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Programming in a Moroccan Market

I realize there's probably no point in my bringing this up at all, since there appears to be no solution... but whining about it will make me feel *so much better*...

What do you do when you are one of three programmers on a completely open-plan floor of 100 employees, most of whom work in a call centre, the rest of whom (next to you) are in after-sales? In short, when you are trapped in a room with 97 people whose *entire job* is to talk on the phone all day, every day?

Yes, yes, I know, headphones. They don't help at all when you have the Olympic Mumbling Team sitting two feet away from you.

Yes, yes, I know, rifle-range ear mufflers. They don't work either.

It's looked upon as extremely odd that I find it hard to work in this atmosphere - none of the marketing people seem to know what I'm talking about.

There is an EMPTY office, with FLOOR-TO-CEILING WALLS, and a DOOR, right next to us. If you go in there, you can hear people talking through the walls, but if you put your headphones on *in that room*, as opposed to outside it, the background noise goes away. The office belongs to a director who used to show up every Friday, dump his briefcase, and leave. He doesn't even do that any more - his PC is unplugged and stored, and the pictures have been taken down. Often people use it for a meeting room. But the office still belongs to him. We programmers can't use it because there is apparently no way of organizing LAN connections in there, but even if there were, it's company policy that only directors are allowed to have offices. No ands, ifs, or buts.

One of the other programmers says the noise doesn't bother him. The third programmer says it does, but he has gotten used to not being able to work. He has a lot of boring operational work to do, but says he couldn't imagine trying to write new code in this atmosphere.

We tried asking to be moved to an ever-so-slightly less noisy part of the building (on the theoretical assumption that such a place exists) but were told that moves have been frozen indefinitely.

I tried offering to buy myself an individual noise muffler, but that only reduces speech noise if the speaker is more than 8 feet away, and I have people 2 feet away. Also, it would require partitions more than 5 feet high to be any use, and I've been told that there are no partitions and that I couldn't have one if there were.

I tried coming in earlier and staying later, but that doesn't work because marketing people are in by 8 a.m. and there's always someone here until at least 7 p.m., talking on the phone all the time. Also, it's frowned upon to work outside our contractual hours.

I asked about doing a night shift, but that's not allowed for security reasons, and anyway we're supposed to be here when the marketing department is here, because they're our customers. Working from home is out, for the same reasons.

I can't use a laptop and just hunt down a vacant meeting room, because the company doesn't allow us laptops and anyway, there'd be no LAN connection available.

One of the marketing people suggested I switch places with the guy who sits 5 feet to my left. This wouldn't help at all, because I would still be in a room with 97 people yelling into the phone, and instead of having the Olympic Mumbling Team next to me I would have the Olympic Speakerphone Team next to me.

Recently, a manager noticed my distress and took me aside for a discussion. He explained to me that nothing at all can be done to improve the noise situation. He also explained that, even though I have been asking for something to be done since I arrived, my *real* problem is the terminal illness that struck my father last month. He told me that, if it were not for the stress caused by the family problem, I wouldn't be having so much trouble working in a Moroccan market atmosphere. He also pointed out that I have too many interests outside of work, and don't take enough time to relax. He told me that what I really needed was to learn better stress management and maybe take a couple of days off. Of course, the more I insisted that I wanted to be helped to work, rather than be helped not to work, the more I sounded like a frenzied workaholic. So I ended up agreeing with his false line of argument, because I was grateful that he was being nice to me.

Friends have suggested that I find another job elsewhere. The overwhelming likelihood is that I would find myself in exactly the same situation, because almost all offices in the UK are open-plan. Really, no kidding - I used to be a secretarial temp, and out of the 50-60 places I worked over about 10 years, only 2 of them provided offices with doors to anybody below director level. A lot of places don't even provide offices to directors.

Friends have also suggested that I go into business for myself, but I don't have the necessary experience yet.

Or they've suggested that I change careers again, after spending several years building up a career in software. I don't really want to do that.


Helen Oliver
Thursday, November 8, 2001

Well I thought up until the very end that there was little that was possible, but then you said you were in the UK.

In the UK, and the EC generally, we have well defined (and often ignored) Health and Safety regulations.  Apart from things like not being put into danger, having guards on machinery break times and so on, one of the measures is sound in decibels.

I don't happen to know what it is though.

So how can you use it.  First off its much better if there's a number of you rather than just you, and even better if you can get some of the call centre people involved as well.  If there's any unionisation then join the union, if not you'll have to go through your Human Resources department or Personnel or whatever they call it.  It is pointless going through your manager if they haven't fixed the problem on their own account already.

If you've been there over two years then you are on much stronger ground because you can use your tenure to claim stress related harm.  Actually I think that may be why your family background was brought up (suspect people that are nice to you they will make the assumption that you agreed with them).  If that wasn't why it certainly sounds patronising, I wonder if you were male whether the same things would have been said.

I'd also use the effect it has on the work that gets done as an argument.  If you're in a noisy, distracting environment its unlikely you'll do the best work.

I've worked in similar environments in the past I tended to build caves to work in made up out of ancient MFI bookcases.  It didn't make much difference as to the noise but it gave me the psychological benefit of feeling in my own space.  It made people think twice before entering the cave as well, in case I snarled at them :-).

