But Where Do People Work in This Office?

In one study after another, workers failed to give much weight to decor in choosing, for instance, among variously colored panels and fixtures. The feeling seemed to be that depressing surroundings would be counterproductive, but as long as the office wasn’t depressing, then you could happily ignore it and get down to work.
...
So we see the paradoxical phenomenon that totally unworkable space is gussied up expensively and pointlessly with plush carpets, black and chrome furniture, corn plants that get more space than workers, and elaborate panels. The next time someone proudly shows you around a newly designed office, think hard about whether it’s the functionality of the space that is being touted or its appearance. All too often, it’s the appearance.

Peopleware, “The Issue of Glitz”
I’ve become fascinated by the concept of office space design for knowledge workers, in particular software developers. There’s a fantastic site called Office Snapshots that gathers information and photos about the offices of hundreds of companies, including many well-known software companies.

We’ve all heard about the lavish offices of Silicon Valley, where tech companies gather the best programmers in the world and spare no expense to provide for their every need. After looking through tons of cool office photos of many of the hottest companies in the Valley, I started to play a fun game I made up called “spot the desks”. I’ll show you what I mean.

Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg recently engaged world-famous architect, Frank Gehry, to design “the largest open-plan office in the world.” Since that one’s still in the offing, I’ll share a few photos of Facebook’s existing campus in Menlo Park.

An all-you-can-drink coffee bar with free snacks!


A bright mural and custom-made propaganda posters (HACK! MOVE FAST & BREAK THINGS!)


I see a lot of awesome stuff, but where is the quiet area where your big brains go to make world-changing software? Oh, jeez. Were the geniuses that wrote Cassandra and HHVM sitting in a bullpen like this?

Twitter

In the tech mecca of San Francisco, let’s check out Twitter’s headquarters.

There’s that coffee bar again. More free snacks!


It’s like a Dave & Buster’s up in here!


Ok…now where do the developers sit? Oh, I think I see them in the background of this conference room photo. Wow, that looks kinda noisy. Is that guy at card table #2 working on Bower?

Dropbox

We could go on all day, but let’s check out one more office. Who doesn’t love Dropbox?

It’s like they have their own Panera!


Just chillin’ in my treehouse / log cabin / conference room…


You know the drill by now. Let’s see where the desks are where the devs have their big monitors, keyboard, ergonomic Aeron chairs, and all their gear set up. You know, where they get in the zone and write that world-class code. Wait…what the f*ck!? I wonder how many MIT grads per square foot you can fit in here?


I could go on and on and on. The pattern keeps repeating. With everything we know about open plan offices, why are these mega-rich companies knocking themselves out to hire the very best and brightest minds from the world’s best universities, paying them huge salaries, tapping world-class architects to design artisanal office spaces in the most expensive place in the country, and then cramming desks together in noisy bullpens?

67 comments :

Anonymous said...

what I would really like is a dedicated office space with a door for the times I dont want to be disturbed with a workstation setup just the way I like it.

Anonymous said...

That looks like a horror

Anonymous said...

The place I work has cubes/offices for everyone(sales,marketing,tech support) except developers/qa. We're all over here in an area with an open plan. No walls. I absolutely hate it. Of course, my boss has an office with walls and a door. The other higher up bosses talk about how great our area is, but of course they all have their own office.

Anonymous said...

@10:45AM If there are a lot of offices, there are probably open ones. Don't ask, just start using one.

At most places, given enough time, the office could become yours by default. At particularly dysfunctional places, that leads to an actual increase in status.

Anonymous said...

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 said...

Open office: Selfish, hipster "management" 101.

Anonymous said...

Working for over 15 years in software companies in Europe I've never seen one not forcing developers into big loud open areas. Today, there is enough study how this drops productivity by considerable amounts. But obviously, control is more important than productivity. It's about lack of trust and will to power, not about getting things done. It's about irrationality of organizations.

anew said...

organizations which design systems ... are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations

—M. Conway

David Parmenter said...

Fantastic post, thank you! Your pictures really nail it!

I vote in favor of team pods and a respectful culture of quiet: http://obliquemanager.com/2015/01/09/open-closed-remote/

Anonymous said...

Money trumps science, and the money says "Pack them in as densely as possible. Offices limit the packing efficiency of the space, and don't depreciate as fast as office furniture, so don't spend the money on offices when cubicles will do. Don't spend money on cubicles when an open plan will do, and don't spend money on desks when a wooden pallet on two saw horses will do." The key is really the depreciation schedule of the office furniture.

Anonymous said...

