Anyone else have a big problem with "open" office layouts?

Hey all, it’s my first post here.

I was just sitting here while I hear several conversations going on around me and a group of people laughing on the other side of the room. Concentration absolutely shattered, I felt this would be a good introductory post.

I work in an “open” office layout environment and the constant movement, talking, and exposure really get to me. I work best in silence and with minimal distractions, but the best I can do here is to put on headphones and white noise and hope I’m not distracted although I ultimately will be.

Apparently my boss thinks it improves collaboration. What do you guys think?

I just left a job (not because of open office env) that I was at for ~2.5 years to working remote for my current employer. I absolutely hated the open office environment. I didn’t realize how much of an impact it would have on my productivity because previously I worked at a much smaller shop where I had my own office and could go days without anyone coming in to my office. My lack of being able to be productive from 9-5 and the “butts in seats” nature of the company was a huge problem for me.

My coping mechanism for the open environment was noise canceling headphones which can only do so much when you shove 20+ people in a 1200 square foot room with glass walls that just bounced noise around. My boss was sympathetic but there wasn’t anything to be done. The only closed off rooms were meeting rooms that were always in use. It was a very frustrating time and I know the quality of my work suffered because of it.

The part about the open office I absolutely LOVED was that all of the developers (5-6 at any one time) could easily ask questions and get an immediate response. Being able to do this verbally instead of via email or project management ticket felt huge. Being able to easily pair program or mentor coworkers really worked well because another dev could easily chime in or offer another opinion. For some reason this all felt really natural amongst devs but when other people (project managers, designers, etc) would come over and do the same thing it felt much more like an intrusion. Probably due to the non-technical nature of what they were discussing.

I was pretty fortunate and my boss and I were able to convince the others in management that it was ok to work from home from time to time and still be instantly connected. It’s a culture shift though, and while they tolerated it I know they weren’t happy with it.

It comes down to culture of the company, I guess my best advice is try to help shape that culture if you can, not all organizations are open to it. Otherwise you should invest in a really nice pair of noise canceling headphones.

I can totally relate to the 9-5 productivity expectation as well as the “butts in seats” culture - My current employer is very similar in this regard and working from home here isn’t really feasible.

It would be really nice for me to be able to interact with the other developers around me if they did the same work that I did at all, but being the sole .NET developer in the office, I’m not generally one for communication and any time I have to talk to someone it’s over the phone. That kind of kills any advantage the open setting would have for me aside from the rare occasion that I’m doing some Oracle work. I do have a nice pair of noise cancelling headphones that seem to help, but again, they can only do so much. I could put earplugs on in addition I suppose, haha.

I wish my boss was open to at least give some of us high-walled cubes, but he’s really sold on the “open” concept as well as a few other concepts that are pretty ridiculous. I know I work better in a closed-off office, though, as at home I do some game development and being able to just close my office door and focus is dreamy. My home work quality is way better than my actual work quality. Either way, nice to hear another perspective on it!

bleh… the “open office concept”

I don’t understand how management thinkers can keep overlooking the fact that our work isn’t the exact same kind of thing all the time, and the possibility that maybe only one kind of environment isn’t right for every kind of work or situation. There are times when you need to collaborate and there should be rooms available for pairs or small groups to go to. And there are other times when you really just need to zone in and get some tough tasks done without interruptions. I think in any kind of knowledge work you really have a mixture of these two things, but no one seems interested in accommodating that variety or flexibility, instead trying to push one myopic “right for all things” solution or another.

Also, building up tools and habits around collaborating online (chat, hangouts, remote pairing, etc) has the advantage that it works in any kind of office or remote.

I think management types like the open office idea because it’s super cheap. All you need is a bunch of desks and everyone’s good to go, nevermind the fact that your office starts to look like a sweatshop…

I can usually get all of the collaboration done that I need through online means, but if and only if everyone else is onboard, and that’s usually not too often.

I just want an office. I feel so exposed and naked working in front of everyone, and that tends to give me panic attacks.


Yes. Absolutely. A year ago I was working for a big company that was transitioning the digital department to open office layouts. The last few months I spent there my desk was basically a big conference table with about 15 other people. We were practically shoulder to shoulder. I invested in some noise canceling head phones, which helped a little bit. But being being in such close proximity to others was so anxiety inducing. I left that place for a job where I share a space with only one other person. There’s no foot traffic, and I get to work from home once a week. Its pretty much ideal but I fear that if I leave I won’t find the same accommodations elsewhere. Everyone seems to be adopting the open floor plan. I agree that cost is probably the main reason. That, and the ability to collaborate easily.

