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Bring Your Own Headphones
January 11, 2014 8:55 PM   Subscribe

"Though multitasking millennials seem to be more open to distraction as a workplace norm, the wholehearted embrace of open offices may be ingraining a cycle of underperformance in their generation." The Open Office Trap
posted by Mchelly (88 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite

 
I was delighted to see this because I hate open plan offices and everyone seems to act like I'm some kind of dinosaur because I'd prefer a quiet place to work. Naturally, I have some very fancy headphones, but that only works in offices where they let you wear them, sometimes they get mad because WE'RE SUPPOSED TO BE COMMUNICATING THAT'S THE WHOLE POINT OF THIS.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:14 PM on January 11 [31 favorites]


Yet the workplace counterpart of the open classroom, the open office, flourishes

Possibly because they are completely different things?
posted by Artw at 9:19 PM on January 11 [3 favorites]


I attended middle school in an Open Plan building, and it was hellish. The only closed classroom was the Foreign Languages Survey.

I am thoroughly convinced that my math learning was hampered by this poorly conceived notion.
posted by MissySedai at 9:20 PM on January 11 [1 favorite]


The best part of open offices is that everybody builds them next to exterior walls that are just huge panes of glass. So either the sun's in your face or it's making your monitor completely unreadable for a good portion of the day.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:27 PM on January 11 [10 favorites]


Yes, the Blind Wars between the people who want the pretty sunlight and the people who are getting blinded or can't see their monitors tend to rival only the Thermostat Wars.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:30 PM on January 11 [17 favorites]


I wish the idiots who came up with this idea had to spend ten hours a day next to someone arguing with their family about every trivial thing under the sun* and we'd see how quickly the open office concept would be relinquished.

*There is always at least one person in any office who does this with apparent impunity.
posted by winna at 9:34 PM on January 11 [10 favorites]


One of the reasons I turned down a day job that would have paid very, very well was their open office setup. I could not see myself ever getting anything done in that environment.

It was a gorgeous space, mind you, and all the people seemed very nice, but that would have made it even more of a shame if I had taken the job, then eventually snapped and grabbed the fire axe.
posted by maudlin at 9:35 PM on January 11 [11 favorites]


It's always been about squeezing in more workers into a single floor-plan than would be otherwise possible, so that overall less money is spent per worker-space, isn't it? Especially if the open-office plan does not bother taking into account light/sound/temperature variations across the floor.
posted by all the versus at 9:36 PM on January 11 [16 favorites]


Bosses never seem to choose open plan offices for themselves. Funny, that.
posted by wobdev at 9:38 PM on January 11 [100 favorites]


It is much cheaper to build an open office or a cube farm than one with walls, doors, respect for personal space and adequate noise abatement. "Facilitating communication and idea flow" is just the short-sighted corporate bullshit used to justify the cost cutting.
posted by islander at 9:38 PM on January 11 [27 favorites]


Open plan offices are the fucking tool of satan and they should be HULK SMASHED with extreme prejudice. There's always one loud asshole on the phone taking a personal call on speakerphone for 45 minutes and to the other side is the loudest possible chewer of tuna salad and people always want to stop and chat about some bullshit that I couldn't be paid to care about and the ventilation in the restrooms is terrible so everyone immediately and simultaneously knows when someone had curry for lunch again.

I lock my office door when I am inside so no one can PENETRATE MY FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE
posted by elizardbits at 9:46 PM on January 11 [16 favorites]


I'm an academic, so I don't have the same office situation. But I think there's a middle ground: good open plan interaction space is actually quite useful. Having been in places with all closed-office and doored-meeting room style space, vs. space well-broken up into somewhat sound isolated but easy to walk by casual interaction space plus smaller closable offices-- the second setup is much better.

Is this a thing that ever happens in the corporate world? A sort of small few-person offices plus open plan general space midrange thing?
posted by nat at 9:47 PM on January 11 [4 favorites]


We're moving to our new office building on Monday, which will be retrofitted to Workplace 2.0 format in a couple of months. Having gone through an "open concept" in middle school way back when (lasted a few months, we came back from Christmas break with brand new walls installed to convert the open space into classrooms), I don't see this working out well.
And, by the way, the promise of docking stations and cell phones for all as part of WP 2.0?... not happening.
posted by BozoBurgerBonanza at 9:47 PM on January 11


i have considered laying antipersonnel mines in the hallway
posted by elizardbits at 9:47 PM on January 11 [4 favorites]


Absolutely hate this about my otherwise wonderful to work for company. I have to listen to people talk to bill collectors, their children, their lovers etc.
posted by UseyurBrain at 9:52 PM on January 11 [1 favorite]


Is this a thing that ever happens in the corporate world?

