There’s been a lot of debate recently about open vs. private offices. There was a study that showed that open-plan offices tend to have more dissatisfied workers. Developers like Joel Spolsky have argued that private offices make developers more productive, citing research evidence. Among others, Hubspot defended their open plan office as essential for communication and interaction, while suggesting that headphones are good for reducing distractions.
Who’s right? Both, and neither.
At Archon Systems, we have everybody work in the office two days a week (usually Monday and Wednesday), and other days, people work from home. I haven’t seen any other company that does it, but it works fantastically well for us.
We can add to the evidence that people are more productive in private spaces — our developers are about 15% more productive on work-from-home days. We also agree with those who say that open-office interaction is essential. There have been countless times when an important creative breakthrough has happened spontaneously based on overhearing a conversation — I suspect many of these simply would not have occurred if people were in private offices. Most of our meetings and design sessions happen on office days, and home days are perfect for getting in the zone and cranking out that code uninterrupted.
We’ve found that two days a week generally works well for us as a startup (currently 10 employee) software company. It’s a good balance between more interaction and more uninterrupted development. But of course, the balance can fluctuate. If a group needs more time for discussion, those people will tend to go into the office on the other days. It’s much better than requiring 100% office-time, or employees feeling guilty when they want to work uninterrupted from home. Of course, we also communicate on work-from-home days by Google Hangouts, Yammer, and various other tools.
Based on day-to-day conversation and anonymous surveys, employees love this hybrid office arrangement. We have about the right mixture of social and creative interaction with personal focused time. Developers love having a couple consecutive days to code, knowing that there will be minimal distractions. The grind of a daily commute is reduced dramatically. But we also avoid the loneliness and ennui of permanently working remotely; we have lunch together and enjoy having some variety. There’s also more freedom. One of our employees moved to a city about an hour and a half away to live with his significant other; if he had to make that commute every day, that choice might’ve been a lot harder, or he might’ve looked for a new job.
Just because we aren’t forced to be in the office, that doesn’t mean we should skimp on it. Our last office was featured in an interior design blog desire to inspire, and we recently moved into a new office that’s much bigger and better, but we’ll show that off later!
On a related note, I suspect that worker dissatisfaction being correlated with open-plan offices is related to companies skimping on costs and just cramming people in wherever they can. But that doesn’t mean that a well-designed open-plan office can’t be better than private offices, so long as there’s a good option for focused individual work.
The Right People and Trust
We’re often asked, how do you know people are actually working when they work from home half the time? It comes down to having the right people and trusting them. There are certainly people that can work well under constant peer pressure but can’t self-motivate. Those people don’t perform well in our environment. A probation period for new hires is essential. However, this actually helps us separate the right self-motivated people from the fakers. And when you have a team of all the right people and can prove that you trust them, good things happen.
There was a lot of debate when Yahoo stopped people from working remotely. We agree with the flexibility and productivity benefits of working away from the office, and also agree with the problem of being disconnected without seeing your co-workers regularly. If you’ve ever interacted with someone online for a while and then met them in person later, you can immedately and viscerally feel the deeper connection with them. For this reason, we insist that our employees live near beautiful Toronto, Canada. At the same time, we don’t need to see you every day; we trust you’ll get the work done. This hybrid approach gives us a pragmatic best-of-both-worlds approach.
Probably one of the main reasons that most companies haven’t considered an arrangement like ours is that generally, these decisions are made by managers, and managers want to physically see their employees so they can supervise and interrupt them at any time. Paul Graham argues that programmers and other creative people operate on a maker’s schedule, where they hate meetings and interruptions that prevent them from getting in the zone. We’ve been able to avoid this trap because of evidence that people are more productive at home, and because our founders are themselves active developers. There are no pure-managers.
You Can Too
There are strong advocates of open offices, private offices, remote workers, and co-located teams. None of these advocates are stupid; they all have their points. I encourage you to consider this third option that combines the best wisdom from all sides. It’s worked great for us. Or join us and see for yourself!