Finally, Some Sanity

I've written before (1, 2, 3, 4) about the insanity that is the open plan office. One would think that it would have withered and died by now but, sadly, it seems as robust as ever. At least the successful tech giants understand how deleterious it is, right? Nope. Facebook's new office space will include a single giant 10 acre room for all 2,800 of their engineers. I can't conceive of working in such an environment or why anyone would think it's a good idea.

Over at Stack Exchange they still believe in private offices but note that the once revolutionary notion that Joel implemented makes them feel sort of old fashioned: like something that Microsoft does. You can read that post to see why it's so successful for them. It helps explain Fog Creek's and Stack Exchange's success.

Now, finally, some tech firms are beginning to notice that the emperor has no clothes. Wildbit is abandoning their open office layout for private offices. Chris Nagele blogs about it and lays out the reasons for the change. It's a good read so you should take a look. Meanwhile, Matt Blodgett has pictures of some of these open office layouts and proposes a game called “spot the desks.” In every case you see really nice looking offices but when you start looking for the desks, you find they're all packed together as if a second thought.

Reading the comments to these posts I was a bit surprised to find that even some engineers are buying into the “improves communication” nonsense. Lots of people have all sorts of anecdotes about the virtues of open office spaces but Microsoft and others have done actual research and found that they're disastrous for worker productivity and health. So much so that they've gone to the expense of building out private office for their developers.

Of course, none of this is news. Demarco and Lister knew all this 37 years ago. I was working in a cube farm when I first read it and loaned it to our CEO hoping that things would improve. The only thing that changed is that I no longer had a copy of Peopleware because he never gave it back.

Still, Wildbit and others like them give hope that sanity will eventually prevail. If that happens, I wonder what Zuckerberg will do with that big room.

Update: Just today, I had occasion to reread Paul Graham's Great Hackers in which he says

After software, the most important tool to a hacker is probably his office. Big companies think the function of office space is to express rank. But hackers use their offices for more than that: they use their office as a place to think in. And if you're a technology company, their thoughts are your product. So making hackers work in a noisy, distracting environment is like having a paint factory where the air is full of soot.

The cartoon strip Dilbert has a lot to say about cubicles, and with good reason. All the hackers I know despise them. The mere prospect of being interrupted is enough to prevent hackers from working on hard problems. If you want to get real work done in an office with cubicles, you have two options: work at home, or come in early or late or on a weekend, when no one else is there. Don't companies realize this is a sign that something is broken? An office environment is supposed to be something that helps you work, not something you work despite.

Notice Graham is complaining about cubicles. It would be interesting to read his thoughts on a huge 10-acre room at which developers sit at big tables. The point stands though: as Graham says, if you arrange to have your developers be interrupted continuously, don't expect good results.

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