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January 05, 2013  |  Office space  |  8728 hit(s)

I spent over 17 years at Microsoft, and for most of that time, the company went to extraordinary and expensive lengths to try to give every full-time employee his or her own private office space.[1] The company kept building new buildings, and every office move — and there were many — involved a substantial effort to sort out seating arrangements so that people could both have their own offices and had some reasonable proximity to their colleagues.

The company's focus on office space presumably was based on an implicit acceptance of the idea that people engaged in concerted intellectual work need to be able to work in peace. In the widely read Peopleware, a book from the mid-1980s about managing software projects, authors Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister addressed the need for this type of space:
Before drawing the plans for its new Santa Teresa facility, IBM violated all industry standards by carefully studying the work habits of those who would occupy the space. [...] Researchers observed the work processes in action in current workspaces and in mock-ups of proposed workspaces. They watched programmers, engineers, quality control workers, and managers go about their normal activities. From their studies, they concluded that a minimum accommodation for the mix of people slated to occupy the new space would be the following:
  • 100 square feet of dedicated space per worker
  • 30 square feet of work surface per person
  • Noise protection in the form of enclosed offices or six-foot high partitions (they ended up with about half of all professional personnel in enclosed one- and two-person offices)
For a few decades, it seemed that Microsoft was taking this advice to heart. About 5 or so years ago, however, it became evident that the company had changed its mind about space requirements. As buildings were added or remodeled, new layouts were introduced that emphasized open spaces and that featured areas (nicknamed "fishbowls" and the like) that seemed intended to foster interaction: a physical manifestation of the "collaborative workspace." Some years ago, all the technical writers and editors for a major division were moved to a new building and were presented with their new space, which was a cubicle farm (with 4-foot walls) inside an enormous, high-ceilinged open space. Old-timers were horrified.

I moved to Amazon in 2012. The space I'm in is a somewhat curious hybrid of semi-private offices (2 people per) and clusters of cubicles. Aside from obvious seniority/hierarchy, I can't tell exactly how the space is doled out; even as a new employee, I have half of an office. Developers who've been there longer than I have sit across the aisle from me in cubicles. There are open spaces that contain tables and chairs, and I very frequently see one developer or other sitting on a beanbag chair among the cubicles, tapping away on a laptop.

Certainly the space arrangements do encourage the kind of collaborative work that open-space proponents believe in. There's a constant hum of conversation, stand-up meetings, people popping into one another's offices, and so on. Every single person has a laptop, and people carry them everywhere. No one on my team is more than a short walk from my desk, so it's almost as easy to just buttonhole them as it might be to compose an email with a query. And there's absolutely no doubt that the mingling that occurs in offices and hallways and common areas fosters communication; hardly a day passes when I don't have a useful conversation with someone who I just happened to have run into in passing.

This has made me ponder the question of private space versus collaborative space. Were the studies that IBM did incorrect about the need for private space? That doesn't seem likely. Yet all around me I saw people working all day, and clearly getting things done, in an environment that would have made the space designers for the the Santa Teresa facility throw up their hands.

What's different now? Well, here's some speculation.

One obvious difference is that many of the people occupying the cubicles are young, by which I mean considerably younger than I am. (It is one of those milestones of a long career that I now routinely work with people who are about the same age as my children.) To be clear, the average age of software developers has probably not changed significantly in the last 30 years, and I would absolutely not claim that there's something evolutionarily different about youngsters today that somehow makes their brains different or anything like that. I would suggest only that many folks who are developers today did not come up in a corporate environment of private offices, hence are used to working in an open-space plan; it might be the only type of office space they've ever been in.

Another difference is that people today might be more used to creating what we might term "psychic privacy" (as opposed to physical privacy). One thing you do see a lot as you pass cubicles is people wearing headphones, often noise-cancelling models. I can see this as a privacy measure in two ways. One is that it creates an exclusionary environment for the person wearing the headphones, who can tune out the otherwise very close ambient noise. Two is that I for one am less inclined to lean over a cubicle wall and make an inane remark to someone wearing headphones, which is to say, headphones become a signal that someone is in fact trying to work — a kind of metaphorical closed door.[2]

And finally, I think that in some ways things haven't really changed. I was chatting to one of the beanbag-chair-sitting developers not long ago (a serendipitous meeting in the kitchen) and asked him about his ability to sit in the midst of bustling activity and get things done. His answer was instructive: when he has to get real work done, he said — by which he meant serious, heads-down coding — he stays late and works after other folks have gone.

This last, I think, is probably an answer for how to reconcile the IBM findings with the current fashion in open-space design. People do get benefits from open space in terms of collaboration, and then can carve out small niches of privacy in order to encourage flow-type experiences. But they also still hide themselves away when they need physical privacy in order to perform concentrated work. This is made easier also by the portability of laptops, which let people find an environment they prefer and to work there. Many people do work at home, where they presumably have spaces that they've structured for personal productivity, and of course let them work during the hours when they're most productive.

I suppose the conclusion is that if you're IBM in 1982 and you're going to chain developers to a desk so they can work at their non-portable terminals, you'd better give them some private space in which to do that. If they need to collaborate, give them a meeting room. The current environment seems to have essentially turned this on its head: put people together so they can work together, and if they need to, they can slink off and find some private space in which to work on their own.

Even tho I'm old-school, generationally speaking, I don't mind this new environment. Since the beginning of my career I've split my work between collaborative and secluded, with the secluded portion usually done at home late at night. It's certainly become a lot easier to make work portable in the last 30 years. That other people might not find the new space arrangements as conducive as they'd like, however, I can easily see.

More reading:

[1] Contractors were not generally afforded this luxury, and I saw plenty of one-time conference rooms that had been converted to "contractor bays." And in any event, the company's mad expansion meant that it was logistically impossible to give everyone their own office, and plenty of people had to double up out of necessity. But the ideal at the time was certainly that FTEs should have their own offices.

[2] A couple of people who work in the big cubicle farm at Microsoft have said that the open space has had the paradoxical effect of reducing ambient noise — or at least conversation — because everyone can hear everything.