November 20, 2002

Please read my manifesto about the way I’d like to run a company, and comment by editing the page (click the “Edit text of this page” link at the bottom of the page).

I realized today that I’m living a science fiction novel.

And not in that happy, Star Trek, gee-whiz-cel-phones-are-almost-magical sense. I’m living a Frederik Pohl novel, whose name should be sufficient warning in itself.

Here’s the situation: I work in an open office environment. I work in one huge room with two lines of five-foot dividers making a “hallway” down the center, and low three-foot dividers separating squares in which four desks are arranged in the corners of the square. Very straightforward and economical.

The problem is the oft-bemoaned constant distraction of co-workers chatting, taking phone calls, and so forth. But the problem is deeper than that, and today I realized what it’s like.

In Pohl’s novel Gateway (see lots of thoughtful analysis), humans have discovered a massive space station left behind by a long-dead race of aliens. The station is filled with old space ships, capable of travelling the stars at incredible speed, allowing a trip to nearby stars in only a few minutes or hours. The problem is that nobody can figure out the aliens’ navigation system, so people are allowed to enter a lottery in which they and several others get into a ship and try a random, fully automated trip to the stars, which usually lasts a few weeks, with big money waiting for them when they return. And most of them do.

The crucial psychological problem with going on these trips — when you get past the concept that you might not come back — is that you spent several weeks in intimate proximity with several other human beings, twenty-four hours a day, with nothing to do but entertain yourselves. No matter how much you like them, or even love them, you can’t help but be annoyed by some particular habit or character trait. Everyone evolves these tiny grudges, which they won’t bring out into the open, and thus frustration festers. It wears down the psyche.

And this is the problem I’m having with the open office environment. Everyone’s constantly being exposed to everyone else, and at some point, petty annoyances begin to build. It’s unavoidable. This is why healthy societies ensure that citizens have some privacy. But the open workspace environment forces everyone to be influenced by everyone else, all the time, and it taxes the mind. Unavoidably.

This is the second piece of solid reasoning I have against the open office argument, the first being that humans need to spend at least fifteen minutes working before they can efficiently concentrate on it, and the open environment is constantly distracting, meaning that employees can never enter that mental state called “flow”, meaning that the open office environment decreases employee productivity. To me, these two bits of reasoning provide a solid basis for rejecting open office environments.

I’m beginning to think that I need to develop a list of business practices that I intend follow should I ever run a business.

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