Open, Closed, Remote?!?

Talk about the passion

There has been some very dynamic discussion about workspaces and work in the past few weeks. Elaine’s tweet captures much of the spice of the debate:

Six must read items

People who are way more famous than I am have written some great stuff here. Read it, you must!


My own experience (in open, closed, remote;  as a developer and manager)

In a cube


1999: ATG (dawn of the open floor plan)

A place I never worked, but I thought about it and had friends there. They were open floor plan, with many non-bookable conference rooms around the perimeter. The place was monastic in its silence. It seemed like a wonderful place to work, with good collaboration opportunities and a beautiful space.

1999: In a regular office

At Basis Technology, I was a member of a 5 person engineering team. We each had an office with a door and a window. I had a huge door desk and an enormous monitor. It was very quiet. From what I am reading above this was an earthly paradise for some people.

But not for me. None of my team EVER left their office. Virtually all communication was by email or AOL Instant Messenger. (I’m still friends with all of these people by the way). I hated it. I’m extroverted, I want to collaborate, exchange views in real time.

I was the odd duck here, I now realize the office layout matched the culture perfectly.

2001: open floor plan

I actually refrained from applying to Ab Initio because of their open floor plan. I figured my ADD was bad enough without built-in distractions. It’s a very secretive company, so there are no pictures anywhere, but trust me, it’s BEAUTIFUL. Eventually the interest of the job did me in, and I started working there. (I’m still friends with all of these people by the way).

The culture there was quite innovative at the time, and it is still pretty amazing. There was/is a very high emphasis on collaboration and communication. They dislike regularly scheduled meetings, so just about every discussion is ad hoc. That means YOU HAVE TO BE IN THE OFFICE, no exceptions. They have a lot of nice conference rooms, that (if I recall) are not bookable. The physical space is just beautiful. Teams are organized into pods. The pods are quite spread out, and if you change projects, you just move your desk to where your new team/project is. It’s very dynamic that way.

It can get quite noisy (including heated discussions), it’s a little like a news room.

The one time that the open floor plan simply did not work for me was when I was working on the user interface for an interactive distributed parallel computing debugger. That’s kind of complicated! I simply could not concentrate enough on this project. I ended up taking my computer & monitor to an unused corner of the office and working in blessed peace for about three weeks until the project got under control. I was definitely going against the culture, and made the judgment that shipping the damn thing was more important than being a team player.

The open floor plan basically lowered the cost of communication about as far as it could go. Conversely, the interruptions were as high as they possibly could be. I don’t think you can have both, they may in fact be conserved.

Now: Adobe

We’re distributed. My org cannot achieve colocation except at the team level, and even then that is rare. This has some great advantages: people get to live exactly where they want, we can recruit everywhere, not just in our office locations. And some disadvantages: just about all meetings have to be done over phone or video. We LOVE video and it works ok for us. It’s harder to have spontaneous discussions, but IM helps, a LOT.

San Jose. Every office is different. Most of my org is in San Jose on a floor in the tower with long corridors with equally sized offices with doors. The ones on the corners are a bit bigger for more senior people. The first problem for me is that the office is very drab with poor light. Many of the people are working on desktop products with long cadences and perhaps the office plan works for them. Not for me!

Hamburg. These offices are basically perfect. It’s in an old factory facing the harbor. Each team/group is in a separate room with about 6 desks in it plus conversation areas and white boards. It’s very quiet. All the walls are glass or frosted glass, so the light is wonderful and the collaboration is pretty good.

San Francisco. This is a very famous building, with all open floor plan (except for execs) and low cube walls. The building is beautiful, especially the common areas.

Boston. we’re a small team sharing space with a larger team (Adobe Campaign). The space is being reworked now but will be mostly open, Facebook style. We’ll see.

Remote we have a lot of remote people. See above.

It seems that…

Like much of life this is a matter of preference. When people complain about their office space they MAY be complaining about the culture of the office and of course these are inextricably entwined. So, if you’re designing your space for your org, here are some of the constraints/tradeoffs

  • concentration v. collaboration. To me, coding is a fraction of the job, and communicating and collaborating is a bigger part. But I don’t code at work, so YMMV. (I still thought this when I did code at work).
  • beautiful space with good light. This is a must for me. A crappy work environment would be a huge minus.
  • colocation. For me, this is ideal, but read Matt Mullenweg.
  • whiteboards. put them everywhere!
  • video. if you are distributed, make this plentiful.

The theory of multiple intelligence can be glibly adopted here to state that everyone is right. There is no size that fits all, but there may be a size that best fits the kind of work your org is trying to do. As job applicants, we can also seek out the environment that works for us.

If I was starting a new team/org/company, I would strive for space that had:

  • great light
  • non-enormous rooms, of varying sizes (to fit teams and projects)
  • plenty of non bookable rooms of varying size
  • white boards everywhere
  • lots of communal gathering spots

And a culture that:

  • respected people being ‘in the zone’
  • respected people who have their headphones on all the time
  • valued peace and quiet

How hard could that be?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s