Tech jobs and cubicles go together like peanut butter and antifreeze.
June 23, 2015 2:53 PM   Subscribe

Am I being unreasonable if I state having my own office as a requirement during my job search, and if so, has anyone successfully made the transition from having an office to working in an open area with interruptions and noise?

I've been a software engineer for 15+ years, and for the last 10 I've had my own office. Even though I leave my door open much of the time, I do like having the opportunity to close my door so I can read MetaFilter block out the hallway noise and interruptions from time to time when I'm doing something that requires deeper concentration. Lately, though, I've been looking around at other jobs, and it seems every company I look into has bought into the idea that open floor plans with cubicles increase productivity.

Back when I did work out of a cubicle, I would listen to music to try to cope with the distractions, but it never quite worked for me, because I found my brain focusing on the music itself. Ambient music worked a little better, but still, I feel like I do better work when I'm in complete silence (or as close as one can get to that in an office environment.) Plus wearing headphones for that long gets really uncomfortable.

I do understand what managers are going for (well, in addition to spending less on office space) -- they want serendipitous interactions, more collaboration, etc. But even assuming those advantages do exist in some measurable way (which I'm not convinced of) I feel like they're more than canceled out by the impact on my own productivity. Like, if I didn't have the option of closing my door when people were out in the hallway talking at my current job, I'd go insane.

So is this just the way of the world in the tech industry now and forever? Has the cubicle disease gotten worse over the last decade or so? Do I need to just suck it up and accept that there are tradeoffs, and that I might not be able to find a good programming job where I can have my own office again?
posted by tonycpsu to Work & Money (18 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I have successfully moved to a cube world, although people are pretty quiet. I've worked in software for fifteen years and have never seen devs with offices. Now, in my cube, I wear headphones sometimes, and my cube neighbors are quiet, except the one guy who makes the orgasm noises when he eats a sandwich. I miss having an office but even so it turns out to be less important than I thought.

That said, you can make any request or demand. Yes, you will be limiting the available jobs at hand -- and risk being seen as a diva. If it's that important to you, then it might be worth it. Your call.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 3:00 PM on June 23, 2015

It's going to be hard to find, for sure. It's just the way of the world these days (in my experience).

The problem is that this isn't something that many companies can be flexible on — they're limited by their actual infrastructure. I think you will have better luck negotiating a work-from-home arrangement; hopefully your home can be a productive space for you!
posted by wemayfreeze at 3:00 PM on June 23, 2015 [6 favorites]

It seems like that would be something that depends highly on the company as opposed to a general rule. Where I work there are no offices and everyone, including the CEO, sits at a desk on the floor with everyone else.
posted by Carillon at 3:00 PM on June 23, 2015

Best answer: Please ask for an office and explain this post for any new job. We need to get a critical mass of non-headphone-wearing concentration-based workers. I asked for one at my last job and was given one (which I eventually had to share with a desk drummer), and in this job, I've managed to move away from everyone else. HR people know, Office Managers know, it's okay to ask for a private area, and it's okay to need your own space.

That said, I've had the best luck by leading it off a lie that says I'm on the phone a lot and need to talk loudly or am discussing private things (privileged security stuff in my case, but YMMV).

Good luck, please keep up the good fight for non-headphone wearers everywhere.
posted by bensherman at 3:10 PM on June 23, 2015 [7 favorites]

every company I look into has bought into the idea that open floor plans with cubicles increase productivity ... I do understand what managers are going for (well, in addition to spending less on office space)

That last is what's important, no matter what they say about any other benefits of an open floor plan. Many modern office buildings don't allow tenants to rebuild the premises to have actual offices, and the best you can manage is a cubicle with high cubicle walls and a door. The newer and shinier the building, the more likely this is -- commercial real estate developers aren't especially inclined to spend more on custom options for potential tenants when they can build something that's both cheaper and more flexible. Older buildings are somewhat more likely to have real offices, but tech companies may be less likely to lease those, and there can be other drawbacks to older buildings.

I'd rather have my employers throw money at my wages than at my surroundings (within limits, of course) but YMMV. And your comfort with earplugs may vary as well. It's worth asking for if it's important to you, though you may get responses like "if we give you an office, we have to give everyone an office," or "all of our offices are already taken." In which case, good luck making yourself seem awesome enough that you should have one! (No sarcasm intended.) Oh, one other point: very large employers may be less flexible on this, since they sometimes have rules about who gets what kind of workspace when.
posted by asperity at 3:21 PM on June 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yeah...I don't know. I effing hate not having an office. I don't personally think you're being unreasonable at all. Open spaces are trendy and *way* cheaper.

When they recently moved everyone around at my (tech) office and I went from (shared) office to open/cubicle, my boss basically acted like I was being a diva. She flat-out said that most companies are open-plan/cubicle and that it was unusual that I'd had a door for two years.

