Coding Horror

programming and human factors

This is your Anti-Productivity Pod

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As noted in the Joel on Software thread Workspace quality references:

I have acquired an interest in workspace quality after spending many years in software development and having worked in a variety of workspaces. When I started out I didn't give much thought to workspace quality. It was just there. Something that came with the job and there wasn't much need or possibility of doing anything about it. And I was quite fortunate in that my first employer provided a very good work envirionment.

Over the years with several changes of employer and different assignments and various office moves for each employer, I came to realize that the quality of the workspace can have quite an effect on productivity as well as job satisfaction. In fact, one wonders why anyone is concerned with implementing software development processes when most developers are having a hard time concentrating on any task for more than ten minutes between ringing telephones in the next cubicle, howling HVAC systems or any of the other myriad distractions that prevent one from just sitting down and getting a 2-3 hour task completed.

This is also covered in the Peopleware chapter titled "You Never Get Anything Done Around Here Between 9 and 5":

How to explain then the fact that software people as well as workers in other thought-intensive positions are putting in so many extra hours? A disturbing possibility is that overtime is not so much a means to increase the quantity of work time as to improve its average quality. You hear evidence that this is true in such frequently repeated statements as these:

  • "I get my best work done in the early morning, before anybody else arrives."
  • "In one late evening, I can do two or three days' worth of work."
  • "The office is a zoo all day, but by about 6 p.m., things have quieted down and you can really accomplish something."

To be productive, people may come in early or stay late or even try to escape entirely, by staying home for a day to get a critical piece of work done. One of our seminar participants reported that her new boss wouldn't allow her to work at home, so on the day before an important report was due, she took a sick day to get it done. Staying late or arriving early or staying home to work in peace is a damning indictment of the office environment. The amazing thing is not that it's so often impossible to work in the workplace; the amazing thing is that everyone knows it and nobody ever does anything about it.

Changing your work environment, however, is easier discussed than done. I think the only way I could change mine is if I actually quit my job. Extreme? Maybe, but I'm not alone in feeling that way:

A California company that I consult for is very much concerned about being responsive to its people. Last year, the company's management conducted a survey in which all programmers (more than a thousand) were asked to list the best and the worst aspects of their jobs. The manager who ran the survey was very excited about the changes the company had undertaken. He told me that the number two problem was poor communication with upper management. Having learned that from the survey, the company set up quality circles, gripe sessions, and other communication programs. I listened politely as he described them in detail. When he was done, I asked what the number one problem was. "The environment," he replied. "People were upset about the noise." I asked what steps the company had taken to remedy that problem. "Oh, we couldn't do anything about that," he said. "That's outside our control."

It was as though the programmers had complained that there was too much gravity, and management had decided after due reflection that they couldn't really do much about it; it was a problem whose solution was beyond human capacity. This is a policy of total default.

Changing the environment is not beyond human capacity.

It may not be beyond human capacity, but it's hard to envision change when only managers have offices.

Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Overflow and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: