Friday, July 30, 2010

Proposal: Abolish faculty offices

Posited: faculty offices are detrimental to the advancement of scientific knowledge.

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.)


  1. I am getting my own office for the first time next week - I am not sure how I feel about it. I don't work in the office very much - I prefer to work at home or in a cafe or in the lounge so I don't think I will use it very much. It will be convenient for meetings and to keep my bike though.

    In a way offices are kind of obsolete - we just need a place to have a meeting that has a convenient whiteboard and wireless internet.

  2. When I was the first employee at KSR (startup circa 1986) we had big open spaces and shared tables (and we multi-plexed a Sun workstation). The first thing the VP Eng did as I was nearing the end of my tenure there was to build cubicles around all the engineers. Funny, I thought he'd want to spend time learning about our architecture or what we were doing, but he thought the most important thing was convincing me we needed cubicles. I bailed for Berkeley shortly thereafter ...

  3. "but that's nothing a pair of noise-canceling headphones can't fix" -- for the first time since, well, I graduated from Harvard with my Ph.D. in 1998 (before you got there), I'm in a cube. And I hate it. Noise-canceling headphones are not a solution. I admit that many of my colleagues are reasonable. But some are noisy as h*ll, and spend hours on the phone. There are at least two kinds of work-style -- one that involves lots of interrupts, and one that requires time spent loading context into cache^Wshort-term memory. And open offices are not at all conducive to the latter--which is the way most serious coders spend their days.

  4. semi-retraction -- I think that cubes are the worst compromise between open space and offices. People (subconsciously) think that they have privacy, since they can't see their colleagues, so they make noise. Google may have the right idea, with no visible privacy. My current employee not only gives us cubes, but there are "doors", which enhance the fantasy that you have privacy. The worst noise offenders close their "doors" when they are on multi-hour conference calls. So I guess I'm arguing no walls (like Google) or full walls (like many places I've worked); cubes are the Devil's workshop.

  5. Dogfish - I hate cubicles. You are right that they give the appearance of privacy while not really offering any. HP is famous for the massive seas of cubicles. I don't understand it. I think Google's model is much better, in that people know they should be respectful of each other. (Although it varies a lot. When I visited the Google office in Seattle, it seemed like a three-ring circus with people yelling at each other from across the room at times.)

  6. Hi Matt, You will be surprised (or may be not) to see how many faculty will oppose to this proposal :)
    can you please try to propose this at harvard CS and post the feedback!!

  7. I'm not ready to give up my office just yet, but I do like the idea of working out of the lab some of the time. I guess I should get some comfortable chairs in there. :)

  8. I was a grad student in the RAD Lab, and I have to say that the open environment had a really positive impact. My productivity went up, I interacted with a larger number of students and faculty members, and I had a much better idea of what everyone was up to. Noise wasn't really a problem, as we abolished phones, and prohibited cell phone use.

    For Computer Science, especially researchers working on "Big Science", it is a big win. I wouldn't generalize the advantages to other disciplines or to non-systems contexts though.

  9. This is a bazaar-cathedral issue. Or to be precise, faculty offices are the direct descendants of the cells of the studious monks who are our ultimate ancestors. You are right -- engineering requires a different social atmosphere than struggling with sacred texts. Unless, perhaps, if the sacred texts are the ones you write to get tenure …

  10. Good thought. It seems along the lines of Richard Hamming. He suggested during a talk at Bell Labs that great research gets done when people mingle with others, not when they are locked behind closed doors.

  11. We in the controls group in EE at the Univ of S Paulo, Brazil, arrived at a solution which I think it the perfect compromise. We have shared offices for 2 faculty members each. It's not so many people that one's meetings are constantly disturbing the other, but it's less isolating than single offices. The proof that it's the best system is that hardly anyone uses it.


Startup Life: Three Months In

I've posted a story to Medium on what it's been like to work at a startup, after years at Google. Check it out here.