My first real software development job out of college was with Microsoft. The year was 1997, and the boom was in full swing. Enthusiasm was high, parties were epic, and it was a time we've not seen since. It was also the era of "everyone has an office," and nobody really questioned it. Indeed, the only place on campus that I can remember not being this way was a large room in which something like the "open office floorplan" was used for contractors. And I remember thinking it was counterproductive, even then.
As a developer, I liked having my own space. Shelves for my reference books (and I'm still old-school that way). Some posters on the wall to set the nerdy mood. A huge white board that was all my own. It was my space, and the mindset that went with it had a direct impact on my morale and productivity. Of course, the real benefit was the door. It was open 90% of the time. Anyone could come by, and collaboration never suffered. But I could also close it, meaning that if I wanted some "in the zone" time I could have it. I could even put a sticky on the door, letting people know that I was unavailable except in emergency.
You simply can't do this with an open office plan.
Headphones are an invitation to be tapped on the shoulder. A "quick question" never is, and even when it is, pulling someone out of the zone means that quick question cost a half hour, at best. White boards are shared, so you can't keep a design up for weeks while refining it. And the chocolates on my desk seem to mysteriously disappear overnight. That one is still a mystery.
Open Office in the Age of COVID
What I've discovered, though, is that for the past 18 months, "working from home" has reinforced these beliefs and given some concrete experimental evidence to support them. So what have I discovered?
Working from home has the same issues
A private space to work provides the same benefits as an office in the building. I can close the door. I can socialize to family members that when the door is closed, I'm concentrating, and please don't interrupt unless you have to. This is generally respected in my household, with the notable exception of the cats. But cats are jerks. Working from home means I can have that private space that isn't afforded in an Open Office building. My point here being that I believe we've all experienced this, now. Has anyone, working from home, not found it better to have your own private space? Do you honestly work in the common areas all the time because the distractions are something you seek out? I doubt it.
Asynchronous Communication Works
When working from home, if someone needs you, they have to get in touch electronically. They don't get to walk over and tap you on the shoulder. Or, worse, stand there and wait for acknowledgement. But with the exception of a ringing phone (who calls unannounced these days?), all communication can be asynchronous. Emails can be read and returned in their own time box. Slack allows you to mute notifications except when urgent if you want. Even chat applications let you set your status as "busy" if you want. I wish Slack had a status called "In the Zone," but that's a feature request. I truly hope this understanding persists once we all return to the office.
Working from remote locations also works (at least for me)
I confess, I have a remote work habit that sounds ludicrous but actually functions at the highest level: I work from Las Vegas. Yes, I live in the San Francisco bay area, but, at least when the pandemic has allowed, I will often travel to Las Vegas for a week. I get a nice hotel room at my favorite center-strip resort, usally complimentary, and work from the comfortable hotel room where I have good Internet connectivity, a decent sound system, and a desk. I honestly get up at the start of the day, work without interruption, and put in a full day. My productivity is even more than at home, as there are no family members (or, as I said, cats) to interrupt, even legitimately. Meetings for the past 18 months have been on Zoom anyway, and the worst I got from those who didn't know my plans was a comment that my artificial background looked like a Vegas hotel room. In the evenings, I got good food, perhaps saw a show (nothing refreshes the mind like Penn and Teller!), and got to play some poker or roll dice. I don't really drink much, so I got up the next day refreshed and ready to go.
This may or may not work for you. You have to have the discipline to actually get the work done. For me, the enjoyment of my evenings wouldn't be there if I knew I had work piling up or people suspicious of my work ethic.
I remain of the opinion that Open Office Floor Plans are a drain on productivity and morale, and in light of 18 months of solid "work from home" data, I see no reason to change this opinion. And now I have some solid experience to back it up.