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Office space specifications.

>>>  easy commute to the Upper West Side (of New York City), windowed private offices (not easy to find in this city), and cool.  <<<

Joel, it's great to hear there is still at least one company out there concerned about providing usable office space for developers.  But I encourage you to include one more very important adjective in the description: "quiet".

The problem with "quiet" is that it's a bit harder to measure.  You can walk in to an office and see immediately that it has a window and door or is an appropriate size for a private one person office.  To determine if an office is quiet, you have to sit quietly and listen for a while.  You may have to get the HVAC turned on or off to hear its effects.  Problems may not be immediately obvious.

I have had just about every combination of office features.  If I couldn't get them all, I'd rate the order of importance as (1) quiet, (2) private, and (3) window ("outside awareness" as the Santa Teresa reports puts it).  You can't really have quiet without private since an officemate is a significant source of annoying sounds.

I had the importance of quiet impressed on me when I was working at a customer site in a shared windowless office with the desks shaking from the HVAC system.  One day, when I needed to concentrate on a document for a couple of hours, I decided to borrow a temporarily vacant developer office.  It was a private office with a door and window.  Ideal, I thought at first.  I gave up after about 15 minutes and went back to my own office.  The constant howling from the air vent in the private office was worse than any problem in my shared windowless office.

OTOH, I have worked in offices that met all three specifications and they are great to work in.

mackinac
Friday, December 27, 2002

Good point! Although I don't think I'm going to be able to convince the leasing agents of 70 story skyscrapers in New York to turn on the air conditioning in the dead of winter so I can check if they are too loud ;)

Joel Spolsky
Friday, December 27, 2002

Also, decibel meeters are cheap at Radio Shack and provide a good way to quantify noise levels and accoustic isolation.

w.h.
Friday, December 27, 2002

Finding quiet quarters may be difficult, but that doesn't mean you should just assume that it is impossible and give up on making the effort.

HVAC systems are probably going to be running continuously, so you don't have to wait till summer to find out how much noise it is going to make.

Central air distribution systems make some noise, but, in my experience, most only produce a low level rushing noise and are tolerable.  But some can produce quite a howl, so you need to listen to check them out.  In room heat exchangers are usually terribly noisy, but they have local controls so you can check them.

Noise meters may be useful, but I have not yet tried one.  The human ear is probably the best measuring device since that is what is going to have to put up with the noise.  Just sit or stand quietly in a room and listen.

It is important to let the leasing agent know that quiet is important to you.  One reason office space for software developers is so bad is that everyone complains about it, but only among ourselves.  We need to tell leasing agents, employers, recruiters, etc. that it is important.

mackinac
Saturday, December 28, 2002

Although I don't think I'm going to be able to convince the leasing agents of 70 story skyscrapers in New York to turn on the air conditioning in the dead of winter so I can check if they are too loud

Perhaps not, but probably the fans.

Brad Siemens
Monday, December 30, 2002

A window is useful to keep one connected to the real world. No give awareness of the passing of time. To avoid a sense of isolation.

This being the case, a window to the outside is not a necessity. I have had nice views into an atrium and into a lobby/shopping concourse. Further a window into a common space that is abundantly windowed is also good.

Privacy important, but again an individual office is not required. An good office shared with someone compatible is better than a dingy one of one's one. Even a cube, if it is isolated from traffic and the view of its neighbours is sufficient as long as it is spacious and windowed.

Quiet is paramount. The best way to encourge it is to NOT provide telephones. Developers do not need them. And it can give an enourmous boost to productivity.

Anonymous Coward
Monday, December 30, 2002

>>>Privacy important, but again an individual office is not required. An good office shared with someone compatible is better than a dingy one of one's one. <<<

Perhaps individual preferences differ, but I disagree strongly, based on my experience a private office is  much better than shared.  What do you consider a "good" office?  I once worked in a private office in a rather old one story building.  It had no windows and the floors creaked a bit.  At the time I complained somewhat about the lack of a window, but now I work in a shared office with one wall all window.  Working in the "dingy" private office was much preferable.

