Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The Myth of Open Seating

Sadly, there are still some people who believe that the best way to build great software is to put everyone into a giant open cube farm -- an "open seating plan." These people are flat-out wrong.

This has been a topic of discussion at work lately, as we just moved into a space that combines the worst of all possible seating strategies – some of us are in a large, wide-open space that lets noise carry for miles, and those who were given offices are packed so tightly that you can't actually walk to your desk if your officemates are already seated.

Coincidentally, Joel Spolsky recently had a post in which he reconsidered his long-held tenet that software organizations work best when everyone has a private office; the four interns at Fog Creek worked together well by sharing a common space, and it made him briefly reconsider if private offices are the way to go.

This idea that open seating fosters interaction and creates better software is an unsubstantiated myth that falls apart under the simplest examination.

At Google, you can talk to the senior engineering executives and quickly understand that their commitment to open seating is a reaction to experience in academia and industrial research labs. All of these guys have some story about places like Bell Labs or PARC, where everyone just came into work, went into their private office, worked all day, and went home without ever really interacting with the people around them. This only leads to the kind of culture where ideas never turn into products, where everyone pursues their own agenda without challenge, and you eventually turn into a dinosaur that gets acquired by one of your more successful spinoffs. The reaction at Google is to use open seating to make sure that you're exposed to the people around you.

If you're hiring the kind of people who are happy to go into their office and not interact with anyone all day long, the problem is your hiring criteria, not your office layout.

Building great software is an interactive process, and the ideas from a group are frequently better than the ideas from any one individual. People who have to be physically forced to interact with others are not good team players, and even if you do force them to sit in an open environment, you can't force them to listen to the world around them. Send these people to your biggest competitor.

It is factually correct to say that an open floor plan does create more casual conversations, but that ignores everything else that comes along with open floor plans. It's an extremely fragile environment. In every cube farm, there's always a spoiler. There's the person who leaves their cell phone on their desk at the highest volume, then walks away for three hours. There's the person who carries on a
conversation, from their desk, with the person seated 30 feet away. For some time last year, I became a spoiler without even realizing by playing with a little marble toy in the office – someone eventually worked up the nerve to tell me I was driving 20 people stark raving mad. And, of course, there's always the person who simply lacks the ability to modulate their own volume according to the situation.

And what happens when you're trying to get work done with a spoiler around? You put on headphones. Everybody does it. Walk around the Google engineering office in New York, and you'll probably see ten to thirty percent of the engineers wearing headphones. And putting on headphones does a lot more than block out the loud talkers and the abandoned cell phones: it blocks out all those wonderful casual
conversations that are supposed to be the benefit of open seating. Plus, now you're listening to music, which is only a distraction from what you're really trying to do: writing software.

The worst thing about this debate is that DeMarco & Lister did the hard work years ago to demonstrate that the most productive developers are in organizations that provide private offices. They didn't demonstrate causation but they have convincing data that great developers tend to wind up at the organizations that give them a private office with a door that closes. And the cube farm advocates love to question the details of that study without providing anything other than anecdotal evidence in favor of support of their opinion.

Is it the end of the world to hire the best talent available and then put them in sub-par work enviroments? No. But is a sub-par work environment going to cut into your ability to hire the best talent available? Yes. That's the real message here.

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