I think it's something you see in cashed-up tech companies. Open central space with offices and meeting rooms that people can grab if they want some quiet. Most places wouldn't want to spend the money required to have that much space.
posted by markr at 9:54 PM on January 11


When we were considering our offices, I voted for cubes, albeit semi-open cubes (walls between neighbors on wheels). This has helped a lot with recruiting - at least two or three candidates have sheepishly tried to feel me out about the workplace "feel" and usually respond with "oh thank god" when I admit (equally sheepishly) that we have cubes because I can't work in an open office.
posted by rr at 10:13 PM on January 11 [1 favorite]


I guess I'm alone (here in this thread) in liking my open office. Headphones work great when I need to hunker, and we have a lot of small rooms folks are encouraged to retreat to if they really need their space. A company a lot like us, but established decades ago has dreary hallways and lots of closed-door offices. It seems lonely to me, but I guess a lot of folks here would prefer it.
posted by dylanjames at 10:20 PM on January 11 [4 favorites]


My favourite modern working environment has been a mixture of islands of open-plan shared desks, closed-off meeting rooms and small one-to-four people acoustically isolated pods. Where there's enough room for teams of various sizes to have their own islands and enough meeting rooms/pods so there's always somewhere to go for a few hours when you need a stretch of focused individual work, it works well enough that the workplace stops being something you think about,

I regard with utmost horror big open-plan areas with mixed teams within earshot of each other (editorial next to sales - open warfare was never far from the surface), although utmost horror is inadequate when faced with the idea of hotdesking. You know where else is hot, right.

Different people have different working styles; different teams work in different ways. Different aspects of a job call for different approaches, across a day. A workplace should respond to these needs, not define them. People should be able to adjust and control their working environment to support what they want, hour by hour or day by day. Is this so difficult to understand, or implement?
posted by Devonian at 10:24 PM on January 11 [7 favorites]


Oh, is it the seventies again? This is one of those terrible ideas that seems to take about a generation to flare up again.

"Facilitating communication and idea flow" is just the short-sighted corporate bullshit used to justify the cost cutting.

I'm sure there are pointy-haired bosses who actually believe in it, too.
posted by flabdablet at 10:30 PM on January 11 [2 favorites]


Open office plans are great for companies that are happy to pay for ten hours of work to get five hours of productivity.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:39 PM on January 11 [32 favorites]


These things are idiotic, especially when coupled with other moronic tech industry buzzwords like "pair programming."

What you end with is a room of people trying to do work that requires concentration and focus, but you have another person sitting there with you who usually serves only to cut your production by at least 50%. Plus you have to narrate your work to them, *and* listen to five or six other conversations of people narrating work to each other that they could have just done quietly by themselves. The end result is probably a team productivity rate of about 10-20% of what you'd get if you just let people sit in cubicles or (heaven forfend!) private offices or their own homes, wear headphones, work in peace, and ask each other questions *AS NEEDED.*

I've often heard said that the "open" environment is good because you "overhear conversations." Really?? Are you six fucking years old??? Grown up people don't need constant butt-ins from co-workers who overheard what they were doing and just had to "contribute." It is profoundly unhelpful. The idea that people will not communicate unless you put them in a space where they cannot help but overhear everything everyone says is so strikingly stupid as to beggar belief. Unfortunately the trend and buzzword obsessed nature of the tech industry means that VC investors and other animatronic jeans-and-blazer combos expect to see this kind of environment, or else they don't consider a company "cool" enough to peel a few million out of their cocaine budget for an investment.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:07 PM on January 11 [11 favorites]


I've noticed that nothing causes people to stop by and bug me like putting on my headphones, so I just can't win.
posted by ckape at 11:21 PM on January 11 [2 favorites]


"interruptions by colleagues were detrimental to productivity, and that the more senior the employee, the worse she fared. "

OH GOD PLEASE SOMEONE SHOW THIS TO MY BOSS AND TELL HIM TO STOP INTERRUPTING ME WITH NEW SHIT EVERY FIVE SECONDS.

fuck.
posted by symbioid at 11:24 PM on January 11 [8 favorites]


These things are idiotic, especially when coupled with other moronic tech industry buzzwords like "pair programming."

Open offices are atrocious, but this is silly. Pair programming is invaluable if done right, and I'm willing to bet that you've even done it voluntarily (although you might not have called it that). Do you reject the idea of code reviews, too?
posted by asterix at 11:25 PM on January 11 [12 favorites]


I like my company's open office. It's a development-only floor, so everyone's head-down and there are no phones. The boss has a desk like everyone else. Meetings and conversations happen in side rooms but it's very easy to gather people for a quick standup. Everyone's on chat so if you need to talk to someone, you ping them there and wait for a reply, instead of breaking into their flow. Lots of people wear headphones. I know it's easy for it to not work, but it seems to be working for us.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:46 PM on January 11 [7 favorites]


Yeah, pair programming is the bomb. You need to find a partner whose style clicks with yours, but having done that the payoff can be substantial and the experience exhilarating.

One of the things that makes programming hard is the feeling that nobody else actually gives a shit about what you've written as long as it works. In my experience, that completely goes away when programming as half of a good pair; when your partner notices that you've fucked something up, or that there's an easier way to do whatever it is you just did, it avoids so many false trails and so much wasted time. And when you can show your partner some wonderfully neat and to-you obvious way to do something they are having trouble with, there's a nice buzz in that as well. A good day spent pair programming leaves both people feeling like tired, happy geniuses, and the amount of work that needs undoing afterwards is way less.

