I Hate Open Floorplans, It Makes Roger Come Out…

Last year I visited Adobe’s office in the Bay Area.  It was a wicked awesome office with a ton of really cool things, basketball court on the roof, wind turbines, and designer space. However, when they went on to tout their collaborative open workspaces I realized I couldn’t work there.

On the first day on one of my jobs, I came into work and was given a paper with information needed to do my job.  It was highly organized and efficient but I noticed the name on the paper was for Roger Smith.  “Is there anything else you need?” asked the office administrator.

“Um…my name is not Roger,” I replied.

“Oh…” she said not sure how to respond.  “….um…What is it?”

I kept my Roger ID card and soon had the nickname of Roger.  It was kind of a fun inside joke that the office enjoyed, and I was instantly known by everyone.  I’d occasionally put my name down as Roger Smith and the joke kept going.

A couple years later I got married to my great wife (now mother of my two boys).  She would sometimes call me at work and would get confused because I was so “angry” with her.  I was disengaged and gave short answers.  I was not the guy I was at home, and so she started referring me at work as Roger.  She couldn’t figure out why I was sweet at home but distant when she called me at work.  She was not a fan of Roger.  Over the years I have talked to many other programmers and many of us seem to have this problem.  We are not actually angry, we are just lost in our own worlds and are still waking up from it.

Peopleware spends quite a bit of time explaining what it calls “The Flow”.  It’s that hyperproductive state you get in where you all of the sudden get a ton of stuff done.  You look at the clock and hours have passed by and you were completely unaware.  It is awesome.  It needs to be guarded in order to maintain productivity.  This isn’t a concept unique to just Peopleware, even The Social Network regularly had scenes where people were “Wired In” and were supposed to be left alone.

Getting into the flow usually takes at least 15 minutes.  If you are programming, this is the time it takes for you to remember what you are doing and then re-create the data structures and algorithms in your head.  You are simultaneously seeing what is and what you are trying to make.  You are not aware of the world around you…until the phone rings.

 “Hello? (I think this algorithm has a memory leak). Yes honey I’ll grab that on the way home. (a pointer to a pointer to a pointer, who wrote this crap). …My…day…is…going well… (Oh man, I think I wrote that code…must have been doing it while talking on the phone)”

It is no wonder programmers seem a little out of it when you call them on the phone or come in unannounced, they are still a little bit hungover from their programming drunkenness.  On the flip side, if they get calls every 15 minutes they never really get in the flow and therefore never really get productive.

What does this have to do with open floor plan offices? When I was working my desk faced the door of a busy hallway.  I dislike working with people walking around behind me (I offer no explanation, it just gives me the creeps) but if I faced the door I would look up every time someone walked by.  It was just enough of a distraction to knock me out of my flow.  I ended up putting a bookcase in front of my desk to block my view from the door, it made me appear anti-social, but I got things done!

My view from my desk.  Awww, the peace provided by wood.

Open floor plans cause employees to lose control of their workspace.  They can no longer filter distractions to protect their flow.  They are bombarded by people walking around, conversations being had, and whatever else.  Collaboration is great, but I never had any problems with it when I had my own office, people just come in and talk; no one else needs to be disturbed.  “Collaborative spaces” have only made me less productive.  Open office plans try to solve a problem that does not exist and make things worse in the process.

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53 Responses to I Hate Open Floorplans, It Makes Roger Come Out…

  1. juliekwalton says:

    This is a really interesting post. I don’t know anything about open floor plans, but I think I’d have a hard time with them because I definitely get easily distracted as people walk by me. This is one reason why I don’t study in The Blue Line or in any of the atriums in the Tanner Building. I usually try to find some deserted hallway to take advantage of the quiet. I’ll have to look over Peopleware before starting my full-time job to get some tips on being productive.

    Like

  2. Mike Weber says:

    Very interesting take on open floor plans. I had an experience in an open-floor plan office that was supposed to be collaborative but instead everyone would put on their headphones and work away. You could go an entire day and not talk to anyone. Then on the flip side I worked where I had my own office and people always stopped by just to chat and it was hard to get stuff done. I think you give a great description that if the work requires a long lead time to get into the project then you need to consider that people should have chunks of non-distracted time. Anyways, great post, Roger :).

