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FacebookΓÇÖs Hacker Campus: Epic Office or Epic Fail?

FacebookΓÇÖs Hacker Campus: Epic Office or Epic Fail?

3,400 engineers. 420,000 sq ft of space. One room. Is FacebookΓÇÖs new Hacker Campus an epic office or an epic fail in the making?

It promises to be the largest open-plan office in the world. But will it work?

An ambitious workplace experiment

ThereΓÇÖs no denying ZuckerbergΓÇÖs workplace plans are bold. Back in August last year he took to his Facebook page (where else?) to share the news about the new office plans:

“The idea is to make the perfect engineering space: one giant room that fits thousands of people, all close enough to collaborate together. It will be the largest open floor plan in the world…ΓÇ¥

When itΓÇÖs completed in 2015, the new building will have 420,000 sq ft of space and will be home to 3,400 engineers. From one end to the other, the open-plan space will be a quarter of a mile long. Or, in other words, a three-minute walk to talk to your colleague at the other end of the room.

Designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, the new Hacker Campus (or Facebook West as it is officially known) will be situated in Menlo Park, across the highway from the existing Facebook East campus.

Gehry has designed the space around FacebookΓÇÖs engineering culture, with arcade games in the lounge areas and graffiti-adorned walls. To shorten the journey time from one end of the office to the other, he envisions employees using RipStiks ΓÇô a kind of two-wheeled skateboard also known as a caster board.

The worldΓÇÖs most distracting office?

The biggest and most obvious stumbling block is the noise.

As anyone whoΓÇÖs ever worked in an open-plan office with just a couple of dozen people knows, the ambient background noise can be incredibly distracting.

But the epic scale of FacebookΓÇÖs new office is something else. Supposing their engineers have an average of two monitors each, thatΓÇÖs 7,800 screens. ItΓÇÖs also 27,200 keyboard tapping fingers (or 34,000 tapping digits if youΓÇÖre typing properly). In other words, an awful lot of background noise to filter out.

And thatΓÇÖs before you take into account the number of people talking or the sound of those caster board wheels zipping past.

A question of collaboration

Open plan offices promote collaborative working. Or so the theory goes. But is FacebookΓÇÖs new campus about to test that theory to the limit?

LetΓÇÖs think about this. 3,400 workers ΓÇô thatΓÇÖs around three times the number of students at the average UK high school. Chances are, you donΓÇÖt remember the names ΓÇô or even faces ΓÇô of everyone you went to school with. In fact, you probably never learnt half of them. So what chance do FacebookΓÇÖs engineers have of recognising the vast majority of their Hacker Campus colleagues?

Slim to none, given that studies estimate the average human brain can remember just 150 faces.

Picking out the familiar face of an individual colleague among the sea of unknowns will also be tricky. It might just be easier to message them on Facebook.

As for impromptu collaboration on projects ΓÇô despite ZuckerbergΓÇÖs vision of all the engineers working together, itΓÇÖs pretty much impossible for 3,400 people to work together in the kind of meaningful way that proponents of collaborative working envisage.

Given that all 3,400 workers will be plugged into the latest sound-muffling earphones to block out the cacophony of the office, thereΓÇÖs unlikely to be any conversation at all. Effectively, theyΓÇÖll each be cocooned in their own little sound booths. How collaborative is that?

WhoΓÇÖs in your neighbourhood?

FacebookΓÇÖs solution to the collaboration issue is what Zuckerberg calls ΓÇ£work-group neighbourhoodsΓÇ¥ ΓÇô in other words, you wonΓÇÖt work with everyone, just the few co-workers in the space immediately around your own desk. It makes sense. Although it does beg the question why the complete office needs to be so large in the first place.

But will these ΓÇ£work-group neighbourhoodsΓÇ¥ be divisive? Will they create cliques within the open-plan office? Will they become territorial over their small portion of this huge collaborative space? Why not just build them some walls?

But who is it really for?

Of course, itΓÇÖs not the first crazy workplace practice weΓÇÖve heard from Facebook. But, what with 15┬░C working temperatures and now the worldΓÇÖs most ambitious office in the making, itΓÇÖs starting to look like ZuckerbergΓÇÖs employees are guinea pigs in a series of working environment experiments.

ItΓÇÖs hard to imagine any employee deriving any real benefit from working in such an epically-proportioned office. Which raises the question: Who is it really for? Zuckerberg wants it to be the not just the worldΓÇÖs largest office, but the perfect workspace too ΓÇô a statement of ambition and achievement. Unfortunately, that wonΓÇÖt make it any more comfortable to work in.

But letΓÇÖs not write it off just yet. Who knows, it might work. This isnΓÇÖt your average office ΓÇô but then Facebook isnΓÇÖt your average company. Maybe the man who reinvented the way we connect socially will reinvent our relationships in the office too.

FacebookΓÇÖs Hacker campus ΓÇô good idea or epic fail? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Author: | August 1, 2013 | 0 Comments

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