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I work as a software developer.

I have written on my personal web site that I find walking around to be an important part of the way I work. I see two reasons for this: first, I find it uncomfortable to sit all day, and second, I feel that it is necessary to get away from the code to take a broader look without being distracted by everything else on my workstation.

To be very specific, I mean that I get up out of my seat and walk around outside for 15-20 minutes, usually once in the morning and once after lunch.

Some of my co-workers have told me that they have worked places where this is not allowed. They tell me that they would be reprimanded by HR personnel for doing so (In HR's mind, someone walking around is not 'working'. We know this is wrong; they don't).

I would like to know, from those who are more experienced, which attitude is more representative of software development. Is walking around generally considered permissible?

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Thanks for the answers! I would like to mention that in my opinion, the walking around thinking about the code is just as much a part of the work as actually writing code. –  Daniel Allen Langdon Dec 17 '12 at 1:34
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Sounds like your friends have worked in 3rd world sweat shops. –  DA. Dec 17 '12 at 4:10
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I have long been under the impresssion that there was some legal requirement in the US about a certain amount of minimum breaks per shift, and their duration. I thought that for every four hours, there was supposed to be a ten or fifteen minute break (paid), and half an hour for lunch (unpaid) if the shift lasted 6 or 8 hours. The specifics never concerned me a great deal, because the spirit of the law was routinely honored. And of course the employer is free to provide further opportunity for breaks as they see fit. –  JustinC Dec 17 '12 at 15:13
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There could be some cultural aspects to this question. Where are you located? –  tehnyit Dec 17 '12 at 15:33
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Well, I solve most of my difficult problems at night when taking a shower. I even solve a lot of problems when I'm asleep and dreaming. So I guess, I should be able to charge that time to my employer and customer also. I'm sure that would fly really well at most places of employment. The problem is not that you are walking around, the problem is that you are walking around for at least 40 minutes and charging for it. While it is true that you may be thinking of work during your walk, almost everyone else takes those walks on their own time. So it doesn't look good for you. –  Dunk Dec 17 '12 at 20:40

10 Answers 10

up vote 46 down vote accepted

This is actually a good argument for making sure developers are on salary. A salaried individual is paid based on results, not by hours worked. Therefore, as long as you're getting your work done and meeting your goals, the finer micro-details, such as how long your break is and what you choose to do with that break time, should really be no one's business but yours. This is of course just my expert opinion, but that opinion is based on observations and experiences working in environments where management stays out of your way.

Of course, different workplaces will look at this differently. It's your responsibility when looking for a job to properly evaluate your employer, and you can sometimes do this just by observing the way people behave in the office. You can also tell a lot about the design of the office. Is it a bland cube farm? Or do they have foosball tables, ping pong tables, and other amenities that seem to suggest it would be okay to get up and move around?

On one particular instance where I looked for a job, I actually called the customer service line, mentioned I was applying, and asked the representative a few questions about how he/she liked working at the company. The responses helped give me a perspective from a non-manager as to what I was getting myself into.

Consider that any business worth working for will probably want their employees to stay healthy, and considering the heath hazards of sitting at a desk all day, some will likely encourage you to get up and move around. If it's not already clear, I strongly suggest staying away from organizations that would have a problem with you getting up and walking around. It's their decision to decide how they want to manage their staff, and it's your decision to look for better employment if one particular employer has a restrictive management style.

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I think you're on to something with the "design of the office" –  Daniel Allen Langdon Dec 17 '12 at 1:42
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Yes! You can tell a lot about a company by how they present themselves. The office look and feel is sort of analogous to the attire you or I might wear to the interview. Both give some insight into whether it's a good fit. –  jmort253 Dec 17 '12 at 2:27
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I really like the idea of calling the customer service line! –  enderland Dec 17 '12 at 2:59
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I've never seen a salaried position that didn't have hour expectations clearly defined or that expected people to do a certain amount of 'work' and then do whatever they want with thier free time. I've also heard a lot of software people explain why estimating time is really, really, really hard (so there is no good way to measure how much work X took) - which is why having hours to work makes a lot of sense. –  Rob P. Dec 17 '12 at 9:14
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Yes, estimating time is hard, but I'm glad they've been pushing me to do it, recently. Otherwise, I'd never be any good at it! –  Daniel Allen Langdon Dec 17 '12 at 17:40

I haven't worked in any environment where the HR department had any kind of power to performance manage, reprimand or take action against any employee (apart from those in the HR department, of course.)

Generally speaking this was a line management role, and while HR might raise an issue with a line manager they don't usually act as the company "policy police."

Even more interestingly, most of our Heath and Safety guidelines (which are managed by HR) state the need for quite the opposite - they encourage staff to take a 5-10 minute break from their keyboard each hour, and to regularly walk around. This is designed to lower the risk of occupational issues related to DVT (Deep Vein Thrombosis) and RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury, also called OOS, Occupational Overuse Syndrome), which of course the company would be liable for if is was a result of workplace conditions and rules.

For example :

Job design for screen based work should make provision for regular breaks of at least 15 minutes per hour for concentrated screen based work, and 15 minutes per 2 hours for less strenuous work.