>>>Even a cube, if it is isolated from traffic and the view of its neighbours is sufficient as long as it is spacious and windowed.<<<

A cube is sufficient for data entry, not for software development.

>>> Quiet is paramount. The best way to encourge it is to NOT provide telephones. Developers do not need them. And it can give an enourmous boost to productivity. <<<

I did put quiet as the most important feature of an office.  Not having phones at all is an interesting concept, but I don't think it is necessary.  There are lots of other ways your officemates can generate noise: knuckle cracking, listening to the radio, conversations with visitors, etc.  You do need to disallow speaker phones and cell phones in the offices.

mackinac
Monday, December 30, 2002

Twenty-five years ago making a personal phone call to somebodies place of work would have been unthinkable. Making a call from ones place of work would be done  only out of necessity and on ones personal time (lunch hour...).

Today I've seen colleagues spend half or more of their days with the phone tucked under their ear.  Wives, girlfriends, stock brokers, real estate agents, used car dealers, drinking buddies, all of these  and more multiple times per day.

I've been some horrid industrial style offices, but any reasonable decor will have enough soft material to absorb cracking knuckles, squeeky chairs, footsteps, etc.

Developers do not have visitors. Conference rooms are for meeting clients and brainstorming with colleagues.

Another big productivity boost is banning AIM/ICQ/MSN. I find that blocking them at the firewall doubles the productivity of interns and recent grads.

Anonymous Coward
Tuesday, December 31, 2002

>>> Today I've seen colleagues spend half or more of their days with the phone tucked under their ear.  <<<

I heard reports of this happening at my previous employer.  It wasn't the norm, but as the Internet bubble and the company expanded the company's culture of quality deteriorated rapidly.  Developer's spending half the day on the phone or using large fractions of company bandwidth to download porn became common.  Maybe this is more common now than 25 years ago, but I see it more as a problem of an individual company's culture.  In my experience the problem differs between companies or changed rapidly at a company rather then being a long term widespread trend.

>>> any reasonable decor will have enough soft material to absorb cracking knuckles, squeeky chairs, footsteps, etc. <<<

I have not yet been able to imagine how this is possible.  In a shared office space there is nothing to prevent propagation of such sounds from their source to occupants of the space.  I can imagine office space where hard surfaces reflect the sounds and make things even worse.

>>> Developers do not have visitors. Conference rooms are for meeting clients and brainstorming with colleagues. <<<

Yes.  Also, small meetings of 2-3 individuals can take place in the developer's office if there is enough space for an extra chair or two and maybe a white board or table space.

>>> Another big productivity boost is banning AIM/ICQ/MSN. <<<

Maybe posting to JOS should be banned, too.  :-)

mackinac
Tuesday, December 31, 2002

Developers don't have visitors....

Hmmm, that explains why they produce software no one can understand.

Any environment can become a gumption leak if an individual is so disposed.  You can work in noisy environments because after a while you just ignore them, sometimes they impinge and make you want to slit someone's throat; equally a very quiet environment can make you depressed and suicidal.

Whatever kind of office environment I've been in, I've tended to turn it into the same kind of mess.  I rarely clear my desk until it irritates me, I don't have going home rituals (ok I'm already home at the moment) and I don't have much of a start of day ritual either.

I'll work in whatever space there is, in whatever environment there is.

Meeting places are needed, unless you want to impinge on all the other people in the area who aren't involved in the meeting.

On the whole, regardless of the plan or methodology of the office, people make their own caves;they place objects which delineate their space, whether its their bin (using someone else's bin is a taboo violation close to messing with their sister), a potted plant placed just so (the enemy in these cases is not the other people in the office but the cleaners),  their visitor chair turned away from them. 

They're all signals of personal space and none of them appear on office plans.

Simon Lucy
Wednesday, January 01, 2003

>>> equally a very quiet environment can make you depressed and suicidal. <<<

Are you speaking from personal experience on a specific job site?  I ask because in these discussions it is not always possible to tell for sure if someone is speaking from actual experience or just speculating.

