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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.

Comments (2) -

  • (Alastair Smith)

    1/14/2009 9:25:09 AM |

    Hey, I saw that article too!  I was wondering what you'd make of it" alt="Smile" style="display: inline; vertical-align: bottom;" class="emoticon" />

    Unfortunately, most companies would balk at the idea of providing individual offices for their knowledge workers.  Bean-counters may be smart people (I have to say that, my Dad's a Chief Bean-Counter), but they often have a hard time seeing the wood for the trees when it comes to intangible savings such as these.  They just see the initial outlay of £n0000 and shriek, "we can't afford that much on luxuries!".  

    I've found my noise-cancelling earphones work well at cutting out background noise, but then the voices around me aren't as deep as the ones around you.  However, I find podcasts just as distracting as the office chatter, so I've given up on those.  Music can help, but can also be distracting (unless it's something like Bach or Mozart); mostly I like the music as background noise to keep me company whilst not being too distracting.

  • Nik

    3/30/2010 10:30:58 AM |

    Disagree with this article almost in its' entirety.
    I'm a software developer and find that people use offices/cubicles to hide. Yes, their productivity may increase slightly, but they become isolated and it can lead to unhappiness.
    The issue of those who like the sound of their own voice is one of management - effective managers will tell them to shut up.
    Open plan offices encourage knowledge sharing and open communication and solutions to difficult problems can very often be found quickly by one person simply asking another. the alternative is to have to make an appointment with the isolated 'knowledge worker' hidden behind the partition or tucked away in a closed office.

    One key point made in the article is to insist that managers are part of the open plan layout and that Marketing/Sales types are kept away from the technical staff. Both of these are essential and, with effective managers, can lead to a productive and happy workforce.

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