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I manage a team of six programmers, working on diverse systems. We work in an open plan office, with members sitting in cubicles. A lot of people on these forums are big on private offices, but that is not an option for me. But I was wondering if there were ideas for other ways to improve and energize the working environment and experience. One suggestion is more plants.

Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

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+1 for being concerned about the team's happiness. -1 for asking us instead of them! –  Steven A. Lowe Nov 27 '10 at 17:12

7 Answers 7

up vote 17 down vote accepted

Nerf guns. 'Nuff said. Seriously! :-)

Occasionally, say once a month, bring in lunch into a common area and let everyone put their feet up for an hour and just relax. Don't waste money on oh-so-fancy food, but let everyone toss in their ideas for what to get, then vote on it. Do that a few times and you'll find out what are everyone's favorites. Don't use the time to harangue the employees or do pep talks. Use it for brainstorming, talking about ideas for new products, or even a gripe session. Give them a chance to talk and be listened to.

Oooo, here's a thought, combine code-reviews and Nerf guns over food at lunch. Someone writes some code that sucks they get nerfed by the rest of the team. :-)

Bring in a refrigerator, and stock it with some decent sodas and bottled water. Yeah, it'll cost the company a couple bucks, but the people tend to chill out a bit when they can get up, saunter over to the 'fridge, grab a cold rootbeer or whatever, then wander back. Don't nickel and dime the employees with $.75 sodas.

Put in one of the modern coffee machines that lets people choose what type of coffee or tea they want. I gave up on coffee but love my morning green tea. We have these spread around our office area, and I don't think there's been a day go by that I didn't sear my mouth on my morning tea. :-)

And, if the standard is two monitors, do not hesitate if someone needs three; Be willing to go one more, or two with reasonable justification. I currently have two, and am waiting on an additional video card to add two more, because I'm sick of having to juggle multiple SSH shells, editors, browser windows with docs and PDF versions of my manuals, plus the company mail and chat systems. We've got systems with five and six monitors for our networking management folks, so four for a senior developer isn't extravagant.

I'd also recommend that quiet be the office policy. Some people want music and think it's their god given right to play it loud enough to be heard several cubes away. Wrongo. Music needs to be played through headphones and should not be audible outside their cube.

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+1 for the tea! (can't do without neither :) –  Rook Nov 26 '10 at 0:57
+1 for 3 monitors. I will swear I am substantially more productive with 3 monitors, over 2. Two just isn't quite enough. –  qes Nov 26 '10 at 1:40
-1: for the love of god, keep the toys at home. I could hardly imagine something that would strip your department of credibility faster than another executive walking into the middle of a 'nerfing'... –  mpeterson Nov 26 '10 at 5:59
Software companies are no different than enterprise. What varies is the corporate culture. A rigid culture can be a hellish working environment and the tension and stress will burn people out. Companies are trying to reduce the effects of stress in all sorts of formal ways, but they can do it easily by lightening up a bit and letting the employees express themselves. It's ok to wear t-shirts and shorts when they're not dealing with customers. It's ok to shift work hours. It's ok to sit on the floor and work. And, it's ok to make a paper airplane, to doodle, or shoot a nerf gun. –  the Tin Man Nov 26 '10 at 6:38
+1 for "I'd also recommend that quiet be the office policy. Some people want music and think it's their god given right to play it loud enough to be heard several cubes away. Wrongo. Music needs to be played through headphones and should not be audible outside their cube." - SAME GOES for those who get so into the music they start stamping their feet. Got to talk to those people and tell them to stop it. –  quickly_now Nov 26 '10 at 9:01

Two things that jump to mind:

  1. Lighting. Big bright fluorescent lights can be annoying. Sunlight is more ideal.
  2. Comfy chairs. These are expensive, but don't underestimate how much happier they'll make your programmers.

Oh, and if you decide to be trendy and get an XBox or PS3, put it away from the programmers. A previous job had me right next to it. It's annoying trying to work while people nearby are playing rockband.

