Your fart is my problem

January 26, 2015

Jack Ganssle-January 26, 2015

A Washington Post article, Google got it wrong. The open-office trend is destroying the workplace,describes how the author’s ad agency moved her from a private office to an open space environment. She now sits at a table with 11 other writers. Every cough, sniffle, telephone call, and business or casual conversation interrupts a dozen workers.

Open offices are hip, cool and modern. People lounge around on beanbag chairs. Bright colors and Warhol wall garnishes abound.

The article states: “While employees feel like they’re part of a laid-back, innovative enterprise, the environment ultimately damages workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction. Furthermore, a sense of privacy boosts job performance, while the opposite can cause feelings of helplessness.”

Engineering is an intensively creative enterprise. People need undistracted time to think, to focus, to mentally assemble a complex bit of code. The model falls apart after any interruption. In fact, interruptions are the biggest productivity killer for software engineers. Tom DeMarco and Tim Lister documented this well in their seminal Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams. They found it takes, on average, 15 minutes to assemble that mental model. Yet, the average engineer is interrupted every 11 minutes (Mark, Gonzalez, Harris, 2005, "No Task Left Behind?: Examining the Nature of Fragmented Work." Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computer Systems). Peopleware showed that eliminating these interruptions gives almost a 300% boost in software engineering productivity.

Let’s see: a 3X productivity improvement for engineers, some of the most costly workers in an enterprise. Or, we can save a few bucks and crowd everyone together.

So what happens? First cubicles pushed workers into prison-like cells. Then inmates were added; two, three, then four to a cube. Now those annoying walls go and everyone is crammed together in one big, unhappy room. That worker’s pungent perfume or the inevitable result of last night’s bean soup fills the room. Chatter is non-stop. You really want to tune out the discussion of Joe’s looming divorce, but it’s human nature to be curious, to listen closely for the juiciest gossip.

Does that sound productive?

(In the too-good-to-be-true department, lists “cubicle” as a synonym for “cell.”)

Facebook is seating 2800 engineers in what is called the world’s largest open space. A single room houses ten acres of bodies, computers, interruptions, discussions, bells ringing, phones tweeting, and, one supposes, constant Facebook updating. Maybe a little work gets done, too.

In The Moral Life of Cubicles the author states that in 2000 the average office worker had 250 square feet of space. That was down to 190 five years later. Facebook’s 10 acres works out to 150 square feet per person, assuming there are no WCs, break rooms, or hallways. Extrapolating, there will be zero square feet per person in under 20 years.

A 2011 study (Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health) showed that those sentenced to two-person cubicles have 50% more sick days than those in one-person offices. Open spaces increase that to 62%. The upside is that so many people are out sick that the noise level goes down, I suppose.

Robert Propst invented the “action office,” the cubicle’s predecessor. Shortly before he died in 2000, he lashed out at cubes, calling them “monolithic insanity.”

Do you work in a cube or open office? What’s your take on it?

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