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I head the marketing department in a relatively open floor plan. Our department is directly next to programming (a 6 person team) and they talk non-stop. I was a programmer prior to my current position and remember long quiet days of writing code, not the non-stop conversation we are forced to endure. Often it is work related, but for a few hours each day it's social.

  1. Is this normal for a programming team of this size?
  2. How can we convince them to quiet down and get back to work or take the conversation to one of our many conference rooms?
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marked as duplicate by ReallyTiredOfThisGame, RWY, jcmeloni, Monica Cellio, JeffO Apr 2 at 14:23

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

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Have you tried anything? Has anyone talked to individual programmers or asked their manager if it would be possible to quiet things down or move them to a conference room? –  Justin Cave Mar 31 at 19:38
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OK. So if all the personal chatter were to disappear and the team had the same volume level as when the manager is around, would that be an improvement? It's hard to tell whether the problem is primarily the social conversation or whether it is primarily with what the manager considers productive collaboration. –  Justin Cave Mar 31 at 19:57
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I think this is perhaps the wrong question to ask, this seems to be an XY problem. I think what actually needs to be answered is the best way to cope and get work done in an open plan environment with noisy teams around, asking the programmers to quiet down is just one possible solution. Perhaps this needs an edit? –  Vality Apr 1 at 20:41

12 Answers 12

As a programmer who has worked with both chatty and quiet programmers, I wouldn't blame the person/people, I would blame the open floorplan. I currently work in a team of 5 and we all work on the same large application, with some people who know certain aspects better than others. So conversations are unavoidable. And yes, a lot of our chatter is just that, chatter. But I think it's a sign of a healthy team that they like interacting with each other. I think you'd be hard pressed to solve the issue without pissing developers off by asking them to be quiet when collaboration is required for them to do their job.

A headset and white noise or non-distracting music is a must for any open plan. I can't concentrate when other conversation is going on sometimes, so I have a wireless headset and a music subscription for this reason.

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+1 for blaming the open floor plan, @James - here's Scott Adam's take on it. –  HopelessN00b Apr 1 at 1:01
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I think we all understand why there is an open floor plan. Nothing about collaboration or team... more about making it harder for people to play on the internet all day. –  blankip Apr 1 at 1:17
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@blankip And also harder to get your work done. See also: this question. Open floor plans are simply not conducive to getting work done, especially when you have completely different groups (marketing and engineering, for instance) in the same room. It's not good for either group. –  reirab Apr 1 at 1:35
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@reirab - I agree. I am telling you why managers are eager to have their groups in open plans. Middle managers walk around the cubies in my office looking at their screens all day. I'm sure it cuts down on internet time for some and more than makes up for it on the other side with constant distractions. –  blankip Apr 1 at 1:44
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@reirab On the programming side, the fact that open floor plans promote interaction is more good than bad: It's far easier to jump into pair programming, which is one of the few things that consistently increases code quality. –  Izkata Apr 1 at 21:00

Sorry, despite popular notions, modern software development is a very social endeavor. Projects are large enough that no single programmer can do everything, and even if they could it's rare to find a single developer who can do everything. This sort of informal collaboration is necessary to communicate ideas, plans and actions so that the team can work well.

And worse for you, it often needs to be done in short, unscheduled bursts (near computers) since that's when/where the need arises. Walking down the hall to find an empty room just for 30-90 seconds of debate isn't practical or efficient.

Be happy that your programmers are communicating freely, it's a key indicator for team (and by extension, company) success.

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@JoeStrazzere this answer clearly states that you just cant. So deal with it. 8) –  John Isaiah Carmona Apr 2 at 7:52

A key part to working in a programming team is collaboration. Sometimes this collaboration takes place in commit messages or email - but sometimes it needs to happen via talking - it it can take a long time to describe something in text while talking the problem out allows for much more dense communication with multiple people and the ability to be interrupted while going down the wrong path.

Talking and general chatter is greatly facilitated by an open floor plan and if one looks at an agile workplace, you can see this to extremes. (Google search agile work environment pictures)

I will point out the 'take it to a conference room' can go horrendously wrong. Personal anecdote follows:

At a former employer we were having a 'lively' discussion about the correct approach to tackling a particularly nasty problem in the program. We were debating it for a good half hour - the whiteboard (4' x 6' leaned up against the wall) was filled with scrawlings of different approaches with different colored pens for each person. Occasionally we'd check the class diagrams in eclipse or verify if some code worked some way or not, and then we'd go back to trying to figure out how to handle this problem.

