Programmers really hate open floor plans

The Office
The Office

Offices with open floor plans have become ubiquitous in the tech industry. The idea is that eliminating physical barriers between workspaces also eliminates intellectual or interpersonal barriers to collaboration. And, of course, it’s a cost-efficient way to squeeze a lot of people into a small space.

The problem is, programmers hate open floor plans.

The CEO of Stack Overflow, Joel Spolsky, laid out some of the reasons programmers prefer their own space in an interview at the GeekWire technology conference last week. He pointed out that programming is a solitary activity, and developers don’t benefit from overhearing conversations.

“That’s ideal for a trading floor,” Spolsky said, “but developers need to concentrate.” He added: “The more things you can keep in your brain at once, the faster you can code, by orders of magnitude.”

And in an open, noisy environment, Spolsky said that’s a difficult thing for many developers to do. At Spolsky’s three companies (Stack Overflow, Trello, and Fog Creek Software), programmers either work from home or have private offices with closing doors and natural light, he said.

Facebook’s new eight acres of open-floor office space in Silicon Valley, on the other hand, is a good example of what Spolsky thinks companies should not do.

“I think Facebook was very pleased with themselves, that they had built what they thought was the ultimate, most amazing place for developers,” he said. “And if you went to Hacker News and read the comments, 99.98% of the comments said, ‘I would hate to work there.'”

Hundreds of developers echoed that sentiment on Reddit, in a discussion thread about Spolsky’s talk. In addition to lamenting open floor plans, they also commiserated about other distractions like unnecessary meetings and another staple of tech offices: tabletop games that generate a lot of noise. Here’s a sample of some of the most upvoted comments:

  • “The foosball table is right next to my desk in our office. Like, 10 meters away. I feel like I’m slowly going crazy.”
  • “Went from home, to private office, to open floor plan and it’s more difficult, for me at least, to concentrate. Generally there’s a nerf war once a day, too.”
  • “Currently quitting a job at an open plan office. My work rate is lower than when I worked at home with my 6 month old daughter.”
  • “I’ll take an open floor plan if I didn’t have to attend so many meetings that have nothing to do with me, but my attendance is mandatory.”
  • “Headphones give me a headache. Earplugs disorient me. Office noise—especially scrum meetings or half a dozen people on the phone at the same time—make it difficult for me to think. Interruptions kill my productivity because it can take me 10-15 minutes to get back to same mental state in the code that I had before the interruption.”

That last point is consistent with the findings of a study conducted by Game Developer magazine in 2013:

Based on an analysis of 10,000 programming sessions recorded from 86 programmers using Eclipse and Visual Studio, and a survey of 414 programmers, we found:

  • A programmer takes 10-15 minutes to start editing code after resuming work from an interruption.
  • When interrupted during an edit of a method, a programmer resumed work in less than a minute only 10 percent of the time.
  • A programmer is likely to get just one uninterrupted two-hour session in a day.

In the Reddit thread, many commenters pointed out that the addition of designated quiet spaces, where they can do their work in peace, can be a good middle ground between open floor plans and private offices. Open offices often provide such spaces in the form of couches, scattered tables, and break-out rooms with closing doors.

Certainly, the addition of such spaces is more cost-effective than giving everyone private offices, but it depends on how effective the quiet spaces are at actually reducing distractions and improving productivity.

In 2014, developer Nathan Marz attempted to calculate the actual savings of open floor plans. He found that “an open-floor-plan programmer is 9.2% less expensive than a non-open-floor plan programmer. So on a per programmer basis, if the open floor plan lowers productivity by less than 9.2%, it’s worth it.” And if an open floor plan lowers productivity more than that, the savings may actually become a deficit.

When deciding on office layouts, modern companies will have to start taking that kind of math into account. And they’ll also have to consider what kind of an effect open-floor offices will have on their recruitment.

“Facebook is paying 40-50% more than other places,” Spolsky said at the GeekWire conference. “Which is usually a sign developers don’t want to work there.”

Read this next: Quartz’s complete guide to open-plan offices (2013)

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