But some employers will always find ways to fuck up things that work well, and rotating paired programmers is every bit as pernicious as refusal to provide decent workspaces. Pair programming, like most human activity, works well because of the specific relationships between the people involved. Forcing people who don't click into pair programming just makes them resent each other and write the whole idea off as bullshit, as does any other process that seeks to treat people as interchangeable industrial parts.

You also get very, very poor results by pairing an actually competent programmer with one of those people who actually has no clue but has a tremendous amount of ego investment in hiding that fact.
posted by flabdablet at 11:57 PM on January 11 [21 favorites]


The thought that some people can get to have actual concentrating time at work, not filled up by a constant stream of overheard repetitive phone calls and inane chatter, fills me with so much envy and despair.
posted by Jeanne at 12:41 AM on January 12 [6 favorites]


Yeah, pair programming is the bomb.

This is the way forward for all jobs. Like McNulty and Bunk etc.
posted by colie at 12:41 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]


"Facilitating communication and idea flow" is just the short-sighted corporate bullshit used to justify the cost cutting.
Does anyone not get that yet? Was always and will always be bullshit.

Our offices are very much like that Workplace 2.0 link above. Almost identical, in fact. Except that Workstations are separated by sound-deadening partitions low enough that you can stand and see who's around but high enough that, when you're sitting, you can't see anyone. Each also has a small standing desk. It's definitely not as quiet or peaceful as individual offices, but it's a headphone-friendly space (and a very speakerphone unfriendly one) and everyone understands that headphones on means don't disturb. I actually have an office so may be biased, but it sure as he'll doesn't guarantee privacy - it has glass fucking walls, so people can see I'm in and knock on them! My solution when I really don't want to be disturbed is to put my phone headset on and, when someone knocks on the wall, point to the headset meaning 'I'm on the phone' and they go away. Actually, there aren't really all that many times I truly need privacy and leaving my door open at all other times means it's clearer when I'm not free.

It probably depends on the job too - my staff almost always work on their own, but there are plenty of times the ability to ask someone at the next desk for advice is useful to them. As long as it's give-and-take it works well. It can be problematic if there is someone who prefers to chat than, work of course.
posted by dg at 1:27 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]


I have worked in two open-plan offices that I liked a lot, and both were newsrooms, where a) there are hard deadlines and b) gossip basically is the job.

I can't imagine trying to do legal work, say, in an open plan office. What a nightmare.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:44 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]


Workstations are separated by sound-deadening partitions low enough that you can stand and see who's around but high enough that, when you're sitting, you can't see anyone.

I worked in a cubicle farm like that once.

It was okay for a while, but the disembodied heads floating past all day eventually wore me down.
posted by flabdablet at 1:47 AM on January 12 [3 favorites]


"Facilitating communication and idea flow" is just the short-sighted corporate bullshit used to justify the cost cutting.

It's not always just about that. My workplace has spent the last few years knocking walls out between offices so that people can (i.e. have to) be in open-plan areas of 10 or so people instead of individual offices or pairs. They are actually spending money on this bullshit because they fervently believe that we will communicate more and better about work this way instead of just gossiping about what we did on the weekends.
posted by lollusc at 1:56 AM on January 12


Now that I've tried it, I prefer LibreOffice.
posted by jiawen at 2:05 AM on January 12 [12 favorites]


I am expected to both do programming work and manage the new programmer who sits next to me and is in line of sight of my screen. This made for some reaaally awkward situations where I was writing or reading emails related to their performance.
posted by xiw at 2:07 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]


I noticed the uncritical acceptance of "multitasking." I don't think it's so much that multitaskers take longer to recover from being disturbed than people trying to pay attention to 3-4 things at once (as opposed to using a variety of tools for a complex job) aren't being effective at anything.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:58 AM on January 12 [3 favorites]


Like McNulty and Bunk etc.

I already program this way. "Fuck. Ffffffuuuuuck. Fuck. Motherfucker."
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 3:33 AM on January 12 [24 favorites]


Oh, is it the seventies again? This is one of those terrible ideas that seems to take about a generation to flare up again.

Indeed, or even the sixties. Ever see "The Apartment", and its infinite corridor of men on typewriters? And they staggered punch-out times in 20 minute intervals, so that there wouldn't be traffic jams at the elevators.
posted by Melismata at 4:31 AM on January 12


As an ADD person, the open office plan is my nightmare. Trying to read or concentrate on something is hellish when I can hear conversations nearby. We don't have an open office plan right now, but due to a poorly-thought-out architectural plan, our conference rooms and executive offices lack ceilings, and you can hear everything that goes on in them as clearly as if you were sitting right in there with them. One of our VPs spends hours on speakerphone in loud, often heated conversations and conferences, and it drives me absolutely batshit.