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I also have issues with the open office layout. Different departments in the company have different needs. Some people need to spend time on the phone and they frequently have calls on speakers.

My biggest pet peeve: the noisy keyboards. Some people use keyboards from the 90s and feel the need to punish their hardware whenever something is not working right… that frustration is then transferred into noise pollution…

Head phones help but I can’t wear them all day long.

You guys aren’t alone. There’s a mounting body of evidence, both new and old, stating that open offices kill productivity and collaboration.

It’s a tricky situation, because in a lot of tech hotspots like Seattle and San Francisco, office space is so expensive that it can really be unrealistic to expect private space. All the offices have been built with the open concepts in mind, and inventory is so limited/expensive anyway, it can be hard to convince your employer to go down a different path. Private offices are also “old school” and not en vogue at all, and like it or not, that’s a motivating factor.

Navigating from that position, shitty as it is, here some things that I’ve found can be helpful:

  1. Find an advocate. Whether it’s a manager, lead, project manager, senior engineer, or even someone outside of your department, find someone who shares your views. Changes tend to happen because of a consensus, and while you might not be able to build a complete consensus and mutiny against your bench seating, having allies helps. If you can find sympathy with a manager, lead, or other superior, this can sometimes go a long way towards making things better.

  2. On the topic of dealing with your space: good headphones. I know that’s well-worn territory, but it’s low-hanging fruit that can help. They don’t necessarily have to be noise-cancelling if you’re going to listen to other stuff throughout the day; noise-cancelling is only important if you want to simulate silence. Above all else, make sure they’re comfortable and that you can wear them for hours at a time without feeling stuffy, sticky, sweaty, etc. Earbud or full cup can work; avoid any “on the ear” or partial cup, because they are almost certainly either going to let too much noise in, or be too fussy on your ears. Let your supervisor, manager, or HR know that you need them, and they’ll likely let you expense them with little fuss. Employers should recognize that spending even $100 on “fancy” headphones is a justifiable, one-time expense that will almost immediately pay off.

  3. Don’t be afraid to work away from your desk. Conference rooms, call rooms, patios, roofs, couches, lobbies, etc. Go wherever you can be productive. If anyone asks or gives you a hard time, just be honest: tell them you’re there because it works for you, and tell them that you can’t work at your desk. As long as you really are being more productive and getting work done, you can back this up with results.

  4. Work remotely. This is becoming less of a burden and more of an accepted reality for software development, especially in large cities where commuting can really be a hardship. Most employers should be receptive to this, and working remotely 1-2 days a week isn’t uncommon. But don’t just work from home: home can often be distracting and disruptive in different ways. If home isn’t actually leading to increased productivity, find a coffee shop, co-working space, or other area that doesn’t have the distractions of home or the disruptions of the office.

  5. Lobby for “semi-private” offices, where 2-4 developers can work together with a closed door and walls. This can sometimes be a compromise employers are willing to entertain. It has a lot of the supposed benefits of open offices, like “cooler talk,” easy collaboration, exchange of ideas, etc. but also allows for privacy when required. Especially if you’re on a team together or working on the same project, this tends to be agreeable to developers. It’s not nearly as intrusive when someone’s asking a development-related question than it is to hear bullshit conversations from other teams, other departments, etc.

  6. Failing that, lobby for “public private spaces,” which are quiet, comfortable spaces specifically designed for people to work in. These are things like small working rooms, high-backed noise-cancelling couches, conference cubes, etc. Quiet and semi-private spaces that anyone can use, rather than their desks. These are often things that can simply be bought and dropped into open real estate, or incorporated into renovations/build-outs.

I hope of some of that is helpful.

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Yes yes yes yes! I cannot work at work and they make a big deal about letting us work from home unless there’s a reason that day! They even took away our high dividers between desks and moved us all closer together. Everyone still IMs all day rather than take off their precious headphones. There are a couple small rooms you can barricade yourself inside but they are sooo uncomfortable with tiny plastic chairs!

I just need not to feel like I’m in a sea of people in some assembly line or warehouse. I can’t relax and just focus.

I’ve only been at my job for a few months but these things are making me seriously consider looking for a new one already. If I fail I want it to be because of my skills not because of the work environment!