I would suggest that if you were ever blocked from taking these short kind of breaks by HR, sending them a few links on the risk they are exposing the company to as a result would see the policy rapidly reversed.

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There are many places where HR will handle these sort of issues. Generally it is initiated by the persons management though. –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Dec 17 '12 at 16:37
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Like all things, it is up to the manager to inform HR when they are handling their employees improperly. –  JeffO Dec 17 '12 at 19:48

In my experience, this would be fine as long as someone's performance is good overall. I could see cases where someone who has had poor performance reviews may be subject to more scrutiny and thus this could be frowned upon as they are seen as wasting that time instead of working. Another factor is whether or not you'd be available for calls or emergencies should something come up. If you don't have a cell number that could be called, then there may be an issue if you are seen as the "on-call" person to handle production issues ASAP.

However, if someone is known for doing good work then there is a greater chance is being given the leeway to take those breaks. This would be part of the meritocracy that can exist within techies from what I've seen. There is something to be said for marking one's calendar and making sure it is known when these breaks are being taken so that there isn't the issue of, "Where's Bob?" that gets met with, "I don't know," from everyone else on the team.

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There is no 'one' software development environment, so it's hard to generalize, but...

...the more corporate/large the organization, the more likely the place is full of dress codes, insistence on 40 hour work weeks, and silly HR policies like 'no walking'.

That said, even in the most corporate of places I've worked, most everyone got out of their chairs as needed all the time. Hourly walks with team mates were an excellent way to just relieve stress or, at times, even brainstorm. Whenever we could, we'd also take laptops and find a 'war room' to occupy to work together in a group.

In the end, the company should be willing to do whatever is within reason to make it easier for you to do your job.

Personally, any place that has an HR policy of 'no walking' is likely a horrific place to work at.

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Personally, any place that has an HR policy of 'no walking' is likely a horrific place to work at. These are perfect examples of ways to spot problems with a potential employer before you agree to a final offer. I can't tell you how many times I've been handed a contract, employee handbook, etc. Only reached the second or third page before deciding to reject an offer. Those dogmatic nuances are a screaming alarm of an unhealthy place to work. –  RualStorge May 16 at 19:52
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@HLGEM it's worth noting many companies just copy paste job other companies policies... in those I'd put that as a point of caution more so then a full out red flag, but worth keeping in mind. (I've stopped in several interviews and said stuff like "how do you design guns when you have a policy saying you can't talk about them here?" or "Isn't it against the law to not allow people to discuss wages among their coworkers?) but you have to tread lightly, sometimes that's a plus in your book to know these things, other times it's viewed as negative. Depends on the individuals involved. –  RualStorge Jul 16 at 19:14

Apart from the possible health issues may rise discussed in the other answers, I know that having no intermittent breaks lowers your performance.

For example, you might get stuck on something or have been concentrated for a long time and you need a bloody break. There has been countless times for me where I was fixing a bug or looking a neat solution for hours and I have solved those in my smoke breaks.

We are all adults here, and we're not so much laborers as knowledge workers. When I go for a break, I go for it because I feel tired or frustrated not because I'm counting minutes as non-work minute profit in my workhours. I do know that if I stay there, I will stall for more and as a result, not getting the job done.

If a company actively engages in this type of intervention, they clearly do not understand how knowledge workers need to work. Even worse, they treat their employees as their slaves in which they don't have breaks or whatever. Eventually, this attidude is going to be clear in other areas related to work in time.

My advice, if the company you work for enforces you to sit all day, start looking for another job.

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In my experience, the more technical the company, the more likely they are to realize that your productivity is not measured by how many hours a day you sit at your keyboard typing. In most companies, HR is not going to get involved unless your manager or his/her manager brings them in. So, if your manager is fine with it, I wouldn't worry about HR.

One of the best programmers I ever worked with used to wander around (sometimes outside) with a cup of coffee for hours. He would then sit down and implement his solution and much more often than not, it would compile and execute correctly on the first try. There is definitely value in having a clear picture in your mind of what you are going to code. If fresh air and nature are going to give you a clearer picture, sounds like a productivity booster to me.

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You need to know what's important to your imediate supervisor. If he is concerned about making HR happy by not letting his people appear to be wasting time by walking around, you need to find a suitable replacement. Get a drink, go to the bathroom, walk over to your boss's office.

Hopefully you have a supervisor who will stand up for his people and inform HR of their innacturate assumption. Some people are paid to think.

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The generalized response is likely that it depends. Certainly most current management theory I've seen speaks to the answers here about the benefits of moving the body, and the approach that knowledge work (including software development) is best as salaried, results oriented work, where it shouldn't matter what your observed behavior is (as long as it is not offensive) as long as you do the work well and on time. I don't think anyone could honestly average out the totality of manager/company opinions on whether best practices are actually followed widely. I'd hope so, but it's hard to say with any certainty.

