Thursday, January 1, 2015

Open Office Spaces and Cabal Rooms Suck

Caught this new article in the Washington Post:
Google got it wrong. The open-office trend is destroying the workplace.

In case it wasn't clear: I really dislike large open office spaces. (Not 2-3 person offices, but large industrial scale 20-100 person open office spaces of doom.) Valve's was absolutely the worst expression of the concept I've ever experienced. I can understand doing the open office thing for a while at a startup, where every dollar counts, but at an established company I just won't tolerate this craziness anymore. (See the scientific research below if you think I feel too strongly about this trend.)

As an engineer I can force myself to function in them, but only with large headphones on and a couple huge monitors to block visual noise. I do my best to mentally block out the constant audio/visual (and sometimes olfactory!) interruptions, but it's tough. It's not rocket science people: engineers cannot function at peak efficiency in Romper Room-like environments. 

In case you've never seen or worked in one of these horrible office spaces before, here's a public shot showing a small fraction of the Dota 2 cabal room:

I heard the desks got packed in so tightly that occasionally a person would lower or raise their desks and it would get caught against other nearby desks. One long-time Valve dev would try to make himself a little cubicle of sorts by parking himself into a corner with a bunch of huge monitors on his desk functioning as walls, kind of like this extreme example:

He also had little mirrors on the top of a couple monitors, so he could see what people were doing behind him. At first I thought he was a little eccentric, but I now understand.

After a while I realized "Cabal rooms" (Valve's parlance for a project-specific open office space) resembled panopticon prisons:

See that little cell in the back left there? That's your desk. Now concentrate and code!

Here's the list of issues I encountered while working in cabal (open office layout) rooms:

1. North Korea-like atmosphere of self-censorship:

Now at a place like my previous company, pretty much everyone is constantly trying to climb the stack rank ladders to get a good bonus, and everyone is trying to protect their perceived turf. Some particularly nasty devs will do everything they can to lead you down blind alleys, or just give you bad information or bogus feedback, to prevent you from doing something that could make you look good (or make something they claimed previously be perceived by the group as wrong or boneheaded).

Anyhow, in an environment like this, even simple conversations with other coworkers can be difficult, because all conversations are broadcasted into the room and you've got to be careful not to step on the toes of 10-20 other people at all times. Good luck with that.

2. Constant background noise: visual, auditory, olfactory, etc.
As an engineer, I do my best (highest value) work while in the "flow". Background noise raises the mental cost of getting into and staying in this state.

3. Bad physical cabal room placement: Don't put a cabal room next to the barber or day care rooms people (!).

4. Constant random/unstructured interruptions. 

It's can be almost impossible to concentrate on (for example) massive restructurings of the Source1 graphics engine, or debugging the vogl GL debugger with UE4 while the devs next to you are talking about their gym lessons while the other dude is bragging about the new Porsche he just bought with the stock he sold back to the company.

5. Hyper-proximity to sick co-workers.
Walls make good neighbors, especially after they've caught a cold but feel pressured to be seen working so they come in anyway.

6. Noise spike in the afternoon in one cabal room, as everyone all the sudden decides to start chatting (usually about inane crap honestly) for 30-60 minutes. There's a feedback effect at work here, as everyone needs to chat louder to be heard, causing the background noise to go up, causing everyone to speak louder etc. Good luck if you're trying to concentrate on something.

7. Environmental issues: Temperature either too high or too low, lighting either too bright, too dark, or wrong color spectrum. Nobody is ever really happy with this arrangement except the locally optimizing bean counters.

8. Power issues or fire hazards due to extreme desk density.

9. Mixing electrical or mechanical engineers (who operate power tools, solder, destruct shit, etc.) next to developers trying their best to concentrate on code.

Related: Don't put smelly 3D printers etc. right next to where devs are trying to code.

10. Guest developers causing trouble:

Hyper-competitive graphics card vendors would watch the activity on our huge monitors and get pissed off when we emailed or chatted, even about inane crap, with other vendors.

Some guest developers treated coming to Valve like an excuse to party. We learned the hard way to always separate these devs into separate mini-cabal rooms.

11. No (or bad access to) white boards.
At Ensemble Studios (Microsoft), each 2-3 person office had a huge whiteboard on one wall. This was awesome for collaboration, planning, etc. 

