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How To Get Rid of the Cubicle? 368

wikinerd writes "How can we get rid of the widely hated cubicle and its ugly cousin, the stressing open-plan office? Some business owners and managers cannot understand the advantages of teleworking, different office layouts, or the morale benefits of private offices with Aeron chairs. There are still people in high positions who seem to think that stuffing a bunch of engineers into a noisy landscaped office is the best way to organize a company. It is not, and we all know it, but can we prove it? How can we communicate to them the fact that living in a groundhog warren is bad not only for the engineers, but also for the organization?"
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How To Get Rid of the Cubicle?

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  • I like open plan (Score:5, Informative)

    by tom17 ( 659054 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @03:55AM (#16971596) Homepage
    Is it just me?

    I have worked in IT environments in both Open plan with cubicles, Small offices of about 4 and open plan with desks.

    I preferred both of the open plan options (i.e. with or without cubicles) than the small office. It may get noisy at times but it can be more sociable too.

    Maybe I am just a freak...
  • In the UK... (Score:5, Informative)

    by linuxci ( 3530 ) * on Friday November 24, 2006 @03:59AM (#16971618)
    In the UK open plan offices are very common but cubes are virtually unheard of. I've heard very few complaints about open plan offices in the UK, as long as there's a decent amount of space between people then it's fine and can create a good atmosphere, too crowded and then it can be a pain.

    However, people who are used to their own private office will find the extra noise disturbing and there's a problem where you can't just close a door when you don't want disturbed.

    Where I work the next two levels of management are also in the open plan office. Not sure about the people above them, they're on a different floor and I've never needed to visit them.
  • by neonux ( 1000992 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @04:26AM (#16971766) Homepage

    Read Peopleware and offer it to your manager for Christmas, this book is the bible about productivity in IT.

    It is extensively implemented at Google (and Microsoft for instance) by letting each developer have his own desk - with the door shut - or have a small desk with 2 to 4 people inside, in order to improve focus as it is critical developers doesn't lose focus too often as it is very easy to do when you work in a open space.

    A typical developer needs 15 minutes to get into the "mental flow" of productive work, so even if he is disturbed for only 3 minutes, he will really lose about 15+3 minutes because of the delay of being in the right/productive "mental flow" again.

    Additionnaly this book is all about employee happiness == employee productivity. ts-Teams-Ed/dp/0932633439 []
  • Re:I like open plan (Score:5, Informative)

    by man_of_mr_e ( 217855 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @04:28AM (#16971780)
    Actually, Microsoft has done a lot of work in this area. They have a model they claim works very well for creative teams, consisting of a "common" open work area with reconfigurable moving walls you can write on, surrounded by shared offices, plus "escape pods" where people can go be alone with their project. You can see a channel 9 video on this here: 21 []

    It's very interesting.
  • by emmagsachs ( 1024119 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @04:33AM (#16971820)
    Everything is looked at through the lens of the Dollar. As management listens to whatever research and advisory firms already output, let's see what Gartner, as an example, has to say on the subject., July 2, 2004 []:
    As vice president for research firm Gartner, the world's largest IT research group, he's studied the question at length and learned that just because a new technology makes something possible, it does not, sadly, make that very thing probable... "I can point to clear examples where call centers are highly virtualized," says Raskino, "with agents working almost entirely from their homes." But when he speaks to other managers about how virtual technologies are being used, they look at him in utter disbelief. "They say, 'Can it be possible? I'm sure our unions won't accept it.' The forces of inertia get in the way. They don't stop the change, of course. They just slow it down.", 30 Oct 2001 []:
    In his October 30 address at Symposium/ITxpo 2001 in Brisbane. Gartner vice president and research director Simon Hayward... enjoyed poking fun at today's cubicle environment, using the cartoon character Dilbert to help him out. "It's not just the workers who are objecting to the cubicle culture," he told his audience. "Managers also recognize that people will be more effective if the environment is better adapted to the reality of work.", October 01, 2006 []:
    Another factor pushing companies to reconsider office space is the widening gap between what workers need and what workplaces provide. At one time, office employees labored primarily in solitude; today, they spend two-thirds of their time collaborating, according to Gartner. But offices are still set up for the old style of work. "In most companies, you find that conference rooms are overbooked while offices and cubicles are empty," says Mark Golan, Cisco's vice president of worldwide real estate and the chairman of CoreNet. "It's insane. Not only is it wasteful, it doesn't suit the needs of your workforce."

    Even if you can build the case against cubicles, you still need to be able to communicate with management. That means, y'know, diplomacy, communication skills, a lil bit of cunning, and what not.

    Nevertheless, you might be heard, but don't expect them to listen.
    Of course, if they've already invested in cubicles, tough luck. Nothing's gonna change their minds. Cubicles might be less productive than other office layouts, but dumping an existing design == dumping money. Bad ROI.

    As for Aeron chairs? Why not demand an onsite spa and inhouse office-desk pizza delivery while you're at it?
  • by kahei ( 466208 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @09:19AM (#16973402) Homepage

    I worked for a long time in the US, in a cubicle, and I hated cubicles (I hate shoulder-height 'half cubicles' even more, though). I can't say why, I just hate them, and I think everyone agrees with me.