But let me point out a couple useful areas of management, policy and potential thoughts for legislation:

Breaks - Salaried vs. Hourly

I've noticed the trend that breaks are considered differently depending on whether you are salaried or hourly. There tends to be a lot more regimentation in any corporate policy over protecting the rights of hourly workers. In some offices, I've seen breaks mandated for them and as the US legislation covers it, their breaks are covered as part of their pay (where lunch is not). Often salaried guidelines are not as clear, given that the hours are far more flexible, although in cases where the employee's time is billed to a client, this can also be quite regimented.

Hours worked?

Usually with salaried folks, I have seen managers generally take notes of entry and exit times (if this is a traditional office environment). You like to know you can find people for a certain number of hours a day. I often don't see that most managers care much about breaks, but if they are long or if your are hard to find for hours on end, the excuse "I was taking a walk" may not cut it. In essence, 5-10 is a lot easier to handle than 30-60 minutes - particularly if we are talking twice a day. Even a 20 minute break, two times a day, is going to add up to more than half an hour (a common unit of time charging), and the manager may expect that you be around longer than the typical 8 hours if this isn't a team norm.

That said, if you are a wizzing along, meeting the same expectation as anyone else, and doing it in the typical hours a day (including breaks), then I have trouble seeing the average manager having an issue here.

Accomodation

At least in US law, the word "accomodation" is a word treated with a certain amount of caution. If you have a variety of health issues, it can be highly advisable that you get in a few brisk walks a day. I'd go so far (from a personal perspective, no medical expertise here) to say that if you qualify as human, a quick walking break will do you good... so getting a doctor's note even, to cover it, should be possible for many if not all people.

It never hurts to clear any accomodation with your manager, though. Getting up and walking around randomly could come off as weird in some cultures, but going to your manager and saying "hey, I stiffen up both physically and mentally if I don't get in a brisk walk every 2 hours - I'll do it anywhere you like, but I have to do it to stay productive" isn't out of line.

Disruption

Looking from another angle, the common reason management objects to walking around is usually the disruption. Some folks like walking, some folks like as few distractions as possible - and the two can be mutually exclusive in some environments. Be aware as you walk about those around you and set a tone by limiting or avoiding conversation.

At least in places I've worked, it's not a walker that gets the flack, but someone strolling the halls looking for a juicy conversation instead of getting to work that gets labeled as the slacker. But if timing is bad and you're always off having a conversation when management walks in, you could be setting a tone that you would prefer to prevent.

Also, sadly, some buildings are just hard to walk in - in which case, a walk outside of the team area may be in order.

Performance

In most places I've worked, it's really about performance. But a talk about performance can quickly lead to a talk about walking around alot. A manager has to point out issues in performance, when an employee isn't getting work done. And it's not always easy to observe the actual problem when there's a big performance gap. Walking to think and walking out of distraction are hard to differentiate. But walking vs. pounding on a keyboard is easy.

Whether the feedback "don't walk around" is given in your performance review or a fellow coworker's - it's good to ask the speaker "why". The answer is likely to be that there's a claim that work isn't getting done... which is the real problem.

For the most part, in software environments where the work was highly valued, I've seen tolerance for all sorts of goofy behavior (and a walk is hardly goofy) and as long as the performance is good and sustainable.

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I personally like to take two fifteen minute walks, one just before lunch and one mid-afternoon. I've worked in a number of places that have had different responses to this.

At one company, the entire team would take a walk every day at 3:00. At most companies, nobody seemed to mind. At another company, Spillman Technologies, I was called into my supervisor's office and reprimanded. I was told that I was wasting the company's time.

Needless to say, I refreshed my resume the minute I got home. Any company that meters software engineers' time like that certainly has a lot of other problems as well.

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Forgive this from an old lady, but I worked at Digital (DEC) many years ago, in the Mill in Maynard MA. This was a very old hodgepodge of buildings connected in the strangest ways, and easy to get lost in. There were big old windows and wide-planked wood floors. And walking around was a part of the culture. When you got stuck on a problem, or just got tired, felt uncomfortable, or needed to clear your head, the greatest option was simply to walk a new route within the buildings.

But DEC was one of the early companies to be more accommodating and realize that software was "creative" work. We had unlimited sick days & personal time, and no rigid work hours; all you had to do was get your work done. The offices were almost all in those "campus"-style settings that were so popular in the 70's and 80's, with trees, woods, places to walk and places to rest, places to breathe. The Mill was much more indoors, but had so much quirkiness that it was like travelling to another land.

Even in a more rigid work environment, being able to get up and walk has so many benefits. It's certainly not healthy to sit in the same position for hours on end; your body needs to stretch, and your eyes need to be off the computer screen and start blinking normally. Your mind sometimes needs to think of other things while you work out a thorny problem. And your psyche needs a reminder that you are a human being and that your senses are good for more than breathing recycled air.

In particular, creative people -- which includes many IT functions -- don't do their best work chained to a desk. If you work at a company where HR thinks otherwise, well, that's probably not an especially good place to work, and their company performance probably shows the attitude. And while I'm not really a fan of the high-tech companies that encourage beer pong and napping in the lounge, I do think that making human beings more comfortable will tend to improve their ability to produce good and elegant creations.

Digital's company motto is a big indicator of how your question would have been answered there: "Honesty and respect for customers and employees."

A few pics to show how odd the complex was:

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