Monday, June 22, 2015

I Love Open Plan Offices

It seems like every month there is a story about how open plan offices suck and how private offices are ideal for software developers. Open plan offices make workers sick, developers hate them, and well, they’re “devised by Satan in the deepest caverns of hell.” The comments from tech workers are similarly negative (see here, here, here, and here). People who would know and several studies have said that private offices make the most productive developers.

Some people's view of an open plan office. The open environment ensures close collaboration and teamwork.

Well, I'm a software developer, and I love open plan offices and hate private offices. I’ve worked in open plan offices, shared offices, private offices, and from home. Open plan offices are by far my favorite.

It will sound cliche, but open plans work for me because of the increased collaboration. Discussing work over email, phone, and chat is simply not the same. Developers work in teams, and it's much easier to be effective within easy conversational range. There is also a social aspect that builds team cohesion. Finally, being in the same environment makes people more accountable. It's much easier to stay on task when you see other people working hard towards the same goal -- and much harder to get distracted and browse reddit.

Conversely, private offices don’t work for me because they are stifling and isolating. My private office experience was sitting alone in a room for 8 hours a day with almost no human contact. Sure, maybe I would catch people going to lunch, or someone would stop by to ask a question, but that was rare. The barriers to communication were simply too high. With private offices, communication required getting up, leaving your office, walking around, and knocking on someone’s door. When people had a question, they would first search, then email, then call, and finally walk over to talk in person. And this is all for team members on the same floor. This cycle could take hours. If everyone was in the same room, it would take seconds. And if the person you needed was on a different floor, well, you'd better hope to meet at lunch. The one floor elevator ride was simply too insurmountable, except in the most dire of circumstances.

My view of private offices. No distractions for 23 hours a day, comes with a private bathroom, and even has a window.

For some people, open plan offices really are terrible. The solution isn’t to force everyone into private offices -- they're also terrible. Just like there is no best Pepsi and no best spaghetti sauce, there is no best office space. I’ve met people who love private offices, who love open offices, who will only work from home, and people who think the ideal environment is a shared office. They are all correct. The answer is to stop forcing a single office layout on all employees.

There is no best office, just like there is no best pasta sauce.

When so many companies make it their mantra to hire the best people, why put them into unproductive environments (or make them to move to San Francisco)? Keep some larger offices to share, leave some as private offices, and make a common area an open floor plan. And if people want to, let them work form home. To get and keep the best people, accommodate what makes them productive. It’ll be easier to recruit, and productivity will go up.