One of the most hotly debated topics in office design is that of the Open Layout vs. the Closed Office. After posting Freshview’s office, I came across this article that discusses their decision to go with closed offices. It is very well thought out and has some interesting ideas that may help the future redesign of your office. This article is reprinted with permission from the author, David Greiner, one of Freshview’s founders.
When we moved Freshview into a much larger space at the end of 2006, we figured we had enough room to get us to the end of our 3 year lease. There were only 3 of us at the time, so 160 square meters (that’s about 525 square feet) seemed like it would do the trick even if we added a few more people to the team. While our customer base was growing very quickly, we were big fans of scaling our software without necessarily having to scale our team with it.
>>Starting open plan
We went for an open plan layout in the office for a couple of reasons. The first being that it’s by far the easiest and most cost effective way to lay out an office. Secondly, with only 3 of us in all that space there weren’t a whole lot of distractions and it allowed us to communicate very easily. Basically, it worked.
Over the next 6 months or so we were lucky enough to double our customer base, revenues and inevitably, our team size. Before too long we added another 4 great people to the team, not to mention an extremely popular (and recently upgraded) ping pong table. We still had plenty of room, but one thing soon became clear. Open plan offices don’t scale well for software developers.
>>Getting into the zone
You see, software development is a little different to most other jobs. To be truly productive, developers need time to really “get in the zone”. To get their best work done, they need to phase out all the other distractions around them and be genuinely focused on the task at hand. This is when the really good stuff happens. Unfortunately, this isn’t something that can be switched on or off instantly, it takes focus and time (from a few minutes to half an hour). As you can imagine, a ping pong ball to the forehead can be quite the flow killer. Over time, lots of these small distractions can prevent smart people from getting things done and generally piss them off at the same time.
This isn’t just something we’ve learned from experience either. Peopleware, a must-read for any software developer (and especially their managers) devotes an entire section to the importance of removing distractions from the office environment. Joel Spolsky’s famous Joel Test dedicates number 8 out of 12 to making sure your programmers have quiet working conditions and 37signals have long advocated the importance of alone time.
Of course, not everybody feels the same way about open plan, which is clearly why so many software companies still use that format. We had our doubts about the open plan approach working long term, and so we decided to look for some alternate space that would allow us to create an environment perfect for keeping our growing team happy and productivity high.
>>Time to move… again
Eventually we settled on some recently vacated space a few levels above us in the same building. It was double the size of our current office and gave us a blank slate to plan our dream setup. Similar to the approach Fog Creek took in their planning, we put together a wish list and then approached a number of architects to make it a reality.
Above all else, the priority was for closed offices for all our developers, a nice big area where people can relax and take a break, and a communal eating area where we could all have lunch together. Oh, and it needed to scale to support 20 staff members, we didn’t want to move again in a hurry.
>>Closed offices and catered lunches
Working with the talented team at Watershed Design, we eventually had a layout that would give us closed offices for 8 developers and very large, private workstations for 11 other team members who aren’t writing code. We used loads of glass and timber to keep as much natural light flowing through each office. We also ended up with a large breakout area for relaxing and working on your ping pong game. To make everything feel as open as possible, we also cut out a big chunk of the roof and added some cool lighting.
One of our biggest concerns about moving from open plan to closed offices was killing the awesome vibe we have around the office. The entire team get along extremely well and while the older layout was occasionally distracting, it was also plenty of fun. To alleviate this, we’ve since introduced free fully-catered lunches for the team. We now eat together every single day, which has made a huge difference and is something I wish we introduced a long time ago. It’s also a fantastic way for newer team members to get to know their workmates in a very informal setting (not that it ever gets formal around here anyway).
Now that everyone has a closeable door you don’t need to tippy toe around the rest of the office, but can chat to other members of the team knowing you’re not distracting anyone else. If the door’s shut, come back another time or send them an IM or email. No more flow breaking or ping pong head shots.
>>Was it worth it?
From start to finish, the fitout took about 4 months to complete and we couldn’t be happier with the result. We moved in mid November 2007 and have already measured a tidy improvement in the amount we’re all getting done. Even more importantly, after a casual survey of the team while writing this article, every staff member prefers the new closed office environment over open plan.
Going closed office might not be the cheapest or most intuitive option, but given the increase in productivity and positive feedback from the team, I can’t recommend it enough for small, growing software teams.