Private Offices Redux

Adam Barr writes about Workplace Advantage, a new project going on at Microsoft to rethink how offices are arranged. “This is the plan to have people working in flexible space that can be quickly reconfigured into offices, cubicles, open desks, pods, or whatever you want,” writes Barr.

Microsoft is famous throughout the tech industry for putting literally everyone in individual, private offices, about half of which have windows. There’s not much debate that this is the most productive environment for programmers, but not everyone at Microsoft is a programmer. “The goal of Workplace Advantage is to reconfigure offices to fit the 4 employee types that were identified after studying the workforce: travelers, orchestrators, concentrators, and providers (examples of which, respectively, are sales, program management, dev/test, and IT),” Barr reported in an earlier post. Makes a lot of sense: private offices aren’t right for every type of work.

Not every programmer in the world wants to work in a private office. In fact quite a few would tell you unequivocally that they prefer the camaradarie and easy information sharing of an open space.

Don’t fall for it. They also want M&Ms for breakfast and a pony. Open space is fun but not productive. Last summer, the Project Aardvark interns were all in a big open space. The net result was that there was no such thing as a conversation between two people. Every time I went out there to talk to one of them, it became a conversation with all of them; every time two people had to talk, instead of going off to a quiet space somewhere, they just spoke directly to each other, interrupting the other two’s concentration. Although this slightly helps keep everyone “in the loop,” it also knocks programmers out of flow causing them to lose their concentration and devastating productivity, so I prefer to keep people in the loop using more formal methods, like weekly email status reports, and through informal methods like eating lunch together every day, which is why we have free catered lunches and a really big table.

Picture of big table at Fog Creek

This summer, we have much more private niches (not quite offices) for the summer interns, and I’ve noticed that when I talk to one of them, the others don’t even notice and certainly don’t stop cranking away at their work. I don’t think it has hurt communication much, either.

About the author.

In 2000 I co-founded Fog Creek Software, where we created lots of cool things like the FogBugz bug tracker, Trello, and Glitch. I also worked with Jeff Atwood to create Stack Overflow and served as CEO of Stack Overflow from 2010-2019. Today I serve as the chairman of the board for Stack Overflow, Glitch, and HASH.