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Open-space offices have clear disadvantages. What motivates software companies to use open-space for developers?

It is not --

  • Cost. Employee compensation is far more than office rental costs
  • Misbeliefs that open-space offices are more efficient. That may explain some cases, but in a free market, companies can do any thing they want, while companies that make smart decisions are more likely to succeed.

I'd prefer knowledgeable answers about why these decisions are actually made by smart leaders (setting aside for this purpose decisions made by non-smart leaders).

closed as unclear what you're asking by gnat, bharal, paparazzo, Lilienthal Oct 9 '18 at 12:15

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    Possible duplicate of Optimal office size: cubicles versus small rooms versus open plan? – gnat Oct 9 '18 at 8:37
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    vtc... i have no idea what you're asking. Bullet 2 states "anyone who uses open space is not smart." Then you ask for why a "smart" company would use open space... but bullet two says *there are no smart companies that use open space". – bharal Oct 9 '18 at 9:40
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    Also cost isn't always stupid, what if your staff almost always work from home, then office space saving make a huge amount of sense. Etc etc. Companies are different – Nathan Cooper Oct 9 '18 at 9:53
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    Put on hold. This reads more like a rant with the most useful question I see here being covered by the linked question. If you want knowledgable and objective answers you should refrain from such opinionated phrasing in your question. – Lilienthal Oct 9 '18 at 12:17
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    But it is cost. They typically can't (or don't) reduce head count, as that reduces their opportunities. And besides, saving money on office space is nearly independent of the costs of employing others. Also, consider what management values. They get nearly all of their information from others, its rare they learn directly by doing. So they value communication, the more the better. An open plan does create more communication, it's just low quality interruption communication. So management is buying what they value without an eye to what employees value. – Edwin Buck Oct 9 '18 at 13:31
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Assuming you mean open plan... There's a few reasons for it.

Communication

The first reason for me would be communication, the lack of walls and the increased open space means that colleagues (specifically in tech) are able to ask for help without having to leave their office and knock elsewhere. On top of this it's supposed to increase teamwork and the bond between colleagues as they are able to be more 'free' in their environment. It allows colleagues to keep regular contact with other people, including their manager, and speeds up the process of contact as everyone will be in a more centralised area.

Mental Aspect

There's a small theory that mentality also comes into the choice. There's a big stigma around that being stuck in between 4 walls without having much space, scenery or interactions can be bad for someone's mental health, as it makes some people feel as though they are trapped. (I am on the fence for this one as I feel it can increase focus and decrease distractions).

Flexibility

There is a lot of flexibility that comes with an open plan. It becomes more convenient to rearrange seating and computers. It allows leaders to visualise where people will sit and how it's going to be when arranged. As for supervisors, decisions and problem solving can be made a lot quicker as they have a visual on everyone they need to talk to. Not to mention that they can increase productivity just by being in the line of sight of their workers, as a lot of people slack off when they have their own offices and thus are able to hide and have less restriction and monitoring. Although this may not apply to you, it definitely does elsewhere.

Cost. Employee compensation is far more than office rental costs

Although this is true, there are also costs for air conditioning, heating and lighting as each office will individually need some form of each in order to provide suitable working conditions. Also if anyone works from home it means their office will be paid for sitting idle. In an open plan it is very open to hot-desking. Depending on the culture of the company this can be a good idea too.

Although there are clear drawbacks to an open plan, such as distractions and lack of personal space, I can see why there are clear incentives to invest in Open plan strategies, but it depends on company culture.

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    ...so it essentially boils down to it makes it easier for people to interrupt you – rath Oct 9 '18 at 9:07
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    Yeah. Communication. I remember walking out of a job (and office) because Communication. I could hear the sales department 40 meters away talking into their phones. Communication. Oh, I am in IT - NO interest in listening to sales calls of the company I worked for. – TomTom Oct 9 '18 at 9:26
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    This is a great answer. I would also add: Management aspect - there are definitely people who would slack off if they were out of sight of their managers all day, they might be a tiny minority, but they exist. Politics - who gets the offices with natural light would introduce grudges which might hurt productivity. – delinear Oct 9 '18 at 11:39
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    The ironic thing is that the Cube Farm was the response to the perceived disadvantages of the open office plan that preceded it. – Peter M Oct 9 '18 at 12:10
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    @rath Some interruptions are great. it also makes it easier for you to subscribe to events in your environment, e.g. interject yourself into a discussion you want to influence. You can stop someone who starting a whole process that will end up on your desk and steal a lot of people's time right in its tracks, or make sure it's more efficiently handled. You can overhear decisions you should know about. You can get the whole department jumping onto critical issues and work them together. It's not a fit for all kinds of work, but for some it has great benefit. For others indeed it has drawbacks. – Frank Hopkins Oct 10 '18 at 22:27
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It is not --

Cost. Employee compensation is far more than office rental costs

Yes it is, in ~90% of the cases. The thing is you get a monthly bill for office space. Wasted time due to sub optimal work conditions is hard to track and to account for.

Misbeliefs that open-space offices are more efficient.

There are people that are more efficient in an open plan. I personally know a Mathematician that prefers those setups. That, together with control, for Managers that don´t trust their employees too much makes about remaining 10%.

