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I'm fresh out of grad school and busy interviewing for my first job (in roughly the data science field). I've interviewed at two companies, both of which look like they can offer me great experience and competitive pay. The one (Company F) is an online fashion retail start-up of about 140 people growing massively, the other (company M) is a worldwide well-established market research company.

Since they are roughly the same in terms of the quality of experience that I'll get, and the salary, the trouble I'm having is this: Company F's offices are on a single floor of a downtown building: one big open-plan room with literally just lines of desks, with every department of the company sharing this room (and therefore everyone able to see each other etc). No kind of cubicle divisions at all. Also, being into fashion (for young people), there are lots of fashionable/hipster types walking around and to have them visible to me the whole time while I am working seems a frightening prospect. On the other hand, Company M, being so well-established, has its own spacious offices in a leafy suburb of town. Many people there have their own office, and the rooms that are shared are quite spacious and have cubicle divisions.

I am mostly an introvert, and the thought of large groups of people makes me feel a bit nervous. I also struggle to do deep thinking when a lot of people are around me, having always avoided the big library halls in college in favour of smaller study rooms. On top of that, I tend to do my best thinking when I am pacing around the room, which would look very strange and stand out a lot at Company F. I know it might sound a bit silly letting the layout of a company's office being a major factor in one's decision on whether or not to take a job, but for me right now it is the only real discriminating factor. I am really concerned that I wouldn't be able to work effectively, or be happy, in Company F's huge open-plan office.

But maybe I am all wrong about that. One idea I had was to "intern" (probably for free) for a day at each company to see which is a better fit (more specifically, to see if my prejudices about Company F's office turn out to be true). Can anyone offer any tips on how to make this decision?

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I personally don't think it would look strange in either environment. People walk around all the time with there head in the clouds thinking. The real question is can you compensate for the lots of people in close proximity with some form of technology (headphones) or with some other technique. – Loki Astari Jan 20 at 17:53
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You're almost definitely not wrong about not being able to work as effectively at company F. Being an introvert and having worked both in my own office and in a more open space, for me it definitely makes a huge difference. If everything else really is equal, I wouldn't even consider company F. Also, research shows that open plan offices are actually bad for almost everyone's productivity. – Todd Wilcox Jan 20 at 19:21
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I know it might sound a bit silly - It wouldn't matter if it was silly, you can decide to not work someplace for any reason you want or no reason at all. It seems like you don't need advice as much as you want permission to make the decision for a reason you think isn't good enough. That you have concerns over being able to work effectively at F is an excellent reason to decline the offer, but even if it was silly, that would be OK. – BSMP Jan 20 at 19:47
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On question in Joel's famous test is "Do programmers have quiet working conditions?", so you're clearly not alone in that desire. – CodesInChaos Jan 20 at 21:18
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Worth pointing out: just because a company does not currently have an open plan layout doesn't mean that they won't switch to one weeks/months/years after you join. – Lilienthal Jan 21 at 10:03
up vote 33 down vote accepted

You answered your own question - Company F is not for you.

I've worked in giant open areas like that, and although you can train yourself to think in that environment, it is difficult. But to be fair, I, like you, like to walk around as I think, and that actually is pretty easy to do because of the crowd - everyone is focused on their own thing. It is the noise and sudden distractions that get you and blow away your thought process.

This inability to perform at optimal levels should be a show stopper for Company F.

Also, if you are looking to get into data work, the big marketing firm probably will be doing a lot more data mining activities - interesting data mining, which is huge right now and into the future. That alone should point you to Company M.

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A good pair of headphones solves the sudden noise problems. – Loki Astari Jan 20 at 17:50
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@LokiAstari and replaces it with the problem of playing music constantly. – djechlin Jan 20 at 19:20
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@djechlin That's only a problem for people who cannot be productive while listening to music. One could instead listen to white noise loops or something like that if music is a problem. – Todd Wilcox Jan 20 at 19:23
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Then there is some of us, that simply cannot wear headphones for longer periods. I get earaches. I'm weird I know. But headphones are not a solution to noise they are an added problem. – Bent Jan 21 at 9:35
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For me, the real issue would be that if a company is too clueless to protect the productivity of its developers (you know, the people who make the products that the other folks are there to support and sell) then I would wonder how likely they are to succeed long-term. It would be like visiting a hospital where the surgery is done outside. "Duck! No, I mean, a real duck!" splat. – no comprende Jan 21 at 13:19

I know it might sound a bit silly letting the layout of a company's office being a major factor in one's decision on whether or not to take a job, but for me right now it is the only real discriminating factor.