Incidentally, one of the corporate goals for this year is to look into the cost of installing ceilings on these rooms. What a great idea! Wonder why nobody ever thought of putting ceilings on rooms before...
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 5:49 AM on January 12


Metafilter: the disembodied heads floating past all day eventually wore me down.

I built (but never brought into the office) some traffic lights for my desk, one place I worked where interruptions were a bit much. Simple three-way switch and three lights on a stick - green, go ahead and talk; yellow, it better be good; red, I don't care if Godzilla has just eaten St Paul's Cathedral, LMTFA. Makes most sense with headphones.
posted by Devonian at 5:52 AM on January 12 [4 favorites]


We have a semi open plan with high walled cubes (standing privacy unless you are very tall), translucent panels at the topmost row to let in light from the wraparound windows, and cube walls at the window row to prevent the sun blinding / heat effects mentioned above. We also have digital sound deadening, phone headsets, and a fairly robust culture of DND when appropriate signs are given. Some folks like it okay, some don't. The nature of our work is a lot of head-down-and-grind technical stuff, so it suits okay; it wouldn't work if we were all on the phone 18 hours a day.

This was the only way we could meet the target economics of an office in a new city with much higher commercial real estate costs than the home office. And it's not management bullshit; I ran the numbers (hah, and I'm most assuredly not management). I was well motivated to make it work because I wanted the office move so I fought for the best possible non-hard-walled option.

Our home office has weirdly shaped private offices with thin walls, profoundly screwy accoustics (office x can overhear x+3 down the corridor with perfect fidelity but not the two in between) and awful HVAC, so most cube farmers in the new space have found it to be at worst a wash. Plus we are all local to the new office so we've gone from ~1 hour commutes to < 15 min.

All of which said, full disclosure: I have a regular walled office. I said I would work in the cubes I picked (so as not to be a hypocrite), but as a senior technical lead running a huge job in multiple offices, conference calls are my life and I was largely directed to take one of the few walled spaces available in the existing build.
posted by hearthpig at 6:18 AM on January 12


I work in a mixed open office / cubicle/ enclosed office environment. I don't like the effect the open office has had there. There are always people who have no sense of decorum. People who missed the notion of 'inside voices', who are inconsiderate or rude. These people kill any benefit an open office might bring. Open offices seem to 'bleed' into open everything, with loud conversations everywhere. I am lucky. I have an office. I shouldn't have to close my door all the time, though, just to hear myself think.

And the proof, to me, that this design isn't working is that almost all of the staff 'works from home' as often as they can.
posted by grimjeer at 6:18 AM on January 12


I'm going to print this article out and post it to my office door.

Most of the offices in my building are small cube farms (cube gardens?) offering partial privacy and partial sound suppression, some more than others. The one that I have settled in attempts to take it a bit farther by using only task lighting and by having a tacit agreement between the residents that we will have our meetings outside of the room.

This is unbelievably bizarre to many of my co-workers. I always get comments about how can I possibly stand to work without a window (from folks who usually don't work anywhere near a window themselves). Yesterday someone even jokingly called my officemate a "troll" because he prefers the dim office.

Really, the only distraction in my office (besides Metafilter!) are the people who come in to critique the design of my office.

(For the record, I did research on low-light computing and discovered that it's not so much the amount of ambient light that affects your eyes, as it is the glare.)
posted by tofu_crouton at 6:28 AM on January 12


We also have digital sound deadening

We have this too, for that "the upstairs neighbors are running a bath" sound ALL DAY LONG YAY.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 6:53 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]


I loath open offices. We had that guy who used to carry on conversations over his BT headset and walk a stretch 10 cube lengths either side of his desk. You could track him by the echoes. Hugely irritating.
My current company has conventional offices, for which I am profoundly grateful, so I was alarmed to see that they are experimenting with new office layouts 4 floors down.
posted by arcticseal at 7:00 AM on January 12


I have a regular, traditional office, with a window and a nice view. We always keep our doors open and pop in and out of everyone's office, but once in a while there is a Thing That Must Be Done and you close the door and hunker down and type with no interruptions. When I've worked in cubes, that's never been possible and more work follows you home or gets done after hours.

I also have conference calls at least once or twice a week, plus frequent non-conference calls and people coming by to meet with me -- being able to just close the door and not bother anyone is great. Those are solvable problems in an open office, with conference rooms and so on, but it definitely would take an extra step to avoid interrupting people. As it is, the conference rooms are booked most of the time, so going to an open office set up would require a lot more space dedicated for that function, which might cut into the savings significantly.

I guess people are adaptable and can figure out how to get things done in any environment, but it doesn't surprise me that there is a trade-off between real estate costs and productivity with some office layouts.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:08 AM on January 12


I actually kind of like open offices. At my current day job, we have far too many people for our space so noise has become a problem, but we're moving to a larger office soon and I really can't see myself enjoying having my own office and needing to physically get up and walk to someone else's office just to ask a simple question. I also listen to music while I work whether or not there is any noise in the room. But I'm also one of those maligned "millenials", so maybe my productivity is suffering without my knowledge.
posted by deathpanels at 7:20 AM on January 12


I guess that it really depends on the people who work there. At my last job, we had a cube farm in a room with about fifty people and for most of the day, you could hear a pin drop in there. There were break-out rooms for impromptu meetings and/or phone calls and mostly you just heard typing.
posted by octothorpe at 7:27 AM on January 12


Yeah, pair programming is the bomb. You need to find a partner whose style clicks with yours, but having done that the payoff can be substantial and the experience exhilarating.


