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Noise is toxic to programming

Posted by Dominic Cronin at May 16, 2008 07:45 PM |

This one is going round again after Steve McConnell recently posted his regular re-issue of Software's classic mistakes, in which "noisy, crowded offices" is ranked 8th. Jurgen Appelo picks this up and riffs on it a bit in Tear down your cubicle walls, and makes a few nice points. In general, he's on the side of the angels but I disagree with him on a few things.

Firstly, he argues against the claim in Peopleware that open offices are bad for productivity. He's following the fairly standard agilist line about war-rooms; people working on the same project should all sit together. I've had some recent experience of a project war-room proving to be a success, and I've openly advocated this approach, but let us not forget that this is second best. Best - by a long way, is private or double rooms combined with suitable team spaces to allow for collaboration. That's how it's done at the most successful software company on the planet, and they ain't hippies; Microsoft's approach is based on solid psychological analysis of people's work requirements, and computer programmers are classified as "concentrators".  Having said that, their Workplace Advantage programme does seem to include moving non-concentrators out of private offices.

The other point I'd like to pick up on is his "rules" which apparently are intended to make open-plan working bearable:

"No yelling. No running. No meetings (except for 15-minute stand-ups). And no disturbing of people when they're wearing headphones. (Many of us like listening to their favorite music while working.)"

You see this so often. People are forced into working in open-plan offices, and they compensate by wearing headphones and listening to music. It doesn't solve the problem  - it only masks it, and it only works for the people who can put up with the stupidity of it for long enough. Listening to music while working actually steals thinking cycles. You aren't as smart listening to music as you are in silence. Having said that, you are probably smarter listening to music than listening to the hubbub of your colleagues.

In the past, I've tried using white-noise in place of music, but that also has a pretty high vacuum rating.

Bottom line. Rooms are more expensive than open space. Highly valued employees tend to be given rooms. The rest have to suffer the rhetoric of rationalisation.