.

I think remote work has psychological parallels to pleasing physical space. I know this is sort of a weird connection, but I feel like there's something there. If you've ever worked remote on a team of people that were also remote, maybe you'll know what I'm talking about. I think a person in their home office, working in a lively remote culture has the psychological equivalent of their back protected with a view into a larger space.

Am I crazy? What would Christopher Alexander think?

The Open Plan Office and the Extrovert Ideal

When I wrote my last post about open plan offices, I did not imagine the reaction it would get. It became the #1 post on both Hacker News and Proggit. In the hundreds and hundreds of comments people wrote in reaction to the post, there was an overwhelming feeling of negativity toward open plan offices.

Many people weighed in with their theories about why the much-despised open plan persists, and why companies continue to lay their offices out in such a way. Low up-front cost was the reason most people put forward, and I agree this is a major factor in why companies choose the open plan. There’s another strong reason that I think causes the open plan to persist, and since it’s one that I didn’t see many commenters hint on, I wanted to call it out here.

The Extrovert Ideal

Susan Cain’s New York Times bestselling book, Quiet, has sparked a kind of resurgence in interest around the concepts of introversion and extroversion and the deep ways in which they impact the working world.

Let’s start out with a simple refresher on these terms. Cain is clear that the terms are hard to pin down with objective definitions that everyone agrees on, but here’s a starting point. Quoting from her book:

Introverts are drawn to the inner world of thought and feeling, said Jung, extroverts to the external life of people and activities. Introverts focus on the meaning they make of the events swirling around them; extroverts plunge into the events themselves. Introverts recharge their batteries by being alone; extroverts need to recharge when they don’t socialize enough. If you’ve ever taken a Myers-Briggs personality test, which is based on Jung’s thinking and used by the majority of universities and Fortune 100 companies, then you may already be familiar with these ideas.

Cain goes on to describe what she calls the Extrovert Ideal:

We live with a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal—the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight.

Introversion—along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness—is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living under the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.

After going on to reveal that one third to one half of people are introverts, Cain leaves us with this thought regarding office space:

In you’re a manager, remember that one third to one half of your workforce is probably introverted, whether they appear that way or not. Think twice about how you design your organization’s office space. Don’t expect introverts to get jazzed up about open office plans… Make the most of introverts’ strengths—these are the people who can help you think deeply, strategize, solve complex problems, and spot canaries in your coal mine.

Collaboration, Extrovert Style

When you read those beaming descriptions that company presidents and architects give when talking up their open plan office, there’s one magic word that comes off their lips like a reflex: Collaboration! Look how collaborative our space is! It’s one big room, man. No walls! You can’t stop these people from collaborating!

Open plan office in-private-office
Look at all this collaboration! What’s this lazy motherf*cker doing?

Looking out over the vista of their magnificent bullpen, teeming with activity. I can almost hear the ping pong balls!

This is how extroverts like to collaborate. What about the folks you invariably see in these open plans who are wearing noise-cancelling headphones most of the day. Let’s say maybe, one third to one half of them. Is it because they love music so bloody much that they just can’t stop listening? Nope. They’re trying desperately to keep people from poking and prodding their brains from every angle at random times.

By forcing your whole team into an open plan, you are effectively telling your introverts, act like an extrovert! All the time! If you don’t like this, there’s something wrong with you!

in-collabin-email
Some introverts collaborating

Introverts tend to be quiet people. When you keep shoving the extrovert ideal in their faces, they’re not likely to stand up and yell, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” But read the comments on a post about open plan offices, and watch out! These people work with you!

Below are some of the comments people shared about their experiences in open plan offices on Hacker News and on my blog post itself. As an introvert myself, they ring true with my experiences in open plans.