    In the UK, as you say, cubicles are very rare and open-plan is the rule. Where I work now, there's about 8-16 people, working on roughly the same sort of thing at the same level, in one room. It works fine. But at most places I've worked, entire floors or half-floors are open plan -- maybe 200-500 people per floor. This is awful.

    The reasons it's awful are:

    1 -- the 'Space Odyssey' effect. Cielings tend to be pretty low in new build offices, and when the ceiling is low and goes on forever, covered in striplights, the dazzle effect when you look into the distance is horrible for me.

    2 -- higher proportion of flourescent lights. In a small room, people bring in lamps if they don't have a window. In a floor of 500 people, there's no point, so unless you are right at the edge the only light sources are flickering ones. argh.

    3 -- distraction. In a real classic UK office, I'm within 'being annoyed by personal phone calls' radius of maybe 50 or 100 people!

    4 -- fear. The fact that there are always people moving around behind me translates into constant alertness (for me at least).

    5 -- despair. A grid of 500 desks just makes the fundamental pointlessness of work a lot more obvious.

    I have worked in open-plan places (in America & Asia) that take steps to improve things -- for example, giving the open-plan zone an irregular twisting shape helps a bit, having private rooms around the edge helps a bit, having gaps or balconies helps, and actually open-plan offices like this, where you aren't exposed to the whole floor all the time, aren't bad. But London in particular seems to go for the 'endless bright white expanse of flourescent lights' and it's really grim.

  • Re:fp (Score:4, Informative)

    by Baldrake ( 776287 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @10:04AM (#16973790)
    Upper management loves stats; give them stats.

    And here's where to get them [].

    This book, Excellence by Design, came out of the MIT School of Architecture and Planning's Space Planning and Organization Research Group (SPORG), and links the use of space in offices to productivity, within the domain of the kind of work being carried out.

  • by meburke ( 736645 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @11:24AM (#16974600)
    The researcher who invented/championed function point analysis for IBM (Albrecht) also wrote a study that proved that, on the whole, programmers were more effective if they shared no more than 4 people to a work area and the personal workspace was about 200 square feet. Unfortunately I can't put my hands on the analysis right now, but someone could look it up. Again, this was on the whole, meaning averages. In a case like this, I'd be interested to know what the exceptions were, particularly the exceptions that produced the highest productivity.

    Another former IBM'r, Tom DeMarco (Guru of Structured Analysis and Entity diagrams) wrote a book called, "Peopleware", and his conclusion was that programmers needed good-sized office space with no more than two people per office.

    A number of the best architectural engineering offices I've seen use an open plan that promotes workflow. I suspect that a drafting table plus workspace produces enough anti-crowding to promote effectiveness.

    A call for a new office plan is useless unless it solves a problem. A problem is a discrepancy between the way things are and the way you want them to be. If the discrepancy is a performance problem, jumping to solutions without a full analysis is probably counter-productive. (I've seen hundreds of thousands of dollars spent implementing changes that don't have any effect on the actual problem.) There is a good book, "Analyzing Performance Problems" by Mager and Pipe, that truly simplify the process, and another, "The New Rational Manager" by Kepner and Tregoe, that teaches a more formal method.

    If your manager says he would commit to spending $100,000 on a new office plan, could you GUARANTEE $300,000 payback on the investment? (Pick your amount...$100,000 is just an example.) If not, you don't have a problem well-enough defined. Try a different approach: Read, "The Goal" and "It's Not Luck" by Goldratt, and figure out your bottlenecks. It's surprising how often the bottleneck is not an environmental problem, but a policy.
  • by oneiros27 ( 46144 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @12:20PM (#16975174) Homepage
    Microsoft Research did the study on dual monitors [] and larger monitors years ago.

    More details:And to support arguments for a closed-door office:... but there's probably more specific research out there on the topic.

    Even at 9% improvement, it'll easily pay for itself in a few weeks when you consider the total cost of keeping an employee (typically 2x their annual salary) [Note -- it mostly relates to people working on multiple tasks or dealing with large amounts of information, so it may not hold true for all tasks, but you can just forget to mention that part to your boss]
  • Re:Simple solution (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 24, 2006 @06:35PM (#16978734)
    I think it was Gortex (they make weather resistant clothing I think). I believe it was in The Tipping Point by Malcom Gladwell
  • by kaffiene ( 38781 ) on Sunday November 26, 2006 @06:20PM (#16995354)
    Email and IM simply do not have the bandwidth of face-to-face communication.
    No they don't, but not everybody needs to communicate with face-to-face level of bandwidth continuously throughout the day. Also, there is
    still this thing called a telephone, which provides more bandwidth than e-mail and IM, and is sometimes useful when telecommuting. It might
    not be reasonable to run a company based 100% on telecommuting, but to suggest that it (telecommuting) is a dumb idea in general flies in the
    face of a lot of experience that suggests otherwise. It just has be be applied properly, like any other tool.
    I used to work in a company that had remote offices that we would work with - using phone and email as the primary communication conduits. It sucked. It's much easier to work with people in your office than people you don't see face-to-face.

    I'm sorry, but I have lots of practical experience that says that telecommuting is crap. We'd do that from time to time for a *break* from routine, but as a standard work practice, it's not at all very good.

"The one charm of marriage is that it makes a life of deception a neccessity." - Oscar Wilde