Wednesday, February 10, 2010

On Open Floor Plans

Way back in 2006, I was working for a startup, originally called Sharefare and later renamed to Ludi Labs. When I first joined Sharefare, we had an old office space in Los Altos. It was a "traditional" office space, divided up into offices, with only two large open areas. One was the front reception, and other was a break room area. While there, we had around ten engineers. We would put 2-3 engineers per office. It worked pretty well.

After I had been at Sharefare a few months, we received another round of funding, but it came with a catch. Our board wanted us to hire a "real" CEO, since our CEO/founder was a very technical guy, not an MBA type at all. Our CEO came from Under Armour, you know the sports apparel maker. He was an east coast guy, who I'm sure we paid a ton to relocate to the Bay Area. When he arrived, we were running out of space in our little old office in Los Altos. So he decided that one of his first priorities would be getting us a new office. He had a vision for the new office -- the floor of the Wall Street stock exchange. He wanted an open floor plan that would encourage collaboration and keep everyone energized. So we moved into a brand new office (we were the first tenants) with a completely wide open space.

Now I always attributed this hubris to our CEO being an east coast guy who had never really been around engineers. You see, engineers do not work well in hectic, loud environments like the floor of the Wall Street stock exchange. A very large part of their job is thinking, and people running around making noise does not help an engineer think. Lots of other folks have written about what kind of environment does work well for engineers, so I won't go too much into it. I'm just here to tell you what does not work.

The open floor plan is complete fail. The most obvious problem is the noise. First, most companies have some non-engineers who work for them. Some of these non-engineers really need to do a lot of talking to do their job. They need to be on the phone ordering office supplies, or talking to potential business partners, or screening new hires. These people constantly generate noise. Put that in an open floor plan, and there is always noise. This is a constant drain on other folks, like engineers and designers, whose work requires them to think a lot.

The next problem is that engineers and designers, do indeed need to talk sometime as well. Sometimes this is talking about work stuff, but there is also a lot of non-work stuff that engineers talk about. Maybe they are debating closures in Java or the merits of Python vs. Ruby. You want engineers who bullshit about stuff like that. Or maybe they are just talking about the Super Bowl or Lost. There is value in this too (y'know that whole "team building" thing.) Anyways, when you are in an open environment where noise is already problem, then it really discourages this kind of engineering conversations. If you are lucky enough to need to talk to your fellow engineer when it is relatively quiet in the office, you may be reluctant to engage him/her because you want to relish the peace. If instead it is during a typically noisy time, you will ask yourself if whatever topic is really worth talking about if it means shouting over the din. Instead of encouraging collaboration, the open floor plan does the opposite.

Back to Sharefare... It did not take long for everyone to realize that the open office was not working. First, we tried to put the engineers and non-engineers at opposite ends of the office. We had a handful of real offices that were intended for execs. Instead they were kept open, so that people could use them for longer phone conversations. I personally spent a lot of time in those rooms, doing phone interviews with potential new hires. Finally, the CEO came clean and admitted that the whole thing had been a bad decision on his part. He bought everyone Bose noise canceling headphones, supposedly out of his own pocket. This was his high point of popularity with engineering. Now when you walked into the office, everyone constantly had the Bose headphones on. I think this also hurt collaboration. I know I am personally less likely to try to start a conversation with somebody with headphones on.

Anyways, that was our failed experiment. It seems like the idea has been picked up more and more in the Valley. A lot of companies are opting for this configuration. I think some do it as a cost cutting measure. You can spend a lot less on furniture with an open floor plan, and you can pack in a lot more people in a given space. Others claim that it is all about encouraging collaboration. Again, my experience is that it will do the opposite. Still others do it because they want to break away from the traditional cubicle environment. To those folks I would say: "function over form." An ugly office full of productive engineers is better than a stylish office full of miserable engineers.


josh susser said...

I agree with you mostly. Open plan offices can destroy an engineering team. But so can a lot of walled offices where your teammates are inaccessible. I think a lot of it depends on your team dynamic.

The one place where I've seen open plan work *great* is my current job at Pivotal Labs. We do all our development with pair programming, so instead of sitting quietly thinking, we're engaged in a conversation all day. Somehow talking with the person sitting right next to me means I don't much notice other conversations or the ambient chatter, so I don't get distracted and can work fine. But I can often catch a snippet of relevant discussion a few tables over that either helps me out or lets me kibitz in and help out another pair. That said, that kind of office plan would be horrible for developers working solo.

Neil Bartlett said...

In the UK open plan offices are the standard, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with encouraging collaboration (though that may be the publicly stated reason) and everything to do with cutting costs and packing in as many people as possible. Of course it is a false economy since so much productivity is wasted, but that is easy to blame on "lazy" workers.

As a consultant I have travelled on occasion to the USA, and I must say that the typical cubicle farms that American office workers hate so much are a *dream* to work in, compared with the conditions in a typical UK office.

buzzwashere said...

I completely agree with you. I was chuckling throughout, especially the headphones bit. Fun reading.

Anonymous said...

Wait, if you put engineers in office, they will debate groovy vs. java all day long and tell excuses like 'the closures did not close as specification called for and we submitted a bug report' or some crap when the product doesn't ship on time.

Both approaches have problems.

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