Idiocy of Open Offices

Written by Azat Mardan

I’ve been doing software engineering for over 15 years now, and I always had to sit in an open office space. Sometimes like at FDIC or NIH, I had a short wall to form a noise barrier- sort of a cubicle. The walls are only shoulder length so they are still a galaxy away from being sound proof. Especially when the desk is in the hallway like how mine was at FDIC, or near a chatty NIH colleague who spends hours everyday talking with someone on the phone in loud Cantonese. Argh. Human voice is very distracting even when you don’t understand it.

However, that set up is luxury compared to the idiocy of open offices practiced by startup and large corporations on the West Coast. There are rows upon rows of narrow tables with 50 or 100+ people in giant rooms. Tables to tables. Rows and rows. This is a 21st analog of an industrial age factory.

But in this information age, the metrics are not tangible goods. They are harder to measure, and this is what fools senior leadership, office designers, founders and CEOs/COOs. Activity is not “result”. Do they put everyone in the open to reduce slacking because they can’t effectively measure results? (Slack and IM are constant distractions too but that’s a different story. At least you can turn them off!)

In fancy San Francisco unicorn “startups” or giant Silicon Valley corporations, you can be next to a ping pong, foosball or a product manager. With all this noise and distractions, people can’t work. They tire quickly because they go to chat with co-workers, laugh, and play another stupid game which should be banned from any office, which only adds to the noise even more. Catch 22.

Since there’s little work that can be done between 9-5pm, people come early or stay late… or work from home to get at least something done. When they are in the office from 9 to 5, only shallow work gets done. Deep work is almost impossible in an open office. That, and distractions in the form of useless meetings, social media, email arguments, long lunch breaks sprinkled with lots of coffee breaks and gossiping- just anything to kill the time.

And no, noise cancelling headphones are not a solution because the music is a distraction itself and none of it will help from a nerf dart being shot at you (as often happened at DocuSign and was source of constant(something is missing here)).

The bottom line is that open office employees become dumber because all they can do is shallow work. Also some of them will become:

  • More negative: Social media, procrastination and late night works at home to catch up
  • Dissatisfied: Deep work is very rewarding
  • Fatter: All the stress, and the extra snack (typically free), and coffee breaks will increase your chances of survival if you ever will be marooned on a deserted island

Companies waste money because they are paying for unproductive time. Yes. Companies save on real estate, but if there are more remote workers there would be virtually zero demand for office space for them.

I’ve noticed, most of my best work happens in early mornings or late evenings when I’m at alone at the office or at home and the neighbors’ twin toddlers are not crying. I hate open offices. They are just a bit better than working from a cafe or an airplane. At least in a cafe you are surrounded by strangers and not obligated to talk to them.

People are in the open office trap. Some escaped it by working only remotely. Good for them, but for the rest of us it’s a vicious circle of frustration, stress, dissatisfaction and becoming dumber due to inability to perform at peak level and do deep work.

Let’s come up with a solution. How about having library rule in an office like what BaseCamp has? No games, no nerf guns, no talking on the freaking phone (even if you’re a product manager). And the community areas and kitchens can have all the collaboration, chat and noise they want. :)

PS: Michael Lopp in his top-seller book Managing Humans, which I highly recommend reading, refers to collaboration as “a word used to convince you to work with people you’d rather avoid.”