The theory is that open floor plans foster communication sharing. So one person overhears another talking about XYZ (design, problem or symptom) and another hears it and that's beneficial to the company.

What this is cover for is that most startups are A) changing too rapidly to develop appropriate communication flow and B) have no idea what appropriate communication flow would look like and C) don't care if developers have "information overload"

Anonymous said...

"If there are a lot of offices, there are probably open ones. Don't ask, just start using one."

I did that. After two weeks, I was told firmly that I had to return to the open area and be a Team Player, or find other employment.

Most productive two weeks of my life, though.

Anonymous said...

Open plan spaces with are fashionable. Restaurants are the same - the expanses of metal and glass look fantastic, but are awfully noisy.

Anonymous said...

Some folks get it right, like Fog Creek:
http://officesnapshots.com/2009/01/08/fog-creek-software-office/

Anonymous said...

I used to work at DeveloperTown in Indianapolis. Their "house" setup is both unique and awesome. Any article discussing office space for programmers and designers needs to reference them.

Anonymous said...

"Were the geniuses that wrote Cassandra and HHVM sitting in a bullpen like this?"

I guess the answer is ... yes?

Anonymous said...

The most productive place I've ever worked in my 20+ year career was a small software company (18 people total) where each developer had his or her own (small) office with a door that closed.

We also had no problem collaborating -- we could just gather is someone's office :)

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 criticised as not being a team player.

I could not be productive in this environment -- so I'm leaving.

I suggest that we all vote with our feet!

Anonymous said...

Oh man. For a guy working in a cramped, poorly ventilated office, looking at the pictures on Office Snapshots makes me feel guilty. Like I'm browsing porn or something.

http://tenpoundhammer.com said...

It appears that most of these fancy offices are recruiting tools to get the best and brightest. It's like when colleges have really awesome dorms and really bad teachers.

The dorm rooms bring in the students, no one cares what education they get.

Anonymous said...

My company has an open office layout and no one has an office, including the CEO. My location has approximately 200 employees. So I can't complain about management having offices, but it basically sucks. I would love to have my own office with a door and walls and be able to ignore my neighbors.

Anonymous said...

This whole thing is really about finance guys running software companies who want to save money on developers, dupe them with free snacks (which really just keeps them there longer) while being able to impress potential investors/partners with some designed space and a nice address. The other purpose of the bullpen besides saving money is that it is believed to somehow convey cool because you know, facebook does it.

Anonymous said...

When no one has an office, the CEO can be found monopolising one of the meeting rooms.

Anonymous said...


A couple of questions for the OP:

1. These seem to be successful companies. Does that make you question your assumptions about open spaces? If not, why not?

2. Perhaps it's not about individual productivity, but overall productivity?

Just a thought.

As you can see, not ALL programmers immediately jump on the "offices are better" bandwagon.

Without a doubt, the single WORST development environment I've ever experienced was at a purely office campus of a large enterprise database vendor. I've heard louder libraries. Sounds great, right? No. Virtually no collaboration, or communication. Huge #'s of defects. Ridiculously long releases. Never been so happy to get out of there.

Plus they housed QA in a completely separate building. Doh.

Anonymous said...

My experience with open-plan offices is that even though you have 5-10 developers in the same "room", it doesn't have to become noisy as long as people have somewhere else to go for all their other stuff like making conference calls, having meetings, chatting over the coffee cup and so on.

Craig Bass said...

Cramming "creative intelligents" together has been proven to work. Read "How Google works"

Anonymous said...

"My company has an open office layout and no one has an office, including the CEO."

The problem with this argument (it's a common one) is that the CEO's job probably doesn't involve holding a lot of large data structures in his head, or simulating a computer network in his brain. Of course he doesn't mind not having a private office! He doesn't mind that his computer doesn't have a C compiler, either. It's not a required tool for his job.

From the CEO's perspective (in my experience), the primary purpose of an office is a status symbol, so he thinks he's being generous by giving it up. From the programmers' perspective, the primary purpose of an office is a quiet space to think, and it makes no difference to them if the CEO has one or not.

If a CEO said "Look, I'm using a computer without a C compiler, so you should be able to, too" would any programmer in the world say "Yes, clearly you are a man of the people, and if you can run an entire company without a C compiler, I should be able to do my lowly job under the same conditions"? Not likely.

"So I can't complain about management having offices, but it basically sucks."

Software engineer is a specialized job, which requires specialized tools. A quiet place to work is one of them -- and one of the few that costs any money at all, these days. If management can't provide you with the tools needed to do your job, you have every right to complain.

Anonymous said...