I had one assignment at a really depressing site.  I still remember walking to the building each morning and thinking how much I hated it.  It was not quiet.  It was a cubicle environment.  You could hear other conversations, phones ringing, paging and background music.  I kept at it because it was supposed to be a short assignment, I had some expectation of something better afterwards (and did get it), and it had kept me from being assigned to an even more unpleasant project.

mackinac
Wednesday, January 01, 2003

Well perhaps not exactly suicidal, but yes I've been in very quiet situations where the quietness seemed to emphasise the isolation that people felt.

Simon Lucy
Wednesday, January 01, 2003

Making noise is easy, making it go away is nearly impossible, so please non of that "a very quiet environment can make you depressed and suicidal".
Also, do not even think about trying to quantify the destructive properties of noise using a DB-meter. It has nothing to do with volume. We all know the collegues from hell with the headphones on all day that go tssk-tete-tssk-tete-tssk-tete-tssk-tete-dub-dub-dub-dub-tssk-tete-tssk ....
I'll trade a lake-side view corner office any day for a quite, windowless private basement, thank you.

Just me (Sir to you)
Thursday, January 02, 2003

>>> Well perhaps not exactly suicidal, but yes I've been in very quiet situations where the quietness seemed to emphasise the isolation that people felt.  <<<

OK, thanks for the reply.  It does sound like the quietness itself wasn't the problem, it emphasized a more basic problem - the isolation.

I rate quietness very high in importance for a good work space, but it is just one of many factors and you can't ignore the others.

mackinac
Thursday, January 02, 2003

>>> Also, do not even think about trying to quantify the destructive properties of noise using a DB-meter. It has nothing to do with volume. <<<

I am in half agreement here.  Loud sounds are destructive to the useability of office space just because they are loud. But the destructiveness of lower level sounds does depend on its characteristics.  So I do agree that the DB meter is very limited in its usefulness.

>>> We all know the collegues from hell with the headphones on all day that go tssk-tete-tssk-tete-tssk-tete-tssk-tete-dub-dub-dub-dub-tssk-tete-tssk <<<

How about the one who uses his PC speakers to listen to the Dumb and Dumber show on the radio ( I think the actual name is Dave and Mike, but "Dumb and Dumber" is more descriptive. It's like having an apartment next door to a loud dysfunctional family).

>>> I'll trade a lake-side view corner office any day for a quite, windowless private basement, thank you. <<<

Agreed, but providing a basic quiet private office with door and window is so simple that I can't image why most employers don't just do it.

mackinac
Thursday, January 02, 2003

mackinac wrote: "providing a basic quiet private office with door and window is so simple that I can't image why most employers don't just do it."

Expense.  A giant "foyer" filled with cubes is a heck of a lot cheaper to buy than the exact same space that's had office walls installed.

One of my previous employers went through this.  They had to build a new headquarters building, moving out from a 70's-era building that was filled with offices (no cubicles).  When they designed the building, the company was dumbstruck at the difference in cost between offices and cubicle space.  This was a good company; they understood how much it would suck to move most of the work force to cubicles.  But they went ahead with cubicle space anyway.  It was just that much cheaper.

I'm not arguing that they were *right*; I'm just saying that the obvious, short-term economic impact is (apparently) huge.

Brent P. Newhall
Thursday, January 02, 2003

Of course, there is the expense. 

I am no expert on office costs, but am familiar with the costs at my previous employer and read any article I can find comparing cubicles to private offices.  We might expect the costs of private offices to be much greater than cubicles, but I have never seen any data to indicate that that is the case.  The additional rental may amount to 2% of salary for a developer and any article about relative buildout costs come to the surprising conclusion that private offices are only a few percent more expensive that cubicles.

I am going to try to accumulate more information on this topic.  If anyone knows of quantitative information I'd be interested in hearing about it.  Google searches provide a bit, but are hard to narrow down to useful stuff on such a general topic.

There may be an expense, but companies where software development is important, and, thus, software developers are important, don't seem to have any problem with it because the benefits are worth the cost.

mackinac
Thursday, January 02, 2003

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