When I started working for a financial software company back in 2002, most of us had our own cubicles and all of the ‘higher ups’ had their own offices. Today I work for a firm with an open floor plan for developers, consultants, sales folks, and senior executives with only a few offices mainly for HR. It’s easy to find strong opinions on all sides of the open floor plan discussion. The deep collaboration of Agile and XP encourage at least teams to work in the same shared space and many of the big name tech firms advertise open floor plans as a key selling point for potential employees. On the other hand people like Susan Cain argue persuasively (as she does in her book Quiet) that especially for introverts the lack of private space for thinking impedes the deep analysis required for real productivity.
This debate recently re-emerged at my company in response to a blog post this week from Keith Collins (you can read it here: http://qz.com/806583/programmers-hate-open-floor-plans/) with the provocative title, “Programmers really hate open floor plans.” Collins cites several studies and articles strongly advocating for the freedom to work from home, the value of private space for developers, and the effectiveness lost through the many distractions of a totally open floor plan. His arguments are likely familiar to those who have listened to these discussions over the past few years, and as an introvert myself I appreciate the value of providing people with spaces where they can work quietly apart from distractions.
For me, the bigger issue here is balance and flexibility. In an Agile environment there is a huge value in collaboration, and I have seen tremendous benefits come from paired programming. I’ve experienced first-hand the benefits of overhearing conversations across the team in which we unexpectedly learn from each other. At the same time I know how hard it is to concentrate deeply when surrounded by noise and how difficult it can be to get ‘back in the zone’ once I’ve been distracted. That leads me to value flexible work spaces that include collaboration areas, break out rooms, private spaces, and ‘fun zones’ so that people can work in the ways that fit their needs best. Those needs can change within a given day and they are not the same for all people; while some folks get loads done working alone from home others do some of their best work in the midst of focused productive people. While some folks surely hate open floor plans, I suspect that for most of us we want flexibility and choices about how and where we work. There is no universally right work space because in truth it’s not that simple.