Working Environments

Louis Henri Sullivan knew a lot about buildings; he was the father of the modern skyscraper. He also coined the precept "Form follows function," which has been the vade mecum of architects and designers ever since. You have only to look around you to see why.

Some offices are bright, uplifting, and everyone blossoms. Others are so depressing they stifle.

Surprisingly, the difference isn't a matter of money; it's more a matter of mood.

We've all visited corporate offices where the interior design has been backed by a budget to die for. Yet for all the latest chairs and high-tech security systems and meant-to-be-impressive artwork, the staff are housed like executive battery chickens. By contrast, other offices working on a shoestring can have a real buzz about them.

Place plants in a healthy environment and they blossom. Place them in a poor one and they wither. Same stock, varied conditions produce completely different results. Why would you expect people to behave differently?

Narrow-minded managers feel that if you employ someone and pay them at the end of each month, their productivity and quality of work should be tops despite everything else. Sensitive, creative people, whether they are managers or programmers, are not that thick skinned. People are a software firm's largest single investment and by far its most important one. So it is vital to do everything possible to encourage your staff to give their best.

Creative people don't need to work in the Ritz. They just need to be somewhere where the lighting is pleasant, they are sufficiently warm and comfortable, and it's quiet enough to concentrate without external distraction.

When it comes to planning your office space it may help to employ a technique used by interior designers. They categorize working spaces into the following four types:

♦ Hives—Found in call centers where people are undertaking intensive, routine work, need little room to work, and social interaction is considered counterproductive.

♦ Cells—Often used by lawyers and accountants (and ideally suited for programmers) where intensive work is undertaken in small mutually supportive groups.

♦ Dens—Group larger numbers of people by function, such as sales or accounting teams. They used to be called departments.

♦ Club—Environments are not owned by anyone. Clubs are found in communal areas such as meeting rooms and refreshment areas.

Once you know the functions you require, it is easy to plan suitable spaces. The determining factors are the degrees of interaction and supervision that people require to perform their tasks. Table 4-1 shows an example.

Table 4-1 Interaction and Supervision Grid

Category

Interaction

Supervision

Example

Hive

Low

Low

Support

Cell

Low

High

Programming

Den

High

Low

Sales

Club

High

High

Meeting Room

If, like many software firms, you are starting from home, it is a good idea to differentiate between home and work by making the color scheme and the feel of your study, office, or work corner different. It's easier then to disassociate the two and not let work and home merge.

With office rents and rates so high, it is understandable that firms try and pack as many people into their spaces as possible. Current practice allocates 130 sq. ft. per person per desk for conventional work. This is reduced to 90 sq. ft. if the space is being used flexibly (for example, where employees share communal workspaces). The square footage is continually being raised with prosperity. At the beginning of the 1980s, leading designers advised 100 sq. ft. per person, although they knew the average office space per person was usually closer to 80 sq. ft. Such allowances include reception areas, passages, break rooms, bathrooms, and so on. There are no fixed rules.

Most job roles in software development are similar to their equivalents in management, accounting, human resources, and production. However, two activities specific to IT deserve special attention: programming and support.

Programmers need peace and quiet to work. Time and motion people calculate that they lose 20 to 40 minutes of production time each time they have a serious interruption. If they are interrupted 10 times in the course of a day, don't be surprised if they accomplish zilch.

The best way to ensure productivity is to give programmers their own enclosed workspaces. These needn't be large or lavish. To prevent your programmers from becoming too insular, you can engineer it so that they have to use gregarious communal areas, such as around the coffee machine or lunch area.

These techniques also work for support and sales staff.

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