    Like

    • ricochet2200 says:

      Thanks for the comment!

      On a side note, to this day when people say “Roger that” or “Roger” I still think someone is talking to me. Nicknames never die I guess.

      Like

    • Tim says:

      In my workplace we have a small team and my boss (who also codes) is the only one with an office. When his door is ajar we know we can pop in but if the door is closed we know he’s busy and will only interrupt if necessary. This works well, I just wish I had a quiet office as well. The headphone thing only works for some people. In our offices there are nine people in the open area (5 devs, four test). Only one uses headphones all the time, I do occasionally but fine it distracting or tiring. My productivity here sucks.

      Like

      • Get some high quality super comfortable headphones like Beyerdynamic DT660/770s. They’re literally so comfortable I forget I’m wearing mine and if music comes on with outside world type noises turn my head to see where it’s coming from before realizing it’s coming from my headphones.

        Like

  3. Jeremy says:

    Well said. I definitely can’t get in the ‘groove’ programming when I know someone could interrupt me at any moment. Perhaps open floor plans are better for people who’s jobs don’t require such concerted, focused puzzle-solving and creating.

    Like

  4. I’d agree with this assessment. I think the open floor plans are so management can keep a better eye on everyone and everyone can police eachother. Just a weird vibe.

    Like

    • ricochet2200 says:

      Policing and maybe save a little on office space. I think the benefit of any policing is more than lost in productivity. This is a classic Heisenberg problem, you can’t observe something without modifying it. Thanks for the comment.

      Like

      • Policing has very little to do with it, the fact is you can fit more people in the same space if you don’t partition it with walls, open plan offices cost less.
        The communication angle is nonsense because unless the person you want to talk to is sat right behind you, you’re still going to have to get up & distract everyone along way, you don’t shout at them across the office (well, most people don’t).
        Small rooms for each team & a communal area for lunch, relaxing, goofing off would be my dream workplace.

        Like

  5. free_bird39 says:

    This explained a lot. I continually experienced this at I work and throughout my whole life. We all do/have, probably. When I get thinking about something, I can block the whole world out, and whoever disrupts that concentration is like my enemy in the moment

    Like

  6. Since this seems new to you, perhaps you’d benefit from reading similar articles from Joel Spolsky, including: http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/FieldGuidetoDevelopers.html and http://www.joelonsoftware.com/items/2006/07/30.html

    Like

  7. umlcat says:

    Agree.

    Its like trying to program in a restaurant.

    I also discard a job, because of similar scenario.

    Like

  8. Keith Brown says:

    Reading this seems a bit like a page out of my own book.

    The part about phone calls was spot on. My wife frequently will call me on her way home, and I’m finishing up, and isn’t totally out of the norm that she would get upset with me because she thought I was upset with her or ignoring her.

    I am also against open floor plans. The other part I always would hate is when people would walk by and look over your shoulder to see what you’re upto. May only be a couple seconds of interruption but was enough to break me out of the zone.

    Like

  9. Fred Fnord says:

    It’s a well-known phenomenon. There’ve been studies, and programmers in open floor plan environments, or in cubicles, produce worse code, and require much more in the way of cleaning up after, testing, bug fixing, etc. After the first major study on this was done, Apple and Sun both went out and got offices for every single one of their software engineers.

    But since that’s expensive, and it doesn’t have the right ‘gut feel’ to the MBAs (all of whom, incidentally, almost always have their own offices) it is rarely replicated elsewhere. And this is one reason why software so universally tends to be horrible.

    Like

  10. Dulitha says:

    One of the things I do is – I work at a different place somewhere at office if I want some quite lone time to get things done. I sit at my workspace when I am doing lot of other things – answering to email, discussing about architecture, browsing internet etc. If I need to work on something immediate – I put on my ear phones and then no one will bother me (unless it’s damn important :) ).

