I was chatting with a buddy of mine from a mid size software company recently, and he mentioned that they had converted to an open floor plan model. I had heard some horror stories, so I was really interested to hear how it went for them.
Initially The Open Floor Plan Was Awesome
He said that when they initially launched the open floor plan model, it was great. They had a giant open space with designers on one side of the room and developers on the other side of the room with ample space between, but close enough that they could walk back and forth with ease to collaborate since they were rocking a functional agile vibe at the time. The designers would get rowdy from time to time, laughing and joking around, but it didn’t phase the developers because they had their quiet peaceful side of the room to work in. All was well in the world. Both teams were more productive than ever.
They had great interdepartmental relationships, folks in both departments worked really well together, and even had great personal relationships. They had lots of happy smiley coworkers all over the place, who enjoyed coming in to the office.
After Time Passed And They Experienced Rapid Growth, The Open Floor Plan Started To Suck
Then the company grew. And grew some more. and grew even more.
All of a sudden, team members were packed in the room like sardines. The developers were starting to resent the designers for being rowdy while they were trying to code, because the peace keeping buffer zone was gone. The designers were starting to resent the developers because they were complaining about “all of the noise” being made by the design team while they were collaborating.
Random Side Convos Fuel Design Team Innovation and Creativity
You’d be surprised how much creativity comes out of regular old conversations and laughter.
For example, at my last company, this random convo changed our app gesture approach entirely: “I spent the weekend at my kid’s basketball tournament, he is basically a free throw rockstar. Oh, by the way, did you see this new basketball stat tracking app? The gestures are freaking awesome, let me show you.”
If the convo about the basketball tourney hadn’t taken place, the discussion about the gestures probably wouldn’t have come up, and the innovative integration of those gestures in the app project wouldn’t have happened.
Folks can’t be creative and innovative when they are all covered in cones of silence. Design teams often require a very different work place culture than developers, one that’s open to collaboration and creativity.
I’m not saying you need a water slide in the middle of the office and daily breaks to hold hands and sing campfire songs, I’m just saying that design teams need an environment in which they can create and innovate and collaborate freely.
Random Side Convos Make Some Developers Want To Brutally Destroy People
Now the flip side. Developers who are working on on projects in new languages (or intricate projects in languages they can code in their sleep) often basically want to murder loud people.
You miss a semi colon because someone distracts you with their obnoxiously loud laughter, and your whole string of code fails. Then you spend an hour trying to figure out why on earth your hours of work crashed and burned.
When you finally do, you’re filled with rage and want to duct tape all of the designers mouths shut, and throw them in a pit of silence for all of eternity.
And the same is true in reverse. Sometimes designers want silence and devs want to let loose.
Rapidly Escalating Resentment = Not Cool
So back to my buddy’s story. Things got worse and worse. The previously happy go lucky, collaborative teams who had great interdepartmental relationships and friendly personal relationships disintegrated within a matter of months.
Developers were complaining about volume, designers felt like the devs were jealous of their awesome team culture, devs thought the designers were being disrespectful by not following their need for silence, designers thought the devs were being uptight and disrespectful by complaining about their personalities.
The crazy part that was NOTHING HAD CHANGED, other than that the two teams with drastically different team cultures had been smashed into a room that no longer gave them space to work the way they needed to work to be the most productive.
Failed Attempts To Fix Things
The initial solution his company came up with was to tell the dev team to wear noise canceling headphones. The developers expressed feeling that the company didn’t care about them as much as they cared about the designers. They also felt the designers were being disrespectful jerks, and that they should just shut up and act like normal corporate employees and that then everything would be fine. They thought it was stupid that they were being forced to compensate for their coworkers obnoxiousness.
When that didn’t work, the company told the design team they could no longer discuss things out loud, it all needed to be done through chat so as not to disturb the dev team. At that point design team expressed feeling that all of the creative energy had been abruptly sucked out of their workplace. They also felt they were being told that they were unprofessional for working the way they’d been working for years and that their awesome workplace culture had been stripped away.
Angry Resentment Abounds
So in a nutshell, at that point every single member of both teams was angry and frustrated and hated everything. My buddy said that suddenly meetings turned into arenas for battle. Every team member on both sides went in ready to wage war. Where there used to be easy collaboration folks started digging their heels in and not willingly compromising on anything.
The workplace culture completely tanked, and really talented members of both the design team and the dev team started applying for other jobs. And the craziest part was, folks went from genuinely enjoying one another on a personal basis, to glaring at one another across the room and ignoring one another in the break room. Nothing personal had occurred, all of the animosity was stemming from the two teams just having vastly different workspace needs.
So how do you keep this from happening at your company?
The key is to give teams appropriate workspaces to do their thing.
The first step in making this happen is to set up policy to protect your team’s time. At my last company we had a split day focus arrangement. In the mornings, designers and developers met with team members from other departments to answer questions, had meetings, and met to resolve any blockers getting in the way of their work.
In the afternoon a giant poster of Gandalf went up on the door that said, “YOU SHALL NOT PASS! (But seriously, it’s our focus time. Don’t come in here unless it’s a true emergency. Shoot us an email or meeting invite.”
There was top down senior staff adoption of this policy, so it worked really well.
Provide a Collaborative Workspace
The second piece is the extremely important. Give your team the spaces they need to be productive and successful. Dedicate a meeting room to the design and dev teams for collaboration. Sharing the room with the rest of the company will not work. You need a dedicated space for people to hop in and chat, collaborate and ideate as a group. Keep this room far away from the dedicated focus time room to keep everyone sane and productive. Your design crew will likely spend a lot of time in there together collaborating on projects, and that’s ok. They’ll also spend time in the focus room banging out projects. Giving this space will keep your team culture in a significantly better place than trying to smash two groups with polar opposite workspace needs into one room.
It Worked Wonders At My Last Company
You’ll wind up with better products, higher levels of employee satisfaction and killer interdepartmental collaboration. The design team has space to be rowdy, the dev team has space to be silent, and both teams are genuinely happy and productive.
If your company is experiencing rapid growth, keep an eye on your seating arrangements. They can truly make the difference between people loving their jobs and looking forward to going in to work in the morning, and despising their jobs and wanting to strangle folks all day long. It’s a whole lot cheaper to change seating arrangements than it is to replace a team of talented designers and developers who have legacy product knowledge.
So did your company convert to an open floor plan when it became hot? At the end of the day any company’s goal should be to give teams the optimal work environments and tools that they require to achieve the highest level of productivity and success. If your company converted to an open office floor plan and it’s failing, push on your senior staff to fix it so your team can get on with making awesome products.