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The Fine Line between Collaboration and Distraction

This blog examines the problems associated with an open floor plan work environment.

The Fine Line between Collaboration and Distraction

Dilbert Floor Plan Comic

Dilbert = Truth

With all the fuss over milking every last ounce of creativity out of a team, I am surprised how very few development teams focus on maximizing working conditions. Studies, like DeMarco and Lister’s Coding Wars, demonstrates the importance workplace has on team productivity. They found that software developers working in environments reported to be acceptably quiet, private, and free of unnecessary interruption produced better results and with less defects. They specifically identified open floor plans (you know, the ones game studios often use) to be one of the worst environments for productivity. Despite this, I’ve heard open floor plans defended mainly for two reasons, collaboration and cost efficiency.

I completely understand the appeal of open configurable floor plans. If Joe needs to work with Bob today to get a task done, he just wheels his desk up and starts working. Unfortunately, the rest of the team is privy to their impromptu collaboration. Humans have the uncanny ability to tune out and filter static peripheral information and hone in on what is important. This allows us to not think about the clothes touching our skin or the sound of the AC every second of the day.

What we don’t do well is tune out novel information. So when Joe and Bob decide to check out the latest cat video, anyone in earshot is immediately distracted. From my experience working in an open floor plan, I have looked around the room more than once after having an urgent impromptu meeting to find all eyes on me. As flattering as that may sound, if everyone is looking at me then they are not looking at the work in front of them. I believe the distraction caused by an open floor plan outweighs the benefits of easy collaboration. The principle of flow states it takes around 15 minutes of uninterrupted concentration to get into the zone. Any disruption of flow starts the timer all over again, and we wonder why we’re missing deadlines. If you’re taking work home with you, this could be why.

The second reasoning behind open floor plans is cost. Plain and simple, open floor plans are cheaper than walls. But are they really? Let’s examine this for a moment. If the classic equation is true, then Time = Money. The more product a person can produce in the allotted time the more money generated. In the context of games, the more features I can get done before the deadline the greater the likelihood of the game's success.

So, if time is a commodity we want to capitalize why would we institute a practice that wastes time by frequent and unnecessary interruption? Every time a member of the development team is snapped out of their flow state, it costs the dev team money. Think of the money saved if we ditched the open floor plans and gave our teams the peace and quiet they need and deserve to do their jobs.

With that said, I’m all for collaboration. It’s absolutely essential to creative processes. Ideally, however, collaboration happens in a neutral environment that includes only those necessary for the task. In the pursuit of optimal performance, dev teams must clearly strike a balance between collaboration and distraction. I don't claim to have an answer as the definition for an acceptably quite working environment differs for every individual. However, I would suggest that using designated collaboration areas or "breakout rooms" would go a long way toward achieving a flow friendly environment.

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