Office for a startup - where to put developers?

We are in the process of choosing an office and then we need to design the layout - our preference is for an open plan as we think it aids communication and a team spirit and will be ideal for customer success roles etc but we are really unsure on developers.

We need to make our decision(s) before we actually hire so we cannot wait and ask developers we hire so we have three choices:

  1. Go totally open plan
  2. Go open plan but segment the developers to give them more space / less impact from noise though it still means dev A could disturb dev B etc
  3. Give developers an “office” each

We cannot really do both (i.e. we wont have enough space to put in offices and also leave open plan space for them should they choose) so how how best do we approach this?

Anyone been in this boat or any developers themselves got a viewpoint?


I’ve worked as a developer (and as a manager) in an open plan, and it worked well for us. The engineering team maxed out at about 30 people I believe. I really liked that the first day I started there the CTO was sitting about four feet away from me and was involved in my day-to-day work life.

No one we interviewed ever said that working in an open plan was a major concern, and I believe it helped foster a strong team atmosphere. But that was probably more due to great work by the CTO and VP of Engineering, rather than just due to the seating arrangements.

All that being said, I’ve heard from other engineers (not people I’ve worked with) that they didn’t think they could work well in an open plan. So, while in my experience there weren’t any major downsides and I enjoyed it, it’s possible you’d run into some potential hires who would prefer to have their own office or quiet space.

Is there any way you could have both an open space and a room or two that could be used on a floating basis by engineers if they needed/preferred space to focus?

The Open-Office Trap is a strong argument against open plans. I’m a developer, but the evidence seems to show open plans are not as productive for most people. Having small, private offices could be your productivity and recruitment edge.

If you do go open plan, get folks 3M Peltor X-Series Over-the-Head Earmuffs (NRR 31 dB) and a big box of Howard Leight MAX1 Earplugs (Uncorded, NRR33). Cut the down the earplugs so they can be in the ear while wearing the earmuffs without putting pressure on the eardrum. This combination will block out most speech and other distracting noise, allowing the wearer to hear themselves think. You can probably tell I speak from experience. :slight_smile: Most hearing protection is not designed to block out speech, probably for legal/safety reasons.

Since you are still designing your office, let me also encourage you to provide height-adjustable work areas to let employees move between working sitting and standing throughout the day. I can recommend GeekDesk and the Ergotron WorkFit-S, but there are lots of other solutions.

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I used to work in an open-plan co-working centre. I left because the noise of other people talking on the phone to clients or having conversations at their desk was a productivity killer for me. When I’m trying to concentrate on a technical problem, I need to be free of distractions.

I believe there is plenty of research showing that this issue affects most developers (cf Peopleware). So I’d recommend giving them offices per person, or two per person, and keeping your noise-producing people separate from developers.

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Seeing the other responses here reminded me of a caveat I should have mentioned regarding my open plan experience. When I worked in an open plan, there was one large open space that was almost entirely developers, and a separate open space for the sales/customer support/etc folks. That meant there were a lot less phone calls and other audio distractions going on in the developer space.

I’m working in a coworking space now, and I can attest to the fact that you need much better headphones (noise cancelling, etc.) to concentrate when people are making phone calls and having meetings around you.

Your question reminds me of an experience I read about the other day:

I’ve never been a fan of cubes, but at least they provide some measure of privacy (and also bring to mind cold and flu season, versus an open space, even if everyone ultimately shares the same air).

I did work in an open plan years ago, but it was a very small company and we only half-filled the high-ceilinged room, which helped make it more comfortable. I’ve also seen offices in NYC, for example, where everybody sits around a single table and you’ve someone on your left elbow, right, and across. All day, every day. No thanks!

It’s too bad you won’t have the opportunity to discuss this with your team. I wonder if there would be an economical way to create a flexible plan that could evolve with your company?

Have you already searched for articles on this subject? I’ve seen a number of these, and there are also simple write-ups of companies showing off their workspaces, which may be a good source of inspiration (I believe TC has its “Cribs,” 37Signals, etc.).

I imagine there’s no perfect solution–some people seem okay with an open concept, while others aren’t, and in the end you have to get to work and make some money so you can pay for your fancy office. :wink:

(And I’d also guess that a more independent-minded developer frequents this forum.)

Good luck!

I suspect people who are more extroverted like the stimulation of seeing and hearing other people in open environments, but they may not be more productive in such an environment.

Since noise seems to be one of the biggest problems in those studies of open plans, if you go open plan you might want to put in a couple very small meeting rooms where 2-3 people could go and talk instead of making everyone listen to their conversation.

I work in a 9-5 open office at the moment.

As you probably already know Its great for collaboration and impromptu discussions, rapport and teamwork but utterly dreadful for moments when a developer needs to concentrate or being productive.

The most important point I can offer though is that I probably wouldn’t take an open office position again. I like where I am 9-5ing right now but the open office is constantly annoying.

Noise cancelling headphones are an enormous help but don’t eliminate the distractions. I can crank my music up and still slightly hear and get distracted by the conversation happening six feet behind me. There is also a lot of visual and other distractions that you can’t avoid. Shadows move when people walk around, I can feel footsteps all around me.

The days when everybody is quiet and lots of progress happens are my favorites. When I feel like I got nothing done because of distractions I’m far less satisfied with myself and the work I did.

I am not a fan of open plan where I could pat my co-worker on the back without even stretching, I like a bit of privacy. I don’t mind a cube farm which provides some privacy.

Thanks for all your replies - I think we are going to have to rethink the planned layout and include another two meeting rooms/offices which a developer can use if they choose but also give the option for open plan or maybe allow them to move between the two depending on their preference.