Facebook’s new HQ in Menlo Park is designed to encourage openness and transparency.

Deep inside Facebook's massive new headquarters, the largest open-office workspace in the world, a rough-hewn building that feels like the idea economy's take on the industrial factory floor, sits the desk of Lindsay Russell.

The desk is a white slab, 1.5m long, no drawers. The top has room for her laptop, computer monitor and a few knick-knacks. Russell, a brand strategist, also has an office chair and small filing cabinet. That's it. No coat rack. No office phone. Her just-delivered dry cleaning, handled by Facebook, hangs by its metal hangers from the desk's lip. There are no cubicle walls. No partitions. Her desk sits cheek-by-jowl in a pod with five other desks, a scene repeated across the cavernous Frank Gehry-designed space filled with 2800 Facebook employees.

Even chief executive Mark Zuckerberg sits out in the open at one of those simple white desks. An office is not one of the perks of being the billionaire founder of one of Silicon Valley's most important companies.

Need privacy? Small meeting rooms are scattered all over. Or slip on headphones.


"That's the hack for not having office doors," Russell, 31, said.

Walking into Facebook's new headquarters can feel like entering the office of the future - open, fluid and informal. It's a place where change seems a given, and the management structure implied by corner offices is a relic. The building stands out as an extreme example of how Silicon Valley firms intend to change the nature of work through more than software alone. And it goes beyond ballyhooed perks such as massages, ping pong and three meals a day.

"They're trying to make work as frictionless as possible," said Greg Stefanick, 48, an engineering director.

Still, this future of work will not be welcomed by everyone. Open offices are contentious, despite nearly 70 per cent of US workers now reporting for duty in one. Although the trend has been growing for more than a decade, according to the International Facilities Management Association, studies have reported that some people find them noisy and distracting, even a drain on morale. And this is true despite most open offices still featuring low-wall cubicles.

What Facebook implemented goes a step further and, for now, remains rare: no walls inside an entire building engineered to facilitate a new way of doing work. Other major Silicon Valley firms such as Apple and Google are planning futuristic workplaces, too.

Facebook's headquarters opened earlier this year. It is known as Building 20. The 131sq m (430,000 sq ft) structure sits on a 9ha site just across a highway from Facebook's existing campus, originally built for Sun Microsystems. Building 20 was the first Facebook built from scratch.

The design reflects its emphasis on openness and transparency. It is set up to encourage collaboration and speed. Natural light pours in through skylights and massive windows as if to point out the passing of time. Building 20's unfinished look - exposed steel girders, concrete floors and wires dangling from the soaring ceiling to desks below - recalls a fledgling start-up instead of the world's largest online social network, with 1.5 billion monthly active users worldwide.

Employees can be seen inside Facebook's new campus in Menlo Park. Photo / Washington Post
Employees can be seen inside Facebook's new campus in Menlo Park. Photo / Washington Post

"It's intended to be a symbol of what we believe at Facebook, which is that our work is unfinished," said Lori Goler, vice-president of people.

The lack of offices for Zuckerberg and the rest of his management team is seen by many Facebook employees as proof of the company's openness. They don't even occupy the best office real estate, such as near the soaring windows with stunning views of nearby salt marshes.

But navigating a single room that stretches 457m in length and includes thousands of co-workers can be a challenge. So Facebook installed Wayfinders, touch screens running in-house software that allow you to find any desk.

And the dozens of small meeting rooms are organised into whimsically-named neighbourhoods, such as music festivals or media mash-ups. So a worker knows that the room called "13 Going on 30 Rock" is near "Clockwork Orange is the new Black".

"It's a really great organisational aid," said Stefanick, the engineering director. "I depend on it."

Stefanick worked in traditional offices before coming to Facebook. Once he even had an office with a door - something that today sounds like the retirement gold watch or the three-martini lunch.

The waiting area of building 20 at Facebook's new campus in Menlo Park. Photo / Washington Post
The waiting area of building 20 at Facebook's new campus in Menlo Park. Photo / Washington Post

But he said he prefers the open layout. He can overhear conversations and make unexpected connections with co-workers.

"Before, people would close their door and you'd feel this real barrier to talking to them," Stefanick said.

"You've got to use the open floor plan to your advantage," said Jose Padilla, 27, who works in finance.

Padilla said he can hold meetings on the fly. And if he's discussing something sensitive, such as financial data, he can grab a small private room.

Russell also started her career in a traditional office. She had a cubicle on Wall St. Ideas at the investment banking firm had to be worked up the ladder. The process was rigid and slow. At Facebook, the office layout encourages group projects. There is less focus on any worker's individual space. The desks lack dividers, so there's no place to push-pin photos, conference badges or Dilbert cartoons. You can't hang a family photo calendar.

But photos are for posting to Facebook or Instagram. Calendars are synched online, with reminders sent to your cellphone. There's no need for a drawer to stash afternoon snacks or diet sodas because treats are provided free. And forget walls to hang your framed degrees on - they don't matter. The guy who started Facebook never finished Harvard.

Building 20 also features a 3.6ha rooftop garden, complete with mature trees and rolling hills of grass. Two laps around the meandering gravel path takes about 30 minutes, perfect for Silicon Valley's famed walking meetings or an employee's weekly one-on-one with a manager.

People can be seen walking through Facebook's new campus. Photo / Washington Post
People can be seen walking through Facebook's new campus. Photo / Washington Post

Russell recently walked through the office, past rows of desks and walls plastered with posters and handwritten messages meant to evoke an urban scene.

"It feels organic and intentional at the same time," she said.

She stopped to point out where Zuckerberg and Facebook's chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, sit. Zuckerberg was out but Sandberg was holding a meeting in a glass-walled room near her simple desk. The meeting room is one of the few office perks for being a corporate leader. But Russell or any of the other 2800 workers could watch it all.

"I've never seen the shades drawn," she said.

Why open plan is a bad idea

The industrial design, by Frank Gehry illustrates the idea that Facebook's work is unfinished. Photo / Washington Post
The industrial design, by Frank Gehry illustrates the idea that Facebook's work is unfinished. Photo / Washington Post

A year ago, my boss announced that our large New York ad agency would be moving to an open office. After nine years as a senior writer, I was forced to trade in my private office for a seat at a long, shared table. It felt like my boss had ripped off my clothes and left me standing in my skivvies.

Our new, modern Tribeca office was beautifully airy, and yet remarkably oppressive. Nothing was private. On the first day, I took my seat at the table assigned to our creative department, next to a nice woman who I suspect was an air horn in a former life. All day, there was constant shuffling, yelling, and laughing, along with loud music piped through a PA system. As an excessive water drinker, I feared my co-workers were tallying my frequent bathroom trips. At day's end, I bid adieu to the 12 pairs of eyes I felt judging my 5.04p.m. departure time. I beelined to the Beats store to purchase their best noise-cancelling headphones in an unmistakably visible neon blue.

Despite its obvious problems, the open-office model has continued to encroach on workers across the country. Now, about 70 per cent of US offices have no or low partitions, according to the International Facility Management Association. Silicon Valley has been the leader in bringing down the dividers. Google, Yahoo, eBay, Goldman Sachs and American Express are all adherents. Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg enlisted famed architect Frank Gehry to design the largest open-plan floor in the world, housing nearly 3000 engineers. And as a businessman, Michael Bloomberg was an early adopter of the open-space trend, saying it promoted transparency and fairness. He famously carried the model into city hall when he became mayor of New York, making "the Bullpen" a symbol of open communication and accessibility to the city's chief.

These new floor plans are ideal for maximising a company's space while minimising costs. Bosses love the ability to keep a closer eye on their employees, ensuring clandestine porn-watching, constant social media-browsing and unlimited personal cellphone use isn't occupying billing hours. But employers are getting a false sense of improved productivity. A 2013 study found that many workers in open offices are frustrated by distractions that lead to poorer work performance. Nearly half of the surveyed workers in open offices said the lack of sound privacy was a significant problem for them and more than 30 per cent complained about the lack of visual privacy. Meanwhile, "ease of interaction" with colleagues - the problem open offices profess to fix - was cited as a problem by fewer than 10 per cent of workers in any type of office setting. In fact, those with private offices were least likely to identify their ability to communicate with colleagues as an issue.

In a previous study, researchers concluded "the loss of productivity due to noise distraction ... was doubled in open-plan offices compared to private offices."

The New Yorker, in a review of research on this nouveau workplace design, determined that the benefits in building camaraderie simply mask the negative effects on work performance. Though employees feel like they're part of a laid-back, innovative enterprise, the environment ultimately damages workers' attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction. Furthermore, a sense of privacy boosts job performance, while the opposite can cause feelings of helplessness. In addition to the distractions, my colleagues and I have been more vulnerable to illness. Last flu season took down a succession of my co-workers like dominoes.

As the new space intended, I've formed interesting, unexpected bonds with my cohorts. But my performance at work has hit an all-time low. Each day, my associates and I are seated at a table staring at each other, having an ongoing 12-person conversation from 9am to 5pm. It's like being in middle school with a bunch of adults. Those who have worked in private offices for decades have proven to be the most vociferous and rowdy. They haven't had to consider how their loud habits affect others, so they shout ideas at each other across the table and rehash jokes of yore.

As a result, I can only work effectively during times when no one else is around, or if I isolate myself in one of the small, constantly sought-after, glass-windowed meeting rooms around the perimeter.

If employers want to make the open-office model work, they have to take measures to improve work efficiency. For one, they should create more private areas - ones without fishbowl windows. Also, they should implement rules on when interaction should be limited. For instance, when a colleague has on headphones, it's a sign that you should come back another time or just send an email. And please, let's eliminate the music that blankets our workspaces. Metallica at 3pm isn't always compatible with meeting a 4pm deadline.

On the other hand, companies could simply join another trend - allowing employees to work from home. That model has proven to boost productivity, with employees working more hours and taking fewer breaks. There are fewer interruptions when employees work remotely. At home, my greatest distraction is the refrigerator. Lindsey Kaufman works in advertising and lives in Brooklyn, New York.