No obstacles: Facebook's headquarters in Menlo Park, California Washington Post

No obstacles: Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California Washington Post (via The Independent)

I was listening to Cortex yesterday and Myke and CGP Grey were mentioning the new Menlo Park headquarters for Facebook and the large, open-plan work space. This space is not a trend unique to Facebook. Many companies and office spaces are transitioning to open-plan work spaces for more “open communication” and collaborating. But is this type of space really the solution to that? Do people really collaborate more and do critical thinking in a space like this or do they end up trying to drown out all the distractions with headphones or go hide away in a closet somewhere to get some actual work done?

I find the interior space of the new Facebook office neither aesthetically appealing nor engaging for working or collaborating. It just looks cluttered, messy and noisy. The fact that no one is given any storage space nor are they encouraged to have personal items on their desk seem to only make it more disheartening and cluttered. The overly high, unfinished ceilings with cables descending down are even worse! I think of something Trevor Noah said about not moving into Jon Stewart’s office after he left the Daily Show… he talked about how the whole point of moving up in the worked and getting out of poverty meant he didn’t want to have to live in a space with exposed brick walls again and what was it with white people and exposed brick? I feel the same way about wealthy tech companies and exposed wiring? You can afford to have that sh*t covered up! This whole space gives me a case of the hibby jibbies!

For a more in-depth view of the new Facebook work space, there is a 3+ minute video tour on YouTube.

I really hope that the pendulum of the open floor plan office starts to swing back the other way because I don’t believe that this much openness is genuinely conducive to non-distracted working and thinking. I believe it leads people to seek out other places to work, or they choose to come into work either early or stay late in an attempt to avoid distrations. I think the myth of multi-tacking needs to stop. It makes people sloppy and tired. We can multi-task for a little while but, in the end, I don’t think its effective, efficient or healthy. I don’t think we, as idea workers, can come up with our best ideas when we are constantly distracted by co-workers, bleeps, or other disturbances. Yes, its nice to have a way to bounce ideas off other people, but we need to find a better way to do it other than forcing people to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with headphones on while they madly type into their laptops and mobile devices. That’s not really collaborating, is it?

Thus endedth the tirade.

29 Comments on Is this the definitive modern office?

  1. I so agree, this type of open office is horrendous for calm productivity. I was an office manager and have worked in a few of these horrors. I wouldn’t take a job in one like this. Thank heavens I am retired.

  2. You are so right! I would run screaming from the building if I was forced to work in an office like that. My own workspace with its head-high cubicles is unbearably noisy much of the time. I know way too much about my colleagues’ fights with husbands, wives, kids, and plumbers. I can’t imagine trying to work in such a wide-open room.

  3. I’m with you 100% on this. I worked in a similar office once. It was horrible! Personal space is a good thing and multi-tasking is a myth.

  4. I also agree, I this is a programmer factory with no consideration to the worker. It is 64 degrees and sunny in Menlo Park today, I know where I would want to work.

  5. I work in an open office, somewhat like that with a few key differences. We’ve got operational stuff on our desks, there’s tons and tons of natural light through all the floor to ceiling windows, the appointments are MUCH nicer, and there are plenty of comfy collaborative spaces scattered about. I do often put headphones in if I’m working on something deep, or the background noise gets too loud, but there really is a lot more collaboration, which is necessary in my company.

  6. Totally agree.. This open office for more communication and collaboration is a myth… personal efficiency ans effectiveness happens when there’s little distraction.. My co workers want my considered and thought through views not an off the cuff answer at the coffee machine! We’ve just moved into a new office and it looks like the the image without looking crazy… No privacy… Want to think .. Leave your desk. .. Want to get disturbed.. Sit at your desk… Work is unpredictable and you can’t force communication and collBoration by making people sit check by by jowl… Idiots…

  7. I suspect it might be this way to offer management a better way to supervise (watch) their employees to make sure they’re working and not playing on the Internet. (If so, it’s kind of ironic that this is Facebook, which employees use during work-time around the world…if they’re management or IT and ensure their not getting caught by using their cellphones to access the Internet.)

    That’s what it was where I worked. As for “collaboration,” there was none — and we were a group of graphic designers. But it certainly gave management a Big Brother’s Watching You mentality.