    Like

    • Kirska says:

      The one thing I liked about the highly secure nature of working in defense for a while is I could go into a secure lab to work on things knowing that random people couldn’t just stop by. Only those with access could come in, which was limited to my teammates and bosses.

      Like

  11. If you’re surrounded by strangers whose work you don’t care about, I agree. But then, you’re missing the entire point of open workspaces. Non-trivial work doesn’t get done by one person. Surround yourself with the people you need to have access to in order to get your work done. Get in the zone as a team. Maybe go watch Hoosiers. With your team.

    Like

  12. Cory says:

    I really relate to this. Great post.

    Like

  13. Jack Child says:

    Every interruption introduces a bug.

    Like

  14. liquidityc says:

    You nailed with the part about the flow. It’s on a daily basis that my wife calls me at work and ends up asking “Are you angry?” during the phone call.

    Like

  15. frank says:

    This could have been written by myself, except you have a far better writing style.
    I completely understand what you mean and agree with every word of it.
    PS: Yes, I also work in an f. open floor office.

    Like

  16. Gabe says:

    It’s not just open floorplan it’s having to come into an office at all that is problematic. Read https://37signals.com/remote/ seriously.. this is the future of software development.. it works for open source projects so why can’t it work for your organization ?

    Like

  17. Bryan says:

    Having worked at places with cubicles, I can tell you that it’s horrible and soul crushing. I just recently started working at a company with an open floor plan and it’s absolutely wonderful. I have no difficulty developing or getting in the zone.

    It’s such a better work environment. If I was given an office I’d have to find a new job immediately.

    Like

  18. Johnny says:

    Its impossible to work in an open office without headphones (where is the collaboration?) for me and still I get distracted many times…

    Like

  19. OpenThis says:

    Open floor plans are terrible. Sure it’s nice that everyone can view the windows, but the cost is that everyone has to whisper and no one can take a phone call at their desk, they have to run off to a privacy booth. Our org is starting to get pissy because everyone works from home when they need to focus, and that means the floor is empty most of the time. A classic case of trying to solve a problem that does not exist.

    Like

  20. Thomasz says:

    Open floorplans are cheaper than offices. You will never convince the bean counters otherwise. No one is really concerned with programmers productivity to give them proper equipment (I see time and time again people bringing their own monitors, keyboards, etc).

    Like

  21. Roger Valade says:

    My name is Roger and this post has been forwarded to me a few times….

    Like

    • ricochet2200 says:

      That is hilarious (also, sorry for creating any unwanted forwards).

      Like

      • Roger Valade says:

        It’s all good. I’ve been in the middle of the open plan debate a few times, so it may have been forwarded to me regardless of the naming coincidence. Some people really learn to love an open space and some always hate them. Getting the balance right—private spaces for people to take calls and get into the flow—is an absolute art form. I worked on an XP team with a 40-hour pair programming for about a year and it was the most intense experience ever. But it was also a ton of fun most of the time. Hard to make everyone happy with a single approach, and to find a facilities group that is open to your various and changing needs. Roger out.

        Like

  22. Stewart Sims says:

    I think this is very much dependent on cultural influences. Here in Europe it is absolutely the norm that offices are open-plan. I have never had a problem with this and I actually think if you work in cubicles you may as well work completely remotely because you are so isolated from your coworkers. But obviously that’s just my opinion, I’m just trying to highlight the fact that there is no one right answer in terms of office layout for people.

    Like

  23. Tibo says:

    Interesting article and I know exactly what you’re talking about. I always have a great headset at my work to filter everything around me. Great music (usually electronic and without any voices) allow me to get into that mood. When I’m not into working, open spaces allow me to be distracted easily, but that’s mainly beacause I am not in the mood to work. I don’t think this is really related to having an open space. People always walk around and stop by to talk when they feel like it, not matter the office.
    I think headset should be a sign to leave people alone, but not everyone get that.
    That’s why I love working from home, I cannot get distracted and am usually more efficient, but collaboration is greatly reduced.

