Farnam Street Blog holds up a coding competition as evidence that:
If you want to make your computer programmers and engineers more effective give them “privacy, personal space, control over their physical environments, and freedom from interruption.”
The only trouble is, the coding competition is fatally flawed as a measure of normal developer productivity. It’s setup such that developers work on their own:
Each participant was also assigned a partner from the same company. The partners worked separately, however, without any communication, a feature of the games that turned out to be critical.
So what we actually learn is that if you’re working by yourself without interacting with anyone else, you will perform better if you don’t have anyone else around – that’s not overly surprising.
What happens in the real world however is that a team of developers work together to build software. The research is unable to shed any light on the conditions that benefit that mode of development because it measured something completely different.
And this isn’t the only example – experiments are constantly being put forward as proving or disproving things that affect productivity, but all of them are fatally flawed in one or both of two key ways:
- The activity being performed in the experiment is not the same as what we’re trying to optimise in the real world.
- The way they measure productivity is flawed – usually because it only measures a subset of tasks and attributes that would matter in the real world over the long term.
This shouldn’t be surprising, any repeated task is best optimised by automating it and removing humans altogether. The remaining work then is dealing with exceptions and is inherently unique (if the same exception kept happening we’d automate it). More importantly though, the idea that productivity of modern office workers can be measured is a myth. Any metrics you put around productivity are inevitably incomplete and lead to people gaming the system, working only on the measured parts of productivity and to the detriment of anything that isn’t measured. Measured productivity goes up, but those results aren’t reflected in the business’s bottom line – they’re fictional.
The only viable option is to experiment in your own workplace with your actual work and see what works for you. Use measurements as a guide but also follow some gut feel to account for the unmeasurable elements. Maybe individual offices are best for your workers, doing your work or maybe open plan is. Unless you’re in the business of completing abstract coding competitions, you probably should work that out for yourself instead of believing the research.