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!
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.