Who doesn’t love Dropbox?

anyone who's ever had to deal with their tech support

Anonymous said...

"1. These seem to be successful companies. Does that make you question your assumptions about open spaces? If not, why not?"

No, because they didn't start out that way. The most productive time for any software company is when it's one person: there's zero overhead! And by definition, when there's only one person in a room, it's a private office.

When you've got 4 people sharing a room, is that a (small) open floorplan? I would say it's a company consisting of only 4-person offices. You don't grow it to 16 people by putting 16 people in one room, any more than you make a new car by just adding more wheels.

Second, did any of these successful companies deliberately choose an open floorplan because they wished to be more productive? Did they do research and find that it caused their workers to be more productive, for example? (In my experience, no. It's drawn up by an architect with no input from any of the workers, or from any research, but simply a mandate from the CEO to make it look cool.)

Do you claim that software companies with private offices are less productive? I can name some extremely successful software companies with private offices. Apple and Microsoft seem to have done alright for themselves, for example. There doesn't seem to be any limit on a company's productivity or growth by sticking with private offices.

"2. Perhaps it's not about individual productivity, but overall productivity?"

See #1: do you have any evidence of this? Did Facebook management choose open floorplans because they measured individual productivity and overall productivity, in both environments, and made a conscious choice to value the latter? I've never heard of any company doing that, but I suppose it's possible. I'd like to see some evidence of it first.

But, furthermore, does this argument even make sense in a software engineering environment? Software hits are so much bigger than the duds that the duds might as well not exist. Gmail was Buchheit's baby, and a runaway hit; look how many Google projects from the same time period were simply canceled. If I were running a software company, I would rather have 10 Buchheits than 10,000 people working on the next Deskbar, Lively, Aardvark, and Buzz. This is not unique to Google: every successful software company has this kind of ratio.

It's possible that management thinks writing software is like assembling cars, and that overall productivity on a daily basis is the only thing of value, but in that case open floorplans are merely a casualty of bad management, rather than the instrument of it.

Anonymous said...

Why do all tech companies insist on these stupid 'open floor plans.' Most important things I own as a dev are my noise canceling headphones and a flattened cardboard box (well not yet, I managed to retain my half cube).

Anonymous said...

Apparently the team that created hhvm had to isolate themselves in a 'battle cave' in order to get real creative work done. Imagine what they could accomplish if they always worked this way.

http://www.wired.com/2013/06/facebook-hhvm-saga/all/

Anonymous said...

Here at MathWorks everyone gets there own offices with walls and doors and a small desk and chair for people visiting your office!!!

I love it, its very peaceful to work

Anonymous said...

Casale Media offices: http://i.ytimg.com/vi/cE4PSW-2rq0/maxresdefault.jpg

Andreas Schipplock said...

oh well, now we all know why Google works. Secret inveiled. Bamm!

Fred Fnord said...

Apple and Sun did a study in the 1980s evaluating the productivity of engineers in offices vs cubicles vs shared offices vs open plan.

They both immediately started building out an office for each engineer. The difference was stark enough to that the cost-effectiveness of doing so was immediately apparent.

And that's where it stayed. Because MBAs are specially trained not to believe in such things. If it costs more money, it must always be worse in every way.

If you have more than ten engineers, and you do not actually have an office IN downtown San Francisco, it would probably be much more efficient, CBA-wise, to give them all offices than to hire another five engineers. The larger you are, the more the difference. But, well, the reason we have business schools is so that we cannot have nice things.

Anonymous said...

I worked at Amazon years ago and was relegated to one of the cubicle farms. It was almost always a din and not people collaborating either. I remember hearing one end of a phone call with someone arguing with their mortgage company for half an hour. Outside of the cube farms were the offices for managers. Of course, managers are always in meeting so the quiet offices just sat empty most of the day. I'm guessing the reason the managers needed empty offices was status.

Anonymous said...

When I worked at IBM TJ Watson (Hawthorne, NY) in the 80's everyone designed their own office and they had a full time staff who would build them for us (countertop here, drill holes for cords there, file drawers there, whiteboards here, etc). With a very solid wood door. Heaven!

Nerve said...

Reminds me of the horror show of working retail. It drains you so fast. My time was at Gamestop and Best Buy. As for Best Buy...glaring white lights, oppressive lane configurations, zero cover from the constant gaze of overzealous managers. That was bad. But Gamestop? It's an audio-visual nightmare, hours crammed into a tiny space with so much color noise it'll make your head spin and the constant, throbbing music and marketing hype of the monitor above, with only the stockroom as respite. I've always thought on and discussed with colleagues the merits of carefully constructed lighting and layouts in both retail and office spaces, something that makes both customers AND employees their happiest and most productive. With Millennials such as myself more keen on the science of the intangibles in the workplace, the old school of hardassed managers and executives with an unmoving, totally unfounded philosophy on everything with no room for debate are going to have to go extinct.

