Concentration Is Not Overrated

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Being able to concentrate on a problem is a wonderful thing.  The idea that you can have some peace and quiet and really get your head around a problem is, to me, a blessing.

So why do many organizations screw this up? Joel Splosky is the CEO of Stack Overflow.  For those unaware of Stack Overflow, it is a very popular site for developers to go to get answers to questions.  It is the site to go to.  If they don’t have the answer than you have a very unique problem or you need to use different keywords when searching.  Joel doen’t like the concept of the open office.  His anecdotal evidence indicates that developers don’t like it either.

“Facebook’s campus in Silicon Valley is an 8-acre open room, and Facebook was very pleased with itself for building what it thought was this amazing place for developers,” Spolsky said in an interview with GeekWire co-founder Todd Bishop. “But developers don’t want to overhear conversations. That’s ideal for a trading floor, but developers need to concentrate, to go to a chatroom and ask questions and get the answers later. Facebook is paying 40-50 percent more than other places, which is usually a sign developers don’t want to work there.”

The idea of the open office has been around for a while and, for some work environments, the open office is very beneficial or at least non-obtrusive.  But for some people the open office concept is not beneficial.  People who need to develop concepts and take them from the back of a paper napkin to something that other people can understand and implement need time to concentrate.  This doesn’t happen in an open environment.  Why?

  • Noise pollution.  There are multiple ways people can concentrate – background noise on or background noise off – and for some people the background noise needs to be specific.  For instance, I prefer instrumental music that matches the mood.  (Epic music for writing fiction more mellow music for the average piece of work related writing.)  Hearing someone talk about the abcess on their foot or how well the local sports team did on the weekend are not conducive to me concentrating.
  • Visual distractions.  To be honest, I do some of my best work when there is a wall in front of me or something else to block the visual noise that permeates our world.  I see something move and . squirrel!!!  These distractions interrupt my thought processes and force me to restart.

An “8 acre open room” is not my idea of a productivity poster.

Every interruption hurts productivity, whether that is your mind having to shut out the conversation that someone is having two cubicles over or the fact that your desk stares at a busy hallway and everyone and their monkey seems to walking down it just when you need to concentrate.  Even if the interruption is momentary, a split second, it can take you 40% longer to do a task.  And if you are trying to come up with something new, something innovate, something that you’ve never done before, that split second interruption can be the difference between success and failure.

Now there are people that swear by the open office concept and can point to various studies that show it is beneficial.  I think what everyone needs to take into account is that for certain roles the idea of an open concept office is beneficial.  For others the open office is a detriment.  The real key is being able to understand when to use paradigm.  Much like everything else, there is no “one solution fits all” and trying to make it fit is going to cost an organization a pretty penny.

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