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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 Quit (Score:5, Insightful)

    by TechyImmigrant ( 175943 ) * on Friday November 24, 2006 @03:51AM (#16971568) Homepage Journal
    I didn't like my cube ridden environment. I quit and joined an employer who did these things better.
  • Can't be done. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by $pearhead ( 1021201 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @03:54AM (#16971588)
    Unfortunately, you can't.

    As one of my colleagues use to say: "You can't explain to someone who doesn't understand." (freely translated from Swedish).
  • Re:I Quit (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Genocaust ( 1031046 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @03:55AM (#16971592)
    Quit. Join the military. Sure, you'll get to see the sunny sands of such wonderful places as the UAE, Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan and others, but at least you usually have your own office / desk.
  • by jdblair ( 3634 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @03:55AM (#16971600)
    I've worked in closed offices and in cubicles, and they each have their plusses and minuses. The best thing about cubicles is that you overhear some of the conversations that other members of your team are having. This can be really helpful for a small team working on a complex project, as I sometimes overhear something I should know about, or something I can give useful input into. In other words, working in cubicles can be really good for team dynamics.

    On the other hand, the worst part about working in cubicles is the same thing-- your neighbor's loud conversation can be annoying and disturb your concentration. The lack of privacy can be annoying.

    On balance, if I like the team I'm working with, I prefer working in the cube farm.
  • by bunions ( 970377 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @03:55AM (#16971602)
    prefereably in a mainstream publication showing that, in fact, private offices and Aeron chairs are in fact cost-efective. If you can show this to management, you oughta be good to go. Showing them an article by Joel and saying "but ... but ... my concentration!" probably isn't gonna do it.

    I'm still dubious. I mean, yeah, sure, I'd much rather have a nice quiet office, an aeron and the fastest desktop available connected to dual 21" monitors. Who wouldn't? But does anyone actually have some sort of operational study showing that it does, in fact, increase productivity [i]that[/i] much? Joel makes a good case, but most of it is simply appeals to our programmer instincts, and has little to do with fact.
  • by plopez ( 54068 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @04:28AM (#16971784) Journal
    1) People are commodities. When one quits we can just hire another one jus as good...
    2) Cost, cost is everything. we need to squeeze every penny we can from floor space.
    3) Everyone else does it so it must work.
    4) Offices are reserved for high skill positions, like management.

    There you have it, how they think.
  • Re:I Quit (Score:3, Insightful)

    by CowboyBob500 ( 580695 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @04:31AM (#16971806) Homepage
    That's the only way to get through to these people. I also refuse to work in a cubicled environment, and I'm a contractor...

  • Call me crazy... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by georgewilliamherbert ( 211790 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @04:31AM (#16971808)
    ...but for anything other than programmer teams, I want my people talking and cooperating on fixing problems, and cubes, open offices, bullpens and the like work just dandy.

    I do IT operations and development rather than programming, so they are different work types. Joel may be right for cutting edge programmer productivity. But I've also seen very productive very loud programmer teams in open offices.

    Some programmers will do terribly in that environment, but many will either thrive on the noise or tune it out (or put on headphones).
  • by Harri ( 100020 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @04:33AM (#16971824) Homepage

    Being a "software engineer" doesn't mean that I spend my head down programming all the time. Half of being a competent engineer is teamwork, and that works much better in an open-plan office.

    I wonder whether people's objections to open-plan environments come from experiences with bad acoustics, or in offices shared between developers and sales staff that are on the phone all the time. In the open-plan offices I've been in, unwanted interruptions from other people's noise have been minimal - mainly due to good acoustic design, but also partly due to everybody being reasonably considerate and taking loud conversations off to a meeting room.

    Anyway, not all sofware engineers are hermits! Some of us are sociable!

  • Re:Productivity? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by frosty_tsm ( 933163 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @04:36AM (#16971836)
    Perhaps, but that's the mentality of the management.

    - Should an employee take a pay cut for something that makes them more productive?
    - Does a little goofing off really damage overall productivity?

    I say a happy, motivated employee who can concentrate when he wants to get stuff done is going to be far more valuable.
  • by mangastudent ( 718064 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @04:39AM (#16971862)
    I was going to mention Peopleware but neonux beat me to it. However, no matter how popular, well reasoned, etc. that book (and others) are, it's been out since 1987 and pretty much all of the industry ignores its messages on productivity.

