Open plan offices are a nightmare

Working in an open plan office is a nightmare. I can’t stand it. Agilists, on the other hand, advocate it as an environment that improves collaboration. Even outside of software development someone is trumping open plan offices:

As Professor Sull points out, open-plan offices bring many benefits. They allow for informal interactions in real time, as opposed to staged and ritualised episodic encounters in scheduled meetings and conference calls. They also allow serendipity to happen: chance encounters in common spaces, the bouncing back and forth of ideas, odd connections that can lead to breakthroughs in thinking.

There are 17 people in our office, which is divided into two main groups, separated by a walkway. There are no partitions between workstations, so a conversation between two is a conversation between all. To make matters worse, there isn’t one but two radios playing, one on each side, each tuned to a different radio station. Moreover, we develop software for embedded devices, which have a habit of beeping to indicate success, failure, or termination. Even when it is quiet, the sound of 17 people typing on a keyboard is anything but relaxing.

There is a lot of evidence supporting my feeling that open plan offices are a nightmare. A research paper entitled “The influence of workplace environment on workers' welfare, performance, and productivity” by Emmanuel Majekodunmi Ajala reported the following:

Noise is one of the leading causes of employees’ distraction, leading to reduced productivity, serious inaccuracies, and increased job-related stress. According to Bruce (2008), study showed that workplace distractions cut employee productivity by as much as 40%, and increase errors by 27%.

The following TED talk entitled “The 4 ways sound affects us” by Julian Treasure puts the productivity loss as high as 66%:

Some will argue that it’s something you will get used to; however, this study found no evidence of employees becoming accustomed to the distraction:

Out of the sample, 99% reported that their concentration was impaired by various components of office noise, especially telephones left ringing at vacant desks and people talking in the background. No evidence for habituation to these sounds was found.

Please don’t get me wrong. I understand the importance of good communication in the workplace. I don’t believe developers should be shut away from their peers; software development is a collaborative process. That being said, our work is plain difficult. Peace and quiet is required so we can concentrate on the intricacies of the complex systems we’re trying to build.

I think it’s about time office space was designed to facilitate both collaborative team-based work and please-let-me-concentrate rooms.