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Open Office Layout is Bad for Brain !

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Open office layout is usually considered the default layout for Agile teams. Cubicle farms are boring and a thing of the past. Open office layout is known to improve communication, collaboration and build stronger teams. Is it all as good as it sounds?

A recent research showcased on “The Secret Life of Buildings” mentioned that working in open-plan office is bad for the brain. The study revealed a 32% drop in workers well being and a reduction in their productivity by 15%.

Dr Jack Lewis, a neuroscientist who conducted the test, said: "Open plan offices were designed with the idea that people can move around and interact freely to promote creative thinking and better problem solving.
But it doesn't work like that. If you are just getting into some work and a phone goes off in the back ground it ruins what you are concentrating on. Even though you are not aware at the time, the brain responds to distractions."

Open-office layout leave little room for people to personalize their space. According to Dr Craig Knight, a psychologist at Exeter University, creating a personal space and a comfortable setting for work increases productivity.

Jordon quoted Joel Splosky when he mentioned that open-office layouts and the similar concept of war rooms are the places where bugs are bred. According to him, in such settings, no-one can concentrate for long due to constant interruptions and distractions.

Another study conducted in Australia mentioned that 90% of their results proved that working in open office layouts led to higher levels of stress, conflict, high blood pressure and high staff turnover.

The high level of noise causes employees to lose concentration, leading to low productivity, there are privacy issues because everyone can see what you are doing on the computer or hear what you are saying on the phone, and there is a feeling of insecurity.

Richard k Cheng mentioned that taking the open office concept to the extreme is the main reason for worry. According to Richard,

While an Agile team with it's own space that is comfortable and pleasing does promote "hyper-productivity", there should be caution to this thought. In many ways, this is a throwback to the days where developers and development teams were the cellar dwellers and left alone to do their techie stuff while the rest of the company does business. This is a major step back and seems un-agile to me.

So is it a problem with the open office layout or a problem with 'just' having an open office layout?

Dave Nicolette commented, when people start to think about collaborative work space they tend to assume it is an all-or-nothing proposition. The two extremes which come to mind are either to have a cubicle or spend your time in a pod with many people. According to Dave the idea is to have a combination of these spaces.

The open or bullpen sort of space (where we would do pair programming, for instance); semiprivate spaces for brainstorming or sitting/reading; and private spaces (which may be shared, hotel-style) for making personal phone calls, one-on-one discussions, and so forth.

Dan Benjamin had similar thoughts. According to Dan, he experienced distraction, decreased productivity and low morale in plain open office layouts. The open layout might be good for some situations but is definitley not an everyday environment.

For the record, I think offices when used as places to meet, to share ideas, or to bust out code in a 2-week sprint are great. But as an everyday environment, open offices come at a price.

What is your take on open-office layout?

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Community comments

  • I tottally agree

    by Mihai Dinca,

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    I worked in four environments:
    1. Companies with over 20 employees prefer open space - too much noise (must use headset to listen to music) / too much conflicts (some wants window opened, some don't)
    2. Companies with less than 20 employees usually have location inside an apartment with 3-4 rooms. You "live" with 5 to 10 coworkers. Less noise, less conflicts.
    3. Working from home. No noise. No conflicts. But a lack of interaction with some team members may be crucial in some cases.
    4. My dream place of work was in a small house inside an orchard. The house had only one floor with a long hall and more rooms accessed from it. Only 4 persons in a room. This environment was truly agile.

  • Peopleware

    by Diego Fernandez,

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    Apart from the references given in the article, the book Peopleware from Tom DeMarco also touches the topic.

    Really good recommended reading.

  • Has there been any succes using an Agile space?

    by Paul Spencer,

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    Seems like if this type of environment is used by any team then they will fail miserably.

    In summary an open space is:

    a breeding ground for buggy software
    leads to depression and sickness
    leads to 'hyper-productivity' which is un-agile
    also leads to low productivity
    leads to low morale


  • I completely disagree!

    by Ronald Miura,

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    Open Office, with its hundreds of nested menus forces you to think a lot more, exercising your memory!

    MS Office is too easy, it rots your brain!

  • hybrid

    by raj n,

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    I think both needs to be there - open interaction as well as private space for reflection - with leaning more towards private space

  • Re: I tottally agree

    by Isra Saleh,

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    I totaly agree with you Mihai Dinca and I had the same cases like you at work.

  • Confusing purposes?

    by Josh Gough,

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    Are people confusing the purposes of "open spaces" with "working spaces"?

