Open Environments in Software Development

Open environments are becoming all the rage these days but how effective or appropriate are they for software development?

Open environment with close proximity

Open environment with close proximity

An open environment is a work environment where there are no walls surrounding the workstations. This is opposed to the traditional office layout of having individual offices for each worker.

Collaboration versus Distraction

An open environment can be brought into an office layout with the motivation of increased collaboration which is supposed to improve productivity. While collaboration is a relatable and understandable goal, how much collaboration is actually required in the practice of software development? After developers have met with BA’s and discussed what they are going to do, someone has to sit down and actually write code according to the requirements. This is an activity that requires more focus and concentration. I don’t know what the average percentage of time is spent in collaboration versus coding but for example: if a developer spends half an hour in meetings discussing the requirements and the rest of the day coding alone then that is only 6% of the time spent in collaboration. If that is typical then one would get more benefit from optimizing the 94% of time coding. This would more reasonably lead to office layouts and workstation designs that support the coding activity rather than the collaboration activity. Once placed in open environments, developers may increase collaboration but then suffer productivity loss during design and coding. The loss in productivity far outweighs the gain from collaboration. The extent of the loss depends on the attentiveness of the developer. Some can remain focussed in any kind of environment but many are easily distracted. It is also possible for collaboration itself to be reduced in open environments, since a developer placed in close range to peers could decided not to ask questions out loud but favour sending an email for fear of being heard asking a stupid question. This is a collaboration anti-pattern in my observations that worsens with the shyness of the developer and inversely with the confidence of the developer. How distracting can an open environment be for a developer that is easily distracted? I would like to give you an idea of some elements of an open environment that can be distracting to developers.

Noise

– talking

– cell phones

– UPS alarms sounding

– paging

– impromptu meetings

– people taking to themselves

– whining and complaining

– chatting

– phones ringing

– coughing

– sneezing

– clearing throats

– blowing noses

– crunching

– slurping coffee

– chairs squeaking

– chairs banging against the desk

– keyboard typing

– desk tapping

– pens dropping

– door bells

– headphones on too loud

– fans/blowers

– call to meetings

– vacuuming

– construction

– scraping and painting

– rearranging furniture

– blood pressure monitors

– crickets

Movement

– stretching

– yawning

– walking

– waving for attention

– looking through papers

– writing with a pen

– head scratching

– drinking water or coffee

– eating snacks

– cleaning

– throwing out garbage

– text messaging

– leaning back/forward

– moving chairs

– putting on headphones

– pacing

Smell

– fish

– indian curry

– burnt toast

– cheese

– popcorn

Collaboration versus Watching

When a development work environment is too open, developers may question the real motivation for that kind of environment no matter how much management touts the official reason of collaboration. It would be obvious to everyone in the environment that you can see who is working and who is not, so it is not that far of a reach to imagine that management wants to watch over their employees more closely. In that case the developers may feel disrespected. After going through education, training, certification and additional self-study and gaining experience in the trade, a developer may expect to be treated like a professional and not like a flea market vendor.

Open office

Office with glass barrier

Continued Momentum

Why do open environments continue on in the face of lost productivity, stress, turnover and even illness? Could it be that collaboration is such a valuable intangible benefit that it outweighs the consequences? Could there be such a rush of creativity and out of the box thinking to make it worthwhile? Despite the speculation there would have to be management objectives to support the practice whether or not they are apparent to all. Another theory is that management may be reluctant to accept feedback from employees or just not aware of drawbacks due to lack of quantitative metrics. What do you do if you are responsible for creating an open environment for developers after learning about the problems? One way to relieve the stress is through diversity as is in the case of Google (GOOG). They found that with a such a diverse workforce they needed diversity in their work environments. They have many different spaces, from open to closed, formal to informal, professional to recreational. This worked much better than the one size fits all model of office layout planning. Most importantly, obtain a professional design for your office layout and workstation design rather than just leaving it up to internal staff with some home renovation experience.

“If you think it’s too expensive to hire a professional, wait until you hire an amateur”. Red Adair

Developer Adaptation

What can you do as a developer when you find yourself placed in an open environment that you are not happy with. The first priority is to keep a positive attitude. If you let your attitude slip then it just makes the situation worse. Next work on improving your focus through exercising discipline. As it was said in the movie The Karate Kid, “Your focus needs more focus!” Following that try earplugs, headphones with soothing music or no sound at all. You can also try strategic placement of desk equipment to block out distractions. Get up out of your chair a walk a bit. Make sure that you have your lunch away from your desk in order to have a change of environment. Lastly try to find someone in management that is receptive to get concessions for your workstation or provide alternate areas or allowances to work from home.

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