Steve's blog

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Open Plan Offices – What a HUGE Mistake.

I read earlier today on that Open-plan offices are making knowledge workers sick, say Australian scientists - No kidding!

Headphones and missing developer

Problems with open plan offices are hardly a secret. Joel has promoted office spaces for developers for a long time, it's also covered in PeopleWare - although sadly I don't think many managers actually read that book, Jeff Atwood of Coding Horror covered it and I'm sure there are many more instances.

I think the whole office thing is back to front, if you insist on having an open plan office then the managers should be in the open plan parts and the knowledge workers should have the separate quiet offices – managers have to communicate more and know what's happening much more than the workers. Knowledge workers need to be productive and granted communications is really important but not as important as being able to focus on the work.

Now I'm sure most companies would want better value for money out of their knowledge workers and to have a better product on the market. I see a quiet working environment as a major step towards that.

So employers next time you are wondering why your software project cost so much money, why it was so late, why it's so buggy and not as good as the competitors and why there appears to be a skills shortage start by think a bit closer to home and how the business uses it's resources (sorry employees).

Sadly having an office has been seen as a status symbol. More fool the companies that make their knowledge workers work in a noisy office and tuck their managers away in nice quiet offices – You are wasting a fortune in employee productive. With the exception of a few, generally managers are only their to support the workers – without the workers the manager is pointless – the workers are the important bit! (Hint: Think about small companies, they do really well given the lack of managers).

I've had the miss-fortune to work in an open plan office situation for my last 5 proper jobs (I don't count my own business) over the previous 8 years and I'm one of those people who is really sensitive to the noise around me so I can totally agree with the findings.

Noisy environments are stressful, frustrating and prevent you from doing your job to the best of your abilities.

Most of my previous employers have been biotech, pharma or life science instrumentation but my current employer is a large IT focused software company and of all the places I expected to understand about the damage noise does I would expect my current employer to understand(*), sadly this is not the case.

Now the sound of developers working hard is quietness with a few keyboard strokes and the occasional conversation. If like my current position your do code reviews prior to checking in code then this adds to the background noise. If like my current position you have more than 1 person who loves the sound of their own voice and is loud then you are doomed.

Loud person.

Take the bug fixing part of the project when your trying to get the application out of the door (and probably didn't budget much time for bug fixing so it's critical to get it done asap). All the developers are fixing bugs, if you have an office of 20 developers, each fixing 1 bug/day which results in a 10 minute code review. That's 20 * 10 minutes of conversation about code reviews per day. Or put it another way 3 1/3 hours worth of background conversations happing every day.

If those code reviews are about 10 minutes apart then you get a full day of distractions for all of the 20 developer in that one office.

Guess what, it's so easy to introduce side effects and bugs whilst fixing a bug, especially if you are not concentrating, so whilst everybody is trying hard to concentrate to fix the bug and not introduce more they are subject to 50% of the time being a distraction caused by a code review happening in the office (and most likely once the quietness is broken other people will start chatting as well which makes it even noisier). Any then we wonder why so many extra problems get introduced during the bug fix cycle!

Personally I'm a late starter, I like working latter in the day when everybody has gone home and the office is quiet – I generally get more done during the last 1-2 hours than I'm able to do for the bulk of the day because of the background distractions. Many friends criticise me for being late, having the pleasure of missing the rush hour traffic to and from work, but you know what, it lowers my stress levels, I get more done and I'm happier and I guess whilst I'm not stuck in traffic that helps lower my carbon footprint.

Here's some hints to employers looking to get better value for money from developers (I'm sure this or variations of this apply to a lot of developers):

  • I will work for a lower salary at a place that I am able to be in late.

  • I will work for a lower salary at a place that's quiet.

  • I work better latter in the day so you get better value for money if I'm working latter.

  • I'm not a morning person and mornings == stress for me.

  • I get better work done in a quiet office so if you can't offer a quiet office then make sure I can work from home or work late when everybody else has gone.

