Your fart is my problem -

Your fart is my problem


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?

15 thoughts on “Your fart is my problem

  1. “Long time ago I worked in a similar environment. It was a nightmare. Luckily, we had one isolated conference room and I used to go there when I had to do some serious work that demanded high concentration. Or wait 'till 5p.m. until everybody went home and

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  2. “Open offices are not too bad when everyone is working on the same project and are in the same “mood”.nnIt is terrible though when you have different teams/projects under one roof. Having one team under high stress during last-minute development while

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  3. “Whenever I have to spend some time in an open office, I feel sorry for those who have to work there all day, all weak, all year. For me, it would mean not to accept a job or to quit.”

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  4. “I used to work in the aerospace industry in the 80s and 90s. The less progressive aerospace companies back then favored “bullpen” seating plans (which sound disgustingly just like these assinine “open offices”), because the executives thought it fost

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  5. “I work on my own most of the time in mixed office/lab space of about 1000 square feet. The other day I was working at a customer's (on some VHDL) and was interrupted casually by someone. It took about 20 minutes to recover, 10 to rebuild the mental mod

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  6. “Great article and I'm surprised that it even has to be written. This has always been a no-brainer and it's hard to understand how anyone could think open offices can be good for productivity. I get WAY more done at my home office than sharing an office

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  7. “Hi Jack,nnYou (and me) are preaching years now against open plan offices since they are productivity killers. I can only say:”If you think single person offices are expensive, try open plan offices”.n… well you need to do some benchmarks …nnReg

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  8. “Open plan offices and championed by people who, in my firm opinion, have never actually worked in one.nnThey sound a great idea, it's easy to talk to other people, there's a buzz.nnIt's almost inevitably also very, very, noisy and distracting.nn”

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  9. “I hate the open office. I believe very strongly in individual offices with closable doors and walls to the ceiling. I need not be a large office, and an exterior window is nice (interior windows can help, but need to have openable coverings).”

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  10. “I have worked in both open plan and fully enclosed offices in my career. Without doubt, I was more productive and less prone to distraction when working in a proper office. I rarely needed to close the door as most staff, except admin and graduate enginee

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  11. “Scientists have shown that a woman's farts are far worse than a man's.nn”

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  12. “Open office and yes, it is a nightmare! Sometimes up to 2/3 different conversations at the same time making it impossible to concentrate at all. I have discussed this with the powers over several years (reviews…), but to no avail. Even got managers t

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  13. “Amen, Jack. It's funny how a closed office used to be a long-for reward that came with a promotion. Now people want these open spaces. Maybe many engineering tasks have become like assembly lines where people don't need to be creative. I prefer my private

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