Why the open space workplace doesn’t work for developers

10 min read

Business
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Have you ever considered the environment in which your developers are working? How comfortable are they, in your estimation?

All of your employees, software engineers included, spend a huge chunk of their time at the office. Their place of work should always be a source of inspiration and motivation.

One solution that managers around the world have widely used for their developers are open-plan offices. An open office may look like the workplace of the future at first glance - but is it really?

I recently had a conversation with Łukasz Koczwara, Delivery Director at STX Next, on this very subject. He’s not enthusiastic about open-plan offices, and proposes a different solution that increases both employee engagement and customer satisfaction. Read on to find out about it.

1. What is an open-plan office?

Let’s start by defining exactly what we’re talking about.

An open-plan office (also known as an open space office) is a solution for managing a company’s workplace that does away with separate rooms.

In many ways, it’s exactly what you would expect: an open space with no individual rooms where employees sit and work together. Their work stations may or may not be separated by short cubicle walls. Very often working at an open-plan office means that you are in plain sight of your coworkers - and they can see and hear you, too.

If you’re still not sure how to picture it, here’s a few examples:

open-plan office
open-plan office 2
open-plan office 3

The open office workspace has gained some popularity among managers, who adopted this approach at their place of work. And the idea is not without its merits, as we’ll discuss next.

2. Why do managers decide to implement open offices?

Let’s go over a few reasons for the popularity of open-plan offices.

  • Eliminating bottlenecks in communication: If everyone is in the same room, it’s easy to reach your coworkers anytime you want.

  • Employees are close to what’s happening at the company: Whatever’s happening in the open office, you’ll know about it. Both successes and challenges will be evident by the faces of the people around you.

  • Sense of equality: There are no ‘better’ or ‘worse’ employees when everyone is sitting together.

  • Easier for employees to integrate: Open space always helps integrate the work environment. Over time you may find your office filling up with ping pong tables, dart boards and foosball tables to help introduce a little fun to the work day.

  • Easier to manage: With an open office you don’t need to think about the types of rooms you need, the size of the rooms, the number of people working in each room. You can simply add more cubicles. Dealing with four concrete walls you aren’t quite so flexible.

  • It just plain costs less: It’s cheaper for a company owner to rent a hall, put in some desks and create cubicles as needed.

However, despite all of the advantages mentioned above, open-plan offices are coming under fire. Łukasz tells me that more and more managers are voicing their concerns. They say that open office workspaces can actually be detrimental to their employees, making them miserable and unproductive. Why is that?

3. Here’s why open space offices don’t work

So there’s obviously a number of reasons to decide on an open-plan office for your organization. But the concept comes with a list of disadvantages that make it impractical in many cases, especially when you’re looking to manage the work of software developers.

Here’s some of the problems you and your employees might face when working in an open-plan office:

  • “Hey, got a minute?”: When you’re always available to your coworkers, you will find your attention being diverted to non-essential tasks and requests from your colleagues. It is difficult to stay focused on what’s important when somebody taps your shoulder every half hour, asking for your help.

  • Noise and distractions: An open-plan office is plagued by noise and visual distractions. People are walking around the office, talking with coworkers, holding virtual meetings or even playing ping pong right within earshot. Employees struggle to focus and get into a productive flow in such conditions.

  • False news travels faster: An open space office causes more gossip to spread around the workplace. This may seem like a trivial problem - until you look at it from the perspective of a manager. Once you become responsible for both employee and consumer satisfaction, you see that the spread of gossip can be hurtful and damage office relations.

  • Germ heaven, productivity hell: Diseases spread much more easily in an open-plan office, leading to drops in employee availability.

  • “Are you even working here?”: Potential clients visiting developers in an open space can get the impression that no productive work is being done. They are likely to see developers utilizing the aforementioned dart boards and foosball tables instead of creating software. This puts your professionalism in question in the clients’ eyes.

Once you consider the potential dangers of using an open office solution, you may find yourself wondering how else to organize your working space for software developers.

Luckily, based on our experience as a Python software house, there is one strategy that is both effective and always appreciated by our clients.

4. A better workspace solution for software developers

We know some of the advantages of open-plan offices, such as improved communication or more integrated teams. How can you keep these advantages while eliminating the drawbacks: noise, distractions, workflow disruption, etc.?

