@CK-Karl, you make a point I hadn't thought about (in our own offices in San Francisco): openness, low walls, etc. make you want to stay longer (or at least not mind staying longer). That's true. Unfortunately, in our space (3.5-foot-high cube "walls"), the din can be very distracting. So we're seeing more and more people, earlier and earlier in the day, slip on their headphones and block it all out.
As Bert mentioned, it really does depend on the individual. Some people work best in open "collaborative" work spaces. Some are more productive in caves. Even the lighting can have an impact. I've known engineers that prefer to work with the lights off and others that feel the need for extra light.
The ideal work environment is probably one with a number of environmental options that the engineer can choose from. When management declares that they have the best solution for everyone, that generally means that they have lost touch.
You addressed a major point: open spaces are critical for quietness and quietness is
critical for some activities that require concentration and that occur 'every now and
then', especially in creative jobs.
I have seen small open spaces where people were working quietly, even when speaking
at the phone, but it is a rare experience and occurs only under some conditions:
- people culture and education (my only positive experience was in the UK, I guess it
may be the same in the USA, not certainly the best practice for other countries like
- the availability of enough closed meeting spaces to avoid that meetings and call
confs are set up in the open space
- the type of jobs
I think that larger open spaces are more critical, since it is more and more unlikely that all the people within are doing the same type of activity at the same time, and so the chances for conflict (collaborative, noisy activities vs. individual quietness-seeking activities) are greater.
The modern workspace is more closely resembling the emphasis of aesthetics in our society. Engineers traditionally have favored functionality over cosmetic appearances in many applications. Companies such as Apple are winning largely because of their focus beyond technical performance metrics. Employees' expectations, especially the younger generation, of their environment are naturally going to reflect the level of "experience" they have come to expect in other aspects of their lives.
Sure, an engineer should be able to work just as well in a dull grey cube as a modern office. One issue with the old philosophy is that you are constantly reminded you are at work. New open and engaging spaces promote collaboration and make employees enjoy their space to the point they don't mind staying longer. Along with the new physical design of these buildings comes the new behavioral culture where employees are often encouraged to spend some of their time at work on non-work activities. These down periods are frequently cited as having overall increases in productivity from individuals over the course of a working day.
The other key consideration is workplace differentiation. In places such as the Bay Area top talent has their choice of employers - all of whom have interesting projects along with high paying salaries. It is absolutely reasonable to believe that the culture and workplace is the deciding factor for some of these prospects.
I understand there are different views of the how a workplace should be structured and managed. I don't believe this strategy is applicable to all industries but in the case of many software based businesses (or teams for that matter) I do see it being successful.
Maybe I'm just getting too old. Whenever I hear what some manager or some personality claims to be a great "new" idea for an engineering workspace, my reaction is "whatever."
It all depends on individuals. Yes, it's very helpful to be able to collaborate with your team. But at the same time, it's very distracting to have people all over the place talking on their phones, perhaps with teleconferen ces on speaker, or what have you, when you're trying to concentrate. Cubicles are not that great. It's too easy to hear over the partitions.
What intrigues me is companies come along every few years, proclaiming radical new ideas in corporate hierarchy and work environment that seem to work for a few years and then fizzles. I have not come across companies that produce long, sustainable and globalizable ideas (I refrain from using "corporate culture!") that can be replicated when it comes to work environment, creativity, productivity and customer satisfaction. May be I am wishing for too much! So this too shall pass...
PS: FaceBook's building may appeal to some but it seems irrelevant to me when it comes to creativity & productivity!
Eric Schmidt (who did his PhD in the management of large software engineering projects at Berkeley in the early '80s) has described the Google ethos as a continuation of graduate school. I remember seeing him running around in motorcycle leathers and going 20m off campus for a Giant Burger with Bill Joy, where they may have been served by a PhD physicist, or maybe they made it across the street to the gyro joint where Kary Mullis worked between acid trips. Last time I visited Stanford, I parked next to a students' Ferrari...hold the mayo.