I sometimes put headphones on but incessantly bombarding my ears with noise just to cancel out other noise is like spraying deodorant on excrement - pointless. It also means I'll suffer gradual hearing loss.
I sometimes wonder if people don't understand that we need time to solve problems and problem solving is best done in quiet! The other guys in this office do not write software so I sometimes wonder if people don't "get" it. – 72deluxe

I've done the headphone thing, they are noise cancelling, I listen to SimplyRain on them, and that helps, but I just can't take all that input. I want quiet. I need quiet. I don't want distraction that is slightly less annoying than the current distraction, at the risk of my health besides. – RogerL

I currently work in a 'creative' and 'collaborative' open office and I just don't enjoy it. It's loud, distracting, frustrating and worst of all, it makes me a hypocrite. I hate the noise, but I am just as much a part of the problem as everyone else. I talk to teammates and make jokes when other people are working, just as they do when I'm working. I can't keep count of how many times per day I'm deep in thought and then get startlingly pulled out of it when I notice my line-of-sight goes right through someone and they're looking at me. – benihana

I work in an open office, and everyone wears headphones for hours when they need to concentrate.
The thing is, these people are doing irreversible damage to their hearing. Listening to headphones at a volume that will drown out conversation is not a good thing.
Furthermore, I've never experienced as many migraines as I have before switching to an open office. I have to keep pills at my desk. Never had to do that before. – anon13839

The fact that you have to wear noise-canceling headphones (bought on your own dime, no less) to get work done is an indication that the space has failed in its primary purpose, which is to enable you to get your work done. A good office layout (or any good architecture, really) does not force the people who live in it to fight against the environment it creates. – smacktoward

We have people doing speaker phone calls with bad connections where they are yelling, endless joking and cackling, people walking by and saying 'hi' to you when you are deep in code. It's utterly impossible. – RogerL

Don't you feel self-conscious that everybody can see your every movement, for the entire day?
To me it reminds me of one of those Victorian prisons where every inch can be viewed from the central platform. Now that I think about it, even prisoners get a lot more privacy than this. – alextgordon

I am in a room full of people, none of whom are working on anything related to what I'm doing. The idea that my seating will help "foster collaboration" is ludicrous. It's all about maximizing the number of warm bodies per square foot. – OneMoreGoogler

In open offices there always seems to be at least one person (maybe several) who insist on having frequent personal conversations at full volume, completely oblivious to how many people around them are trying to work. Every open office I've been in had at least one and if they're that loud and inconsiderate to begin with, you can bet that nicely asking them to keep it done will not go well. Don't ask me how I know this. My kingdom for a door. – Anonymous

I'm just leaving one of the most unproductive places I've ever worked -- with an open floor plan with 5+ people per "pod" and pod walls only extending 2 feet over the desk area. It is noisy and awful!

I tried using empty conference rooms to concentrate on my work, but apparently an executive administrator noticed this after a week and had a talk with my boss -- I was banned from this practice and criticized as not being a team player.

I could not be productive in this environment, so I'm leaving. – Anonymous

None of them have a ping-pong table in the middle of the bullpen like mine does. The incessant banging of ping-pong balls really drowns out the noise of the loud conversations that keep me from thinking. – Anonymous

The worst thing I've ever had was on an open floor plan, when I was basically in an alley and people would pass right behind me all the time. Absolutely awful and extremely stressful. – Anonymous

(Notice how the topic of headphones keeps coming up. The classic refrain from many open office supporters—“Just wear headphones”—probably deserves its own post.)

The Results-Only Work Environment

I think, as an industry, we eventually need to get away from physical presence as an indicator of work happening. The question of “Did Jim work today?” cannot be accurately determined by assessing, “Was Jim’s chair warm from 8AM to 5PM?”

Bullpen

I can understand the appeal of looking out over an open plan office and seeing all the worker bees busily tapping away at their keyboards. Unfortunately, when it comes to knowledge work, that vision has essentially no correlation to actual work getting done.

The concept of the results-only work environment (ROWE) acknowledges this fact and embraces it. When you start focusing on the results of people’s work, and not the process by which they create those results, then showy displays of collaboration are no longer necessary. If getting a desired product of work requires collaboration, then people will collaborate. There’s no need to put them physically cheek-to-jowl all day every day to ensure that they’re collaborating. Dictating people’s physical proximity becomes as superfluous as dictating the text editor they use to write code. They will arrive at the result as they see fit.

