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?


Unknown said...

See "Joel on Software" on this topic...

Anonymous said...

The current trend in open plan office space design isn't about maximizing productivity. It's about recruiting.

The scarce resource in tech right now is human capital and the buzzing office environment with all the advertised perks has been a great recruiting tool.

Maybe this is going to change as productive workers revolt against the format.

Anonymous said...

"Low up-front cost was the reason most people put forward"

I used to think this was the only reason, and I still think it's part of the reason, but like you, I no longer think it's primary. I've had too many managers and bosses tell me, with sincerity, that they would rather have a less productive "Team" that Worked Together (all hours of the day), than a more productive set of people who worked in the same building -- as if sitting in a different office would mean we wouldn't ever speak to one another.

"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!"

Is it obvious? It's not obvious to me. These three happen to be three obvious-in-hindsight ideas which are also extremely viral. They're examples of companies that VC's love to fund because, as long as you don't screw it up too bad, you can take over the world.

I've worked at "wildly successful companies" that have open floor plan offices, and the ones I've been at also have ridiculously high turnover. For example, on a team of 10 people, we averaged 1 person quitting per *month*.

When you've got a simple concept like Twitter or Dropbox, and the work is obvious ("we built it with quick-n-dirty framework X, now make it scale 1000x"), turnover isn't necessarily a (short term) business problem. It doesn't stop your company from executing on their business plan and making the founders rich.

The major downsides that I've seen are:

1. It costs you time and money, compared to having lower turnover. Needing to constantly hire and (re)train people isn't free, especially if you need to get current developers to do it.

2. I've only seen it work when your company is a one-trick pony. I really don't see Twitter or Dropbox creating the next iPod, or Kinect -- when they need innovation, they just go out and buy another company. The more creative your needs, the more you need quiet space to think.

3. Your company gets a reputation for chewing up developers and spitting them out, and on a long enough time scale, that's bad for business.

It's a case of misaligned incentives. A lousy work environment and high turnover doesn't stop founders from building a big company and getting rich.

We've seen this problem before. Maybe it's time to unionize.

Anonymous said...

As the article states, certain people will prefer certain office styles. The two above posts seemed to ignore the point of the article (joelonsoftware is all for private only), so for balance I'll state this: I hate private working environments. I HATE them. To me, open concept offices are superior, and balanced ones, even more so.

Perhaps the solution here is to have different areas in different locations of the building.

Vicki said...

As I understand it, even extroverts get tired of all of this forced collaboration after a short while. They like talking to each other, it's true. But they also need to get their work done without hearing everyone else's work being done at the same time.

Vicki said...

Anonymous said "The current trend in open plan office space design isn't about maximizing productivity. It's about recruiting."

But it's not a great recruiting tool for many of us. When I see the job description that begins with "Our team is collaborative and sociable. ... We also stay happy and healthy with yoga classes, massages, and *fierce* games of ping-pong." I don't even bother to apply.

If they don't lose me in the job description and I apply and get an interview... if I walk onto the floor and see desks stretching to the walls like a call center, I know I don;t want the job.

I'll be polite. I'll stay and talk to the interviewers. Then I'll go home and send back a nicely worded "Thanks but no thanks". Because I cannot (and will not) work in this environment.

Vicki said...

At LastJob, we had cubicles with 60" partitions. But still, 80 cubicles on our floor with no intervening floor-to-ceiling walls. No soft surfaces. The bulletin boards were, believe it or not, glass.

I could hear everything within a 20-ft rage in every direction. Including the dreaded speaker phone conference calls.

When I asked our department head to look into adding some sound dampening materials, she forwarded my note to our exec VP, who responded by saying that this sounded like an awesome place for Spontaneous Collaboration and he Must Visit our floor soon!


Vicki said...

Another anonymous suggested "Perhaps the solution here is to have different areas in different locations of the building."

We had this at one company where I worked. Everyone except fr the Design team had private (small) offices with Doors (omg, doors!!!)

The dDesign team had an open plan area in a big room in their own wing down a long corridor. They asked for this; they were happy.

Then came the first reorg.

You can guess what happened.

Different areas in different locations of the building is a wonderful goal. But first, managers will need to accept that not all employees are identical in their needs and preferences. Can we put Anonymous in an open plan area and Vicki in a room with a door? Can we let Bob and Ben share an office, but Sally doesn't share, ever?

When managers are able to recognize that all members of a department do not need to be co-located, let alone have identical work spaces, we may make some progress in this area.

Anonymous said...

To suggest that a company's financial success -- like that of Facebook, etc. -- is somehow an indicator of "goodness" in the Open Plan Office design is like suggesting that Exxon's financial success is an indicator of goodness in its complete inability to maintain environmental safety.

Any number of companies over the years have succeeded at the cost of their employees' physical and emotional well being. That doesn't make what they did good or right or even socially acceptable.

Anonymous said...

What the article seems to dance around but avoid saying out loud, is that management seems to be the kingdom of extroverts. Not 100% of course, but there certainly seems to be a trend.