    Like

  24. Having experienced both, I have to say I’m a far bigger fan of open spaces. For a very simple reason:

    Developers (and most people in general) are lazy.

    I spent 2 years at Microsoft – with people either paired to an office, or with an office of their own. Most communication would occur over email (people often ignoring phone calls and IMs). When we’d get close to a delivery date, we’d repeat the mantra “If you need something from someone, get up and go to their office. No emails.” Things got done… but would have gotten done sooner if there weren’t so many walls and hallways.

    Of course open floor plans pose the risk of distraction, and lack of privacy when it comes to personal phone calls. I believe the team I’m currently with has solved both. With respect to the first – when someone needs to avoid distraction they say: “I need to work on this for the next x hours. No distractions please.” People respect that. In regards to the second, people are encouraged to step away from the computer to take personal calls (with the understanding that no one should get suspicious when someone does.) If you choose to remain at your desk and remain disengaged on the phone call, that’s your decision at that point.

    Like

    • Tibo says:

      I love that we have unoccupied office rooms here, mainly used for conference calls. People usually go in one of those rooms for personal calls et noone finds it suspicious.

      Like

  25. Matt Wistrand says:

    It’s not just that open floorplans are cheaper; it’s also that companies have embraced the hyped-up “constant collaboration is everything” mentality thought up by the handful of developers who are extroverted enough to force that mentality onto their workplaces. At the same time, I don’t think developers are unique in having to live with this. In general companies want employees who are energized by working on a tightly-knit team.

    Like

  26. Dave says:

    Haha I love this man. The part about your wife calling at work is so comparable to my experience. She always says I sound like a different person. Its just hard to get all lovey-dovey if you know you are in an open floor plan and everybody is listening.

    Like

  27. Once upon a time I was a web / db developer for a medium sized corporation (headed a team of 4 for internal web development portal) and I was in a largish space at the end, with one of those hotel announcement signs before my cube that basically said if I was wearing headphones and editing text to leave me alone.

    Invariably, a marketeer or salesdroid would show up, midcode, and tap me on the should to ask for a progress report on my work I was doing for them.

    “Is that done yet?”
    “Nope”
    “When will it be done?”
    “It was going to be done today, but now we’re looking at tomorrow.”
    “Why?”
    “Because you can’t read a sign and follow simple directions. Would you like to try for next week? Maybe next month?”

    After that they wouldn’t bother me for a few months. But there was always someone else.

    Like

  28. melissajenna says:

    Study after study after study has shown that open floor plans contribute to a loss of productivity, due to distractions. I wish people designing offices spaces would get over how “cool” they look, and actually design spaces that are conducive to maintaining focus. There’s a great section about this in Susan Cain’s book “Quiet.” ( http://www.amazon.com/Quiet-Power-Introverts-World-Talking/dp/0307352153 )

    Like

  29. Also roger says:

    I’ve always worked in open office spaces and I absolutely detested them and so did the vast majority (not all) of people i know. Agree with every word.
    In my last job i actually had the honor of being placed in a cubicle for the first time. This is like a dream come true. Yeah, I hear other people talking but it’s not distracting and there aren’t constant interrupts. No one peeks over my shoulder either. It’s awesome – the bad rep is NOT justified.

    Like

  30. Interesting. Just here in the comments, of those stating a preference, you’re running about 83% “I Hate Open Floor Plans.” Oops. Make that 84%. I forgot to add my vote.
    So, with 84% of respondents opposing the floor plan, and study after study showing that it’s detrimental to productivity, why does my management repeatedly say how it’s “proven” to work?
    Even if we were all head-down and coding all the time, an open floor plan would be rife with distraction, but add in the constant chatter from online meetings and teleconferences, and you have pandemonium that only my Klipsch ear-buds and a strong dose of music will cure.

    Like

    • ricochet2200 says:

      Thanks for doing the math. That’s awesome!

