Open and shut

There’s been much chatter over the past week or two, seemingly all positive, about this Washington Post article bemoaning open offices. Everyone seems to agree that open offices are terrible, soul-sucking places to work, with no opportunity to shop online watch YouTube videos check up on your fantasy sports team think deeply and be more productive.

Unsurprisingly, Michael Lopp weighs in on how important isolation is to those special snowflakes, programmers:

If you’re a software engineer, your craft is code and you’re at maximum productivity when you have long uninterrupted minutes and each unexpected visual and auditory interruption is a unique opportunity to completely lose your train of thoughts, context, and hard to recover mental momentum.

Back when he was a manager, Lopp would hire programmers only if they couldn’t sleep soundly on a bed with a pea covered by twenty mattresses.

Look, I have an office of my own and I like it. I haven’t shared a workspace since I was in graduate school, and I wouldn’t want to go back to that. I sympathize with Lindsey Kaufman, who wrote the WaPo piece, being upset with losing her private office and getting shunted to a big shared table. But it’s not as if productive work can’t be done in open offices. And they really aren’t new.

Every great movie about the newspaper business, from His Girl Friday to All the President’s Men has at least one scene in which the intrepid reporter is banging out a hot story on a tight deadline while surrounded by the chaos of a big city newsroom—copy boys rushing past, typewriters clattering, other reporters yelling into phones. Offices were for editors.

Engineers—real engineers, mind you, not software engineers—almost always worked in big open offices. Here’s a photo from my undergraduate drafting textbook. I think it was supposed to get us excited about our future jobs.

Bell Labs engineering

See that guy in the foreground with the colored shirt? Rebel.

My dad worked in just such an office at Caterpillar. The memory from my boyhood visits is that his desk was one of hundreds in a fluorescent-lit room covering at least an acre. The reality must have been scaled down, but there were certainly dozens of people working in the same open area.

And you can see in the photo how cleverly the engineers’ work areas were laid out. You had your drafting table on one side and your regular desk on the other, set in an L shape. To save space the surface of your regular desk was tucked under the tilt of your neighbor’s drafting table. That’s efficiency!

And yet, productive work got done. A surprising number of the excavators and dozers my dad helped design are still out there working, thirty years after he retired. Other engineers, working in similar open offices, designed the Sears Tower, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the 747, and the Saturn V rocket. I don’t know what the Bell Labs guys in the photo were working on, but I bet it was something reliable and robust. Time was when you could beat a man to death with a Western Electric handset, and then wipe off the blood and use it for another twenty years.

Designing a phone big enough and heavy enough to kill someone might have been the direct result of working in an open office.