What makes a productive work environment?

The work environment can tell a lot about a company culture and values.  Companies care about productivity but in reality, several times work environments are optimized for noise, distraction, and anti-productivity.  I used to love open-spaces, currently, I'm not in favor of open-scapes any more. People often argue that open spaces improve collaboration however people are always using headsets(noise-cancelation for sure) plus moving to "meeting rooms" in order to get some work done. When I need get support important work done I work from home and I know so many people that do the same. There is a huge difference if you are a pure manager/coach or an Engineer/Architect because noise makes different effects on you. In general, pretty much everybody agrees too much noise is a problem but in practice keep the noise down is almost impossible in open space structure. Open spaces maximize the value from renting physical structure but they don't maximize value from cognitive work. IMHO the true value comes from mixed environments where you have offices optimized for coders and not for managers. However, it's important to have decompression areas where you can play games, relax, and ultimately make noise. However, this decompression areas should not affect the silent offices for coders.

Don't save money on the Basics

The basic and very important hardware like notebooks, headsets, chairs, desks, air conditioning, and excellent office machine. This is the basic and super important items. There are ways to save money on physical offices and that's good for the companies and for the environment, however, don't make savings in this items I mention they are the basic tools for coders.

Psychological Safety

People often don't see this are an important element for productivity, IMHO this is the foundation for a healthy company. I'm lucky to work for more than 9 years for a company that has extreme Psychological Safety. What that means? In plain English means, you literally can say anything and it won't be used against you. So this free-thought environment makes work so much more productive. If you are afraid of confronting things for sure you will have 2 things. First, you will have great compliance but you also will have very low standards. There is no high-performance team in a low trust environment where people are afraid to discuss difficult matters.

Re-Think your tools and practices

There is this amazing book from Basecamp folks. Where they challenge several tools and mindsets that often we don't see as anti-productivity like shared calendar, cost of disagreement, the price of meetings, anti-perks and so much more. Every company is unique and the work environment should be optimized for culture and productivity within this culture. Basecamp has amazing culture however they have products and when you have services is so much more difficult because there are more variables and revenue streams work in a different way.

Factories vs Studios

Building software is tough. Because requires engineering and art. Engineering part is precise and measurable, however, there is an art element to it where we need to understand users, understand their problems and provide better solutions not only in sense of efficiency but in sense of better user experiences, innovation and sometimes making dreams coming true. This requires 2 very different mindsets, the factory(optimized for delivery) and studio(optimized for creation and discovery) - I'm glad to work on a company that is more towards a studio than a factory. However is not as simple as that because we need both mindsets and both elements in the same environment. So there is a balance that needs to be achieved.

Great People

That's another great element of a productive work environment, have great people that are good and you respect and have the stuff to teach you and you can learn from. There are companies like Valve that have awesome culture and awesome culture handbooks. You might say, a game requires more art than a services company, however, that depends entirely on your mindset. Great people think different they push you in different directions and make you realize things you never thought. New Ideas are important elements of great culture IMHO however old solid principles are far or more important. However, principles need to be balanced with practice and results because a company is not an NGO. Great people can have the right mix of that and also be amazing engineers. Tech experience is very important and that's is not only defined by algorithms. Tech excellence is important don't get me wrong, Tech excellence is in the heart of Agile and DevOps Movements.

Closing Thoughts

The work environment is something live and organic. It's easy to see the work environment as something physical however is much beyond the physical boundaries since we live in a global world where people work with people from different countries and cultures every day, so these elements need to be present in the physical and virtual world. There are companies that are pure physical in one place, there are companies that are pure virtual and there is the mix. More and more we tend to be from the mix to pure virtual because of many other reasons like commute time, life expectations, cost, and many other reasons.  Some people like me really don't want to wear a tie and have to work strictly from 9 to 5. Some people do, however, the barriers to change are very low in the IT industry and the market is an unstoppable force and whatever the market decide it will win.

Diego Pacheco

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