Dear recruiter, “open floor space” is not a job benefit

I was recently astonished by a job posting for a company that touted their “open floor space.” Whoever wrote the ad appeared to sincerely believe that an open floor office was a reason to work for the company, to be mentioned alongside a real benefit like work/life balance.

While work/life balance and an open floor plan can co-exist, an open floor plan is a management decision much more akin to requiring long hours: both choose control over productivity.

The fundamental problem facing managers is that productivity is hard to measure. Faced with the inability to measure productivity, managers may feel compelled to measure time spent working. Never mind that it’s counter-productive: at least it gives management control, even if it’s control over the wrong thing.

Here is a manager explaining the problem:

I [would] like to manage [the] team’s output rather than managing their time, because if they are forced to spend time inside the office, it doesn’t mean they are productive or even working. At the same time it’s hard to manage output, because software engineering tasks are hard to estimate and things can go out of the track easily.

In this case at least the manager involved understands that what matters is output, not hours in the office. But not everyone realizes is as insightful.

Choosing control

In cases where management does fall into the trap of choosing control over productivity, the end result is a culture where the only thing that matters is hours in the office. Here’s a story I heard from a friend about a startup they used to work at:

People would get in around 8 or 9, because that’s when breakfast is served. They work until lunch, which is served in the office, then until dinner, which is served in the office. Then they do social activities in the office, video games or board games, and then keep working until 10PM or later. Their approach was that you can bring your significant other in for free dinner, and therefore why leave work? Almost like your life is at the office.

Most of the low level employees, especially engineers, didn’t feel that this was the most productive path. But everyone knew this was the most direct way to progress, to a higher salary, to becoming a team lead. The number of hours in the office is a significant part of how your performance is rated.

I don’t think people can work 12 hours consistently. And when you’re not working and you’re in an open plan office, you distract people. It’s not about hours worked, it’s about hours in office, there’s ping pong tables… so there’s always someone asking you to play ping pong or distracting you with a funny story. They’re distracting you, their head wasn’t in the zone, but they had to be in the office.

A team of 10 achieved what a team of 3 should achieve.

Control through visibility

Much like measuring hours in the office, an open floor office is designed for control rather than productivity. A manager can easily see what each developer is doing: are they coding? Are they browsing the web? Are they spending too much time chatting to each other?

In the company above the focus on working hours was apparently so strong that the open floor plan was less relevant. But I’ve no doubt there are many companies where you’ll start getting funny looks from your manager if you spend too much time appearing to be “unproductive.”

To be fair, sometimes open floor plans are just chosen for cheapness, or thoughtlessly copied from other companies because all the cool kids are doing it. Whatever the motivation, they’re still bad for productivity. Programming requires focus, and concentrated thought, and understanding complex systems that cannot fit in your head all at once and so constantly need to be swapped in and out.

Open floor spaces create exactly the opposite of the environment you need for programming: they’re full of noise and distraction, and headphones only help so much. I’ve heard of people wearing hoodies to block out not just noise but also visual distraction.

Dear recruiter

Work/life balance is a real job benefit, for both employers and employees: it increases productivity while allowing workers space to live outside their job. But “open office space” is not a benefit for anyone.

At worst it means your company is perversely sabotaging its employees in order to control them better. At best it means your company doesn’t understand how to enable its employees to do their job.

You shouldn't have to work evenings or weekends to succeed as a software engineer. Get to a better place by reading The Programmer's Guide to a Sane Workweek.

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