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Not everyone works together all the time, but various pairs do on different projects. What is the best way to configure desks to optimize for communication and ability for people to focus.

  • Are the people doing software work? Do you have frequent voice calls with customers? How many active projects do you typically have? – Eric Willeke Apr 24 '11 at 23:24
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There are two important things you have to take into account when deciding how to group people:

  1. How much of the work is "deep thinking, in-the-zone" work (like programming, writing, solving problems, research, and reading) and who is doing that work?

    People doing deep thinking work need to get into a psychological state of flow and stay there. There are only to ways to provide this in the workplace: individual private offices or a workspace exclusive to other people doing "in-the-zone" work.

  2. What are the important official communications paths and what are the valuable unofficial communications paths?

    An example of an official communication path might be a team of writers working on a script together. Their very work depends on speaking to each other. An unofficial communications path might be a salesperson and a programmer bumping into each other in the break room, and the salesperson gives the programmer useful insights into customer requirements.

My main experience is with software companies. At software companies, you have a large group of people who spend most of their time "in the zone" and who need library-like quiet and no interruptions to be productive. You can either provide this with private offices (ideally). You can possibly provide this with small team rooms of 2-4, or even a large open workspace, as long as everyone in the same room is a programmer. But the larger the space, the more likely it is that any conversation will knock everyone out of their sense of flow and concentration. This is extremely damaging to productivity, a process which is well documented in the book Peopleware.

Other people at software companies (sales people, marketing people, designers and product managers) are much more likely to be talking--to each other, or to customers--during the day, and must be kept away from the programmers.

In general, I've designed four offices for software teams and the design is always a large number of private offices for software developers, and an open work area for everyone else.

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Personally (with quite a bit of development and testing experience in various settings: open spaces, closed spaces, semi-open, partitioned) I much prefer and favour a totally open space. Two rows of desks facing one another makes a line. There may be a few lines one next to the other with a comfortable amount of space for people to walk between the lines freely without bothering those sitting. You must make sure each desk has enough room to welcome an occasional guest and spread large enough amounts of paper notes without moving the computer, screens, keyboard, mouse or chair(s).

I would not necessarily put pairs that frequently work together absolutely besides or facing one another. Close proximity helps (easy access to information), but a bit of mingling with others helps too (easy access to different experience), find a healthy balance. In a fully open space, I have frequently helped others working on unconnected projects to mine or to one another, to connect them on similar problems and speed up solutions.

Top all of that with a minimum of one meeting room to sit at least half the largest team, if not the whole team. And maybe a second meeting room to sit maybe a quarter of the largest team. Both rooms must be equipped with phone conferencing facilities. Computers in the meeting rooms are a bonus, a minimum of one can be really helpful.

Meeting rooms should be available relatively easily for any pair to work their heart's content if a bit of privacy from the crowd helps.

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    +1 - I'm a big fan of teams working in a single area. Doesn't necessarily have to be a single big open space, but everyone should be reachable with a shout. Also If you can let people arrange their desks in the way you want you would probably end up with a nicer setup although you'd probably need a bit more space as it won't be used that optimally. – Pawel Brodzinski Apr 15 '11 at 7:04
  • The reason I love single open spaces (no partitions whatsoever) is that you don't even need to get off your chair to know whether the colleague you want to talk to is in today or not. Or whether they've gone to that meeting already... This saves an unbelievable amount of time. – asoundmove Apr 15 '11 at 12:28
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Having tried a few different arrangements, I would say that the best is to have people clumped together into small groups/teams as applicable -- similar to a long line, but make sure people have (the perception of, at least) sufficient privacy. It's important to give that sense of (partial) privacy, because people sometimes need to handle on off-topic or personal issues at work, and don't want to be embarrassed about doing so.

My experience is that half-cubicles (chest-high) usually give people enough privacy, but also sufficient openness that they wouldn't risk playing Tetris during work hours. I like clusters of four arranged in a square, but this would work equally with a line.

Totally open spaces tend to be noisy and very social -- people disturb you for anything and anything -- and in my experience, that's more detrimental than helpful.

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    you can get privacy in a big open space: in one of the meeting rooms. Which is why it is also important to have at least one computer hooked to the Internet in a meeting room. I'd also add that partition walls do not give me more privacy: my neighbours hear everything anyway and I hear them. The down side is I can't see them which reduces communications significantly. – asoundmove Apr 15 '11 at 12:31
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    @asoundmove meeting rooms are often full with, well, meetings! I agree that partitions don't give much privacy; all they avoid is a casual looker glancing at your screen. However, they greatly enhance the illusion of privacy, which is a big job-satisfaction thing. – ashes999 Apr 15 '11 at 12:45
  • I worked for a while in a large open space with about 100 people. It was fab. We had four meeting rooms which were not full of meetings all the time, these rooms were highly available to us pretty much whenever suited us. And when occasionally the four were busy it generally did not last more than an hour before at least one was freed. I and many other developers get much higher job satisfaction from a job well done, good communications and better equipment than a segregated office set-up. (but: don't take away something you have already given). – asoundmove Apr 15 '11 at 19:39
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One scheme that works well during death marches is to have a large "war room" with a bunch of desks facing each other (in lines if the room size fits) while keeping the cubes & private offices. When communication is very important, move part of the team into the war room while allowing them their old offices to retreat to for the occasional quiet time. The togetherness of the war room allows for much more rapid and effective communication than even IM allows.

From a managerial viewpoint, the war room concept also makes it very hard for those developers that don't do anything to hide. The other developers will quickly out them.

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Individual offices with privacy provided to developers is the best method. Would also have several group offices set aside for anyone who has to work as part of a team and wants to sit with them.

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Individual offices with doors are best for focus. Next best are two-person offices with doors.

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