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How office design impacts software development productivity

By Anujah Bosman, CEO, Chillisoft

Johannesburg, 20 Jun 2019
Read time 5min 40sec

Silicon Valley tech movies, Google, Apple and Microsoft have made office décor trendy with designer furniture and bright colours. Recently, Chillisoft acquired new offices, providing us with a perfect opportunity to think about designing a software development space. This article is not about beautiful décor. It is about Chillisoft’s observations and lessons learnt about how office design impacts productivity, knowledge creation and culture.

Chillisoft’s informal meeting areas
Chillisoft’s informal meeting areas

At Chillisoft, we have found that office design is largely about how the interaction between people impacts the company’s culture. This is similar to the Japanese concept of space, which focuses on connections between people and society. This multidimensional concept of space is not limited to the physical dimensions and aesthetics of an office. Instead, it focuses on the space to create relationships, the space to create new knowledge, the space that is required in context of an activity and the space to allow for reflection and disharmonies to be reconciled, says Anujah Bosman, CEO, Chillisoft.

With the broader perspective of space and how it impacts us, we steered clear of the conventional open plan versus traditional office debate and have chosen to create a mixture of open plan offices and individual spaces that are suited to software development. Research has also indicated that optimal focus is maintained in small open plan offices.

Each open plan software development space in Chillisoft has a maximum of two software teams, where the team’s size varies between four and six people. These open plan software spaces are dedicated enclosed software areas with their own access to ensure there is minimal noise and activity seeping in from the rest of the business. The software development spaces are cut off and far away from phones, high traffic areas and the reception. Each software development space has control over its own air-conditioning and lighting. There are plenty of windows, providing natural light and air. In order to facilitate better communication, the desks are arranged so that each team is able to sit together, strengthening communication, knowledge transfer and collaboration.

Chillisoft’s reading room
Chillisoft’s reading room

We deliberately chose where teams are co-located based on the type of software development work that was undertaken, such as product development, application support and team augmentation. Yes, not all software development work is the same. Each type of software development requires different levels of collaboration, innovation and customer engagement.

Chillisoft has a multi-generational team encompassing Generation X, Y and Z. We have learnt that Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development does work and that it is absolutely essential that senior team members are dispersed throughout the space to maintain culture and share patterns of software development behaviour and knowledge.

Chillisoft’s core value of being kind, working hard at mastery and having fun is deeply integrated into the office design. The kitchen and lunch room are examples of how office design supports social cohesion. The layout allows us to prepare and eat meals together. We also have spaces to allow Chillisofters to practice yoga or play board games together. A separate informal reading room acknowledges that software development is not about how many lines of code an individual writes a day. This design is supported by research that indicates that communication is strengthened by having informal “connecting areas” such as passageways, kitchens and balconies.

Connecting spaces incorporating company identity and natural elements.
Connecting spaces incorporating company identity and natural elements.

We have also found that it is important to define the extent of the teams’ interaction with the environment. Chillisoft’s culture is collaborative and team based and there are no obvious silos in the company or the office design. For example, our team is able to interact with all spaces, including the reception, the boardroom or the CEO’s office.

In summary, it is essential that management and executives are actively involved in designing a space for productivity. The office design and layout speak volumes about a company’s beliefs, its commitment to creating great software and how much the company values its people. In reflecting on the research undertaken and our collective experience, we have compiled a pragmatic list that may assist you in designing better software development spaces:

Biggest office design factors that negatively impact productivity:

1) Spaces that allow ad hoc interruptions from the business and management;

2) Poor equipment such as insufficient screens, desks with sharp edges, desks that are too low or too narrow;

3) Environment being too cold or too hot (it has been found that productivity drops by 2% per degree over 25°C);

4) Insufficient informal areas for team discussions; and 

5) Insufficient toilets or toilets that are too close to the production area.

Office design factors that negatively impact culture:

1) Creating silos and hierarchy by having the executive or management area separate and off limits;

2) All seniors or “old” employees sharing the same space;

3) Executives enjoying non-sensible perks while operations don’t have the essential tools;

4) The “packed sardine syndrome”, fitting too many people into one space with insufficient personal space; and

5) Company values that are displayed and that are not lived.

Office design aesthetics that positively impact productivity and culture:

1) Choosing an interior wall colour and considering how it affects the room lightness level;

2) Choosing a neutral colour scheme where blue is cited as the ideal colour to promote deep concentration;

3) Separately controlled lighting;

4) Soft LED diffuse lighting;

5) Carpets to muffle noise and the click of stiletto heels;

6) Natural plants and foliage;

7) Sound-absorbent ceiling tiles that are essential in buildings near busy roads;

8) Splashes of colour in areas used for creative brainstorming;

9) Good coffee; and 

10) Company artefacts to promote a sense of identity, belonging and history.

Software development is a creative activity that requires deep focus. We believe that the money spent on creating a comfortable and effective space is easily recouped. A well-designed office is an enabling tool to define, shift and strengthen culture.

Quiet spaces to read, reflect and meditate.
Quiet spaces to read, reflect and meditate.

Chillisoft is known for its deep knowledge about development practices, strong software delivery track record and pragmatic knowledge about training software development teams. For more information about Chillisoft's offerings or how the company can assist you in building or developing great software teams, please contact info@chillisoft.co.za.

Editorial contacts
Chillisoft Solution Services Anujah Bosman anujah.bosman@chillisoft.co.za
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