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The Opposite of the Open Office


The Bionic Office

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about Joel Spolsky’s claim that Facebook’s massive open office is scaring away talent. The comments on the post added many interesting follow ups; e.g., a pointer to a recent podcast episode where a Facebook developer claims the office is rarely more than a third full as people have learned to stay home if they want to produce anything deep.

A critique of open offices, however, inspires a natural follow-up question: what works better?

For one possible answer we can turn once again to Spolsky.

Back in 2003, when Spolsky was still running Fog Creek, they moved offices. Spolsky blogged about his efforts to work with architect Roy Leone to design “the ultimate software development environment.”

He called it the bionic office. Here a picture of a standard programmer’s space from the outside:


Notice it’s closed off. This is not an accident. Here’s the first item in the brief Spolsky gave his architect:

Private offices with doors that close were absolutely required and not open to negotiation.

Also notice that the office is attractive. The outside features translucent acrylic panels that glow with light. The inside is just as nice. Here’s a photo:


Each office has its own window. But in addition, in the wall behind the monitor, is a cut-out that frames the window in the next office. The goal is to allow the programmer’s eyes to gaze into the distance beyond the monitor, reducing strain. It also brings in light from two sides in every office.

This attractiveness is also not an accident. As Spolsky describes his motivation:

The office should be a hang out: a pleasant place to spend time. If you’re meeting your friends for dinner after work you should want to meet at the office.

This commitment to aesthetics is partly about recruiting, but also partly about the idea that environment impacts quality of work produced (c.f., my posts here and here on deep offices).

Bottom Line

I’m not an architect or an expert in office design. But if I was investing a large amount of capital into human brains, I think I would increase this investment by just a little bit more (relatively speaking) to give the brains an environment where they could produce for me the most valuable possible output.

Spolsky was on to something…


(Open office photo by Juozas Kaziukenas)

22 thoughts on “The Opposite of the Open Office”

  1. The most productive offices in which I’ve worked have had large picture windows, real walls and a door, and room to breathe. Next best place is a quiet library with windows and a view.

  2. A very interesting post, thanks. I remember Joel’s article at that time (and I remember to have been very impressed by it). However, if you consider the current technology and where it’s going, maybe companies should re-think the general idea behind “offices” anyway. Why do you still have a place with a table with a monitor where you can go and sit on your own? The use case “Sitting at the desk doing your work on your behalf” could easily be executed at home. What you _do not_ have at home are team rooms, large whiteboards, audio and video technics, hardware that is hard or expensive to get and large gathering spaces to communicate. Maybe companies need to consider about what they still need to deliver to their employees today to enable progressive work. And – to my opinion and my kind of work – I don’t need a fixed desk/drawer/monitor/phone situation anymore.

    The only reason for providing office desk arrangements I can think of is, that you can switch quickly from concentrated work on your own to a teamwork and collaborative situation. But most companies fail to provide the latter! They have complex, constantly overbooked meeting rooms where – when you are leaving – you have to take all the stuff you have produced (flipchart walls, sticky note tapestry, whatever) with you. Instead there should be countless team war-rooms that can be booked for a project and a longer period of time.

  3. Light from two sides: reminds me of the principle espoused by the architect Christopher Alexander (The Timeless Way of Building, A Pattern Language) that light from two sides is essential, and light from three sides is even better and most desirable, for supporting human life and activity in any indoor space.

  4. In college I used to work in a small library that had an open format rather than cubicles. This worked well because I could see other people working, and I think it gave me a bit of extra energy and motivation. I take Cal’s point that in an open office where there is a lot of noise and chatter (as opposed to a library where you are supposed to be pretty quiet, and you are surrounded by people you don’t work with directly) that this wouldn’t work as well. But I wanted the point that seeing other people working can stimulate productivity.

  5. Early in my career I was an editor at a major metropolitan newspaper. Senior, but not senior enough to have my own office. As a result, I was “stuck” in the open office. At first, I HATED it. In addition to the room being incredibly noisy we were also all positioned cheek by jowl with each other. I learned how to speak on the phone with my boyfriend (now husband) so that the reporter sitting a few feet across from me could not hear. But in less than three months, I came to LOVE the energy of the place. I found it exciting and invigorating and when I was eventually moved to an office, found that experience to be isolating and lonely.

    I don’t think there is any one office setup that is ideal for everyone. We are all built differently and we all have different demands on us. I can imagine that some people do better with four walls around them and some people do less well.

