How Much Do You Hate Open-Plan Offices?

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Open-plan offices are certainly the rage these days among corporations, but how do developers and other tech pros feel about them?

Not good, depending on whom you ask. Cal Newport, a computer-science professor, recounts in a new blog posting how Joel Spolsky, CEO of Stack Overflow, claimed at the GeekWire Summit that developers don’t want to work at Facebook because of its massive open-plan design.

“Developers don’t want to overhear conversations,” Spolsky reportedly said. “That’s ideal for a trading floor, but developers need to concentrate.” Facebook pays a premium for developers, he added, “which is usually a sign that developers don’t want to work there.”

Facebook’s headquarters (glimpsed in the photo above) is considered the largest open-plan office in the world, a seemingly endless expanse of raw space and desks, topped with a nine-acre garden on the roof. While it features enclosed offices for private meetings and nooks where a harried employee can take a breather, Facebook’s solution for noise and distraction seems to be “27-inch monitors for each desk as well as noise-cancelling headphones upon request,” according to Facebook product designer Tanner Christensen, speaking to Inc.

Should developers be given enclosed offices and quiet, instead? Some offices have long adapted for that sort of need: some buildings on Microsoft’s Redmond campus, despite embracing open-plan designs, feature “focus rooms” where someone can grind away at some coding problem for hours with a minimum of distraction. That emphasis on flexible space has been emulated at other firms.

Of course, open-plan offices do have their benefits—if executed correctly. Lots of developers feel that sitting in a single, massive room with colleagues encourages collaboration and teamwork; younger ones who’ve spent their careers at startups have probably never seen the gray expanse of a cubicle farm.

If you’re a startup founder, consider the sort of environment that your developers want to work in, and adjust accordingly. And if you’re a tech pro debating multiple offers, consider whether the office environment is conducive to your working style. If it isn’t, but you still want to take the job, consider asking your future employer whether you can work from home, or if the office can accommodate your need for quiet in some way. It never hurts to ask.

4 Responses to “How Much Do You Hate Open-Plan Offices?”

  1. Is there any research to back up the claim that collaboration increases in an open office environment? I have worked in both cubicle farms and the open office and the collaboration that I got from other people in cubicle farms was exponentially better than what I got in open office.

  2. KMonster

    Open space shows absolute ignorance on the part of management. If you set up X cubicles in an office with open space, the cubes would be taken first guaranteed.

    Who wants to hear, smell and be distracted by coworkers 8 hours a day? Also one sickie can spread the plague like wildfire.

    Time to stop trending and actually use brainpower. Management will see that a little privacy = dignity = more productivity. If I need to “collaborate” I can use my feet for a minute. That’s what they are there for.

  3. Any introvert could tell you so much. We spend energy on human contact. Extroverts on the other hand are charged by human contact. If I need to be around someone all the time, it is taxing, I need to be alone to recharge. So if I have to spend all this energy on blocking out people and avoiding distractions, I feel like I had more than enough and will avoid face to face communication as much as possible. If your office has roughly half of introverts, the communication between employees can be categorized as E2E, E2I, I2E and I2I, which shows quite clearly that if all introverts shut down human to human interactions, then 75% of all communication stops. This is roughly consistent with the Harvard study and the difference is probably because there are more introverts in the offices, but not all communication is cut, just most of it, so it translates to roughly 70% decrease.

  4. Vinnie Match

    I told a large home-improvement-retailer company that open-space cubes weren’t increasing collaboration and, instead, having the opposite effect. Developers were being forced to wear noise-cancelling headphones to get any actual work done, due to the cacophonous din of other groups having non-stop meetings, people walking around and talking about non-work, etc.

    I told them this on my Exit Interview!

    I will continue believing that the Open Office movement is actually so that Mgmt can make sure you’re not surfing the internet instead of doing your job: That everyone can see – and monitor – what everyone else is doing. I’m glad to see this poorly-thought-out concept of lazy management is getting exposed for the asinine idea that it is.

    Sucks to be right all the time!