Can working near other developers be counterproductive?
Remote teams are becoming more popular for development departments, but could they also hold the key to improved productivity? Developers in distributed teams work better than those relying on colocation, says IT blogger Ralf Westphal.
Are office environments counterproductive for developers? The simple answer is yes, according to the self-proclaimed “one man think-tank” Ralf Westphal. In an article (in German) from early 2015, Westphal makes the claim that co-location for development teams is failing and that having a distributed setup for staff should always “be the default”.
Having a distributed team is nothing new, with companies like MySQL and GitHub operating as normal with staff members residing in different continents around the globe. But proclaiming that co-location for cooperation should no longer be the norm for the workplace could ruffle a few feathers.
Westphal believes that in our current developer environments, the maxims that Scrum and Agile promote via cooperation in teams need to be updated to reflect those who are digital natives. The creators of Scrum and Agile weren’t yet privy to the global takeover of social media, nor were they exposed to smartphones. Distributed version control and cheap infrastructure in the cloud were also a long way off.
With these observations, Westphal states three fundamental problems with the practice of co-location:
- “Co-location opens interruption floodgates”. Other team members sitting in the same room along with managers “who are suddenly in the room” all contribute to a disruptive environment for developers. Self-inflicted interruptions are also mentioned in the form of notifications via social media or internal communications.
- “Co-location feeds undiscovered dependencies”. Developers “living in the team room” could have dependencies on their co-workers regarding new systems and technologies, which counters his philosophy of working in phases and thus being more productive.
- “Co-location feeds monolithic code”. Because of the close-communication-quarters that a shared office imposes, Westphal says this naturally translates into the design and structure of software consisting of closely related parts. Westphal cites Conway’s Law as supporting evidence of this practice.
By “liberating team members of ties to space and time”, teams have the potential become more lightweight, on top of companies benefitting from having less in-house infrastructure. However, working remotely also demands that developers are able to organise themselves better, prompting Westphal to add that “even more soft skills are needed”.
Matt Boyd from Sqwiggle, who are responsible for online collaboration software, published a piece about why some companies have purposely chosen to go ‘officeless’ and how they’re “accomplishing a high level of success in the process”.
It’s important to realise that companies are using this methodology and applying it into their daily workflow and finding major success in hiring good people and collaborating in real, tangible ways regardless of physical location.
According to Boyd, perks of a distributed development team include activity happening 24/7 in the case of WordPress, and work enjoyment increasing for the Buffer team due to remote opportunities. He highlights these as “major advantages to distributing your team and relying upon technology to remove the gap in communication”.
Westphal is adamant in his stance: “I believe that the time of co-location as the default is over”.
Given the communications opportunities that we have, it has reached the point where it is counterproductive. Yes, we have grown fond of the cooperation method. Somehow it’s also cozy amongst colleagues. But what do we want? Cuddling or convertible software?
Those communication opportunities mean using good tools, with Slack, HipChat, Skype, and Google Hangouts all being favoured by a majority of companies. For Westphal, while the “fathers of agility” meant well, they were severely limited in their experience with communication technology. With this barrier no longer deemed an issue, unhindered communication and high bandwidth has become the norm, meaning anything can be optimised.
Teleport have put together a crowdsourced list of startups and businesses who run distributed teams or believe in the future of remote work. As Boyd states, “it can be done because real teams are doing it”. But the question remains: is it better?