A solution to open office distractions

I’ve been programming for about 10 years and for half of those years I had an office/cubicle and for the other half I worked in an open office floor plan. Given the choice, I always preferred an enclosed workspace, but open office floor plans are becoming more common. This rising trend inspired me to come up with a few techniques to deal with the distractions.

I recently started a new job and they have an open office floor plan. But for some reason this doesn’t bother me at all and I rarely get distracted. In fact, I remember something happened to me during my interview that would have normally distracted me like crazy, but had no effect at all. I was hours into the interview and collaborating with someone to fix a problem. This day, someone had brought their dog to work and they weren’t watching it for a split second. During that moment, it ran underneath my chair and walked between my legs. I think this would distract nearly anyone, but for some reason it didn’t take me out of the moment. I pet the dog with one hand and continued my conversation without losing track.

I’ve since come up with a hypothesis as to why I don’t have trouble paying attention at my new job. It has to do with a detail I haven’t mentioned yet: At this company, engineers pair program with each other the majority of the time. Here’s my hypothesis: Pair programming gives you the focus you need to overcome the distractions of an open office floor plan. In fact, it gives you so much focus, you can pay attention to your tasks better than you could in a private office.

Saying that pair programming keeps you focused is nothing new. There are multiple studies that say as much:

Programmers note that even if they come to work after a bad night or are preoccupied with other thoughts their partner draws their attention to the task at hand. Partners keep each other focused and on task. Programmers are far less likely to spend time on the telephone, reading and answering emails, or surfing the web because their partner is awaiting their attention.

and

Undoubtedly, a benefit of working in pairs is that each person is far less likely to waste time reading email, Web surfing, or staring out the window because their partner is awaiting continuous contribution and input. “Two people working together in a pair treat their shared time as more valuable. They tend to cut phone calls short; they don’t waste each other’s time”.

In addition, multiple studies report that open office layouts are distracting:

Findings in respect of workspace perceptions showed that although employees in the refurbished office were more positive regarding the layout of their office, they were significantly more dissatisfied with the amount of personal space and degree of distraction that accompanied the refurbishment.

and

…a plethora of research papers identify negative impacts of open-plan office layout on occupants’ perception of their office environment. For example, some longitudinal survey results have demonstrated a significant decline in workspace satisfaction (Sundstrom, Herbert, & Brown, 1982), increased distraction and loss of privacy (Kaarlela-Tuomaala et al., 2009), and perceived performance decrement (Brennan, Chugh, & Kline, 2002) after relocation of employees from enclosed workplace to open-plan or less-enclosed workplace.

Increased focus is a nice perk, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are many other benefits to consider:

pair programming improves design quality, reduces defects, reduces staffing risk, enhances technical skills, improves team communications and is considered more enjoyable at statistically significant levels

Despite all this research, I haven’t seen a study that explicitly measures distraction levels in an open office environment when combined with pair programming. If you find it hard to concentrate in an open office environment, you should try pair programming with someone and see if you’re still distracted. You may come to realize that open offices aren’t the issue. It’s working alone while in an open office that is the issue.

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3 thoughts on “A solution to open office distractions

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