For the last year, I’ve been working from home (and mostly liking it!). As pandemic restrictions ease over the next few months, however, I, along with many others in the tech world, may be headed back to the office.

Looking back over the last decade, I’ve had a lot of great experiences in the offices of my employers and for the most part these spaces have been comfortable. However, there are certain office features that I’ve encountered at company after company that are not optimal and end up unnecessarily lowering productivity and happiness.

In this post, I want to call these features out and describe how they can be fixed.

Non-optimal office features

Open office
Stock photograph of a high-density, overly open office with non-adjustable, countertop surfaces.

Overly open offices

Let’s start with the giant elephant in the room- the trend of throwing hundreds of desks in a giant, open space, with no visual or auditory blockers between people. Companies claim that creating spaces as open as aircraft hangars “improves collaboration” but the research consistently shows that open offices are a net negative, and common sense dictates that a big motivation is saving money on real estate costs.

At this point, I realize that we’re not all going to get private offices- real estate in tech hubs like San Francisco is just too expensive for that to be feasible. However, at the very least open spaces should be broken up so that the noise I hear is from people that I directly collaborate with on my team and not from some random person 200 feet away who’s doing sales calls for an unrelated product.

The best shared office layout I had was when I was working for Google in Paris. The building was really old and thus had lots of internal walls and other, “old-fashioned” architectural features that couldn’t be completely torn out. Thus, by no other choice, each team was given a private room or semi-private alcove to share, and it was great! We could collaborate as a team when we needed to while at the same time not disturbing everyone else in the office. And yet, it was still open enough that you could walk around and see what others were doing.

It would be great if other offices, even more modern ones, had the same approach to open space.

Desks next to noise sources

Related to the trend of open space, some offices put desks immediately adjacent to large sources of non-work-related noise including cafeterias, all-hands meeting spaces, open atria, office circulation paths, and service help desks.

Over the years, I’ve been seated next to break-area coffee grinders (that noise drives me crazy!), tech support desks (hearing people complaining about the slow WiFi on their laptops over and over), and busy walkways (including frequent and very noisy tours being given to visitors). By far the worst experience, though, was a job where I sat directly next to the kitchen and had to spend all day listening to the head chef plan his menus and discipline the cafeteria staff.

Unless you’re trying to encourage collaboration between your product team and your food team, there’s no rational reason to do this, and it just causes frustration on both sides. Desk areas should be completely separated from the places where food is prepared and served, where meetings are held, and where every person in the building needs to walk by to get to or from their work areas.

Non-adjustable desks

A decade ago, height-adjustable desks were exotic and expensive, and thus very few offices had them. In 2021, though, they’re cheap and ubiquitous (even Ikea sells them!), and thus there’s no excuse to not have them.

For me, the biggest benefit of these “standing desks” isn’t the standing part but rather that I can make the surface very low. Since I’m shorter than average, the “standard” desk height is too high for me and makes it uncomfortable to type for long periods. Other people are most productive when work surfaces are higher than “standard” or at full standing height, so these desks can make everyone happy.

Even worse than individual, non-adjustable desks is the “shared countertop” layout that became popular a few years ago. These not only have the issue that the height is non-optimal, but also that you can feel the surface vibrate with each keystroke made by your neighbors. At one job, these vibrations were so distracting that I just couldn’t get any work done; thankfully, after multiple rounds of escalation, I managed to get a “private” desk that was attached to nothing else but the floor.

Overly decorated offices

Decorations like plants and wall artwork can really improve the environment in an office. Some companies, however, take the decoration process too far, to the point that the form overwhelms the function and makes it harder to get work done.

At this point, I’m going to abandon my normal discretion here and name names- Airbnb’s headquarters in San Francisco (where I worked for two years) was really suboptimal in this regard. The main issue was that nearly every conference room was outfitted not like a normal conference room but rather as an actual Airbnb listing from somewhere around the world.

Don’t get me wrong, the office was absolutely beautiful, and it was really fun to explore the various rooms and admire the cute furniture and clever touches that were included in the designs. But, it’s just not optimal to have long business meetings in a replica Moroccan hut with limited whiteboard space or a fake Spanish dining room with seating on shared wooden benches. At the time, I was suffering from back and neck issues, so these non-standard designs were particularly painful- I spent many meetings sitting on the floor with my back against the wall since this was the least uncomfortable place to be in many of these rooms.

Decorations are nice, but at a certain point they’re just too much. Regular conference rooms and desk areas may look “boring”, but when your goal is to create a space where people can get work done, boring (while still being neat and pretty) is probably better.

Why it matters

Over the years, I’ve gotten a surprising amount of pushback when advocating for improved office environments. Even when requesting relatively minor things like better window shades so the sun doesn’t blind me at my desk, I’m sometimes told that the fixes are “too expensive”, “not that important”, or will “reduce the aesthetics of the office”.

The main flaw in these arguments, and the one that gets people to change their minds (sometimes) is that reduced productivity due to a poor office environment is extremely expensive. In a high-cost location like California, for instance, the fully loaded cost of an engineer including taxes, benefits, food, office space, etc. can be more than $300 / hour. If loud noises, uncomfortable chairs, bright sunlight, or other annoyances reduce the productivity, say, of 100 people by 10%, the cost will be around $24,000 per day, which works out to several million per year. Installing new window coverings or putting up glass around a noisy atrium is going to be significantly cheaper.

The costs are even higher if you consider other, less direct effects, like people being less happy at work and thus more likely to switch jobs. Although I’ve never quit a job solely due to a suboptimal office environment, it’s certainly been a factor that’s made me less excited about my work and more willing to interview elsewhere. In a tight employment market, companies need to do everything they can to keep their employees happy and productive.

Conclusion

Tech offices can be beautiful and productive places, but in many cases the push to increase density while still looking spacious and “cutting edge” can lead to problems, particularly when it comes to noise.

It’s understandable that smaller companies with limited resources won’t be able to optimize every aspect of their office environments. However, it’s really frustrating when large, multi-billion dollar companies deliberately build out offices with suboptimal designs.

At least now, even the most traditional companies are open to remote work. If I encounter a noisy or unproductive office in the future, I’m just going to return to working from home. Hopefully others who are as sensitive to their environment as I am will have the same flexibility.