As time passed, our voices might have gotten a bit louder. At one point a manager in the area asked us to take the debate to the conference room instead. One person grabbed the whiteboard, and the other two disassembled the desktop cables and accessories (printer, hand scanner) and we went down to the conference room, set it up (this took about 10 minutes as the manager looked up dumfounded), and then continued to monopolize the conference room for the next hour+ (and another 10 minutes to move the things back).

I'll certainly say that probably wasn't the best thing for any of the parties on how it was handled. The moral of the story I hope is that sometimes you just need to discuss things... This might have been easier if we had laptops instead of desktops.

Consider Peopleware - Part II is entirely about the office environment. Table 10-1 notes that 50% of a developer's time is spent working with another person (and 20% is with two or more people - the 'working alone typing out code for hours' is a fantasy of years past). Also note that means 70% of the time a given employee is a noise generator while 30% of the time they are noise sensitive.

Reading through this, something occurs to me - you've got an open floor plan in the office, but you don't have that at home. You've got a bedroom where you are mostly quiet, an office, a living room. Each of these rooms is separate from each other and has a different approach to volume.

At my current employer, there's the 'dev cave' where devs work solo, and then there's the 'dev savannah' which is a vast open area with couches, relaxing chairs, and two large tables where devs can work in larger groups (also serves as sort of a break area where pizza is had) and also a 'zen den' which can be closed off from the rest of the area and again has couches and chairs.

Each of these areas has a different amount of noise acceptable and we, as developers, know and understand this and move to the proper area to do the proper work - the environment facilitates it.

Consider making an area where a group of 2-4 devs can sit down and work together away from everyone else in the open floor plan that isn't a conference room (those have such formality attached to them).

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Better yet, consider ditching the open floor plan. As you correctly noted in your anecdote, sometimes the devs just need to collaborate while also being near their computers (looking at code, watching program behavior, etc.) –  reirab Apr 1 at 1:46
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@reirab I carry my laptop around when I need to move it from my desk to another room. Between cubes in the dev area we've got a 5' wall and 6' with the rest of the area. But if I head to the savannah or zen den, I bring my laptop. Normal offices is nice, but not feasible in all building layouts. That said, still having those public areas for small groups to work is nice when you need that work environment (it can be rather impractical to bring 3x laptops into someone's office/cube area - they just were't made for that type of interaction). –  MichaelT Apr 1 at 2:17

Since the problem is with noise in general and not whether the content is work-related or not, it seems unlikely that you have a lot of options for reducing the noise. Your best bet is likely to bring some headphones so that you can listen to music or white noise in the office. Or you could talk to your manager about seeing whether your team can be moved somewhere that will be quieter.

If your company has chosen an open floor plan, that generally implies that the company wants to encourage the sort of collaboration that the programming team is doing. The manager of the programming team views the collaboration as necessary. It's possible, I suppose, that you could convince someone that the programmers need a separate war room that they can work from all day so that their discussions don't disturb you. Very few companies, though, have enough conference rooms that they'd be happy to have one of the larger ones taken over by the programming team all day every day. And companies that consciously adopt an open floor plan are unlikely to see the discussions as a problem in need of a solution.

Asking people to speak more softly rarely works for long-- the volume is generally driven by things like the distance between people in the conversation, the ambient noise, and the team member's natural enthusiasm/ passion. And complaining about the non work-related conversations appears to be a red herring-- it wouldn't do you much good to get them to focus on work given that focusing on work produces exactly the sort of conversation that you're trying to avoid.

Personally, as a developer, I'd much rather have a nice quiet space where I can focus on my tasks rather than an open plan where I can easily chat with other folks on my team. Not everyone, and certainly not every company, agrees with that assessment, however. It sounds like your company, the manager of the programming team, and the programming team themselves favor a louder, more collaborative process. It seems unlikely that there is much you can do when those three things are in alignment.

