It is one of those questions that can cause endless debates. Whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, working better in quiet or collaborative environments, one thing applies – open or private offices are a matter of personal preference and there are benefits and downsides to both of them.
In a private office – one where the campus is arranged with many small offices so that each developer can have a private space to work in – you are in control of your space and attention, meaning you can choose when to close the door and avoid interruptions, when to go play ping-pong, talk with coworkers or work out of the coffee bar. Companies having this layout have to pay extra attention to cross-team connections in order to encourage collaboration and keep the team spirit. To encourage it, some companies organise daily team lunches, weekly get-togethers, annual company’s meetups etc.
On the other hand, open offices are designed with one thing in mind – eliminating physical barriers between workspaces eliminates intellectual or interpersonal barriers to collaboration. While this is completely true, companies have to keep in mind that everybody also has their own rhythm. People can come in at different times, take breaks at different times, need to socialize at different times, and have their most productive hours at different times. For that reason, open plan offices can get noisy.
Very noisy environments can pose a problem for software developers. Studies show it takes 10 – 15 minutes for a programmer to start editing code when resuming work after an interruption. Developers need uninterrupted time to concentrate and it is management’s job to accommodate that and create a space where all those conflicting needs don’t congeal into a persistent hum of distraction.
How to ensure a great collaboration and creativity, but at the same time provide environment where devs can concentrate and do they job? There are different approaches to this question and it is important for a company to identify what works for them the best.
Some companies tend to put people with the same role together. They don’t mix their departments or make them work in the same room. While sales and support roles might spend a lot of time on the phone talking to customers, devs won’t really benefit from it and it will create a lot of distractional noise.
Some companies make sure to have designated quiet spaces, where employees can do their work in peace. It can come in form of scattered tables, couches, break-out rooms with closing doors etc. This seems like a good middle ground between open floor plans and private offices.
Some companies make use of certain collaboration channels as part of their culture. For example, they might advise not to go to a person every time when you have a question, but to ping them instead or send it to a group chat (over company’s channels of communication – Slack, Hangout, Skype etc.). This benefits that multiple people might see the message and anyone can chime in with the answer. Also, if someone else is interested in the discussion, they can easily follow it. And the most important, if a person is working heads-down and doesn’t want to be distracted at that moment, all they have to do is close the chat window.
If the work environment is something you feel strongly about, don’t be afraid to say so. Find out what the office layout of the company is prior interviewing and see if it works for you. If you are already in the interview process, don’t be afraid to ask questions about it and even request a tour of the office after the interview has concluded. It is possible to have functional work environments with either layout type, you just have to know which one works better for you.
Our conclusion is that open office workspaces do work, but with conditions. It is up to the company to set the right kind of culture that will enable collaboration and at the same time will provide a good environment for developers to do their work. And it is up to us developers to understand & find a company that will meet our criteria and which supports office layout types and cultures that will suit our personal preferences.