Stuntman And Lover Of Cheese

by Dan Bostonweeks

Workplace Disdain

I had been working on a post about how I feel about my work/life balance, the way work is going, and some of the things I want to improve in my life. Some of this I haven’t decided if I even want to publish yet. I have extracted here one part of it that happens to coincide with a recently published opinion piece by Susan Cain in the New York Times: The Rise of the New Groupthink.

In the article Ms. Cain starts:

SOLITUDE is out of fashion. Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place. Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in.

I’ve worked in a lot of different types of offices. By far the one I have the most distain for is the open floor plan. Unsurprisingly this is the kind of office at my current day job.

Let us rewind a bit first, back a mere 30 years or so to when I was in first, second, and third grades. Good old Blue Ridge Elementary. It was designed as an open plan school. No walls between the classrooms. Children could move from their current class to something that looked more interesting throughout the day. It was all very nouveau I’m sure. The problem is it didn’t work. Especially with children distractions are easy to come by and derail the learning process. For me it was exacerbated by the fact that I was bored and quickly finished my lessons1. So what did the school do? Eventually they put up cabinets and shelves designed to form classroom-sized spaces out of these giant rooms set aside for each grade level.

Of the work spaces I’ve had there have been cubes, offices, offices without ceilings, more cubes, and now, ugh, pods.

Cubes are less than ideal, but overall the ones I’ve had did have at least one redeeming quality, you could move the desk in it. Now, I know there are a lot of cubes that have built-in desks. These are not those, the built-in desks suck. What I’ve had are cubes that have either permanent half walls2 or modular walls but with room enough for a real desk that can be oriented different directions. The biggest benefit of having cubes like this is that a person could face the hall way. There’s nothing people like less than having their back to the hall and people walking up on them. Ms. Cain touches on that in the article too.

I did love the offices I had. The offices without a ceiling were essentially just cubes with a higher wall and a door. You still got noise pollution, but you could close the door and signal unavailability.

In the last four or five years I’ve worked at places that had either newly constructed or relatively newly built facilities. The worrying trend is to large open rooms where noise pollution becomes rampant and destroys productivity like a plate of chocolate-chip cookies in front of Cookie Monster.

I worked in an old pre World War II hangar that was converted to a very nice office space. Each person not in an office had a cube made of modular walls and cabinets and a sit-stand desk. Great gear. Not one person looked at the design and thought that a giant room with a curved ceiling about 20 feet and walls that were only normal height for your average office building would good for making a room full of software developers be able to concentrate in some semblance of solitude. The open area in the middle of the room was great for our team to commune and meet. The noise from outside was unbearable. At my desk I could hear very clearly conversations from over the wall in a different group. It wasn’t that they were being too loud, it’s that the acoustics were perfect so I couldn’t help but feel like I was standing right next to the people talking.

At my current job it’s even worse. When the company moved into this space they bought the furniture from the previous tenant. That consists of hexagonal shaped pods with walls only at about four feet. The desk surfaces are built onto the walls and are unadjustable. This means that everyone has to face their back to the center of the pod, and guess what, anyone can walk up on you. No bueno.

People will excuse it by alluding to the “open, collaborative office.” I call bullshit. All we have now are groups next to each other and when my group is trying to discuss an issue and the group next to us is discussing an issue we both have to raise the volume a little to be heard. Add the groups on either side of us and that’s just ⅓ of the floor. Imagine both sides of engineering pods going and the cacophony is deafening. Just imagine trying to focus and work during that time, you can’t. It’s far too disruptive and happens nearly every day.

People will say “just put on headphones,” and I do. I can get into a zone with the cans on and the monitor. It’s like I have a hood on between me and my monitor. My field of vision is just the monitor. Awesome. But guess what, it’s rare that I can get there. Not awesome.

Another suggestion I’ve heard is to book a conference room. There are two problems with that. First, it’s selfish and hogs a resource that could be used for an actual meeting3. Second, conference room chairs and tables are no better for working at than my desk, where I have a big monitor and can see a heck of a lot more than my laptop screen.

I seem to have done a lot of complaining, but I think it’s because I genuinely care about my work environment and being productive. It’s not too much for a team of software engineers4 to have an area they can close a door and be apart from the rowdy masses. Ms. Cain’s article really hit home to me. I like working with my team. We are really working well together, but I feel guilty that I know I’ve caused disruptions for them and they for me. It shouldn’t be that way. We all need a little solitude and a place to get away and get work done. Is it too much to ask for that?

Ms. Cain summerizes with:

But even if the problems are different, human nature remains the same. And most humans have two contradictory impulses: we love and need one another, yet we crave privacy and autonomy.

To harness the energy that fuels both these drives, we need to move beyond the New Groupthink and embrace a more nuanced approach to creativity and learning. Our offices should encourage casual, cafe-style interactions, but allow people to disappear into personalized, private spaces when they want to be alone. Our schools should teach children to work with others, but also to work on their own for sustained periods of time. And we must recognize that introverts like Steve Wozniak need extra quiet and privacy to do their best work.

I wouldn’t call myself an introvert exactly, but I know I benefit from some quite time without interruptions. When I had an office I was able to close the door to signal I was busy. Now with an open office there’s not really a way to do that and it sucks. This is also not to say that an open plan can’t work, but the team of people and mission has to be perfectly aligned.

  1. No bragging here, I have always had a good grasp of new subjects. Teachers would keep the class on the same level of instruction so that all children were taught at the speed of the slowest learner. That, too, didn’t work.  ↩

  2. I’ve seen anything from about four to seven feet, but never would they go to ceiling height.  ↩

  3. Don’t even get me started on meetings though, they are death, but that’s the subject of another post.  ↩

  4. Believe it or not, software engineering is a creative endeavor. Anyone that says otherwise doesn’t have any idea about what designers and engineers go through to get software made.  ↩