In our experience, the best solution for managing the work of software developers are dedicated, enclosed offices. We call them dedicated rooms for short. Take a look:

office plan for developers
office plan for software engineers

In implementing them, we follow our rule of thumb: One room. One team. One client. Full focus.

Now of course, dedicated rooms will be a more costly solution because it’s tough to find office buildings that offer rooms of appropriate size in the right number. This might also lead to more work in setting up and maintaining the workspace. But it’s still worth it.

To find out why, let’s explore the advantages of using dedicated rooms for development teams:

  • Everyone you need is in one place: All of the roles of the team are in one place. Whether you have a problem with development, testing, DevOps or Scrum processes, there will always be a person in the room to respond to your issues.

  • Everyone you don’t need stays outside: As a flipside to the above, the rest of the company stays outside of the room. You know, the part that you don’t need to communicate with on a daily basis.

  • Holding a meeting is a breeze: You have your own room, so you can hold meetings whenever you want. No need to worry about overbooked meeting rooms.

  • Less dissociated effort, less context switching: Working in a dedicated room, the team can stay focused on the task at hand. Even if one of them gets tapped on the shoulder to provide something, the task is still within the context of their project. This provides a tremendous boost to team performance.

  • Better relations with clients: If you’re working with business clients, it puts their mind at ease to know that they have their own room somewhere in your building where their team is working on their project. They can even physically visit it (and they do often, in our case).

  • Team autonomy equals team commitment: With their own room at their disposal, the team can organize the space however they want, decorating the walls with both movie posters and project guidelines. This makes for much more engaged teams and helps in employee retention. One of our prospective clients from the gaming industry told us recently that it was astonishing to see how our people talk about outsourced projects as if they were their own.

In short, dedicated rooms are a straightforward way to create a more professional working environment, free of silly distractions and frequent disruptions. At the same time, making sure that the teams working on one project stay in one space helps them create much closer relations than it would ever be possible in an open-plan office.

5. How to get the most out of dedicated rooms

As with anything, there’s a good and a bad way to implement dedicated rooms for your development teams. Let us share a few tips from our experience.

  • Aim for rooms (and teams) of 8-9 people: This amount helps you achieve optimal communication without introducing chaos. You may not trust us on this, but you should trust Jeff Bezos and his 2 Pizza Rule, which says that you should never hold meetings that involve more people than you can feed with 2 pizzas. We believe this holds true for team sizes as well.

  • Be agile and adapt to your real estate situation: The point above may not always be easy (or even possible) to implement. Try to make the most with what space you have, creating smaller or larger teams if needed.

  • Try to utilize the dedicated room to its full potential: Our concept for dedicated rooms assumes that almost everything happens in the room: teleconferences with clients, daily stand-up meetings, planning meetings, etc.

  • Couple dedicated rooms with a few meeting rooms: While dedicated rooms give a lot of opportunities, sometimes the team may feel the need to hold a meeting someplace else, or perhaps your employees would like to hold a mixed meeting. In such cases, it’s worth sprinkling in a few meeting rooms into your plan to help teams mix it up and change the environment once in a while. For most organizations, one room for 1-on-1 conversations, one small conference room and one large conference room will be sufficient.

  • The rooms should give the team an opportunity to be autonomous and self-organizing: Let the team can organize the room the way they want; they are the architects. Madonna poster? Sure. List of feature requirements on the wall? No problem. This helps the team integrate and be friends - making it more likely they will stay at your company. Not only does this improve the overall mood in the team, it helps avoid problems with employee rotation, lowering your recruitment costs.

Summary

I hope this article has brought you one step closer to giving your developers the work environment they deserve. Many thanks once again to Łukasz Koczwara for sharing his expertise.

We’ve been covering various strategies for managing software developers for a few articles now, covering subjects such as hiring developers, improving your developer management process and resolving conflicts in your development teams. Are there any other subjects you’d like us to tackle? Let us know in the comments below.

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I’ve shed some light in this article on what it’s like to work with STX Next as a tech partner. To learn more about working with us, be sure to check out our reviews on Clutch.co.

And if your appetite for knowledge is not quite sated yet, feel free to check out some more of our articles below.

Good luck in your management efforts!

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Jakub Grajcar

Inbound Marketing Specialist

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