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As for lighting - try getting those new LED lightbulbs (they look like lightbulbs, only have LEDs inside) but not "cold white" color (that's what it's called) but "natural yellow". They really do look quite good (not daylight, but better than most I've seen so far). –  Rook Nov 26 '10 at 0:56
Oooo, he said comfy chairs! :-) Where I work EVERYONE complains about the chairs. They buy crappy chairs so everyone's back hurts. –  the Tin Man Nov 26 '10 at 3:24
@Rook, I agree about the lighting too. It's a subliminal thing that most people won't notice, but natural colored light "feels" better. Harsh fluorescent lights burn me out; We used to turn off half of them in my last two jobs just to reduce the glare. I'd bring in my own desktop LED light and it was wonderful when I had a reference book open. –  the Tin Man Nov 26 '10 at 4:37
+1 for comfy chairs. Nobody spends enough on them. –  Robert Harvey Nov 26 '10 at 4:47
+1 for comfy chairs. –  Cape Cod Gunny Nov 26 '10 at 14:02

Jeff and Joel wrote a lot on the subject (well, related to). Of many, these two may give you a few insights.

Programmer's bill of rights (what every programmer should have)
A Field Guide to Developers (how to make & keep him happy & productive ... well, happy :-)

I should probably note that the above answer is mine from another question: Incentives to offer programmers - and which contains quite a few others as well, some very nice and which may prove useful.

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#5 on the bill of rights is important. I once worked for someone who told me I had to download any files larger than 600MB from home because they didn't have enough bandwidth. And this was in 2009! –  Jason Baker Nov 26 '10 at 0:52
@Jason Baker - ??!! I'm speechless –  Rook Nov 26 '10 at 0:54
@Jason - Heh, I'm welcome to download big files, but if I want a 600MB file, it'd be quicker to go home, download it, and come back than to use the office's crappy bandwidth. :-) –  Carson63000 Nov 26 '10 at 1:14
It wouldn't get done if they wanted me to do that. I spent too much of my own money in the past subsidizing employers. it's their business need and their expense. –  the Tin Man Nov 26 '10 at 2:09
@Greg - Oh, it got done. I did occasionally hear people complain "Why's the internet so slow?!" though. –  Jason Baker Nov 26 '10 at 2:22

We don't have the budget for free stuff (gov department) but just going out for breakfast as a group is nice to do.

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Seeing as you have open plan hell (well AT LEAST YOU HAVE CUBES, it could be worse!) one of the things you want to do is encourage everyone who has a conversation to keep their voice down.

There are some people with annoying penetrating voices (the kind that can cut glass), and it seems like about 20% of s/w developers do too. A conversation in the alleyway between cubes affects 4-6 people all around. A loud conversation in a cube affects 1-2 others. Consideration for others dictates that loud or long conversations should be taken to a meeting room where the door can be shut. Loud chats in the alleys need to be stopped.

Some people take great offence at being told to do this, and claim that it never affects them so its no big deal. Those same people probably never get "into the zone", so of course it does not affect them. The only solution for the "problem people" is a peer group collectively telling them to stop their behaviour, and a management that backs this up.

Another one is desk phones - the volume should be very low. And everyone with a loud mobile phone needs to be told in no uncertain terms to wind it back when in the office / use the vibrate option. These kind of distractions drive others crazy.

There must be management support for all this.

The only thing worse than cubes is the total-open-plan benches with no obstruction higher than 3 feet. That REALLY sucks. A conversation at one desk can disrupt 30 other people (been there, done that).

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amusingly when I get "into the zone", the world could collapse I'd probably only notice when my computer shuts down. It's when I am not "into the zone" that distractions prevent me from concentrating on the task at hand. But now being one of the dinosaurs of the team, I'm often interrupted anyway :) –  Matthieu M. Nov 26 '10 at 17:43

Ask Them

not us.

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+1 for "include your team" but you may want to make your point a little clearer... –  Gary Rowe Nov 27 '10 at 16:20
Perfect. Great answer! –  Dynamic May 12 '12 at 18:59

I have a wet bar in my office, but that's very typical for Hollywood companies.

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