We've been raised in the belief that all humans are social animals, as the theory of evolution has it. If you're wondering how the evolution and being a social animal is ever related to work in software development, or, more precisely, how it slows down personal and organizational productivity, that's exactly what my today's article is about.
Social Animal ≠ Productive Performer
What strikes me most is that we keep on going with the axiom that humans are social animals. Seemingly, we forgot that evolution never stops. With the advances in technology and life infrastructure that happened in the last 30-40 years, the "social animal" concept has suffered some severe cracks. If we look at animals, why are they social? Why they stick together? It helps them feel secure in their natural environment (a flock of deer will sense the danger of the wolves approaching better than one deer), and it helps them get the food easier than on their own (lions, or wolves, hunt in families and then share the meal). Now, do we humans have to gather into a herd, like those animals do in the wild, to secure ourselves or to escape starvation? Obviously, no. But, for some reason, organizations still stick to this thinking as they arrange open-space office layouts for knowledge workers.
Even evolution-wise, the purpose of humans working in an office, to maintain their living, deep down, is no longer to be just fed or to seek shelter. If a contemporary human wants to stay secure and keep "being fed", the evolution dictates the need to find the optimal ways to perform well at work. "Optimal" stands for "achieve best results with least personal energy consumed". Staying in physical proximity in one room at work no longer helps our natural evolution, but rather presents a big obstacle to it. With knowledge work, it's counter-evolutionary and self-sabotaging to expose oneself to the environments that drain us. Numerous research reports prove what people intuitively feel inside: to keep good health and to perform well, we need to arrange for a space that helps personal productivity, rather than blocks it.
The law of personal energy conservation in the office
Think about it. If you were to count the cases when staying in one room with your co-workers really contributed to your individual performance, and hence to your own well-being and to the well-being of the whole organization vs. how often it was an annoying distraction that sucked your energy that could have been invested into doing the real work? Our co-roomers' activities have the same effect on us as many apps running in the background have on smartphones. It seems that the phone is doing nothing and just idles, but the battery charge gets lower. The energy is gone. If you'd need to make an urgent call in the middle of nowhere, with no option to charge it, your smartphone will not be able to accomplish this vital task.
It's about the same with staying in an open-office space. If we throw in to the mixture the other stresses that people have in their lives, things get even worse.
If not an open office, then which one?
How to go about designing office spaces, then? The answer is: it depends on the unique setup and production/development process in your organization. Sometimes sharing a room might work better for a small workgroup, if they rely heavily on a real-communication inside the group. Like, for a feature team of software developers and QA who call on each other, as they have to verify commits, or if QA's need help from developers to reproduce a bug, etc. Or, for customer service employees in technical support and in accounts. It makes sense for them to stay in a shared open-space for their evolution and well-being (read, for their ability to do their work better). However, an open space would be a productivity killer for a strategizer, or for someone who comes up with creative concepts or designs that development teams will then carve in the digital rocks of software. Can you imagine Winston Churchill or Steve Jobs working in an open space office, let me ask? Hardly anyone would doubt that privacy is a must for the highly creative work.
There's another erroneous consideration that stakeholders might have in mind about open-space offices. They assume that physical proximity will cement people's belonging to a cohesive team of individuals who share company goals and values the more, the more time they spend together. Wrong. Belonging to a group can be promoted by other means, such as sharing a company's philosophy through the space itself, or, what's most important, by doing some good job together. We wouldn't think that a family of 4 would have a better sense of a family if they are forced to live in a 200 sq feet apartment, would we? The same is true here. Creating an organizational ethos and having employees light up with it does not happen simply by stowing people in one room. It takes more foresight, thinking and attention to detail. For starters, the team spirit is best promoted by a successful release or by another important milestone achieved together.
This is all about how the specifics of work correlates with the space. While some companies simply do not feel that they can (or should) allocate larger budgets to fine-tune their offices, some people can do just fine working at home, if their home is better conditioned for work than an open-space office. Alternatively, for someone with kids, or with the A/C at home not working, an office would be a better place to work. What and how works better will also depend on the office demographics. Millenials, the Gen Y-ers, for example, are more likely to put up with the distractions merely due to the fact that they appreciate their office as a space where they can socialize (some say it might be the root cause of why this generation seems to be underpeforming in general). Disclaimer: I'm a Gen X'er 🙂 Not sure if it's solely for that reason, but I value focused concentration at work more than socializing. This is just another example that shows how deep stakeholders need to think as they approach the job of designing an office. There are so many factors to consider and to write about, that it would take a huge article just to list them all. For each and every company, there will be a unique solution.
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