Towards the end of 2009 we really started pushing the limits of our current space. All our closed offices were taken and we were squeezing more and more team members into crowded workstations. Eventually it looked like we’d need to get rid of the precious ping pong table to free up space. To avoid a staff revolt, we started the search for a new office.
Our space at the time was located right across from a park and near the beach. It’s a great spot, so when we learned we could take over almost the entire floor instead of relocating elsewhere it was an easy choice. Construction started in November 2009 and we excitedly moved in last month. I wanted to walk you through the finished product in the hope that you might find something useful to take away and apply to your own workplace.
Here’s a quick video tour of the end result to whet your appetite.
In our experience, the ideal office environment is about finding the right balance between socializing and getting stuff done. Too much of one or the other has its downsides, but there are some fundamentals you can put in place to help get that balance right. It should be easy for everyone to remove any distractions, put their head down and get into the zone. Just as importantly, they should be able to take a break, hang out with other members of the team and generally switch off.
To make this happen, we teamed up with the same architects who designed our last office and gave them this simple brief:
After a few iterations the new design really took shape. The architect came up with the idea of having a huge open area right down the middle of the space containing the kitchen, dining, library, gaming area and lounges. Flowing either side of this open space would be two corridors of offices. They managed to fit 40 private offices into the new design, more than enough for the 20 staff in our Sydney office with plenty of room to grow.
For us, private offices were non-negotiable. Over the years we’ve had fully open plan, only offices and a combination of both. In my experience, closable offices for each team member are by far the best configuration for a software company. I think Paul Graham said it best:
“After software, the most important tool to a hacker is probably his office. Big companies think the function of office space is to express rank. But hackers use their offices for more than that: they use their office as a place to think in. And if you’re a technology company, their thoughts are your product. So making hackers work in a noisy, distracting environment is like having a paint factory where the air is full of soot.”
Paul Graham, Great Hackers
Of course, I can understand why open plan is popular. It works for small teams. It’s flexible, cost effective and gives the illusion of great communication. But the moment a team grows bigger than a few people, cracks start to appear.
When you’re designing, building and supporting software, you need to juggle lots of complex ideas in your head at once. This can take anywhere from a few minutes to half an hour of thinking about a problem, and that’s when the juicy stuff starts flowing. You get in the zone and solutions start presenting themselves.
The last thing you want is to bother that person with a stupid question, force them to overhear your phone conversation or any other kind of distraction that isn’t related to what they’re working on. I don’t care how disciplined your team is or how good your noise cancelling headphones are, this kind of interruption is unavoidable in an open plan office.
This isn’t just anecdotal either. There’s been plenty of interesting research into open plan vs closed offices too. A study by Microsoft showed just how destructive interruptions can be to productivity. Here’s some commentary by Bill D’Alessandro on the findings:
“The researchers taped 29 hours of people working in a typical office, and found that they were interrupted on average four times each hour. Here’s the kicker – 40% of the time, the person did not resume the task they were working on before the interruption. The more complex the task, the less likely the person was to resume working on it after an interruption.”
Microsoft Research, A Diary Study of Task Switching and Interruptions (PDF)
Last year a team of Australian scientists came to a similar conclusion. They found that working in an open plan office leads to lower productivity and higher staff stress.
“The evidence we found was absolutely shocking. In 90 per cent of research, the outcome of working in an open-plan office was seen as negative. It has been found that the high level of noise causes employees to lose concentration, leading to low productivity. The research found that the traditional design was better - small, private closed offices.”
Dr Vinesh Oommen, Asia Pacific Journal of Health Management
There’s no doubt that open plan is more flexible and cheaper than putting in private offices. But is 20-30% extra in your fit out costs enough to justify all the extra interruptions? It’s not just about productivity either. Solving challenging problems and getting things done is a much more rewarding experience on a personal level too.
It’s only slightly harder to walk in someones office to ask a question than to yell across an open plan office. Having private offices is one thing, but you need to have a system of mutual respect in place for them to work. At Campaign Monitor we have a simple rule: If my door is shut, don’t interrupt me.
It’s common sense anyway, but making this clear to everyone has made a big difference. If you want to get stuff done, shut the door and you won’t be bothered. If anyone needs to talk to you, they can come back later, send you an email or leave a message in Campfire that you can reply to when it suits.
Like I mentioned earlier, you need to find the right balance between removing interruptions and spending time with the rest of the team. While we all get out of the office for some crazy activities every few weeks, we also made sure the new space included plenty of room to hang out together.
At SXSW earlier this year I was lucky enough to have dinner with the founders from great companies I respect like 37signals, Wufoo, Dropbox and Freshbooks. The dinner was organised by the always awesome Dharmesh Shah, the man behind HubSpot and On Startups. At the dinner, Dharmesh shared a little secret of his that I hope he doesn’t mind me passing on here.
He explained that the best conversations almost always happen over a meal. Because of this, he organises many of his meetings to take place over lunch or dinner. He even goes as far as to research the best location in a restaurant (quiet area, round table) beforehand.
Dharmesh’s experience reinforced my belief in the value of the entire Campaign Monitor team eating together each day. We provide free breakfast and catered lunches which brings everyone out of their offices and together for a meal. The conversations aren’t necessarily work related, but are always entertaining and a great way for us to get to know each other, especially those we don’t work with often. It’s my favourite part of the day.
In the same vein, we also installed a massive new kitchen that’s fast becoming a popular congregation spot. To keep up with the serious coffee demands of some team members, we also installed an integrated and programmable coffee machine so staff can set up their own coffee profiles for the perfect cup.
The architect also came up with some beautiful joinery that runs the length of the new dining area to house our growing book collection. To satisfy our ping pong obsession he managed to fit in two new championship tables, some custom joinery for bat/ball storage and a touch screen scoring system.
For those wanting to recover from a hard game of ping pong, we also added a new lounge and gaming area with a few consoles and an increasingly popular Guitar Hero setup.
The new space has been quite the journey. The planning started around a year ago and construction went from the end of last year to just last month. It was a long process, but has been totally worth it. If you want to see more pics, we’ve thrown together a photo gallery on Flickr. Many thanks goes to This Ain’t No Disco and Office Snapshots for featuring us on their blogs.
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