  • I happy when I'm able to give my best. Background noise causing me to work below par stresses me out, I'm more likely to leave if I'm stressed and unhappy with my work.

  • I'm much more productive and happier given reasonable decent hardware and a few extra dev tools (R# etc).

Here's what doesn't work:

  • Listen to music to drown out the background voices:

    • This doesn't drown out the low pitch part of the voice.

    • It is also uncomfortable to listen to headphones all day long.

    • It discourages communication.

    • If we are listening to internet radio your not going to like the bandwidth usage.

    • To get a good cancelling effect you have the music loud, that annoys others and damages hearing(**).

  • Noise cancelling headphones to drown out the noise in the office.

    • These just don't work for voices.

    • They also suffer from the same problems as music (except the bandwidth usage!)

  • Lots of people in one big office trying to work with more than 1 loud person.

  • Never ever ever combine sales or marketing people in the same office as developers.

  • When employing someone think how loud and chatty they are and what effect that will have on the rest of your team.

  • Please don't reward the loud chatty people by putting them in an office, loud and chatty people are having a negative effect on the rest of your team!

    Loud person distracting worker.

    If you have 2 loud chatty people and they chat for about an hour over the course of a day and this disrupts just 6 other people close by guess what: that's a full day's worth of 1 persons work LOST, you've managed to employ 2 people but only get the benefit of one, and with it irritate the other 6, and guess who's likely to leave first – the chatty ones or the ones trying to work and getting irritated by the others? Guess who feels punished? Not the people chatting!

Not long ago I changed jobs because my previous employer went into administration and at the end of the day I had 3 offers to choose from.

The first of these was offering £5k more than the one I accepted. Here's why I turned it down:

  • It was an 8 am start along with everybody else, no flexibility (despite being a 24 hour operating plant), so if I did have a problem with noise their was no chance of shifting my hours to get a quieter time of day to work in.

  • They also wanted me to work late to communicate with the US – now they said I could occasionally start latter after the initial probation period if I was working a lot with the US and going home late. That just ends up confusing your body as to what's going on.

  • The office didn't look particularly pleasant to work in from the bit I saw (and actually they didn't show me the actual office area during the interview)

  • The coding part of the interview was done in a horrible meeting room and I was given a small screen that wobbled like crazy (I was nearly sea sick) – hardly a good sign.

So how many employers would like to get someone at a discount of £5,000/year? I'm guessing quit a lot. Share holders – how happy would you be that the company you own part of is paying a £5,000 premium? That little office space is going to pay for it's self really quickly and it's highly likely that the cost of flexible working hours is nothing – sounds like a bargain to me.

So improved productive, cheaper staff, less stress and most likely lower employee turn over can all be achieved for free, all that needs to be changed is the mindset, so it's never going to happen is it.

Not listening.

If like me you are a developer and struggling in a noisy office for a company that doesn't get it and your kicking your self for taking a duff job and your now stuck finding something you prefer better because the economy fell apart then check out ChatterBlocker it works much better than music at drowning out background voices, it's not distracting, you can put it up loud if you need to without effecting others and it also works great in the background when listening to podcasts to drown out the noisy people in the office!

(*) although having said that they also think that paying for an employees eye test means paying the legal minimum and saving about £10 on the cost of a normal test, which given us developers spend the day staring at the monitor you'd think they would care about out eyes – they pay for Bupa, provide tea, coffee, fruit but save a few quid on the eye test – go figure! (Guess which bit HR are responsible for!)

(**) I wonder if in a few years time we will see a new set of health and safety litigation where knowledge works sue employers for damaged hearing caused by the constant use of headphones + music used on recommendation by their manager to drown out the background noise of the open plan office.

Windows 7 .iso file handling – Close but No Cigar!

