This is a very important text for me. If my reasoning is even remotely correct, this is going to have a very significant influence on how I — and probably many other people — think about their career in programming in the future.

Let’s look at some headlines:

  • Google got it wrong: the open-office trend is destroying the workplace (Washington Post)
  • Open-plan offices makes employees less productive, less happy and more likely to get sick (Quartz)
  • The open-office trap (The New Yorker)
  • You’re not alone: most people hate open offices (Fast Company)

Plus thousands of blog posts and comments in online communities. There seem to be a consensus: overwhelming majority of people dislike open-plan offices, but are left with no choice. I’m among those who put “good office” close to the very top of my list of priorities when looking for a new job and yet, of my fourteen years in the industry I spent ten in open-plan offices due to the complete absence of alternatives.

Why is it so? Mutiple studies (check any of the links above) confirm that employees in the open-plan offices are more stressed, less productive, take more sick leave and, above all, less creative. The entire idea of being intellectually creative at work is very comforting for us, programmers. Simply being creative is one thing; being creative and being paid for it is completely different. A very famous movie about hackers, “Triumph of the Nerds”, captures this vibe right in its title: this triumph is over the the business people, the dumb MBAs, the managers who demand weekly TPS reports, it’s the victory of the smart underdog.

So surely, with all that creativity hindered by the noise and distractions of the open-plan, there should be a niche for a company that puts smart hackers in comfortable working condition and reaps rewards coming from their increased productivity, right?

Except that it’s not so. One of the studies I found, estimates the average office area occupied by a knowledge worker in an American office with private rooms to be 37.16 m², which is almost three times more than in the open-plan office: 13.94 m². Think about it: the same office building with the same rent can sit almost three times as many people. No CFO would sign-off a private office policy after seeing this difference.

What about creativity and productivity? In most companies programmers require much less of it than they think. The software industry is incredibly commoditized nowadays and the business people are well aware of it. Nobody expects programmers to be creative; merely not being too bad is good enough. Note I’m not saying that those “business people” are evil or incompetent. You can replace “business people” with “free market” with the same result: nobody expects creativity from a person working on a web marketplace for vacation rentals, a taxi ordering app, or supply chain management system. With my anecdotal experience, I estimate the proportion of programmers involved in non-commoditized software development — the tiny innovative core of our industry — to be around 0.1%. This is not as low as it seems. If this estimation is correct, Apple has 50-60 developers engaged in truly creative software and hardware development, Google has 35-40, Facebook around 10. Them, plus other members of their immediate teams (say, ten times as many; those who do gruntwork only partly and have some potential in them) are responsible for most of the technology we see and use today. I am sure they can have any office they like.

The rest of us are not as creative as we like to think and our bosses know it:

A few years ago, I was working at a company where they had just purchased an old shoe making factory and were renovating it into office space so they could have room to grow. In each spot where a person had sat for 8-12 hours hunched over in front of a sewing machine, I was told to install a workstation and run network and electric cable down from the ceiling where the sewing machines had been hooked up.

At the end the project, a co-worker of mine that had the foresight to take a picture of the old setup took one of our finished work and compared the results. The room looked a lot cleaner, and didn’t have the smell of oil and leather anymore, but in the photo, it looked like a factory that you’d see in the early part of the 20th century by its layout. The lone difference being instead of looking like it would make shoes, it looked like it’d make code. They both looked like you’d have the same amount of privacy (aka none), and unless you bought headphones, the same amount of silence for concentrating on your task(s). […]

I see a cleaner, digital sweatshop, a modern version of an age that many thought we had left decades ago. It hasn’t really left, it’s just had the cleaning crew in and been given a few runs through the marketing machine to make what was once undesirable “sauve and sexy!”.

— from Reddit