    One other benefit of my open office experience: I can now work in just about ANY circumstance and dial out noise and commotion without a problem. My children are frequently amazed by how often they can say my name and I don’t hear them. Last night I was reading the New York times in the living-room and failed to notice my entire family had sat down for dinner in the adjacent dining-room. They laughed when they realized I hadn’t noticed because, apparently, then been particularly noisy getting settled.

  6. Shared offices with a few programmers can work well, especially if the programmers are working on the same project. The increased background noise can be offset by the ability to easily ask questions and get a second set of eyeballs when stuck debugging. I would lean to group offices if I was hiring younger programmers. This would be especially true if I was stuck using modern learn-through-discovery tools like Eclipse.

    But I would invest in sound dampening the walls so that soft conversations stay local. And maybe have some quiet thinking areas that are private.

    This was the campus environment when I was in school. Computer rooms were shared (pre PC era). Libraries had study rooms. And there were the outside grounds.

    Now as I get older, I find I have less tolerance for distraction — and less need to ask questions.

  7. Really great point about effectiveness. Having a place to be alone is an important option.

    In terms of whether it’s the best or always ideal option seems to vary depending on the person and the type of work.

    In my experience, it seems like people thrive when they have the choice to be in either environment and also when closed doors are respected.

    To your brilliance!

  8. I used to sublease space from stackoverflow, where Joel is now CEO. It’s hands down the nicest office space I’ve ever worked in or seen. Engineers have small offices with doors that close, there’s a great coffee/lounge area, cafeteria where they employ 3 chefs and have their own kitchen, etc. Lunch is served at noon and most people eat lunch together. My company worked out of the space for 2 years and it was a massively productive time for us; the space we subleased didn’t have separate offices, but we were a small, quiet team.

    I’d highly recommend visiting if you find yourself in NYC.

  9. Wow, it’s really great. I think that the idea of such open office is pretty nice and will meet his fans all over the Planet. Everyone needs space, no one really like discipline – in fact, all much more prefer the comfort of home conditions. This makes work much more pleasant and for 100 percent comfortable for the employee.So, we need it and should to struggle for it!

  10. The social psych lit. suggests that a hub-and-spoke arrangement is ideal, w/ private office on outside and a central common area. Makes sense to me. Best of both worlds — private, yet open.

  11. Social media has inflicted more harm than good but not much can be done about it. It has become a revolution. We reflect on what is happening in Syria and what happened in Lybia and the rest of other countries to see for ourselves the truth

  12. I’d love it if you could take a look at the book “The Social Life of Information” by John Seely Bach and Paul Duguid. I don’t know if it was the original pioneer on evangelizing open-plan office spaces, but it was one of the first. It did a very persuasive job in its day of explaining the benefits of being able to hear your cowokers, for passive (and sometimes active) cross-training of coworkers. In my thinking, any thoughtful argument for closed-off offices needs to rebut their points to be taken seriously. (BTW, Mr. JSB himself relayed to me on Twitter that a 2nd edition is forthcoming.)

  13. I work from home for a tech company. The headquarters recently switched to a “open-office” concept. Each time I visit the office during a business trip I am amazed at how people can still get stuff done. Once you weed out the distractions at home and create a deep-working space, productivity at home is no where close to what you gain at the office. The only item missing is collaboration, which is still great at the office space.

  14. Most productive work environment(s) for me are where people, ideas, and challenges all meet at one place:

    1. call center (across two floors) during Elbe Flooding in Dresden 2002
    2. open landscape office (created by Zaha Hadid) at BMW Plant Leipzig (700 employees across several layers of open space

    What accounts be productive for my person, and work (solving challenges within complex social systems)), not necessarily be the case for others.

    As a boundary spanner, I deeply depend on open flow of knowledge, information and data and open office architecture certainly encourages that.

  15. I work in visual effects, which I wish would view itself being closer to the tech/design world than the entertainment industry. Several of the larger shops have offices that more closely resemble, in aesthetics and operating principles, factory floors rather than high tech creative spaces. The research showing the helpfulness of an aesthetically pleasing office in regards to quality of work produced would be a godsend to a field that seems filled to overflowing with intelligent, skilled, technical workers who more and more express the idea that they perceive themselves to be overworked and undervalued. Thank you for the article. Love your writing. It has been the most helpful I’ve yet encountered in regards to my professional life.


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