More articles on the nuttiness of open office layouts:

Open-plan offices make employees less productive, less happy, and more likely to get sick

Study: Open Offices Are Making Us All Sick

The Open Office Trap

Example of a GOOD office space:

Here's a quick summary of the scientific research (from The Open Office Trap):

"The open office was originally conceived by a team from Hamburg, Germany, in the nineteen-fifties, to facilitate communication and idea flow. But a growing body of evidence suggests that the open office undermines the very things that it was designed to achieve. In June, 1997, a large oil and gas company in western Canada asked a group of psychologists at the University of Calgary to monitor workers as they transitioned from a traditional office arrangement to an open one. The psychologists assessed the employees’ satisfaction with their surroundings, as well as their stress level, job performance, and interpersonal relationships before the transition, four weeks after the transition, and, finally, six months afterward. The employees suffered according to every measure: the new space was disruptive, stressful, and cumbersome, and, instead of feeling closer, coworkers felt distant, dissatisfied, and resentful. Productivity fell."
"In 2011, the organizational psychologist Matthew Davis reviewed more than a hundred studies about office environments. He found that, though open offices often fostered a symbolic sense of organizational mission, making employees feel like part of a more laid-back, innovative enterprise, they were damaging to the workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction. Compared with standard offices, employees experienced more uncontrolled interactions, higher levels of stress, and lower levels of concentration and motivation. When David Craig surveyed some thirty-eight thousand workers, he found that interruptions by colleagues were detrimental to productivity, and that the more senior the employee, the worse she fared."
"Psychologically, the repercussions of open offices are relatively straightforward. Physical barriers have been closely linked to psychological privacy, and a sense of privacy boosts job performance. Open offices also remove an element of control, which can lead to feelings of helplessness. In a 2005 study that looked at organizations ranging from a Midwest auto supplier to a Southwest telecom firm, researchers found that the ability to control the environment had a significant effect on team cohesion and satisfaction. When workers couldn’t change the way that things looked, adjust the lighting and temperature, or choose how to conduct meetings, spirits plummeted."
Ultimately, I noticed the biggest proponents of open office spaces have no idea how programmers actually work, aren't up to date on the relevant science (if they are aware of it at all), and in many cases do their best to actually avoid working in the very open office spaces they enforce on everyone else.


  1. I've only experienced open office spaces in my career so far - I think that is an additional issue to list, some of us don't know any better. Do you have any recommendations about how to encourage your employer to transition away from them? Or do you have to transition away to your own company.. :)

    1. In my case, after my first year I decided to move on as soon as possible/practical because the open office layout was just part of the company's DNA:

      Personally, having experienced pretty much all possible layouts in my career, I would like to see a combination: A central room for say 15 people, surrounded by a large number of 1, 2, or 3 person offices, with at least 2-3 ways of leaving the central area. The small offices should resemble Ensemble's: each with a door and a small vertical window near the door. Devs should be able to work where they want. Sometimes it makes sense to work together and collaborate, and sometimes you just need to concentrate. Whiteboards distributed throughout the space are critical. Sheetrock and doors don't cost all that much anymore.

      IMO Valve is successful *in spite* of the open office cultural nuttiness. I noticed the more tightly the devs got packed in, the lower our collective average IQ (and just plain common sense) dropped. If it wasn't for Gabe Newell (the CEO) making key adjustments/decisions the whole thing would have imploded a very long time ago.

    2. Although it's worth noting the company moved offices a few months after I interviewed and started. The pre-move offices were actually pretty nice, a mix of different sized small to medium size cabal rooms and 2 person offices. I wouldn't have accepted the offer at their current football-field sized offices.

  2. Desks on wheels, maaan. Here at Valve you can wheel yourself to closed space, maaan...

    1. Except if you *actually* use them to wheel yourself around to a different cabal room or whatever a bunch of people will get pissed at you. The wheels thing was more BS marketing.

    2. Yeah, I know.

      On my previous work I moved myself to an empty room at some point. Everyone had strange reaction and questions, like why I don't want to be in the same room with the team, but it didn't matter, I got the job done that day. When some people were mad at me for this I tried to shift our "serious" conversation to a joke to relax them, stress in these places is always there, either you deal with it or try to change the situation.

      Have you tried to prove to leads that you're more productive in non-open spaces? What was their reaction? Like if they really saw that you show better results working in a separate room?

  3. I work a peon IT job in an open office. I absolutely DESPISE it, despite very much liking all my coworkers on a personal level.

    There are three main offices of our IT department. I work for the largest office, which has about 8 FTE (actual headcount is 10). That's not the whole story, though; people from the other IT offices will occasionally come by to chat work or -- more often -- bullshit.