Typically when I have an iso file what I want to do is mount it as a DVD Drive, not spend 10 minutes burning the thing just so I can then read it on the same machine and in the process wasting a DVD and causing more environmental damage with the plastic. OK so that's useful if I take it to a different machine or need to boot from the disk, but that's rare for me now days.

Guess what, in Windows 7 you can burn a iso image to disk. Great, that's a nice touch, but you can't mount the thing!

Windows 7 burn iso image to disk

One cool addition to Windows 7 is being able to create and map a .vhd (virtual disk) as a disk on the machine in Disk Management (I've not tried it yet – apparently you can even boot from it – freaky & cool!). Now tell me why can I do that and yet I can not attach a iso image file, that's massively frustrating.

What makes it really crazy is that when you download from MSDN you get .iso files, now even with Vista you have to go and get extra software to handle them. At least you can burn them easily in W7 but really, I should be able to download a SQL server 2008 iso from MSDN, right click and mount it in W7 and install it.

I store all the iso's I download from MSDN on a network share and access them as I need them. If I burn them to disk I just loose them, so the bulk iso storage works really well for me.

It's similar in Server 2008 R2, no option to mount the CD/DVD and by default the burn option isn't their either – but then that's for the best really as I'd want the default install to be locked down as much as possible.

I did wonder if their was some kind of legal, patent, copyright issue around the iso image thing, but Hyper-V can mount an iso image to be use as a CD/DVD drive in a Hyper-V instance so why can't Windows 7 do that?

Please Microsoft give us the ability to mount an iso image as a DVD drive!

Until they do I'm sticking with MagicISO which works a treat – and it's freeware! (Thank you MagicIso inc!).

I'm also hoping one day we see DVD drives that can do LightScribe or similar without having to flip the disk but I doubt we will ever see that (at least for a reasonable price!).

Windows 7 Taskbar – FAIL!

Like many others I've been trying out Windows 7 just recently.

My trial of it didn't start well with the MSDN version being available around the same time as the public release – I mistakenly thoughts as a paying MSDN subscriber I might get it a little earlier but hey, I get to find out and fix any problems in my applications at the same time my users get to see the issues. Still at least my stuff doesn't eat your MP3's!

I installed a test version of W7 in a Hyper-V instance which didn't go all that smoothly either, first time around and I had to have a second go, but that might have been because I put the iso of Windows 7 on a NAS and a network problem may have crept in causing the installation not to find the files it wanted.

Next (I think) because I access my Hyper-V set-up using the Hyper-V MMC snap-in from my Vista box copy and paste doesn't work between the two machines so entering the product code and trying to paste the Url in to browse for the patch to stop W7 trashing my MP3's was painful. But hey, I should save my Hyper-V bashing for another day as I could go on for some time about that!

What really annoys me with W7 is what has happened to the taskbar.

Apparently I'm not alone. Don't get me wrong, I'm not against change and I like a lot of what's changed over the years in Windows, generally it's been for the better.

With Vista, XP and those before it I actually like the quick launch toolbar. I like it having small icons and I use it heavily (I have 18 apps in there). I also like the notification area, not massively but for a lot of applications it's perfect. Theirs a number of application I don't want in their and think they should live else where (like the ATI stuff, SmartStamp, OpenOffice QuickStart) but I can live with that.

In XP Microsoft gave us the collapsing notification area and initially I adopted that but ended up finding it annoying, the worst of which was with Outlook email notification as I had times when XP would decide it should hide it and then you didn't get to see it hence ignoring new email (OK so not a bad thing) or other times when receiving a lot of emails it would cause the notification area to shrink and grow which was really annoying and had a side effect on the running programs and made it difficult to hit the correct icon.

There is one big problem with the quick launch, toolbar and notification area in XP and Vista and it's this that I believe Microsoft are trying to solve with the redesign in Windows 7. The problem is you can't fit much into the default Quick Launch and Notification areas.

So the way I see it is you have two options:

  • Go the Windows 7 route and redesign the toolbar – FAIL.

