Big table desking

We have an extremely open-plan layout in work — no partitions, just long benches of keyboards and monitors. It looks a bit like this, but with less designer furniture and more Office Depot:

Aman pointed out that this is a new trend in workplace design, which Workalicious calls “Big Table Desking”:

I’m still not sure what to make of the frequent instances of Big Table Desking. While this kind of workstation arrangement is no doubt a new trend, the no-privacy work place is a throwback to the 1950s office pool, a line up of identical desks classroom style. Is it the peer to peer seating position that overcomes this? How would it? By building community? As opposed the pilot and passenger 747, catholic church model of everybody facing “forward”. Does the Big Table Desk break down this heirarchy by facing people towards one another, sharing a big desk instead of staking out territory? Is the big table desk a microcosm, a representation of a healthy organizational structure?

No comment ;)

It seems to be popular with designers, presumably due to their collaborative working needs.

Mind you, it also looks a bit like a Taylorist workplace layout from 1904, of which Wired says:

American engineer Frederick Taylor was obsessed with efficiency and oversight and is credited as one of the first people to actually design an office space. Taylor crowded workers together in a completely open environment while bosses looked on from private offices, much like on a factory floor.

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8 Comments

  1. usernameguy
    Posted April 15, 2009 at 00:14 | Permalink

    Personally – not a big fan of this. Programming requires a lot of concentration; open plans encourage interruption.

    The analogy I always make to non-techies is that programming is like doing math equations in your head, all day. (Then another programmer pointed out: it’s like thinking about how you do math equations and then doing the math equations the new way.)

  2. Simon
    Posted April 15, 2009 at 01:33 | Permalink

    Hmm. Trendsetting office design, or just too cheap to pay for dividers?

  3. Robert
    Posted April 15, 2009 at 02:10 | Permalink

    Oh, I would positively hate that.

  4. Jim Battle
    Posted April 15, 2009 at 04:25 | Permalink

    Back in 1993, I spent a month working on a contract for Omron, in Japan. The office place was much like this — although it was a grid of shorter tables, eight or ten people per table.

    Being the only Japanese office I’ve worked in, I don’t know how much of it was a function of Japanese culture and how much of it was due to the office arrangement, but I’d have to contradict the earlier poster who said this would encourage interruption. Quite the opposite. Since there is no privacy, if someone is goofing off, chit-chatting or whatever, it is obvious to everyone. There were no managers walking around policing people — everyone kept their head down, and any conversations that did go on, and they did, were pretty functional.

    Of course, there was a bit of time at the start of the day, around lunch, and at a mid morning and mid afternoon breaks where people were allowed/encouraged to socialize a bit.

    Oh, yeah, at 9:00 sharp the company song played over the sound system and one was expected to sing along (I was given exception).

    All in all, I rather liked the productive environment.

  5. Dave
    Posted April 15, 2009 at 04:27 | Permalink

    I’d encourage you to check out Joel Spolsky’s articles on the advantage of private offices for any sort of concentration worker, especially (but not limited to) programmers. This workspace would have me looking for alternative employment or a cyanide tablet in short order.

  6. Mutant
    Posted April 15, 2009 at 09:12 | Permalink

    The last two offices I’ve worked in (in London) have both been like this… I think it’s pretty common in Europe… honestly, I wouldn’t want to go back to partitions (I always hated full cubicles anyway).

    If you’re doing Agile “properly” (which I have a feeling not that many companies are), you need constant chatter between people in the team… cubicles just get in the way… a lot of the “concentration time” is pairing anyway…

    The real distractions aren’t noises etc, around you, they’re people interrupting you specifically… cubicles or even offices (unless you lock the door) aren’t going to prevent that… that’s about having a well structured business so your developers can focus on one thing at time.

  7. Posted April 15, 2009 at 23:13 | Permalink

    We did some work planning the introduction of a new office for 650 people, when it was the turn of the guy who’d been making the furniture decisions to make his announcement we were introduce to a “new concept” the “team bench”, which it turned out was just a Big Table. The best bit was when he explained how this new system could be reconfigured to accommodate higher rates of occupancy. Yeah, you guessed it, everyone can move up a bit to make space for the new guy. On a positive note thought, this retro furnishing vogue does seem to be a victory for common sense and the bleeding obvious.

  8. Posted April 18, 2009 at 01:43 | Permalink

    Justin,

    When I worked in the city of London as a programmer it was setup exactly as the the picture but much more cramped. Think of a desk just big enough for a Sun workstation.

    Prior to that in DEC everbody had a cube with partition walls about as high as my shoulder. A bit dilbertian but much more preferable to open plan, it turns out to be quieter and much more collaborative.

    Programmers should be allowed to design their own workspace IMHO.

    Joe.