No Size Fits All

Just as you can’t assume that everyone works best in a loud and open way, you can’t assume that everyone works best in a quiet, low-key way. Introversion and extroversion exist on a continuum. There are people at both ends and all the way in between. An office like, I don’t know, say the world’s largest open plan, goes pedal-to-the-metal all the way to the extrovert end. A building filled with individual privates offices and no common areas would go all the way to the introvert end. And even a very introverted person has some need for interaction, just like a very extroverted person has some need for solitude. There is no silver bullet.

Reading through the comments on my last blog post, there were several developers who wrote to say that they love their open plan and wouldn’t want to work any other way. Some mentioned that they had private offices in the past and found the open plan to be superior. I don’t doubt them! I believe they’re genuine. But I also believe that many people on the more extroverted end of the continuum don’t understand that not everyone is like them.

I want to make it clear that I’m not trying to make a blanket statement that every knowledge worker should have their own individual private office, and that’s that. What I’m trying to do is combat the assertion I see over and over from open plan office advocates that they’ve somehow cracked the nut on the future of collaboration. Guys, just take down all the walls! Duh. It’s lazy and irresponsible.

The inconvenient fact of life is that the best workplace is not going to be infinitely replicable. Vital work-conducive space for one person is not exactly the same as that for someone else. If you let them, your people will make their space into whatever they need it to be and the result is that it won’t be uniform. Each person’s space and each team’s space will have a definite character of its own.

Management, at its best, should make sure there is enough space, enough quiet, and enough ways to ensure privacy so that people can create their own sensible work space. Uniformity has no place in this view. You have to grin and bear it when people put up odd pictures or clutter their desks or move the furniture around or merge their offices. When they’ve got it just the way they want it, they’ll be able to put it out of their minds entirely and get on with the work.

Peopleware, “Breaking the Corporate Mold”

Going Beyond Productivity

I’d like to go beyond productivity for a brief moment, and talk about quality of life. One of the most striking comments my last post received was by a Redditor:

A few years ago, I was working at a company where they had just purchased an old shoe making factory and were renovating it into office space so they could have room to grow. In each spot where a person had sat for 8-12 hours hunched over in front of a sewing machine, I was told to install a workstation and run network and electric cable down from the ceiling where the sewing machines had been hooked up.

At the end of the project, a co-worker of mine that had the foresight to take a picture of the old setup took one of our finished work and compared the results. The room looked a lot cleaner, and didn't have the smell of oil and leather anymore, but in the photo, it looked like a factory that you'd see in the early part of the 20th century by its layout. The lone difference being instead of looking like it would make shoes, it looked like it'd make code. They both looked like you'd have the same amount of privacy (aka none), and unless you bought headphones, the same amount of silence for concentrating on your task(s).

So to get to the point, every time I see articles like this one that's linked, I don't see a fancy office, or a stylish work environment, or a hip new way to collaborate and be all super productive. I see a cleaner, digital sweatshop, a modern version of an age that many thought we had left decades ago. It hasn't really left, it's just had the cleaning crew in and been given a few runs through the marketing machine to make what was once undesirable "suave and sexy!" – canadiancreed

Is this a true story? I don’t know. Is it a bit overly dramatic to compare an open plan office to a sweatshop? Perhaps. But I think there’s a valid point in there: quality of life matters.

If you’re unsure if real suffering is going on in open plan offices, read through the 1,300+ comments on Reddit. Your more introverted employees and colleagues are stressed out, on edge, annoyed, disrespected, and in a constant state of not-quite-bad-enough-to-quit. If you see your company as a “big family”, look at how you’re treating some of your family members. This is no way for a person to spend 8+ hours a day for years of their life.

Finally, I want to address a point that several commenters made about the well-known tech companies I highlighted in my last post. Here’s a representative comment:

These seem to be successful companies. Does that make you question your assumptions about open spaces? – Anonymous

It’s a fair question. Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox and so many other wildly successful companies have open plan offices. Obviously their software developers are productive! Beside the question of how much more productive they could be in a different layout, I’ll ask again for you to look beyond the issue of productivity. If many of your employees and colleagues could work day in and day out in a space that was not at odds with who they are as people, what would that do to turnover? What would that do for their personal lives? What would that do for their stress and sense of well-being?