    Windows7 Toolbar

    Windows7 Toolbar

  • Make the toolbar 2 units high by default – this works a treat for me!

    Vista toolbar 2 units hight

    Vista toolbar 2 units hight

Let me explain why I don't like the new Windows 7 Toolbar:

  • The new taskbar is to tall – way to tall. It's smaller than my current Vista taskbar because I have that 2 units high, but the height for 1 unit in Windows 7 is not far off the 2 unit Vista one, so that means when I set it to be 2 units high it's massive - stupidly massive. I'll explain shortly why I like the toolbar 2 units high.

  • I've never liked the grouping option of the Taskbar. I see that's on by default again, you can switch that off, or to group when it's full.

    What I also don't get is why when grouping is on and you only have 1 instance of the app do you just get the icon but when it's off you get the icon and the application name? Why not the icon and app name normally? Although if you do show the application title like we are use to it becomes ever more confusing as to how you “quick launch” an application.

    Anyway, I can never find the running application I want when grouping is on.

  • Theirs not really a quick launch bar any more, you can pin your applications to the toolbar instead. These are full height icons taking up a lot of space (width and height) and then when you launch the application guess what, the icon stays where it is looking just like the launch icon, except when you click it again it actually minimises the window.

    Now some applications are slow to load, some get messed up and load outside the screen area or minimise incorrectly/badly on start-up or go straight to the notification area on start-up you could end up in a big mess figuring out what's going on with the W7 way of taskbar launching.

    And if you've launched an application from the taskbar and want to start a new session of it (say you want another IE 7 because you've got to many tabs open in the current IE7) it's really not obvious. You have to right click the icon and then choose the application name from the menu. novel!

  • The notification area, if you use it correctly it's great and sadly some apps abused it. Now for something like Dinner Timer Lite you really want that icon showing so you can send the running Dinner Timer Lite instance to the tray and hover over it to see how long you've got left quickly and easily, not click an up arrow then hover.

    Other application change colour or blink to inform you of things, this can be really useful, sometimes the icon changes such as when you mute the speakers and it's useful to see that at a glimpse, but for most of the time it's easy to ignore the notification area if you are not interested.

    Still at least with the notification area there is some hope as you can set it back to how it was, Except, now that one little icon takes a lot of space and if you make the toolbar 2 units high you can only get 2 icons vertically, so the waste of space isn't especially resolved.

Here's how I fix the Vista/XP ToolBar problems:

I make the taskbar 2 units high. Nice and Simple!

You get a lot more running applications in the taskbar before it gets overly cluttered (to the point that my head gets cluttered before the taskbar).

  • You get 2x as many applications in the quick launch toolbar.

  • You get 3x as many applications in the notification area.

  • You get to see the date, time AND the day of the week in the clock area (which I really like).

On a default Windows Vista/XP set-up anything more than 6 icons in the notification area is a pain and similar for the quick launch area.

With 2 units high I have 18 quick launch apps, 13 notification icons, the date, time and day and currently 11 running applications without a problem.

Now I have a 22” wide-screen monitor so things are a little easier but I run exactly the same set-up at work where I have only a 19” square monitor and it works just as well, if not better as the quick launch and notification area don't take up hardly any room.

So you have two choices:


  • Implement a really easy change to Windows 7 and make the toolbar 2 units high by default, keeping everything else exactly as it is in Vista and XP so building on what you know and not introducing new code.

  • Change the taskbar to a new way that people have to adapt to, change the way you quick launch applications, change the way you see your notification icons, introduce new and most likely more complex code to the Windows 7 Code base which will not have been tested as well as previous versions.

Personally, I think that the XP/Vista taskbar works well and that making it 2 units high solves the problems with the quick launch and the notification area and making the change in Windows 7 just introduces code that isn't needed and with no doubt lots of new and fun bugs.

Fingers crossed that theirs an option to use the previous taskbar implementation in W7 or failing that some amusing adverts mocking the new taskbar so the pain has some good.