Sunday, March 2, 2014

The open plan debate, redux

Here come the open plan fanatics again, with a massive piece in this week's NYT business section: The Monuments of Tech.

software is invisible and change is high technology’s most valued commodity. Insubstantial as a cubicle seems, in the tech industry it has given way to the long tables and broad whiteboards of open-plan offices, where everyone taps into a common Wi-Fi signal. Office teams grow or shrink in these open rooms, moving work and information as quickly as possible.

"Change is high technology's most valued commodity"?

Oh, please.

I am instantly reminded of the greatest Dilbert ever.

Nevertheless, on charge the open space zealots, trumpeting their self-appointed brilliance:

The buildings hold 6,000 people. In the past, Facebook moved around as many as 1,000 of them a month, reassigning them to new short-term projects. Walkways double as spaces for ambulatory meetings, held on the go so they are short and decisive.

Casual meeting areas are set off from the open plan by squares of plywood hanging from the ceiling, a visual “under construction” reference meant to reinforce the company’s ethos. Facebook even spent money to expose its networking wires, which dangle along the ceiling.

“It’s designed to change thinking,” said John Tenanes, who oversees Facebook’s buildings as its director of real estate. “Even if the meeting doesn’t move faster, we want people coming up with new stuff.”

Yes, indeed: new stuff. I suppose that, if you are a business journalist, you spent enough time hearing about Heraclitus in your journalism classes to dispense wisdom such as

Here, as at many other tech companies, is a sense that nothing is permanent, that any product can be dislodged from greatness by something newer. It’s the aesthetic of disruption: We must all change, all the time.
Facebook’s all-night hackathons aren’t just an echo of crashing out a project before a college final: They are efforts to keep experimenting, to try something new before some scrappy start-up does.

And so the article continues, for thousands of words, slathering praise on every little eccentricity of Twitter, Facebook, and Google, full of nonsense like:

Doors now seem an impediment, slowing the making of something new.

Some of the article's observations are sensible, such as the Google Real Estate team's finding (a "result of detailed study"):

“If people are more satisfied with the temperature, they are more comfortable and creative,” Mr. Ravitz said. The goal is to make 80 percent or more of the population happy with the office climate.

Well, duh. I hope they didn't spend too much money on that detailed study (and I pity the engineers who were the unwilling subjects of that research).

And Google Real Estate's findings that office chairs matter, and that noise matters, and that air quality matters, and that lighting matters, show that perhaps common sense may, some day, prevail.

But it's just bizarre, all this breathless desire to be "short and decisive," to be ever "under construction," to always be "coming up with new stuff."

Certainly there are great engineers at Twitter and Google and Facebook, and they have indeed done some brilliant work. But not, I am certain, while sitting in "booths that look as if they were lifted from an upscale diner," nor while on "the kind of angular couches and chairs that Dick Van Dyke would be happy to use for a pratfall," nor while having to tolerate the fact that "irregular soft cubes serve as impromptu meeting areas."

And, I can guarantee you, none of these frantic "meetings, held on the go" cover the kind of work that actually matters in software.

Building a cryptographic key-exchange algorithm, a distributed consensus protocol, a secure networking library, a cache-conscious database index, or a lock-free hash table, requires deep concentration, sustained over long periods of time, with as few interruptions as possible.

Trust me: I know. I haven't done all these things, but I've done a number of them. Quietly, patiently, and without ever even once finding that "individual file cabinets on rollers that can be moved to wherever an employee will next be working" would have improved the process, or the result.

Buried at the VERY END of the article, after all the chatter about consultants from Disney, Gehry-designed buildings, multi-colored campus bicycles, and other folderol, the piece finally admits:

“The harder we work,” he said, “the more important it is to have space to get away from the chaos for a while.”


That should have been the lede, not the closer.

Meanwhile, a much smaller article, on the following page of the very same business section, but (refreshingly) free of full-color pictures and celebrity sightings (Sheryl Sandberg! Dick Costolo! Mark Zukerberg!), is a mother lode of calm reasoning: Where Sounds Have No Barrier

Auditory distraction occurs when a noise forces you to switch your attention away and then back to your work, Professor Lee said. This amounts to a “cognitive load” that makes it hard to maintain your concentration, he said. Open-plan offices are particularly challenging for the hearing-impaired, he said, because hearing aids tend to amplify noises indiscriminately, making it harder to listen selectively.

In open work spaces, even small noises have the potential to distract us, Dr. Goldsmith said: Because so much hearing occurs unconsciously, we may feel stressed from working in an open office and not know why. Noise “is really quite insidious in that sense,” he said.

Sadly, all this common sense doesn't stop the article's author from interjecting:

It’s true that when overheard conversations aren’t irritating and irrelevant, they can impart useful pieces of information and enhance collaboration. That’s one of the reasons that tech companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google favor open offices.

Well, sure, if those overheard conversations aren't irritating and irrelevant, they might be useful. But that's the point! They are irritating and irrelevant.

But that's not why those tech companies built offices like these.

Those tech companies did it because they thought it was cool and trendy and novel, and because it got publications like the New York Times to write long front-page articles with full-color pictures and lots of name dropping.

Perhaps, someday, when they finally realize what a disaster it was for the poor engineers who are trying to endure those zoos, they will stop seeing doors as an "impediment," will stop having the furniture "replaced with no advance warning," will stop thinking that "ample sticks and twigs on the wall" is somehow useful to an engineer.

In the meantime, at least for now, at work I'm lucky enough to have an environment where I can (mostly) sit quietly, blocked from (most) interruptions, in a very nice chair, with a thermostat I can control and a large skylight nearby, and try, somehow, to get some real work done.

1 comment:

  1. Those tech companies did it because they thought it was cool and trendy and novel

    And easy. And cheap