Private Office or Cubicle: The Debate Goes On

An office can shut out distractions but stifle communication among coders

Jim Cooper in his office
Jim Cooper in his office

Jim Cooper considers himself one lucky software developer.

He works in a private office at SAS Institute Inc. in Cary, N.C., with a radio playing in the background, and he takes calls on a speakerphone. It's an environment that makes him far more productive than he would be working in a cubicle, he says.

"You have the ability shut your door and shut out most of the distractions," said Cooper, "and if you're more comfortable, you are usually more productive."

Cooper isn't alone in his belief that an enclosed office can boost developer productivity.

John Miano, founder of The Programmers Guild in Summit, N.J., also believes that software development operations would improve if employers provided a workspace that offered peace and quiet.

"It's my personal view that we have twice as many software developers in this country as we need," Miano said. The H1-B visa program "has destroyed the entry-level job market," said Miano, who authored a report for the Center for Immigration studies in Washington that was released last month.

He argues that businesses should focus on improving productivity and not on hiring cheap labor and offshoring jobs. Improved development tools, processes and better work environments could reduce development costs, Miano said.

Something as simple as "getting rid of cubicles and replacing them with enclosed offices" can boost productivity by eliminating distractions, he said.

Others, however, say working in open spaces can improve communication between developers, which is vital for most large projects.

For example, Altair Engineering Inc. opted for an open environment in an building it opened two years ago in Troy, Mich. With a three-story atrium that lets in natural light, the building features open areas shared by developers and their managers, said Michael Kidder, vice president for corporate marketing at the software development firm.

"We find that the open area provides a lot more communication between team members, which is critical to the quality of software," Kidder said. "That feedback loop is very hard to structure."

William Sims, a Cornell University professor who has studied workplace environments and software development, says his research found that open environments are more conducive to project development work.

Developers in private offices may be more productive individually but may not be in sync with a team, said Sims. Nonetheless, most software engineers still have "this firmly ingrained belief" that they need an enclosed office in order to be productive, he said.

Walt Scacchi, acting director and a research scientist at the Institute for Software Research at the University of California, Irvine, said office design boils down to economic issues for many companies.

In addition, some software development firms view offices as a perk for managers and put developers in open environments. On the other hand, some companies see offices as a recruiting perk, he said.

See what some readers had to say on this issue - and post your own thoughts - in our Mailbag blog.


Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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