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Maybe having 1 office per team is the best compromise. Team members can communicate freely about both work- and non-work-related tasks, while at the same time not disturbing other teams or departments... –  Radu Murzea Apr 1 at 10:05
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The actual reason companies go open plan is (no matter what they say about "wanting to increase interaction", because it usually includes rules about not talking to each other) to cram more people into the same space. Walls take up space, offices instead of open plan require corridors, etc. etc.. In an open plan environment you can often cram 10-20% more people into the same amount of square meters of floorspace. Saves money. Never mind that productivity goes down (which has been shown time and again), if that happens you just punish people for not working hard enough. –  jwenting Apr 1 at 14:37

The real answer to this question, as stated, is this: You can't. The problem is your open floor plan, not the devs talking to each other. Any significant development effort (in any discipline of engineering) requires the engineers working on that project to talk to each other. There will be some days where they all have work to do by themselves and don't need to consult each other much, but there are going to be many days spent talking to each other. While some design decisions can be taken care of in conference rooms, a lot of the discussions simply can't be. Discussions between engineers on a project frequently involve the need to see one or more of the screens of the people involved in the discussion, whether that be for looking at code, looking at program output, looking at documentation, etc. My suggestion would be to push for having marketing and engineering in separate rooms (at the very least... even better would be to have individual offices or offices with a small group of people each.) Unless the company just literally can't afford a large enough facility, there is no valid reason for marketing and engineering to be in the same room.

In the mean time, as others have suggested, the best you can do is just get some good headphones that block out external noise well and listen to them at your desk. The engineers can't do their job without talking to each other at their desks. That you can hear their conversations while they're at their desks and you're at yours is not their fault.

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One solution that was implemented by a previous employer of mine was the installation of an IRC server, so that we systems engineers could all converse quietly even if someone was taking a phone call - I personally prefer written communication to spoken communication because there is a lot less potential for miscommunication. True, the floor plan included individual offices for managers but somehow, we systems engineers could hear almost everything the managers said on the phone :) And no, the fact that someone is speaking loudly on the phone next to me - that doesn't bother me, even if he is yakking all day. On the other hand, if we systems engineers spoke as loudly and as often as we wrote, the managers would have complained about our communication distracting them :)

Ask the software engineering team to implement IRC. And since this is the year 2014, collaboration software is available.

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The downside of this is that it kills the real/actual social factor. IT people are known to not be very sociable; if you don't practice that at work, your social ability will suffer greatly. Frankly, the only upside of using IRC or chat systems is that you instantly have a transcript of the conversation, which can be proven useful in a lot of situations... –  Radu Murzea Apr 1 at 11:14
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"I personally prefer written communication to spoken communication because there is a lot less potential for miscommunication" You've got to be kidding me, right? It's the opposite for most people. –  Onno Apr 1 at 11:43
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I really prefer written communication. When people talk, they will say one thing and mean another. Then they don't quite remember what they said and they claim to have said something else. When something complex happens like complex troubleshooting, it's harder for me to get a handle on it through verbal communication than through written communication. We also exchange images and URLs through IRC and IRC is nice because it keeps a log of our conversations including the references we leave for each other. –  Vietnhi Phuvanmail Apr 1 at 14:16
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@Onno: that previous employer was a big believer in group troubleshooting in those cases that would have stumped each of us as individuals. I became a believer, too, but I had to learn to set pride aside and volunteer that I needed backup from colleagues and management whom I knew could not have solved the problem on their own :) Group troubleshooting works best when everyone has views the situation from a different angle and has a different outlook - I am not sure that my employer at the time ever understood that, but he was pragmatic enough to care only about results :) –  Vietnhi Phuvanmail Apr 2 at 11:10

How can we convince them to quiet down and get back to work or take the conversation to one of our many conference rooms?

You appear to be part of the "open concept" plus "collaborate constantly and vocally", that seems to be somewhat the fad these days.

Since the manager already indicated that such "collaboration" is necessary, it appears that the programmers are mostly doing what they are expected to do. But not all knowledge workers like to collaborate so loudly, and it appears that all this noise doesn't work well for the marketing department.

So your initial approach should not be to the programmers themselves, nor their manager. Instead, you should approach your manager, and explain how the noise makes it difficult for you in marketing to get your job done.

This is a task best handled by upper management. They are in a position to balance the needs of the departments within the context of the physical layout. They may choose to move the programmers or move the marketers to more remote spots, erect sound barriers/cubicles, or come up with some other solution.

Of course, they may also respond with "suck it up" (hopefully in more tactful words). If that's the case, you'll be faced with the typical solutions many of us attempt in noisy work environments - work at home more, use headphones, work different hours, occupy a conference room, etc. You could also choose to nicely ask the programmers if they could collaborate more quietly, or more their more boisterous and vocal collaborations into a conference room.

It's a tough situation, but not at all unusual, as many companies these days have decided that "open concept" is the way to be. Whether their motivation is truly "collaboration" or "less expensive" is debatable.

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Is this normal for a programming team of this size?

My instinct is "maybe", depending on technique.

With 6 people in the team, and by definition at least 2 people must be in a conversation, there must be people who are in conversation at least 1/3 of the time in order for the talk to be "non-stop".

That seems a bit high to me if they program alone, given that presumably they are not carefully scheduling their conversations to cover the available time. Therefore some people must be engaged in conversation considerably more than 1/3 the time.

However, if they are pair-programming, which is not uncommon, then the proportion of time they spend in conversation is much greater than if they are not. You should find out whether or not they are -- if they are not then I would say they're talking at their desks an unusual amount. They could probably stand to talk less or to take some of it elsewhere. If they are pair-programming then they probably should not be in the same room as you for the same reason that people whose job it is to make phone calls all day should not be in the same room as you.

Unfortunately, employers for various reasons favour open-plan offices even though they are demonstrably less productive environments for many tasks[*]. Management has to trade off the cost of office space, the benefits of free communication across the whole employee base as opposed to clustering information by room, and direct productivity per person. They might prefer to pay for 50% more employees who are only 67% as productive, and that is their prerogative. If your employer cannot (or chooses not to) provide a quiet place for you, then part of your job is to deal with your poor working environment. At least you're indoors ;-)

The usual response is to listen to music on headphones -- this is still a significant distraction for some people, but anecdotally I think people find that noise they control is far less harmful to productivity and happiness than noise they don't.

[*] Rather, noise demonstrably reduces productivity. My employer has an open plan office, that I don't work in, that is eerily quiet compared with what I've experienced elsewhere. On the occasions I've worked there for a day I haven't found noise to be a problem, since there's a strong norm of keeping conversations quiet and taking large conversations outside. But you can't put that norm in place by yourself.

How can we convince them to quiet down and get back to work or take the conversation to one of our many conference rooms?

It's likely to be difficult because they have an established work environment and you want to make a large change to it.

Firstly you need to address your feelings about it (this is the paragraph where I get a downvote from the questioner ;-)). You don't like it and it harms your work. However, there is no point characterising it as "abnormal". There is no point thinking of them stopping talking as "getting back to work", since much of the conversation is work. It's not really your business to judge whether they're slacking even if they are. Your colleagues will not respond well to hostility, and regardless of how an office would ideally be, you have no moral high horse here. I happen to agree with you that noisy work environments are a terrible thing to inflict on people, but even so you should think of this as requesting a favour, not enforcing better behaviour or shutting them up.

Then you need to tell them its an issue, they surely won't change their behaviour other than by knowing it's causing problems for others. But you're correct that an email from on high saying that "someone has complained about you" is a terrible way to do that. It sounds as though their manager has no sympathy at all for your request. This is an issue to deal with in itself. In any company, but especially in an open-plan office, there needs to be a way to consider how teams' behaviour affects other teams. Find it, or create it ad-hoc by talking to people you think will be more sympathetic.

If they're open to change once they learn that others would benefit from quiet, then they'll probably accept a certain amount of nagging on the subject. You could perhaps agree with them that they will try to take long conversations out of the room, and that you are permitted to tell them that their conversation is running long without them feeling harassed. The only way to establish this relationship for sure is to make it explicit. Ideally there should be some reciprocity: can they find anything in your team's behaviour that could improve things for others?

If they are pair programming then basically you can't do anything about it other than by ending open-plan. They must do this at their normal desk by definition of "normal desk", and they must talk most of the time they're doing it.

An aside on open-plan offices: the concept was driven forward in the 50s and 60s as a great leveller, putting everyone (or at any rate anyone working on that floor) in one shared space. Architecturally speaking this was exciting stuff, using a building to improve relationships and literally remove status barriers that impeded the work of the company. The benefits of this may well have outweighed the costs in individual productivity on "head-down" focussed work, although the latter needs to be considered.

Call me a cynical curmudgeon, but some companies have used "open plan" as a way of sticking rank-and-file workers into the equivalent of a pre-50s typing pool plus potplants, while anybody of any consequence has a private office "for reasons of confidentiality". They may still claim the same benefits in terms of communication when actually they're just saving office footprint. If so, avoid. One kind of person needs permanent access to a private office and that isn't even C-level executives, it's HR (and possibly finance and legal, but the point is the nature of the work not the seniority).