No, it's not silly. People have different priorities. For some people, it's the type of work that they are doing and the nature of the projects. For some people, it's the compensation package (salary and/or benefits). For some people, it's the experience of working for a particular name or brand to put recognition on their resume. If, in order to feel comfortable going to work every day and doing the job you are hired to do you need a specific work environment, then you should seek out that employment.

If you think that the two positions are otherwise equal, by all means, judge by the office layout.

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Don't forget the importance on your boss/direct supervisor. I've rarely found any compensation for a bad boss except finding another job. – JeffO Jan 20 at 13:58
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@JeffO Yeah, that's another one. There are probably too many considerations to name. But if two jobs are equal on all counts but one, then that's a perfectly valid reason to consider one job over the other. – Thomas Owens Jan 20 at 13:59
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I get annoyed by people and environment distractions more than the average bear, but I would put a good boss over just about any work environment discrepancy. – JeffO Jan 20 at 16:23

The office layout, the type of desk you sit at, the quality of the chair you're using, and how many people are around you all come into play when selecting a workplace, and if you are lucky enough to get to pick, then definitely take that gut feeling into account.

As a developer there's certain things I've learned to judge a company on based on my own preferences, and on the environment I now know will allow me to reach my peak productivity.

For example, some question I'd ask myself would be:

  • Does this company limit the number, or size of the monitors you get to use?
  • Which development environment do they use?
  • Do they offer me a white-board, or the option to get one installed?
  • Do I get some privacy?!? (which seems to be your own issue)

It seems silly to ask some of these questions, but you don't know how much something like that will bug you until you're in a situation where you're forced to do without it, day in and day out.

For example I worked for a company where the largest screen they would purchase (even though there were cheaper, larger models) was 22 inches, and you also only got ONE of them, because "that's what everybody else has" -> office politics at their best. Well, that's just ridiculous for development purposes. I now make a point of asking in interviews what kind of setups they have/allow for their programmers.

Back to open concept offices.

I've interviewed for a number of companies which took that approach. I remember going in for an interview at quite an up-and-coming place in Toronto. They had a huge office space, with a very tall ceiling, lots of pipes exposed on said ceiling, lots of glass, and cement in the design of the place, etc. All in all, it seemed right out of a Holywood movie.

And that was precisely the problem. That sort of setup is great in a movie, where no one does any real work, but the 10 minutes I spent waiting to get into a meeting room with the interviewer were enough to make me want to walk out.

From all the way at the entrance I could hear conversations from across the room. The sound bounced around off of those walls, exposed pipes, etc. and was amplified to very annoying levels. There was a constant buzz which you simply couldn't escape.

Their "lunch room" was a coffee/snack bar, and lounge style sitting area in a corner, where people having lunch-time conversations could be heard all the way to the reception area.

Sales people on the phone speaking loudly, so they could be heard over one another, marketing and design staff walking around and debating various issues, all while the programmers ALL had earphones on, and looked miserable.

Of course the guy in charge had his own office, with the door closed. Since he didn't want to be distracted by the noise, obviously.

No thanks, guys.

If you're the kind of person who would thrive in a place like that, then go for it.

However, if you read the above description and cringed then steer clear of any "open concept" offices. You will be miserable, and no one will make any sort of exception to accommodate your need for privacy, or peace and quiet.

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Yup. Nothing like trying very hard to meet a deadline with a guy bouncince a basketball right behind you. – Amy Blankenship Jan 20 at 16:28
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@DanDascalescu - I thought it was a little more nuanced, in the sense that it depends on the industry. – AndreiROM Jan 21 at 13:14

I know it might sound a bit silly letting the layout of a company's office being a major factor in one's decision on whether or not to take a job, but for me right now it is the only real discriminating factor. I am really concerned that I wouldn't be able to work effectively, or be happy, in Company F's huge open-plan office.

It's almost a certainty that there are other factors that would make a far bigger difference for you than the office layout. Unfortunately, you don't know what they are yet. You don't have enough work experience to know what kinds of attributes will matter to you, and you don't have enough insight into these two companies.

Future prospects, the ability to grow quickly within the company, the possibility of having a great mentor, the specifics of the domain in which the company operates, etc, etc - all are usually far more important to a career than an office layout. It's typically not that hard to adjust to a less-than-optimal office setup, but everyone's priorities are different.

If you are that concerned about Company F's open-plan office, then your choice is clear - accept the offer from Company M and don't look back. Then hope that Company M doesn't decide to change it's office layout (for good or for bad, open concept offices seem to the the rage these days).

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