    We were in a closed room with neutral walls. IN the beginning, we were allowed to put nothing on the walls. A little later, we were allowed small bulletin boards for every workspace. A little later, we begged to be allowed to print out oversized pictures of nature — waterfalls, forests and the like.

    It truly felt like we were constantly working under the Sword of Damocles. Of course, we were also ordered to be creative and then ordered to follow the rules…which changed week by week. So we were to be creative on demand. And no noodling around, scribbling ideas before starting to design. That was wasting company time and considered “personal”.

    I missed cubicles. I now work at home and don’t miss Damocles at all.

  8. I worked for a company that moved everyone–from sales people to editorial–to an open floor plan so we could “collaborate” and whatever. Real reason was they got a big tax credit to move. Everyone who stayed hates it. No surer way for an employer to say we don’t care about you or your work.

  9. I agree, it is a terrible trend. I have turned down jobs because of their open office plan, I don’t want to work there. I work hard, and love to collaborate, but this wouldn’t do that for me.

  10. In the photo the “office” almost looks like ordered chaos. It would be even worse in the row where desks face desks with only a computer monitor as a “wall”. I’m so glad I deactivated my FaceBook account.

    You are right on about multitasking. It might start off seeming to work. But giving your best is hard to do to two tasks simultaneously let alone more.

  11. I worked in this kind of office and everyone wore headphones so music would drown out the chatter. Or just had them on their heads with no music.

  12. I agree. While it’s a nice idea that people will collaborate more, the reality in every open plan office I’ve worked in is staff wearing headphones, filling the quiet rooms and working from home more if they can. And these offices give no consideration to introverts and how this is more tiring for them, to be so obviously constantly surrounded by people. At least high walled cubicles give people a small sense of privacy but the trend is for low or no walls.

  13. Wow! Just looking at that space makes me crazy. I don’t think I could work in an environment like that. Way too cluttered and how can you possible hear yourself think??

  14. That place is horrific – somewhere to house disposable minions, not valued self-respecting human beings. What I see is something that was done on the cheap and quick, not something done out of pride.

  15. I could not work in a space like that. Too crowded, too cluttered, and I bet rhe noise level in there is astronomical. I have ADHD and that looks like my vision of distractibility hell.

  16. Amen, Ana!

    About to endure a less radical version of forced shared space at work. Forget about quiet, potentially introverted people who are highly creative. That space looks like hell from my (semi-introverted) perspective. 🙁

  17. I feel like I should say something here — I work in that very office. Sure, it is massive and pretty sprawling (almost 500,000 square feet!) but it’s not quite as disorganized a mess as it looks from this wide shot.

    The claim that personal items on desks are discouraged is simply not true — there are lots and lots of desks with flowers, action figures, lamps, Pusheen plushies, et cetera. My desk, in fact, has a large cup of pencils and a green Classroom Friendly sharpener on it.

    There’s also some amazing art installations all over, an Italian restaurant, an Asian street food hawker center, a large cafeteria, and a branch of a pretty fantastic SF coffee shop inside. And, oh yeah, a 9-acre park on the roof, with a juice bar, a sandwich shop and more than a hundred trees (complete with a half-mile of walking trails).

    The point is, this is not a half-veiled ruse for supervisors to look over your shoulders. It’s not poorly constructed, and surprisingly, it’s not too loud — there are some pretty expert-level baffles in the ceiling (I think) that muffle a lot of the noise. Frank Gehry and his crew kinda know what they’re doing.

    Would I have picked an open floor-plan office for myself, given the opportunity? I’m not sure. It really is handy to look over my monitor and chat with the designer I work closely with (unless she has her headphones on — that *is* the universal sign that they’re heads-down in work, after all). I totally wouldn’t mind more storage space, but then again, I could just order a coat rack from facilities and it would be there in a day or two (there are racks everywhere, in fact).

    All this to say, this building is fine. There are a lot of people, working very hard, but it’s hardly a sweatshop.

