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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
@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.
I work in a business park in Silicon Valley where we have 2 story buildings with halways of offices ringing the outer part of the building and lab space in the middle - no cubicles. Most engineers share an office with another person and managers have a single office. It's nice being able to close the 8 ft tall door when you need to.
Earlier in my career I worked at a campus where the offices faced out into the lab space, making it easy to go back and forth. One engineer rigged an LED above his office door to indicate if his phone was ringing, so he could see if from the lab.
I've also worked in the classic "cube farm" with corner workstations, which makes it easy to tell if your coworkers are in their offices, but not my favorite work environment.
Our company makes a point of putting all engineers in hardwall offices with doors which can be closed. That way you can close the door if you need to concentrate, or if you will be noisy (conference call, extended conversation, etc.) It also helps everyone control the light level and to some extent the temperature as they prefer. But there are soft seating areas scattered liberally throughout the building, and the lunch area is just down the hall, so we get a lot of opportunities for collaboration.
Thankfully, we also avoid beige in the overall color scheme. Walls are white, but with enough exceptions of bright, saturated color to keep it interesting. Hallways are generally short or curved, so you don't get that "drowning in a sea of offices" effect. The carpets, doorways, and furniture add texture. All told, it works fairly well.
Well...we all know that it required exquisite and expensive monument spaces like this to create companies like Facebook and Google to begin with...right?
Without these crazy expensive exercises in social engineering and interaction...where would all the great innovation come from?
As soon as the "style" starts to be the goal instead of just being the way things look, it winds up being an end in itself. Engineering is best done in areas where there are the tools to do good engineering with. Ideas may not grow in sterile surroundings, that much is certain. So the impressive buildings will indeed attract a lot of people who are attracted to that stuff, and some of them may be good engineers, and may find what they need to achieve great engineering. But it is the people, not the building, that creates the wonderful things. Forcing them into a new gilded box may or not improve what they do, but it will certainly have them thinking about how wonderful the place is. Not being in each others way is useful, but of course the circuit person does need to talk to the mechanical person or the parts won't fit.
What about the location of the engineering space? middle of a dull, lifeless, soul sucking office park? or near a walkable community?
Basically, it seems like they don't want people to leave and interact outside.
Engineers must work in a friendly environment to achieve the best results and it is very important to work as a team where every idea is taken into consideration. My son is an engineer and in his opinion a great engineering space must have installed Finepatiofurniture, the design is amazing and the furniture is very comfortable.
For me, it's not so much the physical or aesthetic environment, but what's in it, especially the social/psychological environment. If the space contains Bad Management, creativity, and even "bolts in holes" productivity, is discouraged, regardless of the number of hours people voluntarily or coercedly contribute. Hours worked is only a correlate of productivity when it comes to creative endeavour!
Appreciation, encouragement, collaboration and respect are cheap, but very powerful.
I could ramble on about Social Engineering/Management and how much it can contribute, but, leaving aside all that, I would say that purely physical things that help ME to be productive are those that provide stimulation, inspiration and convenience.
Coffee/soda/smnacks are nice, but give me the opportunity to see some interesting projects-in-progress, regardless of whether work-related or home-based. Opportunities for collaboration!
A well-appointed accessible lab area without a stifling lot of staked-out "territiory" is essential, and a valuable part of a lab is an adequate supply of fundamental components and parts, and, especially, a good bone-yard, junk-box (bin, heap, room, hall, building), to provide inspiration, ideas, AND materiel. Of course, I am known for my test jigs, aids, and equipment, and my profligate storage. To me, neat-freaks are The Enemy.
But a separate office/desk-space for writing, reading and concentration is important too.
And books. Yes, books. Books and catalogues, and white-papers and schematics... You know, "tech-porn!"
(Funny story that actually happened: It was "clean-out your office and put your unwanted usable stuff in the hallway" day [Garage Sale?]. I found something GOOD, proclaiming "OOO the latest 'EE Times!'" ... "Ewww: the pages are all stuck-together!" That elicited some awkrard and enthusiastic laughter, even after I tried to explain that it was simply that someone had used it to mix epoxy [which is a way better practice than using those stupid little plastic cups!].)
@GSKrasle a valuable part of a lab is an adequate supply of fundamental components and parts, and, especially, a good bone-yard, junk-box (bin, heap, room, hall, building), to provide inspiration, ideas, AND materiel.
Truer words were never spoken. I once worked in a place like that. Bins full of every value of resistor, capacitor, inductor, many transistors, every type of TTL chip, tools, scopes, and even enough scope probes to go around for everybody. Then the investors pulled the plug...
The next place had a room full of standard parts - resistors, caps, chips. Then a new dipstick manager took over and threw everything out because it was a "waste of space". This was the same jerk who stopped ordering 0.5mm pencil leads because we now had CAE.
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