Therefore they cannot fathom how anyone could not be an extrovert too, not wanting to chat about last night's game, about what they are going to BBQ next weekend. How responding to "how are you doing, what are you up to" causes at least a 30 min drop out of the zone, etc.

Jon Barnes said...

I have to agree with a lot of people for the hip new companies this seems like a recruiting tool, to show how they invest and how hip and cool they are.

I had an interview with a company that had the coolest office I've ever been in -- also open floor plan -- they then offered me 20k less than I wanted. They were shocked when I said no way. They hoped a fun and cool work environment would be a good substitute for wages. I have to admit I was really impressed with their knife throwing room, it was awesome.

In the megacorps I have worked for they have open office plans to save money on floor space. They have so many employees that saving a couple square feet per person can save a ton of money. So they turned single worker cubes into two person cube and now it's normal for four person cubes. Kind of hilarious that megacorp cost savings have some how become hip.

Anonymous said...

"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!"

In addition to the stated response that we don't know how much MORE productive they would be in a different environment, there is the question of the type of sw being written. What percentage of users of these services have NEVER encountered a bug? These are not business critical systems. As long as it mostly works, most users will be happy. Would you want the sw running the next airliner you travel on to be written in such an environment?

Anonymous said...

Like everything else in the office, open floor plans work for some folks and not for others. I personally hate them because of the exposure I have to everyone else. For example, I talk to myself when I work - it helps me concentrate. Sometimes, when frustrated, I swear to myself. It seemed innocent enough until some ultra quiet mouse of a person near me was offended by the obscenity muttered under my breath, complained to HR that I was being offensive, and I got in trouble for swearing in the workplace. Yes, that really happened. It was the first time in over 20 years of working as a professional I was ever in trouble with HR. Nope, don't like open plans.

Anonymous said...

I am an extrovert by every definition of the word and I HATE our open plan. I feel like I'm in a fishbowl and have no escape. It isn't just the noise, it's the lack of choice that bothers me more - if I'm in a mood to shut my door I have no door to shut. And now two of our private spaces we were suppposed to have to retreat to have been locked. Crazy.

L J Laubenheimer said...

You wrote "(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.)"

Yes, it does. Here some stuff to get you started:

In a previous career I was a safety person. Classic things like lifting safety, chemical safety, machine safety, and ergonomics. (Open plan is bad for ergonomics by the way.)

One of the big things in safety is that there are two ways to reduce risk: 1) engineering controls, and 2) administrative controls. By preference, risks should be mitigated by engineering controls, using administrative controls only as a last resort when engineering controls are impractical or prohibitively expensive.

Example 1: Mixing chemicals in a fume hood is an engineering control. Requiring an employee to wear a gas mask is an administrative control.

Example 2: Lifting heavy equipment like servers with a lift cart is an engineering control. Requiring teams lifts and back belts are administrative controls.

Example 3: Putting a muffler on a loud machine is an engineering control. Making workers wear hearing protection is an administrative control.

The third example is the most germane. I have sat in an open plan office with noise levels running about 65 dB, peaking at over 90 dB. Saying "Just wear headphones" is applying an administrative control, often at the employee's personal expense, to a workplace noise problem that can and should be address by engineering controls - namely, walls.

Furthermore, headphones alone aren't enough (yes, I tried it, repeatedly, I have a nice collection of headphones) - you have to put masking sound through them to drown out the chatter - substituting one form of noise for another. This has the follow on risk of hearing damage.

So "Just wear headphones" is an inadequate administrative control that doesn't even address the entire problem. Every time someone tells me to "just wear headphones if you need to concentrate", I want to slap them with a safety violation and report them to HR. It's really that stupid.

PKUSA said...

I stumbled on this thread and am coming in late.

I expresed my concerns to management with his response being to basically note me as a malcontent and put me on the next layoff schedule. So what "open collaboration" really means is a kind of Orwellian/Stalin like environment where you can't hide and you MINIMIZE creative thought that might get misinterpreted and into trouble. As one guy above said, a curse under your breath that would be ignorable in a cubicle now winds up getting calls from HR.

Management loves the ability to remind employees constantly they're being watched as if the notice your web browsing is being monitored isn't enough. Now you have hundreds of sets of eyes on you at once. So you can go introvert (and use headphones) or contribute to the barbarism. Everyone else eats smelly food at their desk and with the lunchroom full of cell phone chatterers, you may as well join in. Everyone else jokes loudly (on safe subjects) so you may as well too. Heck, you're REQUIRED to in order to "fit in" which makes collaboration into a kind of Abilene paradox (google it).

And this got me to thinking that management wants "creativity" and real "collaboration" about as much as Big Brother wants the proletarat to compare notes. They want a workplace where everyone says "yes" and even if the code and products STINK, they LOOK busy which is all that matters. They want mindless robots putting out **** such as Windows 10 because then the customer will look forward to Windows 11 to fix it (yeah, we all know how hopeless THAT is but the management will have moved on by then.)