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?

The Year End Review

2015As the end of the year, some unfortunate managers try to roll up their compensation, feedback, goal-setting, project planning and gawd knows what else into a single painful & stressful exercise. Painful for the manager, stressful for the employee. At one of my old jobs, reviews were so important we did them every 13 months!

However, like many seemingly intractable problems, this one can be solved by decomposition.

How much $$?

First, let’s look at from the individual contributor’s POV: “How much $$?” That’s it! That’s what they really want to know. Any compensation changes will probably take the form of items salary, stock, bonus, covered in an earlier post.


In economic terms, the compensation change is the only ‘signal’ that matters here.

You’ve been giving feedback all year, right? Skip it this one time. If you waited a year to give feedback, you really screwed up, and you’ll make matters worse by giving someone a bonus and reminding them of things they could have done better at the same time.


It’s actually fantastic to pivot the conversation around the contributor’s goals. It’s a new year, she is thinking about that sort of thing.

Project Planning

No! This is a one on one, project planning needs to happen somewhere else.

Gawd knows what else

Managers, don’t confuse yourself. Give them their monetary feedback, pivot to their goals and start prepping for the next one on one.

Questions that come in threes

Jessica Mah is the CEO/founder of inDinero, a startup to help small businesses with their accounting needs. In an otherwise dull NY Times interview lurks this gem:

Q: Do you have any favorite interview questions?

A: Yes, I ask the same ones to every single candidate. Some are, “What’s the hardest you’ve ever worked in your life, what’s your most lofty ambition and what are you doing for self-development?”

First off, these are great questions! I especially love the question about self-development. The questions have an interesting parallel in the questions we ask in the daily standup:

What did you do (since we last met)?

What will you do next?

Are you blocked?

Past, future and present!


How do we get paid? For some of us very lucky people it’s like this:

  1. Salary
  2. Stock
  3. Bonus
  4. Work Environment
  5. Time Commitment
  6. Knowledge

making ‘enough’ …

Finding a job, and deciding to stay at a job becomes an exercise in seeking the best score across all of these features, although most of us don’t write out the formula much beyond ‘pros and cons’. I don’t have too much to say about the monetary aspects of work (one, two & three), though I do agree that ‘paying people more doesn’t motivate them more‘.

Living in Boston, New York, California is damned expensive, & so is sending your kids to college. So ‘making enough’ could be all that there is, but if not …

we should reflect on four, five & six!

Cesar Kuriyama (one of my big heroes) writes poignantly about making good money in a soul-deadening job, working over 80 hours a week. I’m guessing that was great for one, but a disaster for five & six.

four – work environment

There are a lot of ways to succeed here and probably a lot of ways to fail. But there are some goto invariants for success:

  • Good Tools — in my trade, this means fast computers, big monitors, nice desks. At one of my best jobs ever, they simply never questioned a developer request for a software or hardware tool, everything was pre-approved. Thanks Carl!
  • Smart, Nice people — when I interviewed at ATG, Joe Chung told me that they were looking for two things: ‘smart, nice’. This was the first time I ever heard this formulation, although Joel Spolsky wrote about ‘smart & gets things done’ eloquently later. Oddly, he didn’t mention ‘nice!’, or invertedly:
    • No Jerks — according to google, many companies say they do this. I have my doubts, perhaps because the number of jerks who have been let go is small (in my own experience anyway). But if you are lucky enough
  • Great boss — the converse is even more true: ‘people quit their boss‘.
  • Open floor plan — good for some (I love it), bad for others (Dan hates it!)
  • Plenty of light, not too much gray/beige furniture
  • A mission you believe in

five – time commitment

I have some friends and co-workers with epic commutes. They are trading in a lot of five, hopefully gaining elsewhere, e.g. the opportunity to live in a picturesque Scottish village, or in bucolic New Hampshire, or in a place with great schools, family nearby, what have you. A truly extreme form of this is the fascinating world of remittance flows back to the home country.

Or, your job may not tax you too much, freeing you up to work on your true passion. Before he was a famous novelist (and way before he became another of my many heroes), Anthony Trollope worked as a Postal inspector. Business travel back in the 19th century meant long train rides, so he wrote his first three novels while ‘on the job’.

I, on the other hand, can walk to work. This is an incredible benefit, almost invaluable.

A job that pays 20% more and takes up 100% more of your time, may not be a great deal.

six – knowledge

To my mind this is the most underrated form of compensation. Talk about burying the lead! When you can be paid to learn things, life is pretty sweet. Even sweeter if the things you learn will ultimately help you move ahead in the other five categories.

HBR reports something that sounds intuitively true: ‘women don’t apply for jobs unless they are 100% qualified’. This is very sad to me (especially as the father of three girls), because it turns your career from an inverted funnel into a tube: can’t do it unless you already know how to do it.

My guess is that one of the best ways to be paid to learn new things is by getting hired to do one thing and then convince them you could also do this other thing. Try it and let me know!

on the other hand

HBR reports that this is what people say they value. YMMV!