Anonymous said...

Epic gets this right. Everyone has a door.

Anonymous said...

You know whose offices don't look like that? Microsoft, Intel, and IBM.

Matt said...

For all the "glory" that software engineering gets these days, I am still jealous of my aerospace industry colleagues who get offices with doors and bookshelves, sometimes even a window, like brilliant engineers and physicists are supposed to have. The open office seemed very egalitarian but the reality is knowledge workers need quiet privacy to really get things done. At most their should be four engineers sharing a large space so they can pair on programming tasks and code reviews without interrupting other teams or functional work areas.

Anonymous said...

The time is now for a breakout to success for a little to unknown company that is completely work from home. Everyone has their own personal space just how they like it and the business gets done.

Anonymous said...

I just moved from a 3 person shared office to individual cubicles (with sliding doors) and I hate it. It is much harder to have quick conversations or have someone look at my screen at something I'm working on. And it is much harder to provide feedback about design or projects other people are working one.
When I needed focus time in the shared office I just used headphones and music to drown out the noise or I would take a day to work from home. I know WFH isn't an option everywhere but why can't people just schedule a conference room or shared office space when they need to be alone?

We are currently looking at ways to remove the cubicle walls completely or install 1/2 height walls so we can get our collaboration back.

Anonymous said...

We call them war rooms, and it is not that they are distraction free, it's just used as a room to work were everyone in it is focused on the same few targeted goals, such as hitting a performance goal. Everyone is still in the same room.

Isaac said...

Bose earbuds. "Are you talking or just moving your mouth?"

Anonymous said...

Hence why I solve most of my coding problems while sitting on the john

Anonymous said...

Look into how many of these companies outsourcing their development to contractors (offsite).

Anonymous said...

Don't you know by now, those open floor plans are to prevent programmers from browsing reddit all day when they are supposed to be writing "world class code."

Pasquale D'Silva said...

Thanks for writing this Matt. We've felt the same way about these things I like to call "desk farms". For this reason, each employee at our company has their own private workspace.

It's crazy to think how much money gets dished out in salary, but how little gets put into creating a great environment for employees to do their best work.

Anonymous said...

Here's a bunch of assumptions about the offices of companies I've never set foot in!

Jesús Gómez said...

Your las question: "why?". It is a mystery but it some how works very well for those companies.

Anonymous said...

My office has an open layout with no offices (not even for the managers) and private meeting rooms. For the most part the floor (development, marketing, and UI are together in one room) is very quiet so I don't know if I would call these bullpens "noisy". Our team benefits from these open layouts because it encourages focus (who wants to get caught on Facebook all day?), friendship and collaboration. We played with idea of getting offices/cubes and everyone was against it. I consider my co-workers to be my friends and I enjoy coming to work because of our open layout. I will say that this type of layout does not work for Customer Support because of noise issues but even our support team wants to stay collaborative. Maybe we're just a company full of positive and friendly people who enjoy working with others and not alone.

aggieben said...

Matt, we noticed your post at Stack Exchange and published our own post. It's not really a response, per se, but your post definitely was something of an impetus to say something about how we do things.

Why we (still) believe in private offices

Matt Blodgett said...

aggieben, I saw the post on Stack Exchange and it's awesome. Joel was (and is) the inspiration for many of my ideas about office design.

Anonymous said...

Here's a post on the Panic office: they make highly-regarded Apple software.

hooly said...

Hi Matt, At a previous job, I was asked to design a studio for artists and programmers.
I found some great research. DISPROVING_WIDESPREAD_MYTHS_ABOUT_WORKPLACE_DESIGN One area of focus focus is the effect that enclosure has on productivity.

During the design process at , I had so many people try to pressure me to lower the walls, to 3.4 height, or even just leave a foot open at the top. The main reason was to avoid the extra effort needed to ventilate a studio full of private offices. They also trotted out the old "enhanced communication" fallacy. Being able to cite the BOSTI figures was a great help in defending the design against these knee-jerk cost cutters.

Anonymous said...

I feel sad for the people at these companies. 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 said...

Anyone else notice that none of those "offices" have more than one monitor? Generally, more screen real estate = more productivity.

Anonymous said...

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.