I also think its worth getting as much free, reliable advice as you can, the CAB can give you advice on employment rights in general and H&S in particular.

Simon Lucy
Thursday, November 8, 2001

Noise bothers me too, some times more than others. I especially dislike overhearing non-technical conversations because I find the emotional level/tone in the voice disturbing.

At my place, the noise isn't bad (cubicle space, surrounded by developers).

One thing I've noticed is that several developers not only wear headphones but use them to listen to music. I would have thought silence is better, but maybe music (which you control) is better than outside noise (which you don't) -- try it for a while, get some practice at it (and have comfortable headphones) ... from your description it can surely make matters no worse than they are now for you.

For example, some people might go through their day with the radio or TV on all day, and must get used to more or less ignoring it. It would depend on the music, classical might be better than some modern.

Christopher Wells
Thursday, November 8, 2001

Did you try noise-canceling headphones?

Johannes Bjerregaard
Thursday, November 8, 2001

That sounds like an impossible situation, and that manager of yours was being absent-mindedly insulting by blaming it on your father.

I read the diaries of quite a few UK programmers at, and none of them seem to be complaining of an open-plan area.  You could perhaps ask them there.

However, if you find a new job, you won't have to worry about it not being open-plan  -- you simply meet with them and turn any job down that has such a working environment.  (I assume you can happily settle for a big room full of programmers, right?)  There is a risk with job hunting while you're in your current job, but you sound desperate enough.

forgotten gentleman
Thursday, November 8, 2001

Hmmm... thinking.

I don't want to give the impression that my manager was trying to be insulting. In fact, he was being very generous and showing great concern for my welfare.

He just has no power to change the work environment that is causing me stress, so his only alternative was to suggest that I should learn to manage stress better.

I will look into the Health & Safety issue, but I don't know if the decibel level is consistently high enough to count. It's the distraction level, rather than the decibel level, that's the issue.

Oh, and I did look into noise-cancelling headphones, as well. The trouble is that they only filter out low-frequency sound. When I tried to buy a pair, explaining the situation, the company returned my cheque. They said the headphones wouldn't be suitable because they would make the background speech clearer.

So I'm left with my ordinary music headphones. I have them turned up as high as the AVLS will allow, and I play the two loudest, most raucous techno tunes I can find, over and over again, all day long. It has some effect, but not enough, and classical music tends to be so quiet that I can barely hear it over the endless chatter of my colleagues.

Hmmm... Thanks for all the suggestions, guys. I'll have to think on this one.

Helen Oliver
Thursday, November 8, 2001

I would look for another job.  You may have a small chance in finding a new employer that respects a programmer's need for a quiet, comfortable working space, whereas you have zero chance of finding a similar sympathetic ear within your company.  Up until now it sounds like your manager has just fed you one bogus excuse after another and has made no real effort to improve your working conditions. Sometimes giving your manager an ultimatum may help motivate him or her to solve this problem, especially if you are a valued employee.  But if your employer has no interest in keeping you in the company, it won't work, but that's probably a company you don't want to work for anyways.

Thursday, November 8, 2001

Just like Helen, I've worked in open-plan offices, and hated it! Obviously, companies save money by using those instead of providing individual offices, and supposedly, they assume it helps intra-team communication. Neither wearing ear-plugs (the best I found: 3M's 1225, nor listening to music helps: The former is a bit awkward because you have to remove them every time a co-worker asks sthing), and the latter is NOK to me because I can't work with music (besides, listening to music 8h a day...).

Besides quitting and looking for a job where management is a bit more enlightened (ie. read either Joel's article or Tom DeMarco's PeopleWare), I don't know of a solution. Voting with your feet seems the least bad solution.


Frederic Faure
Friday, November 9, 2001

Several things about this situation stand out:

* He's in an environment which is loud because it's full of people doing noisy non-programming activities.  It's probably much louder than the typical cubicle farm.

* I would have found his manager's response insulting.  Rather than address the issue, he blamed the "victim".

* The manager unfortunately was caught in a very common management structure pathology: The manager was given the responsbility to make life hard on the worker, but no authority to actually make it better.  I'd guess that it would have been extremely difficult for that manager to get office space changed.  Someone set the company hierarchy up like that on purpose.

Kyle Cordes
Monday, November 12, 2001

From your description, it sounds like you don't work for a software company; you work for an organization that needs some software done, but that is outside it's primary function.

Such companies seldom realize the special space needs of programmer types. I would suggest looking into a more technically oriented company. You may be surprised by the improvements in floor plan.

Chris Tavares
Thursday, November 15, 2001

I slashed my wrists once at work and bled all over the floor, because the noise was loud,  but nobody noticed and I had to drive myself to the hospital whilst eating a bland banana muffin that made me go "tke", "tke" because it was kind of dry. But now I have a new job, as I died via suicide in the old one and its much better. At the present moment I listen to Bush "Everything Zen" really loud even though its way back in 1994 (not the president) , and it drowns out all the noise that my co-workers make, and I have it so loud (earphones) that they actually complain about me, and thats kind of good, as I'm trying to write first in first out interest derivative calculation algorithms whilst they stuff colored letters into envelopes, and they complain that they get the colors mixed up because of my music. The irony is that I get my FIFO stuff right because of the music. I am happy, but they are not. The worm turns.

Tony McConnell
Saturday, November 24, 2001

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