Michael Lopp confirms my suspicion that open offices are about price per square foot rather than productivity:
“I have a variety of issues regarding the open office trend. Let’s start with the fact that the folks often making the space decision are managers who already don’t spend much time at their desk because they are, by necessity, in meetings all day. (...) These same managers are often ones who are staring at the bottom line with the best intentions. With the increasingly painful rents in technology hotbeds like Palo Alto, San Francisco, and New York city, it just makes good financial sense to reduce the square footage per employee which means less walled offices because they consume valuable square footage. (...) I appreciate the math because I’ve done it, but I get twitchy when fiscal responsibility is used a justification for maximizing productivity. This, my friends, is called a rationalization – a defense mechanism in which controversial behavior are explained in a seemingly rational manner to avoid the true explanation.”
Sure, you can be a productive software engineer in an open office, but only if you drown out distractions with over-the-ear headphones. It shouldn’t have to be that way1.