Every time I write about the growing scientific evidence against open-plan offices, I receive comments and tweets explaining why this evidence is wrong:

The author has been passed by in life. The opinions are almost comical like "Writing and testing code is an intensely private activity that requires concentration and focus. An open plan office is the worst possible place to try to do that type of work." This is so antiquated and wrong. There are many ways to write and test code outside of his opinion. Maybe reach out to 10-20 digital companies and see what is actually happening out here.

Just to clarify, I don't deny that there are plenty of software companies that produce usable code inside open-plan offices. But that doesn't prove that it's the best way to produce great code.

Arguably, the biggest revolution in software development since the invention of the compiler was the open-source movement, which has resulted in landmark products like Firefox, Audacity, GIMP, OpenOffice, and Blender.

In many cases, such software is developed by dispersed teams working together remotely. In many cases, the developers have never met personally, much less been crammed into a bullpen-style office.

Of the companies that create open-source software, the most successful has undoubtedly been Automattic, the designers of Wordpress, the software that underpins millions of websites and blogs.

Automattic has long supported the idea that workers are more productive when they are out of the office. They even pay for the coffee when an employee works from a coffee shop like Starbucks.

Automattic's work-from-home strategy has been so effective that the company is closing its San Francisco office, "apparently because very few employees have been choosing to show up for work in person," according to Slate.

So, on one side, you have these wildly productive software projects that coordinate activities using forums, email, and Slack and which in some cases don't even have a central, much less an open-office, monstrosity.

On the other side, you have flailing behemoths like IBM and Yahoo revoking work-at-home policies in the absurd hope that forcing everyone to commute to a noisy gymnasium will make them more productive.

Consider: What is the point of creating an incredibly powerful set of online tools that connect people wherever they are in the world, and then insist that, to be truly creative, they all must be in the same room?

Open-plan offices are a throwback to the days of the bullpen and secretarial pool. They exist because weak and lazy managers feel a need to control, oversee, and lord it over the hoi polloi, and have a showplace to brag about.

It's sad, really, because no matter how impressive an office looks, what's really worth bragging about is getting more done with fewer people, which is the opposite of the open-plan office, where collaboration (i.e., meetings) is a constant burden.

Published on: Jun 20, 2017
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.