Also there are work styles that kind of require an open plan. Read "Joy inc." if you want to know one good example.

but in a free market, companies can do any thing they want, while companies that make smart decisions are more likely to succeed.

This belief does not explain 99% of the Fortune 500´s companies. You should work on your understanding of the economic system.

I'd prefer knowledgeable answers about why these decisions are actually made by smart leaders.

It is a fact that smart leaders are a very rare sight. And even if you happen to have one, he will not be smart about everything. Even if he is, there are some things that are just more or less up to personal taste and experience. Also your smart leader may have a dumb optimization goal (reduce office spending ...) from his leaders.

  • > does not explain 99% of the Fortune 500´s companies. ... smart leaders are a very rare sight. OK, so we have some advice here for CEOs -- avoid open-space, and beat the competition. – Joshua Fox Oct 9 '18 at 11:24
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    @Joshua Fox: Unfortunately that is not how any real world market example works. Also read the book! – Daniel Oct 9 '18 at 11:31
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    @JoshuaFox - Unfortunately, in a larger company, the workers' lost productivity is a lower percentage of success/failure. A good marketing campaign or a thoughtless tweet from an executive can have much more impact to a company. – Wesley Long Oct 9 '18 at 13:04
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Cost. Employee compensation is far more than office rental costs

The problem is that your employee headcount can be scaled up and down easily, but your office space can not.

Our company employee count is steadily growing over the past few years. Unfortunately our buildings stay the same. So it gets more and more crowded. Offices planned for two people get staffed with three or four, conference rooms get converted to offices and walls get torn down to fit in more desks.

There are of course alternative solutions. Add an additional wing to an existing building (if space allows). Move to a larger building. Or acquire an additional building and move some departments there. Unfortunately these are feats which require a lot of planning and will be disruptive to the company. Also the cost of moving to a different building should not be underestimated. So stop-gap measures like converting floors to open plans can look attractive to the management.

Misbeliefs that open-space offices are more efficient.

Unfortunately that misbelieve is still very ingrained in many managers. That's because it isn't such a black-and-white thing. There are some people who can work well in open plan offices. There are some tasks where open plan environments are more efficient. In many cases, these are the minority. But these counter examples can make it difficult to make the decision to abandon cubicles in favor of isolated offices.

Also, managers do not want to run behind every single new trend. Open plan offices used to be the way to design office buildings. Now it's suddenly private offices. But maybe that's just a fad? Do you really want to spend good money on what could be obsolete again in a few years?

Common wisdom needs time to spread.

while companies that make smart decisions are more likely to succeed

They certainly do succeed in one area: employee acquisition. When I am looking for a job, I always want to know about the work conditions. If they can not promise me that I won't be working in a room with more than three other people, then I won't take the job. I am not alone in this regard. The Joel Test includes this criterium too. "8. Do programmers have quiet working conditions?".

But hiring the right people is not the only thing which decides about success and downfall of a company.

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On any significant software project, no one person understands everything going on, so the developers have to talk to each other, quite often. And face-to-face talking is way better for communicating difficult concepts than IM, e-mail, 'phone or video. Good developers talk to each other fairly quietly, so as not to disturb other developers, and have sufficient powers of concentration that they aren't easy to disturb.

As a software developer, individual rooms make me feel much more isolated. Having a feeling of being part of a group improves my self-confidence, and being in an open area supplies that.

As for the company as a whole, what it gets from software developers is:

  • New software.
  • Bug fixes and upgrades for existing software.
  • Occasionally, ideas for other parts of the business.

All of those things are helped by whatever makes the software developers more productive. As for other kinds of tech work, the ones I have experience of are:

  • Technical writing, which requires the same kind of communication as software development.

  • Providing 'phone support, where individual rooms are definitely best, because of the better soundproofing. Many 'phone support customers are frightened and talk very quietly, so it's hard to hear them over background noise.

I don't have experience of other kinds of "tech work" but these are enough to show that there isn't a single solution that's best for all of them.

Note that if you have an open area, making it too big can be a problem, because noise can propogate a long way. You also need to have some small rooms available so that people can talk privately when that's necessary.

  • Are you saying that open-plan for tech workers is better for the company as a whole? – Joshua Fox Oct 9 '18 at 11:37
  • I'm in an office with 4 more people (software dev). To be honest it's very annoying to interrupt their work for asking something and even more annoying to be interrupted myself. We have no official IM to use. Just some of us use one and it's much more effective due to less interrupts. – Otto V. Oct 9 '18 at 11:41
  • @JoshuaFox: added more material. – John Dallman Oct 9 '18 at 11:55
  • I feel this is an excellent answer. The cost for software development from lack of communication from my experience seems to outweigh the potential downsides from developers preferring a quiet environment. I think a combination of a generally quiet workplace (i.e. away from sales), a recognition of the cost of interruptions and a willingness to engage in measured communication from all sides is important. – Dave Oct 9 '18 at 12:39
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    @OttoV. - Any company with 5 people or more should have an IM system. I can think of at least a dozen that are no-cost. This is just bad leadership. Get Slack and just go with it. Make it a standard, and just use it. – Wesley Long Oct 9 '18 at 13:07

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