    Here's what I deal with:
    --My boss is a nice guy, but he loves to talk. He will start on one subject, and two hours later, he's solved the entire world's problems. He doesn't even realize he's doing it. I sit directly across from him, so I nod my head constantly.
    --The "second in command" guy is, again, a nice guy, but he has an obsession with telling people what's on the work-order list. Yes, I know what's on it because I actually have access to it, too. I don't need to be told what's on it. He gets on these trips where he tries to tell us to do specific tickets even though we've already put our names on other tickets just because those tickets are higher-priority and he's too busy watching YouTube or playing on the Internet to take care of it. Whenever I'm not interrupted by bullshit, I'm pretty much working, so it pisses me off when he can't be bothered to do something because *he* is not working.
    --Third-in-command is, again, a nice guy. But he loves to bullshit all day. He likes to be the "funny" guy. It gets old. He also loves slyly going up behind people and "startling" them while they are working.
    --People come over from other IT offices and bullshit with us for hours...and hours. Some of those folks have a lot of downtime because of the way their jobs are structured, and they tend to come over even when *we* very much have no downtime.
    --Because of the above problems, the boss or second-in-command will get a hair up his ass and decide that we haven't been working hard enough, so he gets on everyone about getting things done -- even the people who have been very much working all along.

    Am I bitching about personalities or open spaces? Probably both, but a lot of it is rooted in the open space. For example, why does my boss get on people who have been working? Because he's so distracted that he doesn't really know who is doing the work and who is not, despite what he thinks.

    It's the most stressful job that I have ever had, and it shouldn't be. Getting simple things done is stressful because THERE ARE ALWAYS FUCKING DISTRACTIONS.

    When I am writing a script, I have to concentrate. I work for 5 minutes...a distraction comes up. When I get back to it, I have no idea where I was. So I basically start over. Another distraction occurs. I end up repeating stuff that I've already done. I make stupid, amateur mistakes. By the end of the day, I have accomplished almost nothing, and that *bothers* me. And it bothers to the point that it adds to the stress.

    But the fact that these distractions exist is understood by all who work there, right? No. I'm the only one who does any amount of scripting or coding, so when I miss deadlines, my boss doesn't understand. "You said this would only take a couple of days. Why did it take 2 weeks?"

    In addition, the open office is my boss’s idea. He feels like it allows him to know what is going on. But the truth is that he doesn't know what's going on. And because he likes the idea of open offices, I can't really say, "This script took 2 weeks to create because of all the fucking distractions caused by this open office!"

    I am just mentioning the tip of the iceberg. I am pretty sure that I could write a short book on why anyone who wants some level of productivity and happy employees should not ever consider completely open offices.

    Work is a substantial part of your life. It's an extension of your home...except this home has only a living room and no bedrooms. I have went to the restroom just to "get away."

  4. I worked in an open office space,and hearing co-workers brag about buying a ferrari isn't that bad of and work place :)). Jokes aside, i want to write a more serious reply.
    Ensamble doesn't exist any more. So the success of a company is not related to how offices are organised. It's about the people who work there.
    Valve in the meantime with the horrible system it apparently has in place delivered dota2, csgo, more steam app improvements with recommandations etc. Portal2.
    Not a perfect system, but then no system is perfect for all employees. Not trying to defend valve, but you make it sound way worse than it is :). I worked in a lot of places with open office and no open office spaces and there are pros and cons.
    The 'hierarchy' thing sounds a bit problematic but i am sure it can be fixed and worked on. But saying this after you left the company is a bit unprofessional in my opinion and seems like a post made in rage. So I doubt it is as bad as you want it to sound. My opinion is based on the all the other exagerations: panopticon prison, self censorship, etc. I mean hyper proximity to sics co-workers can be even in a room with 5 people. The people count not the way desks are arranged :).

    1. Sure, it's all just shades of gray. Forget the science, we need another hat yesterday man! We're raking in 1.21 gigadollars per microsecond here, obviously what we're doing is right and perfect and you're crazy for questioning it. Get back to work! ;-)

      As some point there are things that NEED to be said, previous employer or not.

  5. Some of it probably varies based on personality and other individual characteristics. But I would say that in my case, by far, the best (and maybe only) type of office that works for me is the home office.

  6. Wow!! this is really a new concept and I also know about a new concept like this that is Coworking space in Bangalore in Bangalore here also you can work accoding to your choice whenever you want their is no fixed timing and here you can also get the chances to learn many more things from others.