I think it really depends on personality type. I am not convinced there is a person on this planet who I would want to pair program with on a regular basis. I want my own hermit cave, except when I have specific design questions.
posted by Foosnark at 7:44 AM on January 12 [3 favorites]


Pair programming with someone with less than optimal person hygiene habits can be interesting.
posted by octothorpe at 8:09 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]


Sales people and others whose jobs involve the phone do not belong in open offices or cube farms, ever. The end. Signed, a person who had a cube in earshot of a sales guy once.
posted by immlass at 8:10 AM on January 12 [4 favorites]


I guess that it really depends on the people who work there. At my last job, we had a cube farm in a room with about fifty people and for most of the day, you could hear a pin drop in there. There were break-out rooms for impromptu meetings and/or phone calls and mostly you just heard typing.

Oh yeah, it CAN work. I worked at a place full of weirdly quiet people where everyone used their indoor voices and it worked fine. But I also worked at a place where I sat on the aisle and people would cluster behind my desk and the gaggle would get bigger and bigger and louder and louder. Better still when they'd take an interest in whatever I was doing and then would begin the HEY WHATCHA WORKING ON WHAT'S THAT HEY GUYS GHOSTRIDE IS WORKING ON SOMETHING LET'S CLUSTER AROUND HIS DESK AND PEPPER HIM WITH QUESTIONS FOR 20 MINUTES.

And sorry, I was The Guy On The Phone once and I tried to have the most outlandish and ridiculous and annoying conversations I could because I sat with the senior people and would regularly keep them from getting any work done with my loud conversations. It was part of my campaign to get my own office and it worked. In my defense it was either that or keep having to go sit in the hallway when I had to take a call I wanted to actually hear and it did work, so really I'm not sorry.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:25 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]


I really can't see myself enjoying having my own office and needing to physically get up and walk to someone else's office just to ask a simple question

That's the point. If it's a simple question it's better to email or IM the person instead of interrupting her workflow.
posted by ryoshu at 9:01 AM on January 12 [3 favorites]


I suppose if you work with terrible people that you want to avoid, the open office isn't going to work for you. I love ours though.
posted by the jam at 9:17 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]


I have worked in cube farms before, and now work in a more traditional setup of closed door offices. The interruptions are about the same. I can have my door closed, my headphones on and a sign outside my door saying "do not disturb", and my co-workers just barge in anyway.

I will say, the cube farm had its momentary entertainments, though. I arrived to work early one morning as I needed to get something done for 9 am. I thought I was the only one there. Suddenly, I hear a weird, high-pitched droning noise, like a wineglass resonating. Turns out it was a co-worker, who had also arrived early. He was ringing a Tibetan singing bowl and walking around the whole floor. He told me he was cleansing the aura of the place. I wished him good luck and left him to it. Cube farm or no, that place *was* toxic. :)
posted by LN at 9:26 AM on January 12 [3 favorites]


The cube farm I worked in was a call center so every single person in it was on the phone all day long. It gave me terrible headaches.
posted by interplanetjanet at 9:43 AM on January 12


I work in a half-height cube farm now. I have, in the past, worked in open floorplans, including for the same company I work at now. So many people would complain about it, but I loved it. Yes, I had headphones for those times I needed to focus, and when I joined a new team I would advise that "headphones on == send me an email instead." By and large, however, I got tons more done in that kind of environment than I do in my current cubicle farm, in large part because:

1. Open floorplan means having/overhearing conversations constantly, which in my line of work allows for "oh, hey, you're having problems with X? I can help you with X/I just broke X and I'm working on it, so the problem isn't you, give me five minutes to fix X" problem solving that's critical to my line of work.

2. Open floorplan means having to always be working on something or everyone else knows you're not working on something, so it's much harder to procrastinate. It's also much easier to know when people are genuinely idle (leading to impromptu long lunches) and when people are overworked (leading to people volunteering to pick up lunch for them, or help them finish something so they could join for the long lunch.)

3. I would talk to so many people in a day (for a few minutes at a time) that I knew a lot more about what was really going on in the office culture/activities, and that transparency directly led to fun projects that wouldn't have existed (or that I wouldn't have been involved with) otherwise.

By comparison, another office in my company has full-height cubicles, and it's really awful to visit and try to work there; just finding another person is nearly impossible, and on more than one occasion I've been adjacent to someone that I thought was in another building -- and whose face I know well-- only realizing their adjacency after long, painful email threads that could have been solved in two minutes face-to-face.