    I think the only overall answer to this problem is a variant of Natural Selection. Companies like gasp Microsoft (despite all their internal/architectural/legacy problems), and I hear Google as well, manage to beat companies that don't "get it". And this is not just a component of why, but evidence of the understanding their management has about at least some of the things that are important.

  • Re:Can't be done. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by TheWanderingHermit ( 513872 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @05:08AM (#16972020)
    I think I'd add a bit and say, "You can't explain to someone who doesn't care to understand."
  • by JoeInnes ( 1025257 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @05:29AM (#16972108)
    As someone with insider knowledge, the microsoft system is very relaxed, and basically all they insist on is that you make the "code-drops", but apart from that, it's entirely your call. You can work from home, stay in the building, whatever. (This is in the UK) Joe
  • by ArsenneLupin ( 766289 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @05:39AM (#16972178)
    This is not a problem in NZ. Is this an American thing? I work in an open plan office in NZ at an un-named Tertiary institution and its great. There are anywhere between 5-7 of us in the room at any time and the communication within the team is excellent, thought provocative and means we're not just staring at a screen all day, which needs time away from now and then.

    5 - 7 is not that much people. Try 30 instead. Or 50.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 24, 2006 @05:54AM (#16972276)
    Apparently, the modern American worker is a whiny pussy. I've worked in open plan offices my entire working life now, and currently sit in an office with upto 60 people in it. It's great. We can communicate easily without bollocking around too much. I've not heard a single person complain of being distracted, quite possibly because people have common sense and don't tend to have loud conversations over the heads of others, and they take their mobile 'phones out of the office if they need to make a call.

    So yeah, it seems it is an American thing. The rest of the world gets on fine with open plan. Whine on though, I say: the whiny American workforce will only end up costing their employers more money, which in the long run will just mean more work for us as the same employers move jobs to lower cost centres.
  • by Shaper_pmp ( 825142 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @06:53AM (#16972660)
    I'm a non-USian who has worked in several open-plan offices and hated it.

    Is it made impossible to concentrate simply by virtue of the fact the office is open-plan? No.

    Does it mean it's impossible to guarantee an environment conducive to concentration, irrespective of how much you really, really need to concentrate? Yes.

    Does it make it more likely that any interruption to any other worker in the office will also interrupt you, or break your concentration? Yes.

    Does it mean you're in contact with many other people, so your "chance of being noisily interrupted" must be multiplied by the number of people in the office? Yes.

    Does it mean that one inconsiderate person out of a whole office can damage much more than their own productivity? Yes.

    (n.b. Bad managers are notoriously bad for underestimating the loss of productivity when they break your concentration for something trivial. I've had a manager complaining about my productivity who used to shout down the length of the room to ask my e-mail address, when I'd worked for him for two years, my address was in his Outlook address book and even when he had it written down in his desk drawer. And once you drop the eggs [] it can take half an hour or more to get back up to speed again. In a busy, noisy department with 50 people in it, you can easily go entire months without achieving flow state [] even once.)

    Also, although of course there's a heft amount of deviation, national character might have something to do with it, too. The Swedish and Dutch people I've met tend to be very considerate and quiet, while the Americans (as a nation) to tend more to the loud, less considerate "get-things-done-even-if-I-have-to-shout-while-I-d o-it" stereotype.
  • Re:Telecommuting (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Martix ( 722774 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @07:24AM (#16972790)
    I was working for a place were i could do 80% of the work at home.

    But the people I was working for did not like the idea.

    The only time i did work at home is during a bad snow storm were it was not safe to drive the 150 Km to work.

    THe job was building control panels and pc boards as well as PLC programing.

    With that job I just needed to be in the office/work space for install and final testing so it could be shiped out and pick up the next pile of parts ect.

    I could build the units faster at home with less distractions The dreaded phone ect.

    Saveings for the company one less workspace/office needed

    In the end the company when belly up because of cost over runs office space ect.

    I for one don't miss the 2 hour average drive to work and back home.

    Now I work nearby travel 10 minutes to work and do some part time repair work at home for a sound and lighting company.

    Making more money because im not burning up 160 dollars in gas a week and the car will last longer.
    As well as enjoying more home time with my family.

    I also do a part time bussness at home now restoring old records and 78 ect as well.( got more time because of less travel)

    If more people would and could telecommut it would do a lot for the planet.
    and the quailty of life.

