Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Different Minds IV (Meta Open Plan Disaster)

So, I am sitting in an office where I am being very well paid despite being completely unproductive.

And it occurs to me that something is very wrong here. Once upon a time, engineers got offices to themselves, as is normal for lawyers and academics and other people who need to be able to think complex thoughts.

And yet somehow, over the last twenty years or so, open plan offices have become more and more popular amongst companies that do software for a living.

I can think of two obvious reasons why that could happen:

The first is cost. Obviously open-plan is a bit cheaper. But that's just ridiculous. Say that you rented a house in Cambridge for £1000/month. That would easily get you five large offices plus facilities, so we can put an upper bound on office cost of £200/person/month.

How much of that can you save by going open plan? Being generous, say half of it. Call it 160 hours, so you're saving ~ 50p / hour by having an open plan environment.

I'd guess that the average cost of engineering staff is a couple of orders of magnitude higher than that.

You wouldn't even notice a productivity change of 1%.  By my own estimates, my productivity has been completely shredded by having people talking while I'm trying to think. Even if I'm wrong and I'm only down to working at half speed, cost can't even be an issue.

The second reason would be communication, which is extraordinarily important amongst a programming team (that's why outsourcing never works). But programmers talk much less in open-plan environments than they do normally, because they're conscious of disturbing other people. In every computer shop I've ever worked in, the interesting complicated conversations go on in the kitchen or in meeting rooms, where people can bounce ideas off each other without annoying everyone else.

In the particular shop I'm talking about, it was hard to have meetings in the kitchen because everyone was having meetings there, and what with people making tea and such, it was sometimes hard even to get in!

So I don't think it can be communication either. There definitely are communication problems in the traditional layout, but they're easy to solve by having common rooms with water-coolers and tea making facilities and whiteboards and sofas.

So the only reason I could think of why open plan has caught on is that the people making the decisions aren't programmers.

They actually don't realise that with their big open friendly spaces (and don't get me wrong, I'd much rather sit in a cafe that was all one room than in one divided into separate private rooms) they're completely screwing the productivity of their company.

But then I'm not sure that that explanation can work either. Because isn't the market supposed to sort that sort of thing out? Wouldn't a programming shop that did something that weird and horrific just go out of business, out-competed by its wiser siblings?

Apparently that hasn't happened either.

So I've run out of candidate explanations.

I notice that I am confused.

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