Apparently the person running my company agrees, as they've just shortened the cubicles to half-height in anticipation of going full open plan in all offices in the next couple of years. Frankly, I am looking forward to it (although I will be picking up a new high-quality pair of headphones.)
posted by davejay at 9:55 AM on January 12 [4 favorites]


My entire working career has been spent on trading floors, which are probably the epitome of open offices. It's row upon row upon row of monitor banks and everyone jammed in next to each other along the desk rows. You have a bunch of salespeople on one side of the desk pitching to clients, and a bunch of traders on the other side of the desk moaning about their P&L all day. Occasionally, the two sides yell at each other. Phones ring constantly. I was glad to have six monitors in a 3x2 stack because then I didn't need to awkwardly look at the sales guy sitting across from me all day. I heard the boss in one of our other offices actually forbid more than one row of monitors for this reason. There is a TV with either CNBC or Bloomberg News playing constantly.

At this point, the idea of having my own office with a door is like a dream. Imagine not having to hear my coworkers play stupid Youtube videos with the sound turned up? To not have to listen to the same commercial 20 times a day? Even the boss rarely uses his office with a door, he's usually sitting on the desk with us because he knows people will goof off if he doesn't.
posted by pravit at 9:58 AM on January 12


You also get very, very poor results by pairing an actually competent programmer with one of those people who actually has no clue but has a tremendous amount of ego investment in hiding that fact.

Oh, but you get great results from pairing an actually competent programmer with someone who isn't, but who wants very much to get better. There is no faster, better way to ramp up new employees, either.
posted by davejay at 9:58 AM on January 12 [3 favorites]


1. Open floorplan means having/overhearing conversations constantly, which in my line of work allows for "oh, hey, you're having problems with X? I can help you with X/I just broke X and I'm working on it, so the problem isn't you, give me five minutes to fix X" problem solving that's critical to my line of work.

This is what happens to me all day except it's because no one else has the secret decoder glasses I own that allows only me to read help files. I mean, I guess that's why no one else can look things up.

I move into my own office tomorrow and I'm so excited I could cry. No more people sneaking up behind me! No more ''mama, stop arguing with Mabel about what show to watch" overheard conversations! No more having to hear people chew!
posted by winna at 10:42 AM on January 12


Full height cubes are like a maze of soul-death.
posted by Artw at 10:52 AM on January 12 [3 favorites]


No more having to hear people chew!

Yeah, open space noisiness/boisterousness is a feature, not a bug. Open space plus quiet space == OH MY GOD I WILL KILL YOU IF YOU KEEP MAKING THAT ORDINARY BREATHING SOUND CANT YOU JUST HOLD YOUR BREATH so congrats on your new office!
posted by davejay at 11:12 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]


Mmm, yeah, I'm with davejay. I like the open plan for the same reasons he lists.

It may just be that our butts/space ratio is good. There's only five of us in our shipping-container-turned-into-an-office. We have a small cubicle-sized space at one end with a wall and a door for truly "I need to have a discussion with an employee in private" moments.

Also, a large part of our job requires going to where the work is, not hanging out in the office, so mostly there's only one or two other people in there at any time.

I could also be biased because previous to this we had community workstations and step 1 was always finding a free one. I'm just happy to have my own file cabinet and a computer guaranteed to be available to me when I need it.

(And before that, I was on a submarine where I was doing good to find a flat surface nobody else was using, and even then I had to move when someone needed to get by. Which explains my low standards for acceptable work areas and also my superpower of being able to get along in close spaces with anyone.)
posted by ctmf at 11:35 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]


Open floorplan means having to always be working on something or everyone else knows you're not working on something

Ha ha ha. No.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:49 AM on January 12 [5 favorites]


I think that all those pictures of mission control from the 60s and 70s have a lot to answer for.
posted by rongorongo at 12:10 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]


I haven't had a job in over a year and was really missing it until I got through this thread. Thanks to all!
posted by Cookiebastard at 12:11 PM on January 12 [4 favorites]


wobdev: "Bosses never seem to choose open plan offices for themselves. Funny, that."
My last employer had everybody sitting in open-plan offices, including the CEO. He had a meeting room behind his desk that was solely reserved for him, so he could always have a meeting in private, but I'd estimate he spent about three quarters of his time at his desk.

I don't mind open plan offices, as long as I can wear headphones when I need to focus. Now I'm in a single office, and there are days where I don't speak to a single person which can get fairly lonely at times.
posted by brokkr at 12:18 PM on January 12


Just as a point of reference, open office plans are a whole lot older than the post war era.
posted by IndigoJones at 12:23 PM on January 12 [2 favorites]


