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!

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?”


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?