    I believe their should be open spaces and areas for people to collaborate, and people should have the ability to work side-by-side in the same work area when they feel it is beneficial.

    They also should be able have privacy and be able to focus intently, either at their individual work space, OR in an even more private area.

    This is very possible where I work because we have terminals located outside the main suite, but we can use remote desktop to get bcak to our main workstations, and we also have laptops.

    In a number of meeting rooms and "war rooms" we have whiteboard walls as well. I believe this has been fairly good, but it would also be nice for us to start having a display panel where we can put statistics about builds and tests and all that.

  • Re: Confusing purposes?

    by Cameron Purdy,

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    Nice comment, Josh. I'm a big fan of lots of shared space, but also having some private (focus) space for each person. Having seen the effects of each, I can't imagine living without both.


    Cameron Purdy | Oracle

  • Research

    by Niclas Lindgren,

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    A recent research publication of offices spaces done in Sweden show that the worst possible working environment is the middle to large open space (10+ people in the same room), which happens to also be the most common.

    The best choices were either cell offices (cubicles/indivual room) or flexi-spaces (different work place for different tasks) and shared-room offices (up to 4 people in each room, preferable 2-3).

    Those types lead to happier and healthier employees, and that directly translated into a more efficient company (given that efficiency in your employees matter in the bottom line).

    Shared-room scored higher on the social side (happiness/willingness to go to work) while cell-space scored higher on the satisfaction on the individual work satisfaction (efficiency on one given individual item).

    However, no matter efficiency and/or time savings, people who like their offices spoke well of their company, and not many companies want/can afford bad press in the long run. So a good office space is a good investment for a company almost either way you slice it.

    And no matter how you looked at it, the most common office type today, the middle/large open office spaces is the worst possible solution to the problem, driven by a too high focus on building cost and not a full life cycle analysis. Optimizing one variable(building/room cost) hurts the other(efficient, health, productivity etc) if they are connected as they are in this case.

    The report is long, but worth a read perhaps.

  • Utter Nonsense!!!

    by Paul Korney,

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    This is like doing cancer research on gum chewing without considering other subject behavior like smoking and then claiming some correlation between gum chewing and cancer.
    Want to be more productive? Get rid of your cell phone!!! I've worked in both cubicle and open team workspaces and there is nothing more distracting than cell phone ringers and cell phone conversations. Unless there is a culture of common courtesy/respect and ground rules associated with the workspace, this research is is pretty bogus since there are no constraints on behavior.

  • Newsrooms have had open seating for decades

    by Don Carlson,

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    I've had the opposite reaction from agile teams - we were in an open space - then were forced to move to a more enclosed area - the team (40 developers/testers/dba's) physically moved furniture so they could have a more open work environment.

  • Working effectively over working efficiently

    by Richard Cheng,

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    Hello Vikas,

    Thank you for quoting my blog post on Agile office space. However, the context of my statements were for Agile war rooms. A war room is a room where the agile team is put together and left along to hyper perform. While it has it's advantages, one of my concerns is that they become isolated from the rest of the company.

    However, I DO like the idea of having an open space. Sure, coders may be able to code faster (and more bug free) in their own space. Similarly, coders may be able to code faster if given a large stack of requirements and left alone. However, what I like about the open space is the ability to pick up context of the entire project just from picking up snippets of conversation and information. This could be the developers hearing some business conversations, or the BA's observing some developer designs. I argue that an open space enables us to work smarter, which I prefer to a closed space that allows us to work harder.

  • Make the best use of what ya got!

    by Rob Lofthouse,

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    Take advantage of the environment you have to work in. The best of the best make their surroundings work for them and can't be concerned with whether or not they have walls surrounding themselves.

    Having the best of all possibilities, I work from my home office when I want NO distractions, go to my employers office to get the obvious interaction and 'water cooler' scuttlebutt, and have set up a team room where my team comes together every other week to work in an agile kind of mode. We're not working at peak performance, but we are on that trajectory.

    You have to develop the discipline to adapt to, improvise through and overcome distractions no matter what they are. Only then can you become a focused and high performance professional.

  • I wish there was another option…

    by I R,

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    I am expected to code in an open office when there often lot of tale conferences calls going on!

    The problem is that it is many years since I have seen a programming job where the office is not open plan (Manchester/UK). Openplan offices are great for keeping everyone informed, but the productivity of each person is lower.

    I tried to stop caring about being productive as I am not responsible for the design of the office, the problem is I do care about doing a good job!

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