Plus it's basically the best spot to get fired since you have to play productivity comedy 100% of the time.

These "cool spaces" are a lie. Nobody hangs out there because they're a great place to get fired, and they fire up all your danger instincts and guilt. You must stay at your desk and play the busy worker bee all the time since you're SO EXPOSED.

Anonymous said...

When I graduated from college with a computer science degree in the 80's I had a job interview at Silicon Graphics. At the time it was a sought after place to work in Silicon Valley. During the interview I was shown around the building. All of the engineers had real offices with walls and a door. The managers had cubicles. I was shown a large cubicle and was told it belonged to Jim Clark the founder of the company.

This open office trend is bullshit. Engineers need quiet. Collaboration doesn't require open office space.

SAB said...

Sometimes this is not a bad idea... Working in this kind of offices when someone is always behind you, doesn't give you any chance to waste your time on the internet

For me, I couldn't be productive in this environment. I mostly work during the night... When everyone is in the land of dreams.

Anonymous said...

I find it strange that supposedly smart software developers are in the dark about the real reason for open floor plans. Only one person above mentioned the reason: in an open floor plan, there is more pressure on the developer to not goof off at work. In most large tech companies, you don't actually have to work that hard to keep your job. Most smart people could do about 3-4 hours of work per day, and spend the rest of their time reading blogs or researching their next video game purchase, and not have to worry about being called out for poor performance. When your monitor(s) are visible to people either working or walking near you, it's much harder to slack off.

Anonymous said...

Open Offices Kill Me

Anonymous said...

"I find it strange that supposedly smart software developers are in the dark about the real reason for open floor plans."

I find it funny that there's at least 5 different "real reasons" that people insist are the one Real Reason.

"Only one person above mentioned the reason: in an open floor plan, there is more pressure on the developer to not goof off at work."

Do you have any evidence of this? In my experience, there's zero correlation here. In the worst company I worked at, there was an open floor plan, and since it had the worst developers, they browsed the web all day. Nobody cared.

In order for this theory to work, people have to care that other people see them as more or less productive. And competent developers know that others will see their commit messages and 1000's of lines of code, and not really care if they happen to see Reddit on a screen now and then.

"In most large tech companies, you don't actually have to work that hard to keep your job. Most smart people could do about 3-4 hours of work per day, and spend the rest of their time reading blogs or researching their next video game purchase, and not have to worry about being called out for poor performance."

Exactly. In most large companies, most people don't work hard, and they don't care that they're seen this way.

"When your monitor(s) are visible to people either working or walking near you, it's much harder to slack off."

No, it isn't. Have you ever been to a large tech company? When you're surrounded by a hundred other people, it's easy to slack off.

Open floor plans make it easy to *seem* like you're working when you're not. Version control systems and decent manager oversight make it virtually impossible to *actually* slack off. Open floor plans solve the wrong problem. Like Ferris Bueller's prerecorded snoring, private offices are only a problem if all your other systems are hilariously incompetent. And did Ferris feel any pressure not to goof off, even when in public?

Anonymous said...

They consider you expendable if you work this way. They consider you'll only be there just maybe 2 years.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to a link on Wired (of all places) I found your post.
As someone who is considered a prime target for the "moneyball" article (old and cheap but capable) I have to say hooray for someone calling out the fallacy of open space. I worked in an office with a door in the old days. I was able to get work done and magically, I could open the door and 'collaborate' with colleagues any time. Oh, yeah, and that was in Portland. They had doors in Portland. And we had plenty of culture. It wasn't manufactured - it just happened.
Funny how you can leave people to their own devices and voila stuff gets done - well.

Vicki said...

At LastJob, we had cubicles. 60" walls. Still very noisy. We had a cube farm of 18-100 cubes with no intervening walls or sound reduction. (e.g. the 'bulletin boards' on the walls were made of glass. Using tape to hang things, not pins.)

I sent a note to our VP and the division head, asking could we get some sound dampening material, could we make sure everyone had headset for phone calls (end speaker phone conference calls). I was "part" of all conversations within 2 rows in any direction.

The division head write back to laud what sounded to him like a Great Environment For Spontaneous Collaboration. He said he'd have to Come Visit to Appreciate it For Himself.

I wish I were making that up.

I think as managers go higher up the chain, the oxygen levels are thinner.

Anonymous said...

Open offices have actually ruined my life.

I loved programmming. My first job as a programmmer had no visual privacy - I mean, you could see the guy over the row picking his frickin nose - but back then, I didn't really understand why I couldn't work, and indeed didn't want to go into work.

I got fired needless to say.