I have been with the same company for twenty years. Most of that time has been in cubes. Sometimes I'd have a loud neighbor, or the one who would talk on the phone about her past breast-reduction surgery and corset purchases, but that was just the way it was.
Then last fall, word came down that several departments were going to shuffle to different spaces, including mine. My boss asked me if I wanted an office. I thought she was joking at first, but it actually happened (after a two-week stint in a "pod" until the former occupant of the office moved out). It was great! For the third time in twenty years, I felt like the company actually respected me. No more paranoia about whether someone was looking over my shoulder while I picked my teeth and stuff.
I had been in the office about a month when they announced that my department was moving again. Nobody would be moving into the space we were in, they just wanted to put us in an open floor-plan with the department that sends us work requests. Every person in my department complained to my boss's boss, and his boss, but they insisted that this was the way that they did it at Amazon, so we were going to do it too. They took a big unoccupied room that had 40 cubes in it, and made it into a 26-workspace open plan, with only 17 of them occupied. (Two of those people soon left the company.) There's also an empty area big enough that people have set up a putting machine and a cornhole game. I joke about putting in a go-kart track.
I've supplemented the half-width wall between my boss and me with cardboard-box "shelves", and used a whiteboard as a wall behind me. I decided that would be less likely to get me in trouble than the plywood & duck tape plan I was considering. I'm still in plain view of two people's desks, but at least I've blocked off the main walkway.
My boss often urges me to look more busy, when she sees me reading Metafilter on my phone. Not to get more done, just to look like I am.
Unsurprisingly, the chain of command advocating the open floor plan all have offices.
posted by Tool of the Conspiracy at 12:33 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]


We've had an open plan office for just over a year now.

Our VPs have desks out in the open like everyone else at our office (albeit off in a very secluded corner behind a conference room).

Firsthand, I can definitely see the diminished productivity due to incessant distractions. Sure, every once in a while someone might say "foo is broken, what's going on *running around with hair on fire*" and I hear it and can alert them to the fact that I know about it and foo will be working again shortly. However, for every case like this, there are a dozen where it's a bunch of people arguing about "foobar" and foobar has nothing to do with me, but it's still distracting me from getting my shit done.

I've also seen a major uptick in sick leave taken. I'm not sure if this is because people just can't stand being in the office another day and need to blow off steam, or if the office is legitimately a petri dish for infectious disease. I suspect the latter.

On the bright side, at least the employers seem to be eating the productivity losses instead of passing them on to us. It's only fair, given that we never get bonuses or raises when the productivity increases.
posted by mullingitover at 12:36 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]


on more than one occasion I've been adjacent to someone that I thought was in another building -- and whose face I know well-- only realizing their adjacency after long, painful email threads that could have been solved in two minutes face-to-face

this was solved in my office with an interactive floor plan that lets you search for whoever you want, then tells you where they sit and what their e-mail and phone extension is.

My theory about open plans is: extroverts like them, they are hell on earth for introverts.

I'm a total introvert, and I can't get a damn thing done with too many people around me. In fact, I love working night shift so I have the whole building to myself.

so, survey: are you an introvert or extrovert, and how do you feel about open plans?
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 12:48 PM on January 12 [3 favorites]


The best programming I've ever done is in pair programming situations. The problem with it, like lots of other buzzwordy tech stuff (*cough* agile *cough*) is that very, very few companies do it right.

The open office plan though...I'm pretty convinced that's pretty much always a bad or at least measurably less effective idea. The best part of my current software job is that we're all in offices with doors. It's FANTASTIC.
posted by mcstayinskool at 1:03 PM on January 12


Yeah, open space noisiness/boisterousness is a feature, not a bug. Open space plus quiet space == OH MY GOD I WILL KILL YOU IF YOU KEEP MAKING THAT ORDINARY BREATHING SOUND CANT YOU JUST HOLD YOUR BREATH so congrats on your new office!

I am an unlucky person. I'm ADD and also partially deaf, so I have weirdly acute hearing in some frequencies just because I can't hear in the other ones to drown them out. So I can hear people chewing from a depressingly great distance and it can completely derail my thought process with hate and chagrin even through the Marconi Union that I have blaring pretty much nonstop all day.

If I had to have a superpower it would have been nice to have a more useful one.
posted by winna at 1:06 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]


5_13_23_42_69_666: "so, survey: are you an introvert or extrovert, and how do you feel about open plans?"
Introvert. I like open plan offices, because I rarely actively go talk to my colleagues so when I'm in a single office I quickly feel isolated.
posted by brokkr at 1:07 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]


I'm an introvert and I like 'semi-open' layouts (half-height dividers with up to four people in each 'pod'). I think this gives the best mix of privacy vs working together. BUT it depends on the people working there to respect each other. I work in an office (albeit a glass-walled one) and, while I like the privacy, I often feel isolated and need to force myself to get out of my office and catch up with my staff. It's exacerbated by those working in the pods not being allowed to eat at their desk, so they'll sit together and have lunch in the (very well appointed and comfortable) lunchroom, where I tend to sit at my desk and eat.

In terms of respecting privacy, most people in my office will send an IM to someone asking if they have a minute to talk about x, which gives people a chance to say 'not right now, sorry', 'sure, but give me 5 min' or ' yeah, no problem'. But then there's our CEO who used to work in an office very close to mine who would have interminable loud conversations on speakerphone and he has a voice that carries so the whole floor could hear. Fortunately, he's now moved to another floor.
posted by dg at 1:29 PM on January 12


I'm a developer for a company that does consulting work and work in many different office setups (since we tend to be on-site at the client). My personal favourite is working in a smallish team (say no bigger than 8) with everyone in single open plan room, but most importantly, not sharing that room with people who aren't part of the team.

