Sunday, 20 July 2014

Introvertic ramble on the trap of openspaces and office spaces in general


Hi, my name is Viktoriia, and I’m an introvert.

The weekend before last I spent two awesome days socializing with some of the best testers in New Zealand. After that I spent another three days trying to recover from all the joy. I was exhausted emotionally and physically, and had to spend full Sunday being sick and miserable because that’s how my body reacts to over-socialization - it goes to hibernate. Humans are not built to spend time in hibernate. That got me thinking…

Every day working in the office I get a bit more socialization that I would voluntarily choose to. And then when I get one little spike (like a testing conference), it becomes a butterfly that broke the cammel’s back.

Don’t get me wrong, co-location is awesome and critical for agile teams and all that. But there are also problems that come from the way we implement it (by placing everyone into these huge openspaces), and not only problems relevant to introverts exclusively:
  • The constant humming noise. Even if we forget about people who talk loud because that’s how they talk - the typing, and moving, and clicking, and talking, and whatelse is always there. Noise is stress. We even had it as a topic in school and university in Russia: even though human brain is pretty good with filtering out non-changing signals, human-produced complicated noise still makes it to do a lot of work to maintain those filters. Nervous system is always working extra hard just to save you the ability to concentrate. 
  • The cold going round. When someone is sick, everyone is sick. Someone is always sick. Sneezing and coughing never really stops. It’s like a kindergarden for IT - if you don’t have iron-made immune system, you are bound to go in and out of colds non-stop. Nothing serious, but pretty annoying. 
  • The temperature. Since we are all sharing the same space, we cannot possibly set temperature so that it’s good for everyone. For me it’s always freezing in the office. Judging from the number of people in jackets around, I guess I’m not the only one. 
  • The socialization itself. For introverts like me it’s additional stress just to be around this many people all the time. It makes it harder to concentrate, and it means that I’m always under just a little extra bit of stress. Immune system works badly when you are under stress, so that feeds into constantly being in and out of sickbay, which feeds into concentration problems again.
  • Commuting. This one applies to working from office in general, not just to openspaces. Every day so much time is being lost on getting from home to office and back. This makes roads overloaded, makes air worse, makes us all spend our precious time doing what really isn't necessary. Would be cool to free up roads for people who actually do have a good reason for being there. In IT in many cases it can be avoided - we have enough collaboration tools to go from 5 days a week working side by side to 1 day when everyone's physically in the office to align their actions and adjust plans as necessary and 4 days when everyone is where they choose to be, being online and connected via internet.
  • Multitasking. There have actually been research done* about the efficiency of office workers in different settings. It was shown that even extraverts work more efficiently and more creatively when they have a little bit of privacy (even if that’s a cubicle or a smaller room with just your team - but not the openspace). We also all know that exploratory testing recommends uninterrupted test sessions. The thing is, humans suck in multitasking. We can only really do one thing at a time. We can switch between tasks fast, that’s true, but imagine the overhead! When part of your resources is spent on ignoring the noise (I guess, headphones somewhat help, but in my experience you just get touched a lot when people want to talk to you), part on fighting the cold and part on switching between different tasks (passersby wanting to chat, for example) - you cannot possibly work at your fullest.
While having separate rooms for each team instead of openspace would make things much better, I personally would still prefer to have a choice to work from home. I found that few days when I was sick and worked from home turned out to be no less productive than an average day in the office, and most times even more productive. Always more comfortable.

It would be awesome to have an oportunity to work from home and be judged by results, not by hours in the chair. Especially since many IT companies seem to be already evaluating performance by results. Company I currently work for has a thorough system of logging and evaluating successes and results, and no one really sticks for hours as far as I know. Yet it is not a common practice to allow employees to work from home, aside from emergencies and special cases. I wish it was. One of the reasons I want to go to contracting in few years is to have an opportunity to live out of Auckland in a nice house with good internet and do all the work from there. In my book it beats both living in the center of Auckland to be near office and living outside of Auckland and spending few hours every work day on commuting. I'd rather work 9 hours from home than work 8 hours in the office and spend another hour on getting there and back.

*about research and more, there is an awesome book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts” by Susan Cain. It quotes and references quite a lot of scientific research in the area. I highly recommend it to anyone who’s interested in how people work.