It's tough, and I've thought about this for my next job search. If you're senior enough and have a lot of job offers, you can certainly ask about it during an interview and base your consideration of the job on that. Certainly ask for a walk-through of the facilities during your interview (sometimes you can get an idea of this online from their website or Facebook page).
posted by radioamy at 3:46 PM on June 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

"Joel on Software" agrees with you.
posted by Sophont at 4:21 PM on June 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: That's a really interesting post from Joel, because I had no idea there were programmers who prefer the open floor plan. Is this maybe a generational thing? I'll be 39 in August, and I can't for the life of me think of a reason open spaces are better. At my office, we're all on group chat rooms kicking around ideas, talking about deliverables, etc. and if it needs to turn into a face-to-face conversation, we all convene in someone's office (or the hallway, or find a conference room.) To me, the open floor plan is just going to encourage bullshitting rather than working.

To answer some questions: working from home is a nice privilege, but I find I actually get more done when I'm in my office at work then at home. It's not just the distractions at home, although those are present, but I also do prefer the option to meet with coworkers in person, which I do several times a day. As a once-in-a-while thing to accommodate errands I do work from home, but not nearly as often as my employer allows me to.

I'm in no way scared of being called a "diva" for asking for an environment where I can work efficiently, especially when I already have a job, and can tell the recruiters to pound sand. The only reason I'm even looking at jobs now after 10 years of not paying attention to the landscape at all is that there have been some slow but steady tendencies toward organizational dysfunction and mismanagement, and I'd rather have something ready should things get to the point where I can't take them anymore. But the job I have is interesting work, and I like my coworkers, and even my boss. I am somewhat underpaid for my experience level in this area, but the benefits are great, the work/life balance is good, and generally I can leave the problems at work and deal with them the next day.

I guess I'm just going to be upfront about my requirement early on and see how things go. If things get worse where I'm at, I can always make it a "nice to have" and hope that I can re-adapt to life in the cube.
posted by tonycpsu at 5:09 PM on June 23, 2015

Do your searching on, and look for high Joel-test scores. Those companies should be familiar with the office/productivity relationship, or at least be open to discussing it.
posted by blue_beetle at 5:14 PM on June 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I bet that you'll be able to find a job that can accommodate this. But I have transitioned back and forth between private offices and open offices, and learned to tune out the background noise without headphones; it is possible. I also do have a pair of Bose noise-canceling earbuds that do an exceptional job of cutting out other people's conversations, even without any music playing.
posted by three_red_balloons at 5:17 PM on June 23, 2015

Best answer: My office is worth a hell of a lot to me, and the amount of additional cash it would take to coax me out of my office right now borders on absurd. I get you. And, yes, I'd say these days a 'cubicle' is more privacy than the average programmer gets.

My personal, unscientific theory is that the vast majority of developers people who prefer open floor plans simply have never had an office long enough to know how much more productive they can be and/or they value proximity to other people more than productivity. A lot of this, I think, is just acclimatization to open floor plans.

On the business side, it's 80% cost and 20% blind ignorance on the part of management.

Are you being unreasonable to want an office? No. To take a page from relationship AskMes, you are free to want whatever you want and if your current relationship isn't giving you what you want, you are free to leave it to find one that will, no matter what that is.

That said: finding an office is going to be difficult. Easier with the amount of experience you have, but it's still very uncommon. I suspect you'll have better luck in larger companies who own giant office buildings. Likewise with companies whose primary revenue stream isn't programming -- a law firm, for example.

As with anything else, you'll also have better luck if you're willing to relocate for that job.
posted by toomuchpete at 5:28 PM on June 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've been in my current job for three years, and all customer service specialists had to be separated, because we were disrupting each other. I got lucky and got my own office, because I also handle sensitive information (in addition to my other tasks) and need concentration. If I had stated having my own office as a requirement during my job search I would not have gotten this job (and in fact a coworker quit because he didn't get his own office). I believe the need for better productivity inspires change in the workplace. My suggestion would be to omit the request for your office and research the conditions of the places you are visiting to see if you find a good fit. I wish you success. :)
posted by dragonbaby07 at 5:28 PM on June 23, 2015

Best answer: I wish you luck but private offices seem pretty rare these days in the software world. I don't have one, my boss doesn't have one and his boss doesn't have one. I did have a private offices at two sites in the late nineties and early 00s but I'm coming to realize that those situations were unusual throwbacks and that very few modern software shops even have cubes these days. Half the places I've seen don't even have personal desks, everyone just works together at long communal tables.
posted by octothorpe at 5:42 PM on June 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

Definitely rare, and I think even companies that used to prize this as a thing (like Microsoft) are moving away from them.

