Jef Claes

On software and life

27 May 2012

The open plan fallacy testimonials

I wrote an article titled ‘The open plan fallacy’ just two weeks ago. Earlier this week a similar article was published by the New York Times. The content of that article wasn’t particularly extraordinary, but the comments were. I waded through all of them on my daily commute, and it’s really hard to find one in favor of open plan offices - people seem to be enraged.

I handpicked some of the most interesting ones.

Research by Emberson (Psychological Science, 2010) demonstrate both the impairment in performance for people forced to listen to half a phone conversation and the neurological impossibility of “tuning out” these overheard conversations. The office experience has been described as trying to drive a car full of people all talking on their cell phones.

It’s preferable to have to make the effort to collaborate than the effort to focus on one’s work amidst a distracting open workplace. My profession, architecture, does require a high degree of collaboration, but also a need for intense, individual concentration working on complicated 3D computer models and details.. and long hours being in “the zone”. My firm provides private offices for all of its staff and a variety of collaborative and recreational environments.. particularly the latter, recognizing that just by hanging out together for part of the day, individuals from different project teams and pursuits “cross-pollinate”, come up with imaginative ideas, influence and inspire eachother.

Cubicles were invented as a way to shove more people into a smaller space and save money for corporations. The entire meme about “improved workplace communications” was invented by consultants as a smokescreen. Period. End of story. 

“For example, someone whose job requires intense concentration (e.g. computer programmer) needs absolute silence. Programmers who do not get this silence are likely to make mistakes.”
I’ve been around a lot of programmers, among lots of other kinds of workers, and I’d say that 90% of the developers I saw were in a large room with others all around them. It’s actually one of the least likely jobs to provide someone with an office, despite the fact that your diagnosis about what the job requires is absolutely right, in my opinion.
All it takes is a few months in the world of corporations to understand that Dilbert is really a documentary.

I currently work in an open plan office and absolutely hate it. Not having an office with a door that others need to knock on before disturbing me has led to non-stop disturbances all day long. Not to mention having to listen to nonstop chatter of those around me. It is an incredibly inefficient - and I may add, unprofessional - way to work. Any money saved on rent is surely made up for in lost productivity.

I’ve noticed that the person who decides on the open cube layout usually sits in an office.

Having participated in the design of office environments, where we used low cubicle walls or even no walls to support certain kinds of collaborative work, with the full involvement of the employees in that design, it was always distressing to see the ‘open office’ faddishly embraced by management everywhere, regardless of actual practices required for the work. Consultancies, as usual, led the way in yet another blind embrace of ‘innovation’.
Why would individual ‘entrepreneurs’ - to take one example from this story - want or need to be able to see and hear each other whilst working? Are the activities in which they are engaged intimately linked, are the tasks often (and necessarily) performed conjointly, is their own working division of labour a concerted one? What do these entrepreneurs themselves think about such matters? (Well, as the story makes plain, they have very clear answers, voting with their headphones!) Anyway, these are the kinds of very practical questions about work activities and worker needs that should drive office design.

In my article, I advocated isolating teams instead of individuals, but most commenters seem to be heavy supporters of private offices - including walls and a door. I never experienced that in a professional environment, so I couldn’t say if that would work for software development. Can you? Collaboration and communication between developers is a necessity. Fostering that just seems hard when everyone is in a separate place - definitely for young teams. While comparing office layouts, I wondered how my proposed solution would scale; how many people can you put in one team before you encounter the same undesired open plan side-effects?