Ask any of your employees or coworkers what they think makes a workplace attractive and you’re bound to get a variety of results. Some may refer to the benefits, while others are more concerned about the standard working hours. Developers, however, often will bring up the physical work environment when asked this question.
But why? The type of work that developers do day in and day out requires a space that’s noiseless with minimal interruptions. Distractions such as phone calls, chatty coworkers, or constant questions from colleagues completely interrupt the developer’s flow of work and kill their productivity. For them to perform optimally, they need space and quiet. It’s as simple as that.
Let’s start off with a few findings from various workplace productivity studies. In the book Peopleware, writers Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister discuss their public productivity survey, which showed that “The top quartile of participants, those who did the exercise most rapidly and effectively, worked in a space that was substantially different from that of the bottom quartile. The top performers' space was quieter, more private, better protected from interruption, and larger.”
Additionally, IBM architect Gerald McCue studied the work habits of developers in their current workspaces, as well as mock-ups of proposed (more private) workspaces. They found that the minimum accommodation for each developer would be “100 square feet of dedicated space per worker, 30 square feet of work surface per person, and noise protection in the form of enclosed offices.”
When a developer hears about a new job (whether they applied themselves or were passively recruited), they usually have the luxury of being picky. Since there’s so much demand for them – multiple jobs for every unique developer – they want to ensure they are making the right choice by choosing a company that fits their values and needs. For many developers, one of those values is a top-notch private workspace.
Our CEO Joel Spolsky said it best -- “Put yourself in the job candidate's shoes. Company number 1 shows you a big crowded room, with a bunch of desks shoved in tightly, lots of marketing guys shouting on the phone next to the programmers and a bunch of sales jocks shouting tasteless jokes. Company number 2 shows you through a quiet hallway, a sunlit, plush office with a window and a door that closes. All else being equal, which job are you going to take?”
When companies do a cost/benefit analysis for improving developer offices, they often focus too much on the cost. This is likely because the costs are easy to calculate, while the benefits are not. The potential benefits, which could be things like increased productivity, reduced turnover rate, increased revenue, often would outweigh the associated costs if calculated properly.
How does your company calculate these benefits? That’s the million-dollar question. According to Peopleware, “the entire cost of workspace for one developer is a small percentage of the salary paid to the developer. In general, it varies in the range from 6 to 16 percent. For a programmer working in company-owned space, you should expect to pay $15 directly to the worker for every dollar you spend on space and amenities. If you add the cost for employee benefits, the total investment in the worker could easily be 20 times the cost of his or her workplace.”
While not every company can afford to implement private offices for developers (especially startups with a small budget), it’s certainly not impossible. Lots of companies have invested in their developers and cut costs in other areas to make it work, giving them a competitive advantage in the technical hiring market.