As a consequence of the effect of noise, there's a strong instinct that it's the responsibility of any worker in an open-plan office to be as quiet as possible at all times. Certainly nobody benefits from distractions in themselves, but it completely misses the point to expect everyone to work as if under a vow of silence :-)

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The idea of having programmers and similar engineers "be quiet" is a bad idea. They're part of your team and this is how they work.

Just openly and loudly tell everyone, with a good cheery spirit, that this is absurd and of course, obviously, you have to pen-up the engineers together - preferably with really good sound-proofing on your side.

You guys in marketing are doing the critical job -- it's a certainty the programming gang WANTS you guys to do your job well, you're where the money comes from. Have management sort it out, and laugh at the mistake in retrospect.

Don't forget .. REALLY GOOD sound proofing! :O

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Please when answering here do not be condescending or rude, even in jest which is how I think you intended your answer to come across. Other users may find it off putting and it is not really helpful. I have edited your answer to fit in better with site guidelines. Hope this helps. –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Apr 1 at 11:55

Since you're in a separate department, you should schedule a short, informal meeting with their manager or equivalent and ask if there's a way for their team to set aside time to collaborate in a private meeting room.

Where I work this is commonplace for teams to all schedule short meetings at regular intervals to work out their questions, but there will still be things that spontaneously come up that will require talking over the cube walls, so you're unlikely to get a library-esque atmosphere.

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So... I like the top voted question of find something besides and open floor plan, but I also realize there may need to be other solutions.

Is this normal for a programming team of this size?

At least in some cases - yes. In fact, a team of 4-7 is an ideal for a high collaboration team. At +7, the relationships between people becomes too big for the team to function effectively as one big thing, but at 5-ish, it's optimal for the relationships that form between humans. Paradoxically, a bigger team might actually be quieter, but it may be suboptimal for the very reason that the difficulty in collaboration means that there is less collaboration.

Products and the tools to build them are complex enough, as are the problems that they solve, that as a manager of software engineers, I worry more about people NOT talking & sharing, than about people talking and sharing too much.

That said, I do also worry about people loving the team so much that they don't get much work done... but I usually worry about that in the sense of "are we meeting deadlines" and not in the sense of "did I just hear too much talk about the kids, family, hobbies, houses, pets, etc".

How can we convince them to quiet down and get back to work or take the conversation to one of our many conference rooms?

I'd say start with stating your need and see what accommodations you can reach. Don't start with suppositions about whether or not their conversations are necessary or how they may solve the problem.

Example:

"We need to be able to focus, talk on the phone, and talk to each other - the noise in the environment is disturbing our work - what can we do here? This hasn't been a one-time thing - frequently our team has had to ask the engineering team to be quiet enough that we can hear our clients on phone calls..."

Specific cases, or a direct line to why you are impacted may be helpful. I drew this one from personal experience.

Don't assume that you know a good answer already, be open to what options they may have. I know if it was my team, you'd have trouble getting us to go to a conference room, because the conversations are very spontaneous, it's hard to back away from the computer, because it's so relevant, and the company I work in is extremely short on conference room space, so wandering the halls looking for a space is a real productivity killer.

BUT - my team has standing/sitting desks, and it may be that we could bring it down to a dull roar by sitting (not standing) so our cube walls block more sound, and we could watch and make sure we talk more quietly.

I even had an office get a manager a white noise generator to cut down on the booming quality of his voice because the noise spikes were a bigger problem than the actual noise. :)

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If you're trying to work and someone is preventing you, ask them to quiet down. Suggest they hold meetings in a conference room.

Edit: Apparently "asking" someone to quiet down, especially when you've never even asked them before isn't a solution. I disagree. Just ask. It's a good place to start.

If they can't move to a conference room, my guess is, they sit very far apart and yell/speak loudly to one another. Suggest they move closer when having a discussion so the whole room doesn't have to hear them.

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OP asked how to quiet them down or use he conference room –  kolossus Mar 31 at 21:54
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They are working. Engineers who are working on the same project must regularly speak with each other. Some days may consist mostly of quietly coding by yourself, but others will have a lot of back and forth. And it's often not practical to simply move the conversation to a conference room, as you often need to go to your co-worker's computer and look at what's on the screen (or at other hardware that may be on their desk in the case of mechanical, electrical, or embedded systems engineering.) The problem is the open floor plan, not the talking. –  reirab Apr 1 at 1:42
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Hi Jeff, please try to remember the standard for answers here is to make reasonable recommendations and explain in detail the reasons why. –  NickC Apr 1 at 20:32

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