Hell is a stylish shared office space

Published on 2017-12-20 by John Collins.

Open plan offices

For all of my professional career, starting out as a software engineer and moving into various software engineering management positions, I have worked in an open plan office. I have never liked these spaces, as they are so full of distractions that impact upon the concentration of knowledge workers. To compensate for this, I find that many experienced engineers ask to be able to work from home, to enable them to get into the deep levels of concentration required for some of their harder work.

Surely this is a failing of the modern office design ethos: in order to get some real work done, many feel the need to abandon the office and go home.

Many others, myself included, opt to use expensive noise cancellation headphones to at least enable them to control what they listen to (Bose QuietComfort 35 being my personal choice) , be it music, radio, or podcasts. Anything to drown out the din.

Shared office spaces

Recently I started working at a company that had just opened a new office in my home city. Instead of renting their own office in an unfamiliar new city, it seems that many companies now prefer to rent desks in a shared office space instead, which allows them to grow organically by adding more desks until they are big enough to rent their own place and move out.

From a financial perspective, this "rent desks not square meters/feet" model makes sense: you can add more desks as you add more teammates, rather than renting X hundred square meters of space, and then trying to figure out how many people you can hire to fit (and in the interim you are paying for empty space!).

However, from a productivity perspective, I have found that working in a shared office space is even worse than an open plan office. Let me explain why next.

The problems with shared offices

The shared office space appears to be experiencing a hipster-fueled boom, with companies such as WeWork* leading the charge. From their website they state:

Whether you need a desk, office suite, or entire HQ, we create environments that increase productivity, innovation, and collaboration.

It is that promise of easily scaling your space as your company scales that is enticing, along with the promised increase in collaboration as you mix with founders and knowledge workers from other companies in the same space. But how realistic is that?

"It is that promise of easily scaling your space as your company scales that is enticing"

From my own experiences, you perceive the other companies sharing your building more with suspicion than collaboration, as you compete with them for office space, shared meeting rooms, kitchen space, and even sitting space at lunchtime. I never see people from one company sitting with others from a different company at lunch for example, it just never happens.

Instead you will sit with your own company teammates, so that you can talk freely about your current projects and issues. But you cannot talk too loudly as you are afraid of who might be listening, so you and your teammates knowingly start to speak in code about certain projects and customers to obfuscate your conversations, which starts to become ridiculous very quickly.

Some other problems that come to mind (note these may not be true of all buildings of course):

"People walking through the corridors between offices, speaking loudly on cell phones. Are we supposed to police people from other companies?"
  1. Not being able to adjust climate control in your rooms: this is controlled centrally.
  2. Overhead lights that switch off after a certain time if no motion is detected. I have even had this happen to me in the toilets :-)
  3. People walking through the corridors between offices, speaking loudly on cell phones. Are we supposed to police people from other companies?
  4. Email spam from the company running the office space.
  5. No input into repair schedules for the building, fire alarm tests etc. Drilling and hammering during calls and meetings are not uncommon, I have complained about this before but it still happens :-(
  6. Dogs being allowed into the office building. I like dogs, but when their owners do not mind them and they end up walking into your office, they can become an unwelcome guest.
  7. Security generally is more compromised: having your own server racked is a real issue in a shared cabinet which you do not control access to, while you never build enough facial familiarity with your fellow office mates to know if someone walking through a door or across a floor is a friendly colleague or a burglar.

While I have enjoyed the novelty of working in a shared office space, and the interior design and stylish vibe certainly impresses our guests to the office, that novelty wore very thin after a few months of dealing with the above issues. I really cannot recommend them, and feel the office design industry has gone from bad (open plan office) to worse (shared office space).

* Note we are not staying in a WeWork building, but in a similar offering from a rival company. I am just using WeWork as an example of the concept.