At Google, everyone sits out in the open at clusters of desks (not cubicles, God no). It looks a little something like this:
(This appears to be a picture from Google's Kirkland, WA office, but we have a similar setup in Cambridge.)
Today I swung by Harvard to my big, empty office, which looks like this:
Of course, it's an awesome office, one of the most spacious that I've seen in an academic CS building. You could easily pack eight grad students in there, sitting on top of a large pile of undergrads.
I got to thinking. In most academic settings, faculty are isolated in their own separate offices -- isolated from one another, from the students, from the rest of the world. This can't possibly be good for cross-fertilization of ideas. Although I leave my office door open whenever I'm there, people hardly ever drop by -- I guess I am pretty intimidating. (Or maybe it's my ferocious guard dog that I bring with me to work.)
Of course, having my own office is great for meetings, but there are plenty of places I could hold meetings instead. And it's nice to have a place for all of my books and journals, but really, shouldn't those be in a communal library anyway? And I guess the office is nice for when I want to shut out the world and try to concentrate, but that's nothing a pair of noise-canceling headphones can't fix.
So here's the idea -- let's get rid of faculty offices. Get everyone sitting together in open-floorplan space, interacting, communicating, innovating. Just like startups. Why not? This is the model that the Berkeley RADLab uses. All of the faculty sit together in an open space. Here's a picture of Randy Katz at his desk in the lab, surrounded by British war paraphernalia:
Doesn't he look happy? (You can read more about the RADLab design philosophy here.)
To be honest, when I started at Google I was pretty concerned about the lack of an office. I was sure that I would be unable to concentrate sitting out in the open, and would get annoyed at all of the distractions and bodily odors of the people around me. On the contrary, I've found that it actually helps my productivity to be in an active space with other people hacking away around me. Also, the noise level is rarely an issue. People are generally respectful and it's a little like working in a coffee shop.
When I get back to Harvard, I think I'll move into the lab with my grad students. (I can hear the groaning now.)