      Like

      • Tibo says:

        You’re counting the replies to an article that says: “I hate open floor plans”. Of course the majority of people here will be against.
        What I get from the replies are this:
        - Helps a lot for teamwork and communication
        - Distractions prevent people from staying focused unless you stick with your headset/headphones
        - Some people are just not meant for this kind of environments

        I’ve work in a place which was a mix of open and closed floor plan with sections of 2 to 4 (squares or half squares) people facing the corners having their back tunred to each other and half walls (blocks the view while sitting only). I liked it because teams were put close to each other and no walls between them easing communication while still blocking the majority of distractions. I think that was the best of the two worlds.

        But I couldn’t possibly imagine working in an environment where people each have their own room, why not having everyone work from home then? Why bother going to the office?

        Like

  31. Peter Wemm says:

    Having worked in the industry for ~20 years it has become increasingly apparent to me that there are multiple distinctly different kinds of people who are programmers. This is both puzzling and infuriating to the MBA types who were taught to treat programmers as a fungible resource. It is simply not true – what works for one group is poison for another.

    First, you have the group of people who are gifted (and cursed) with what my wife (a professional clinical psychologist) half jokingly refers to as “Engineer’s disease” – aspects of Aspergers/Autism that have valuable benefits when dealing with computers. Most specifically, being able to think like a computer. The grasp of connections, interactions, subtlety, system-as-a-whole-with-a-million-pieces etc come easily and intuitively. These are the people that are bothered by inefficiency. When something goes wrong, they understand it quickly. They weren’t taught to do this, it mostly came naturally when presented the tools to use it. Scott Adams referred to this as “The Knack” in the Dilbert comic.

    The second group are the people who were trained to deal with computer systems. Universities felt the demand to produce more “computer programmers”. This group were usually “normal” people. University programs that appeared to work so well for the first group (people who were already engineers, but just didn’t know it yet) tended to work poorly for these non-engineers. Academia, government and industry have been trying to solve this problem for years. The essence of the effort has been trying to understand how successful engineers actually work, and distill it down to a process and series of steps. This has some lead to some truly peculiar perversions over the years – like mass collaboration and open floor plans.

    Granted, it’s not as simple as dividing programmers into two groups. There are multiple distinct types of the first group – you have the prolific writer types, the integrators, the troubleshooter/debugger types, and so on. I’ve seen people who can write vast quantities of excellent code, but are lousy at debugging. And likewise I’ve also met people who can easily debug and performance tune other people’s code but can barely write non-trivial things themselves.

    I have also seen people that I believe fall into the second category who have been extremely prolific producers as well. But also I’ve seen enough that shouldn’t be allowed near a keyboard, ever. (And on that note, I’ve seen enough people in the first group that shouldn’t be allowed to talk to people either)

    And then we get to open floor plans. Most (but not all) of the first group get their best work done in an office, with no interruptions. Disruptions are devastating. The OP’s article mentioned 15 minutes – I think that’s actually the best case and it’s often much longer, depending on the task.

    But open floor plans and group work are core to many of the methods developed to enable the second group to “do work”.

    I think the real key is to be able to find a balance. A workplace doesn’t have to be set up exclusively for one group to the detriment of the other.

    Like

    • ricochet2200 says:

      Great comment, practically a post in and of itself. I kept trying to figure out which group I am a part of…still not sure, I have symptoms of both groups.

      Thanks for the insightful post!

      Like

      • Peter Wemm says:

        I know where I fit. Like my son, I have Hyperlexia with aspects of Aspergers. That’s an interesting combination – and presents some real challenges with background noise.

        We recently switched to an open floor plan at work. I will concede that it made the environment far more pleasant and enjoyable, but damn, it has destroyed my ability to get things done. I not only get distracted, but find it way too easy to distract other people and co-workers.

        And lets not talk about what happens when an unexpected nerf gun dart hits somebody in the back of the head – that ends up costing an average of ~100 hours of engineer productivity. That’s a non trivial cost to the company.

        Conference rooms are booked solid for other people who have to get work done at the office. I’ve had to resort to going home to get important work done.

        Like

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  33. Virat says:

    Anyone here who prefer open sitting instead of cubicles? I think later makes you lazy while former makes you little more productive.

    Like

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