The Standard Bearers of the Open Office: The Tech Industry

By morgan

If you’ve worked extensively in the tech industry, or even if you haven’t, chances are you work in an open office environment. Widespread in Silicon Valley, the trend of the open office took off as the unlikely marriage between two desires: keeping a tight budget and attracting talent. There was also a notable yearning for the places where the ideas for some of the most iconic tech companies originated, such as coffee shops and garages. The two primary motivating factors, budget and talent, seem incompatible at first glance. After all, providing all the free meals, transportation and recreational activities at Google takes more than a little monetary investment. But when you’re a measly tech startup on the edge of Palo Alto, paying for the real estate makes the idea of staying minimalist an attractive one. Even if you have the resources of a Facebook or a Google, the open office layout flourishes. Yet, like everywhere else in the country, the tech era is grappling with what office designs work best for the space.

Facebook Creates an Open Office Mecca, For Better or Worse

Facebook, one of the tech industry’s crown jewels, isn’t far removed from the debut of its 430,000 square foot facility in 2015. The tech giant boasts that it’s the largest open office of its kind in the country. With the exception of private meeting areas along the perimeter, there are no walls. Instead, plain white slab desks with enough room for a computer and a handful of knickknacks are situated in pods. Even Mark Zuckerberg himself, despite his title as founder and CEO, will work at the same white desks as the rest of his colleagues. They want the office to be open, fluid and frictionless. For Facebook, this is how they see the future of work.

That’s not to say there haven’t been bumps in the way. In a Quartz interview of Jack Spolsky, CEO of Stack Overflow, he referenced the new Facebook office directly as an example of what not to do when attracting new developers.

“I think Facebook was very pleased with themselves, that they had built what they thought was the ultimate, most amazing place for developers,” Spolksy said. “And if you went to Hacker News and read the comments, 99.98% of the comments said, ‘I would hate to work there.’”

Spolsky also noted that Facebook’s pay could be indicative of a disturbing trend.

“Facebook is paying 40-50% more than other places,” he said. “Which is usually a sign developers don’t want to work there.”

Developer Conflicts with the Open Plan

Needless to say, web development, application development and software development are all vital roles within the greater tech industry, Facebook included. In a study by Game Developer Magazine in 2013, which analyzed 10,000 programing sessions and a survey of 414 programmers, there were troubling findings. According to the study, the average programmer takes 10-15 minutes to start editing code after an interruption, starts editing code within a minute of being interrupted only 10 percent of the time, and is likely to get just one uninterrupted two-hour session in a single day. It’s no surprise that an entirely open space devoid of wall dividers, such as Facebook, is a nightmarish setup for developers and programmers that need their privacy to function.

Programming and development work, however, isn’t the only role in the tech industry and not every role is necessarily helped by long stints of private isolation. This is one of the primary challenges of creating a balanced work environment in the open office tech world. 

Rent Space Vs. Loss of Productivity

On the other hand, when you look at the median pay of a typical software developer ($98,260) or computer programmer ($79,530), there’s a hefty price to pay for companies to attract the best talent available. When you also consider the cost of renting an office in San Francisco (the beating heart of the American tech industry) is north of $70 per square foot, the idea of moving as many people as possible in a single space is clearly pragmatic. 

Still, analyzing only the cost savings in rent is shortsighted. What you lose in productivity could exceed the potential savings of adopting a completely open space without office partitions. If a programmer loses a quarter of his productivity a day, does that exceed the cost of space he could potentially occupy? Can you justify the loss of nearly $1,000 dollars each day? What percentage of lost productivity could your business tolerate? These are questions that must be asked to find the right cost-benefit balance. 

Seeking the Right Balance and Attracting Talent 

unnamed-11.jpgThe more research that is done on workplace productivity and morale, the more offices in the tech sphere are able to adjust. One of the primary goals of the tech industry remains attracting the best and the brightest new college graduates to its companies. Nicola Gillen, an architect for the British firm AECOM, told BBC News that Millennials “are used to different ways of working, sharing and collaborating, even from an early age.” According to Gillen, there are expectations that the companies are updated with the latest technologies, but are also suited to accommodate a more egalitarian approach to collaboration — one of the key traits of open office plans.

What will be tricky, though, is mixing the expectations of Millennials with Gen Xs and Boomers who share office space. While Facebook, Google and Apple are going all-in on the open, egalitarian model, privacy is making a pushback that could affect the way tech industries design their spaces.