I'm with you --- open floor plans are horrible and I can't imagine how people are productive. Even the shared office thing (where "shared" means 10 people in a room, which is basically just open floor plan) is terrible.

I went from office to cube to open floor to large shared office. Even after 6+ years of this, I have not been able to adapt to the non-office environment. It just means my productivity is lower. Apparently I get enough done, more or less, this way, but I could certainly get a lot more done if I had an office again.

I think you should definitely _try_ --- next time I look for a job I plan on making it a priority as well. But I think it will be difficult, and possibly involve a lot of other tradeoffs.
posted by thefoxgod at 6:59 PM on June 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Open floor plans and big noisy rooms with tons of cubes are really common most places. I would hazard a guess that it'll stay common and more and more companies will shift to a model where workers telecommute two or three days a week and use non-permanent spaces in an office the rest of the time.

If working from home doesn't work for you for an entire day, could you get in a groove of programming at home in the mornings and going into the office in the afternoons?

Coming in early or staying late is another way I've seen people mitigate noise issues in crowded office spaces.
posted by Candleman at 9:15 PM on June 23, 2015

Just wanted to note, from someone who has been professionally involved in workplace design, that if you work in an open-plan office, it's reasonable to expect there to be spaces where you can do concentrated work.

I'm in the UK and we don't really do cubicles here, but I've always worked open-plan and, at least at larger scales, it really does only function properly if you have the full range of spaces to support different ways of working. In an ideal office, the worker has a desk where they can touch down and work among their team, a quiet room where they can go to concentrate and not be disturbed, an informal meeting space where they can gather for an impromptu meeting, a formal meeting room which can be booked for scheduled meetings... the list goes on but you get the gist.

I realise not every workplace can afford to offer the ideal variety of spaces, but I think it's reasonable to ask, if not for an office, whether they have spaces that you can go to chill out and read metafilter do concentrated work.
posted by greenish at 3:09 AM on June 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: More anecdotal evidence that offices are getting less common: I just accepted a job as a manager of 15+ developers in a global software "center of excellence" for a large company, and the biggest "con" in my decision calculus was that I won't have an office. In fact, my director-level boss also has no office. I found this incredible as a large part of my job will be doing various 1-on-1 meetings, making calls, etc., all of which I presumably will have to do from a conference room. I don't get it.

For "individual contributors", which I assume you are, there are some pretty valid reasons to not do offices:

- cost to build out office space as offices is higher, and the space is not as flexible
- if not everyone can have an office, you have junior developers without and senior with, and everyone spends all their time jockeying for dominance, which sucks
- if people are working as a team, an open space for sure increases collaboration. Emails suck, and if you're out of sight in an office you'll get told stuff less.
- offices for everyone can actively suppress teamwork in some cases. I've worked places where there was a lot of person A going into person B's office, shutting the door and "OMG did you hear about person C" where C is supposed to be part of a *team* with A and B.

But ...

- if you're designing complex algorithms or doing a lot of "by myself big think" stuff, cubes can be distracting
- people feel more entitled to drop by and just yammer about stuff (you can control this a bit if everyone agrees to some ground rules)
- other devs will start a short discussion that turns into a long loud debate right behind you
- everyone having to have giant noise cancelling headphones is super dumb and defeats the whole increased collaboration thing anyway

So I don't know if it's a pendulum that swings back and forth, or if offices are just in the past for most orgs. You can certainly try to bargain for an office, but it'll be a tough sell if your prospective peers at the new job don't have them. I would guess you might be more likely to get an office at a non-tech company where programmers are seen as exotic geniuses and you're one of say 2 people doing what you do. But you lose out on a lot of learning that way.

I wish you the best - I chose not to die on that particular hill this go-round.
posted by freecellwizard at 10:15 AM on June 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've been meaning to reply to this for days. You are being unreasonable in the George Bernard Shaw sense ("all progress depends on the unreasonable man"). I totally agree with you that you need an office (all developers do, and this is a fact of which nobody will ever convince me otherwise), but you may find that this stance is somewhat career limiting.

The argument that cubes are cheaper than offices generally comes from people who haven't actually priced them both out. While a cube may dedicate a smaller amount of square footage to any individual employee (say, 64 square feet, vs 80-100 square feet for a small office), the actual cube furniture is stupidly expensive (more so than aluminum framing and drywall). Plus whenever you have to offer any sort of reservable quiet space, you're taking up just as much total square footage as if you gave everybody an office in the first place, and you're reducing productivity in the process. I am convinced that the high level managers and executives who make these decisions are, in fact, enforcing hierarchy whether or not they admit it, and I support any developer who refuses to work for those assholes.

The argument that teams work better in open environments has been thoroughly debunked (that last one is behind an Elsevier paywall). I probably have more articles on the subject in my Pinboard history if you need me to dig them up …
posted by fedward at 10:20 AM on June 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

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