Last week Joel Spolsky did an interview on Geekwire Summit. You can watch the interview here. For those who don't know Joel, he is the founder of Fog Creek Software and launched Stack Overflow. He is also the author of the blog Joel on Software, a blog focused on software development.

In the interview he talks about how you can attract and keep developers.
Programming is a create process which must be done with total focus. When a programmer is implementing a feature, he needs to do four things:

  • find a solution for the problem

  • writing understandable code for other programmers

  • writing maintainable code

  • writing bug free code

Most of the time the programmer needs to be doing these four things simultaneously, which is not an easy task and is the reason that the programmer needs to focus. The worst enemy of a developer, or people who do creative work in general, are interruptions. Why? When doing creative work you need to have total focus. This is called flow, or being in the zone. This is the mental state in which a person is fully immersed in performing an activity. This state is not only for work, but is also seen with music players, athletes and gamers. Now, the time to get into the zone is about 15 minutes. This means that every time an interruption occurs it would take the person another 15 minutes regain this state of mind. You can see that working in an open office space won't really help.

Why then are companies introducing open work spaces ? Maybe it's just about cutting down the costs. Buildings can have a high maintenance cost.
Giving every creative worker a private office is not an easy task. Depending on the office you have it may not even be possible.
Another reason is that some companies believe that working in an open space is better for collaboration. They want to enable accidental encounters that can lead to new ideas or products. In my experience this only happens at lunch, team building events or company parties. You don't start talking with random people in the hallway or somewhere else. Talking to random people can also be different depending on the culture. If something works in the US that necessarily doesn't mean it would work in Japan or South Africa.

My opinion is that open work space doesn't work for creative work. I didn't believe 12 years ago and I still don't believe it today. Does this mean open work spaces don't have any value? No, open work space can be useful for traders, as Joel suggests, but also for sales people. Sales people are often on the road to meet with customers so they only come now and then to the office. A call center is also good example to use an open work space, but even then the volume can be so high that it can become a nuisance for others.

When you are a creative worker a quiet environment is not a luxury. Now, what if you don't have the luxury of a private office? I recommend that you find an office for your team . As a team you can then use a method as time boxing. In time boxing you will allocate fixed time periods to perform certain activities. I suggest you setup a Slack channel, or use the product you like, where people can ask questions during this periods. Another thing you can do as a team is to work from home one or two days in the week. This way you can divide the work in days where someone needs total focus and days where you need to discuss new product features or other team related matters.

To finish this post I added some links that Joel's blog about the subject: