Why an open space office doesn't work for a software house

Open space offices with people packed in one room may seem like an easy way to boost your dev team's productivity. In fact, they are only filling your workplace with distraction, noise, and are a straight path to disaster.

A client asked me recently if I considered putting all our developers in one room for the good of the project. It wasn't the first time when someone approached me with this kind of request, so I decided to explain in a detailed way, why our answer is always "no".

A developer's worst enemy

Being in the software development business since 2012, we quickly realized what is probably a developer's worst enemy. It’s the distraction. Distraction may have many sources, but in the office reality the primary ones are noise and space constraints.

Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, founders of Basecamp know something about it. In their latest book "It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work" they set things straight:

"The major distractions at work aren't from the outside, they are from the inside. The wandering manager constantly asking people how things are going, the meeting that accomplishes little but morphs into another meeting next week, the cramped quarters into which people are crammed like sardines or the loud lunchroom down the hall from your desk. These are the toxic by-products of the office these days."

Conclusion? The next time you blame Facebook for distractions in your team, think twice. If someone's scrolling down their newsfeed, it means that they have already been distracted before.

Interaction, not interruption

'But hey, isn't teamwork about regular communication, discussion and whatnot?' - you may ask.

Of course it is. But for a better understanding, let's dive one level deeper and set the basics.

A developer's work is based on creativity and technical skills. The former is key to solving problems (which, in my opinion, software development should be about), but it can't be put into effect without the precision of languages and frameworks.

If you want high quality digital products as a result of your efforts, you need maximum focus. To be able to focus, you have to fight the distractive enemy from day one. Without that forget about getting into “the flow” - an almost mythical state of mind nowadays.

This is why, to help our people get into the zone and set themselves away from noise distraction, we encourage them to use headphones. In this way they can immerse in thinking while listening to music or just detach from their talking colleagues. No matter how used, headphones work.

How long can you be brainstorming? Just get things done

Creativity is often associated with brainstorming. Creating things for software industry is no exception - everyone appreciates the value of figuring out solutions through collective thinking.

But the idea of brainstorming is often taken to the extremes and confused with the need of putting many individuals in one room, expecting them to be be more productive.

This is false. You don't need to be in a constant meeting mode to come up with decent results. Fried and DHH have, again, hit the bull's eye writing on this topic in "Remote":

"Everyone's sitting around a table, ideas are building on ideas, and intellectual sparks are lighting up the room. It's tempting to think that this kind of magic only happens when people can see and touch each other. (...) You’d be amazed how much quality collective thought can be captured using two simple tools: a voice connection and a shared screen."

On the other hand, ask yourself how many breakthrough ideas do you need to be constantly brainstormed when working on a project. I bet not so many.

We are not a sweatshop, we hate open space offices

Prograils is a software services provider. Some call it a software shop. However, we are definitely not a sweatshop.

We know our developers need to feel comfortable in the first place to do the best job. This is why make it clear in our Playbook: we hate open space offices.

Some of us have previously worked in open space offices and don't want to return. Seriously, they are Pandora's boxes. Moreover, there's plenty of data that supports our viewpoint. So no, open space offices do not foster creativity and interaction. Quite the contrary.

Packing our entire team into one, rather small room and expecting it to pretend an open-plan office would be a recipe for disaster.

If all of them are wearing headphones, what would be the point anyway?

TL;DR

  • The quality of our work as software developers requires the best working conditions: calm office, ability to get into the zone quickly and the possibility of remote work whenever needed.

  • Instead of fostering creativity and communication, forcing devs to work from office and packing our entire team into one not-so-spacious room and altering their sacred space by desk moves, would cause more disruption.

  • Putting employees in a constant meeting mode, forcing upon them an illusion of brainstorming distracts them from their actual work.This is why we encourage our team members to take as much liberty as they can when it comes to their work environment.

  • The open-plan office may look good in PR materials, but in reality it turns a workplace into a sweatshop. Out of respect for our partners, and for our very selves, we have chosen to be the very opposite.

Talk to us, if you want to join us.

Top image by Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash.com

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