If I was in a job where people spent a lot of time on the phone I would hate it, or being next to the sales staff or something like that, but that's not the sort of work I do or the sort of teams I tend to be in.
posted by markr at 1:44 PM on January 12 [2 favorites]


Yeah, for some reason our company decided it would be a good idea to put the division that has to do in depth analysis of contracts right next to customer service, in an open office environment. It's horrible for both teams.

We also don't have that many 'quiet rooms', so there's a lot of pre planning involved if you do have to take a couple hours where you absolutely cannot be disturbed.
posted by dinty_moore at 4:17 PM on January 12


What is digital sound deadening, btw? I know about noise-canceling headphones but this sounds like something that applies to a space. Is it just a fancy word for white noise in the speech spectrum or what?
posted by en forme de poire at 11:57 PM on January 12


wobdev: "Bosses never seem to choose open plan offices for themselves. Funny, that."

Interestingly, the person who runs my company -- who is moving us to open floorplan company-wide -- is also giving up their office, and in fact has already moved into a half height cubicle outside of their own office (although is still using the old office as a dedicated meeting room.) Just something interesting to share.
posted by davejay at 1:11 AM on January 13


so, survey: are you an introvert or extrovert, and how do you feel about open plans?

I like them, and am an introvert. Being able to overhear goings-on saves me the stress of having to deal with lots of people directly.
posted by davejay at 1:13 AM on January 13 [2 favorites]


Yep, I'm an introvert and I like open plan as long as it isn't too cramped. Due to space issues I currently sit in a small office away from the team I manage and although I love the quiet it's not been that great for my work. I need regular interaction to keep my social muscles flexed because left to my own devices I will happily disappear into my head to such a degree that it's hard to pull focus when neccessary. Fine at home, not so great in the workplace!

I'm about to start a new job in a shared office and am actually looking forward to a bit of company.
posted by freya_lamb at 3:23 AM on January 13 [1 favorite]


Introvert. Have worked in a range of settings and vastly prefer a solo office, but I can usually manage reasonably sanely in an office shared with a couple of other people. A door is essential, though. Open plan made me less productive, more stressed out, and less generous with my time and willingness to help coworkers because my scraps of quiet time to get actual work done became so rare and precious that I ended up hoarding them like a deranged dragon snarling and hissing fire at anyone who tried to come near me to discuss anything.

If I can have my own space and a semi-closed door for parts of the day, then I am sweet as pie and happy to share my mental-energy hoard with any coworker who stops by my office. I hardly ever hiss fire anymore. Maybe just that one time when the new guy broke the copier.
posted by Stacey at 7:37 AM on January 13 [1 favorite]


Thing is, open office plans are very cheap compared to traditional offices. You can cram a lot more people into the same amount of space, and cubicle hardware is a lot cheaper than actual walls and doors.

Businesses don't choose open office plans because they "foster collaborative teamwork" or whatever. I mean, that may be what they tell their employees? But the real answer is that "it's cheaper than regular offices."

And as a side benefit, it's a lot easier to monitor employees in an open office plan. You need only cast a glance down the row to see what everyone's doing.

Sorry to say, but open office plans are here to stay.

(Until someone comes up with a cheaper way to pack employees into the same space. At which point everyone will be longing for "the good old days of cubicles.")
posted by ErikaB at 11:24 AM on January 13


well looks like my theory is for the birds!
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 11:40 AM on January 13


Hip, open-office spaces are good if the ground rules and culture are easily definable. I learned to write and do high-level thinking in a library environment. In my current situation, I can't get any good thinking in unless I put on headphones, and listening to music presents other distractions for me. Down the rows, we have people who play music for their neighbors. While it may sound great to them, all I hear at my desk is the repetitious bass line for hours, to the point of completely losing my shit.

Noise noise noise. It is really hard to work here.
posted by Chuffy at 11:44 AM on January 13


5_13_23_42_69_666: I'm an introvert and I abhor open offices.
posted by emilynoa at 2:07 PM on January 13


Just today, I overheard my fellow open officemates talking about a bug in an application they were developing. I interjected, "yeah, the website is giving that same message when it tries to send the registration email." Then another developer wanders over and says "Hey, our HR app is having the same problem!" Significant glances were exchanged. Eyebrows were raised. And so, working together, we found and fixed the bug in the mail server. The day was saved.

This was the first time in the five years I've been there that we were actually induced to work together by our open office.
posted by Jpfed at 11:30 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]


In my experience bosses have no problem with open plan offices because they don't do any work (unless you count 'doing email', reading text information, and having phone conversations as work).

This applies especially to little startup tech companies, where the boss is usually a psychopath, or at least suffering from narcissistic personality disorder.
posted by colie at 3:03 AM on January 14 [1 favorite]


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