Managing growth in a "private office culture" startup


This question is related to another one, "Ideal office space layout - open or offices?", but I think it's worth a question of its own.

There are many voices advocating that developers have to be in private offices in order to reach maximum productivity, being Joel Spolsky probably the most prominent of all them.

A problem of this approach is that it's not very flexible for a growing company. Some approaches you can take and their related problems are:

  • Changing offices once in a while and "hiring in bulk" after that, not growing in number of employees meanwhile. This approach is far from the optimum in hiring practices. Hiring good employees requires time, and you cannot expect good results with tight hiring schedules. Training difficulties and deficiencies when there are many new employees in the company is another issue to take account of.
  • Renting more space than needed at the moment, and fill it while growing. The problem with this is, obviously, that having unused offices can be very expensive for a startup.
  • Turn private offices into shared offices as you grow and change location. This has some problems too: it will be difficult to convince people your approach is really "private offices" when trying to hire and retain employees. It can also create some personal problems as some people would have to share its office while some other people would not have to.
  • Change offices very often. Changing offices is expensive, especially if you need to adapt them, and every move can be uncomfortable for your employees.

Do you know about other approaches to this problem? Which ones have you used or seen? Which one do you think is the best?

Thanks for your opinion.

Planning Employees Office

asked Nov 7 '09 at 20:14
Artur Soler
206 points
  • I'm not sure I understand; how is private offices less flexible than open office plan? Do you mean that with open offices you'll set a target of "x" square meter per employee, and at times have much less than x, but this is "flexibility"? – Jesper Mortensen 14 years ago
  • Well, open space plans have scalability problems too, but I think that they are easier to manage than in a private office plan. In an open space plan office you can usually redistribute tables allocation to be able to add another one, or manage to add another developer, probably reducing overall performance but not in a dramatic way. In a private office scheme, on the other side, you either have a free office or you haven't, and there is no way of adding an office for another developer. – Artur Soler 14 years ago

6 Answers


I don't see a fundamental difference in flexibility between open offices and private offices -- with both you either need to have unused space in reserve for future growth, or change offices, or stack people more tightly, or a combination thereof.

Open offices may seem more flexible, but they really are not. The fundamental problem remains the same (at least if you agree that people seated closely together are less productive). Open offices are cheaper though, some research shows you can get ~30% more people into the same space when there is no partitioning. If you over-do it the problems are also well documented, noise levels, bad interior climate etc.

If you have personal offices and growth problems, why not just put 2 people in someones office? "Jim, we need you to share office with a new hire -- but it's only for a month, we have already signed for a new and larger office."

You could say "scalability" of the office space != the "performance" of the office space. :-)

Regarding what to do -- a combination of "changing offices often" and "renting more than needed right now", as best possible.

answered Nov 7 '09 at 22:58
Jesper Mortensen
15,292 points


One more option is to get more space than you need and sublet it. A good real estate tenant's broker will be able to help you with this. You can do it formally, e.g., rent 10,000 square feet with a typical 10 year lease, and then sublet 5,000 of them right away on a 2-year sublease. Or you can do it more informally by renting "desk space" (make sure your lease allows for it; most landlords will be happy to allow this), so for example you get 10,000 square feet, build it all out, and then sublet a few offices or desks to local smaller startups.

answered Dec 14 '09 at 11:47
Joel Spolsky
13,482 points


Some landlords with a lot of office space will also be able to give you options to expand. It's not uncommon for people to sign a lease for the 12th floor that gives them an option to expand into the 11th floor in 2 years when that tenant's lease is up. This is far more common in markets that are flooded with office space, meaning, everywhere in the US right now.

answered Dec 14 '09 at 11:48
Joel Spolsky
13,482 points


We have a open office policy. i.e. We work in a much bigger room with plants placed between tables we don't want the developers to feel cramped but an open office with lot of plants looks good as well as healty :-)

We do have private offices (with monitor's, docking station and keyboards fitted) which can be used by anyone if they feel they are getting disturbed. As we work with Laptop its just easy to walk-in and work.

The consensus was open office is fun to work with.

answered Nov 9 '09 at 06:59
264 points


I just watched a live video feed of a group of software developers who are building an iPhone app (wikimeety) in 7 days. No private offices. Lots of communication and what appears to be quality code( Command Guru ). They don't seem to have a lot of space either. Unless you plan on entertaining clients, I think it is waste to put too much energy, effort, and money into office space. Granted, they only plan on being there for a week.

This is a firm utilizing agile principles and not only do they not have private offices, they don't even program alone: Menlo Innovations

answered Dec 14 '09 at 12:31
Jeff O
6,169 points


One approach I've seen working is renting larger than your current needs. You will have unused space and pay more initially, but you're not going to cram 2 people in one office to solve the space-problem. Until you move to a larger office use the unused space for "fun" things, like a special wii-room.

This approach will still cause problems if you intend to grow very, very fast, since you can't keep switching offices every 2 months. In that case you would need to find a "flexible" lease (if that's even possible) where you could rent extra floorspace later when you need it. Those leases are very, very rare over here though, so I can imagine it's rare everywhere.

answered Nov 9 '09 at 06:36
John Kraal
21 points

Your Answer

  • Bold
  • Italic
  • • Bullets
  • 1. Numbers
  • Quote
Not the answer you're looking for? Ask your own question or browse other questions in these topics:

Planning Employees Office