Open Office, Closed Ears, Distracted Mind

It’s the single biggest bane of modern tech culture. It hinders productivity and creative thoughts, results in bad quality code/work. And this is how I feel about it. I don’t have actual data points to back anything, nor have I bothered to find them. I’m sure there are people feel it’s the greatest idea at the workplace since … “closed offices”.

Background

I’m a software developer and this post might seem relatable to people in tech, not sure how prevalent this system is in other fields of work. The idea of open offices is getting only more popular and it looks promising, at least on paper because of how it encourages communication, collaboration and openness at the workplace. Except that it’s part of the story and the employer’s narrative.

What’s the other part, then? There are books written on that. Even though the book doesn’t speak to problems with open office, you read it and you can associate open office culture with every wrong thing mentioned in the book. Deep Work by Cal Newport made a lot of sense to me and also encouraged me to write this.

The Rant

Claim #1 Facilitates intra-team communication, resulting in productive team work

The term “communication” in work place is highly overrated and heavily misused. Sure, if there’s a dependency and/or if you’re blocked by something or someone, you talk to people to get yourself moving. But instant messaging all day and forwarding emails, setting up meetings to show endless and pointless slides, grabbing people around you to ask trivial questions(which can otherwise be easily answered from a simple Google search or perusing for a couple of minutes) — not exactly the kind of communication you need to get things done. The book calls this the Principle of Least Resistance. You ping your colleagues all day to help you with your shit, because it’s much easier to get it done that way, compared to the time and effort to digest things yourself and fix them. Sure, you can call it a better use of time, because you’re making use of other people’s knowledge instead of trying to find it out the hard way. And that’s true for the moment. But here’s what happens if you weren’t encouraged to “communicate” the moment you found a problem. You’d have analyzed the code to understand the behavior, tried to come up with a good solution, also since you now understand that whole patch of code, you might have as well thought of rewriting some existing pieces in a better way. More time spent at the moment, but more beneficial over time, both for you and the team.

Claim #2 You can overhear useful things from your colleagues. Different perspectives, different technologies, different approaches to solve problems etc.

Again, this is something that definitely looks good on paper and might be true in some of the cases. The rest of the time? You end up learning what everybody in your team did over the weekend — you learn where they went, which flight they took(or didn’t, damn TSA!), how the weather was and how their kids did cute things on the trip, which cool restaurants they went to and how the whole travel gave them perspective. Someone aptly said in a meme.

The only thing that differentiates humans and other animals is the ability to pretend to be interested in each other’s weekends.

If you’re a developer and you’re surrounded by developers then the claim makes at least some sense, since you’d spend time talking about the latest gadget out in the market or the latest and the greatest JS framework that you stumbled upon. Also, it helps that developers are not the most social kind. But one of the other modern office culture things is to have your product, designer, manager and developers sit together to “understand each others’ problems and empower each other in a certain way”. Gosh. That doesn’t even look good on paper. What are we? A support group for depressed people? When you make people with different roles sit together, you have got no common thing to talk about other than your great travel and exploration plans.

Claim #3 You can wear headphones if you don’t wanna get distracted

If I wear headphones all day, everyday, then it’s pretty much safe to assume that I hate to be distracted the whole day. So would it make sense to give me a cubicle for myself then? No, that would not be “cost effective”. And I wonder about the term “cost” when its used to advertise open offices. Just because you pay less money for such offices doesn’t necessarily make them cost effective. When taken into account the quality of work produced, the hacky code created, the bugs introduced and the time spent on fixing them, they are more expensive than the “cost” we are trying to reduce. Also this whole headphones solution makes me feel that maybe this whole open office thing started to sell more noise-canceling headphones in the first place. Maybe, just maybe, its a huge scam run by headphone companies working along with music industries and scientists(binaural beats, anyone?) to make people listen to more music, as if we aren’t already plugged enough. Although this sounds like a crazy conspiracy theory, it might just as well be true, given the power and influence of capitalism in this country.

So I’m amazed that companies boast about their open office culture. When people say they have open office culture, all I know is those poor people know the weekend plans of people around them, in unnecessary detail! Also some other things that go along are the fact that the CEO also sits on one of those spaces in the open office, that’s supposed to make us feel how approachable that person really is. But that’s thrown around because most people don’t just walk up to the CEO to see how she’s doing. If that starts to become a norm, I’m sure she would get a room for herself.

To give a real example from one of my previous workplaces. We used to have something called “coding hours” two days a week, that’s a slot of time nobody should be having meetings. And I thought, as a developer, that all my time was “coding hours”. So how about “meeting hours” instead? We can have all the meetings in the world in those slots and while we’re at it, satiate our curiosity of what people did on their weekends.

Ways That Could Help

Here’s some ways I cope with it, which might help people who go through this everyday.

1. I know I blasted against this, but it’s kinda inevitable: Headphones

2. Find a conference room, cafe or some place like that where there aren’t many people around
 
3. Work from home when you have to do some real thinking to get things done, like designing a solution or architecting something. You can code it when you’re back in the office.

4. Go to gym, take a nap, play ping pong or foosball during the noisiest time around your desk, so you can come back later and get some work done. Why not use the other perks of modern tech offices to your advantage?


PS: If you’ve any inputs on this, please feel free to leave a comment. I’d love to hear pros and cons of open offices and how people manage to do productive work, in spite of open offices!