Who in the software industry has not worked in one of these huge open-spaces readily available in many workplaces? Those who have not can probably consider themselves as the exception. Those who have, probably wonder where on earth this idea of putting dozens and dozens of people in the same room to produce software, come from. I’d love to meet that guy who suggested that first, just to be able to put a face on it. I doubt there is only one source. Anyway… my point is not to find the culprit but to think about the consequences of such choice.
The question came to me first when I was asked to work in such place, then when I read Peopleware (Tom DeMarco) and then when I read about the Zajonc experience. All in all it deserves to think about it.

Cockroaches run faster when watched!

Let’s start with the Zajonc experiment. Robert B. Zajonc (pronounced Zy-unce – like Science with a Z; born 1923) is a Polish-born American social psychologist who is known for his decades of work on a wide range of social and cognitive processes. In 1969, this fellow and his team have conducted a strange experiment with cockroaches. He found out that cockroaches ran faster down a runway to escape a light source if the runway was lined with an “audience” of onlooking fellow cockroaches (each in its own plexiglass cubicle). This work led to the theory that the mere presence of species mates elevates drive/arousal of the performer. Since then, plenty of other research teams have lead other experiments. In the end, a meta-analytic review has been conducted by Bond and Titus in 1983 of both published and unpublished works involving over 20,000 participants. I give you the overall conclusions:

  • Yes, the presence of others has an impact;
  • This impact is positive for simple tasks and negative for complex tasks.

Headphone to isolate from noise in open space office

Here comes my question: what is the impact of working in open-spaces for the software industry? Are we, like the cockroaches likely to perform better because of the others watching us or are we, like Bond and Titus found likely to perform less because of this situation? Clearly, we cannot consider software production as the result of a reflex, like running, eating or having sex (yes, studies have shown it works on sex as well!) Although requiring highly collaborative activities, software production requires a high level of concentration, thinking and lonely work. None of these can be done in an open space where:

  • You can hear 5 colleagues phone conversations at any time;
  • You can be interrupted by anyone seeing you and wishing to ask a question, share a coffee or simply say hello;
  • You benefit from the never ending printing noise of the whole floor;
  • Etc.

And anyway, you’ll notice the high number of workers using headphones to isolate themselves from the crowd. I have even personally put ostentatious headphones on my head, although not listening to anything, just to stop people from interacting with me.
In fact some research have demonstrated why we are doing that. The key fact is that when we are bombarded with attentional demands, our focus of attention shrinks (Geen 1976). Did we need a research to know that? Clearly, some companies (quite a lot in fact) should read a bit more about human interactions and behaviour. They might rethink their workplace strategy!

Let’s think about IT!