    And if you come out to the bay area, Ana, you can totally come take a tour, and we’ll have free ice cream and I’ll load you up with bright green Facebook-branded notebooks. 😀

    • Thanks for speaking out on behalf of your company. As someone who works in an office space that continually pushes towards an open plan work space, I am inclined to wish that the concept, in general, be reconsidered. I think teams have the potential to benefit from a more collaborative working environment but not whole companies. I’ve seen certain implementations work better than others. In places like California where the weather allows working outdoors more often throughout the year, its probably easier than somewhere like Minnesota. And for the type of work I do which requires a large monitor that is hard to pick up and move easily making me tethered to my desk, I’d rather have a quiet working space and comfortable communal space for idea generation and project building phases. But I spend months of time at my computer and would be far more productive if I wasn’t interrupted every five minutes. I wish those job-specific roles were considered before open plan office spaces were implemented company-wide. But that’s my two-cents.

    • “All this to say, this building is fine. There are a lot of people, working very hard, but it’s hardly a sweatshop.”

      Thank you for providing your insight. It tends to balance – out the impression given by a single picture.

      However, your saying the place you’re working in is not a sweatshop is not exactly an expression of enthusiasm – is it?

      I still feel that what I’m seeing in that work space is in nobody’s best interest. if you could be in a real office environment with some level of privacy, sound deadening carpets and ceiling material, ergonomically designed lighting, a bookcase, a filing cabinet, your own plant and window – you would be surprised how much better you would feel about your job; and about yourself.

      These open office plans may make sense from a strict accounting point of view, but in the end they are very costly in an economic sense. They carry a very high opportunity cost because of how they negatively impact the people who have to live in these spaces. In the end, it costs far less to spend a little more and treat your Engineers with dignity.

      Take my word for it – I’m a very experienced EE who has worked in, as wall as managed, all kinds of office designs, all over the world.

    • I can’t focus in an environment like this. It’s too visually distracting. There needs to be a variety of different environments to cater to people’s different working habits. Architects can design a great functioning space, but they aren’t designing for a large group of people with different needs. It would be like saying “everyone should use stairs” when some people clearly can’t. I wouldn’t be productive in this space. I would feel swallowed up and wouldn’t be able to focus. It feels like this trend punishes people who need to be introverted to work, like me. Put me in a coat closet and I’ll get you more work done. I can’t feel like I’m exposed and be productive, creative and happy long term. I think IDEO does this the best. They blend the open plan with the ability to customize. Some people are cocooned in little spaces, while others have it wide open. They produce some of the most innovative ideas of anyone on earth.

      • I totally agree. I used to work (I’m retired now, thank God) in an open cubicle-filled office space. At least we had walls that were about shoulder high. I could not work in a completely open office. Sounds like IDEO has the right idea, at least to some extent. Employees need some privacy and the ability to personalize their own space. Everybody needs to feel like they “own” their workspace. Employees usually spend more of their waking hours at work than anywhere else. Employers are forgetting that fact and disregarding different personality and work styles to their own detriment and that of their employees.

  18. We moved into our open plan (ish) office about three years ago. We still have offices, but all the interior walls are glass. Support stuff (such as myself) have what are basically cubicles, but they don’t look anywhere near as soul-destroying as Facebook’s setup. I feel like I have my own space and being “out in the open” has never bothered me (and I used to have a regular office at my previous job). We have meeting rooms and smaller “huddle rooms” where folks can chat, as well as our little kitchen area. I think there’s a different between trying to foster an open, collaborative environment and tossing everyone into a large room haphazardly.

  19. Seriously disturbed by this. I am easily distracted and require some privacy to think, plan, draft pleadings, etc. And the design of this room does not facilitate communication, any more than the row after row of workers facilitated communication in assembly-line businesses early in the Industrial Age.

    Where is the beauty and humanity in all this?

  20. Well your article and these comments are fascinating.

    Here in the UK open plan offices are the norm and I’ve worked in them in my 20 years in IT.

    Want to know the funny thing? We look at American cubicle farms in horror. Isolated in your own little box with no light from the windows, like Winston Smith in ‘1984’. I think that sounds awful. Like a battery farm chicken!

    I collaborate all the time with my colleagues without leaving my desk. If we work with another team for a while we often move our desk’s contents to their area and physically relocate for a while. The empty desk next to me belongs to my manager who is working with another team at the opposite end of the office for a few months. Co-location is an important part of the Agile business processes we use.

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