Context

Right now I’m working at an interesting startup (Mavizon) and it can be a lot of fun. The problems are interesting, the people are great, and generally the atmosphere at work is enjoyable.

At Mavizon we have two offices; one in New Albany, IN and one in Alajuela, Costa Rica. Both offices have a similar arrangement of one open room where everyone works and one meeting room where we do lots of video conferencing. The Costa Rica office consists of programmers, a designer, and a UX dev. The New Albany office has a couple of programmers, the lead software architect, a couple of biz-devs, our scrum master, our “lawyer in training,” and our founder. You can see that the New Albany office is quite the mixed pot.

The Problem

So, what’s wrong with the picture that I have drawn for you? Remember to keep in mind that Mavizon is a software house. If you need a hint, think about the by product of a room full of people… did you get it yet?

NOISE!

Lots and lots of noise! Whether it’s a YouTube video our biz-devs want to share, our lawyer in training discussing patents and copyright with our CEO, or our scrum leader giving feedback to our designer over the phone, it doesn’t matter. It all comes down to a lot of noise. Yes, a lot of the noise is generated from conversations pertinent to day-to-day operations but, a fair amount is also just normal conversations that everyone is forced to listen to.

If you’re a programmer, then you know this is not good. Programming is hard (good programming at least) and requires concentration. To get to that level of concentration, you need some level of silence. Any break in concentration can immediately nullify your current mental progress.

If you’re not a programmer and you don’t really understand why this is the case, then let me give you an example. Let’s say that your sole job is to build card-houses (cute little houses made from a deck of playing cards). You count progress by the number of houses that you can build in a day. These things are pretty tough to build so let’s say on a good day you can build two or three. If you have a nice indoor space, plenty of table-space, and a pile of cards then you should be on your way to building two or three card-houses each day. However, what if you had to build these outside? When you are done then you can bring them inside to store. This may be all fine and dandy at first, but the first windy day is going to give you a lot of problems. Each time the wind gusts it may knockdown part, or all, of your card-house. You can quickly see that you are no longer in control of your productivity. When you were inside, let’s say you knew you could get 2.7 card-houses built per day on average. Now that you’re outside, you’re somewhat at the mercy of the wind. On a bad day, you may not build any card-houses and on the best days, you’ll do as good as you did inside (but you’ll never do any better).

It is sad when the business cannot recognize this because they are decreasing the productivity of their programmers, incurring a significantly higher cost to build software products. If a company wants to be lean and efficient, then it needs to work hard at creating productive work environments for all of its employees (i.e. Not everyone works great in a quiet work environment, I’m only speaking from the perspective of a programmer.).



Update

I want to address the idea that open spaces encourage collaboration. In my personal experience (at this position and my prior), I find that the talk consist of about 5-10% collaboration and 90-95% interruptions un-important to the day-to-day operations.

If you want an open space, then you need to set time aside to work in silence or have separate “quiet areas” where no talking is allowed for when you need to get stuff done.