    But some have the old school mentalaty if not in the office not working but if you got someting to show at the end of the week. EI control panels to install or paperwork done and brought in so you can pick up the next batch/work list.

  • by Aceticon ( 140883 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @07:24AM (#16972792)
    You could start by adjusting your pitch:
    - Sounding angry doesn't help
    - Teleworking is a whole different ball game. There's a lot more factors in teleworking that just offering a potential work environment.
    - Going for private offices with Aeron chairs is a long shot and it weakens your whole argument.

    I'll explain:
    - Nobody negociates with angry people
    - Teleworking can decrease communication within the team. In my experience phoneing the guy working from home is harder than just turning your head and talking to him - this does not affect discussion of "immediate and important" factors/issues but does affect all others. Above all, the person working from home will be much less likelly to "absorve knowledge from the shared knowledge pool of his collegues" (in other words, that person is less part of the gestalt that is the team). Also, some people work beter out of home, either because of their personality (some people work beter working alongside other people) or because their home environment is not conducent to concentration (for example, due to noisy kids).
    - Two points:
    a) In our current corporate culture, private offices are still seen a symbol of status, which in practice means they're a management perk.
    b) Why are you going for expensive chair associated with the excesses of the dot-com bust?

    I sugest aiming for group offices - closed spaces with 5 or 6 people. Big enough for a team, small enough to significantly reduce noise and visual distractions. Best of all, it helps build team spirit.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 24, 2006 @07:51AM (#16972948)
    Yes, try changing your organization to being 6 times as large and then you'll find that the unrealistic assumption of TFAS:

    "It is not, and we all know it"

    May become slightly more true.

    I mean the whole concept that "we all know" that cubicles / open-plan offices are bad is bullshit to begin with, so there's no way we can simply "communicate" this "fact" to management.

    Every company I have ever worked in has used open-plan offices with 8-20 people and there has not been any problem.

    If the stupid precept TFAS was trying to get across was modified to say "open-plan offices are bad for 40+ people" then I might agree, but at the moment we're being asked to prove something that simply isn't true.

    A lot of us don't work in offices with more than 10 people and the idea of shutting people away into offices is dumb, as is the idea that everyone will be able to communicate effectively if they are all at home. I can't believe I'm reading a question that says open-plan offices are bad and raises telecommuting as a sensible way to run a business. It's telecommuting that's the dumb idea, and the managers all know it. Email and IM simply do not have the bandwidth of face-to-face communication. Unless you really are just stuck in front of a terminal all day doing your own work which never interfaces to anyone else's, telecommuting does not work.

    But here we have a situation where all managers are supposed to be "idiots" that need to show humility to the uberknowledge of the geeks; whereas the geeks show absolutely no inclination to look at the subjects sensibly or from a business-oriented perspective. The evidence is in the careless way the precept is phrased - such as to make it not even true. Yeah, people, let us all go to our managers and tell them in absolute terms that open-plan offices are always bad with no evidence or even common sense to back us up. That's "communication", right?

    Or maybe it's just the rise of the pointy-haired programmer.
  • 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.

  • You missed a step (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Brave Guy ( 457657 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @08:25AM (#16973086)

    There's a pretty obvious implicit assumption in the article that private offices (I don't know what Aeron chairs have to do with anything) are better than open plan offices. There's plenty of research that suggests otherwise, at least in some lines of work.

    In response to others posting in this subthread, yes, I work in an open plan office with around 25 other people on this floor, and yes, we have a couple of guys who work in other one-man offices and effectively telecommute. The extra impromptu conversations, which are the main advantage of being open plan, are very helpful. For the rest, there's not much that can't be addressed with some simple courtesy to fellow workers, providing enough properly-equipped meeting rooms and using them sensibly, occasional on-site visits by teleworkers, etc.

  • by Shaper_pmp ( 825142 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @08:32AM (#16973122)
    Close. What I'm saying is "closed doors offer a more substantial layer of protection from assholes".

    Walls and doors cut down on the unintentional noise of people around you, and a closed or locked door offers a strong social proscription against interruption. Hell, in the worst case you can just not answer the door and pretend you were out when they (briefly) knocked.

    In open-plan offices some people end up being assholes without even intending it. Offices effectively raise the barrier to entry for assholedom.
  • by antirelic ( 1030688 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @09:28AM (#16973478) Journal
    The IT industry needs to take lessons from the automobile industry. Why, in 2006, with dozens of virtual meeting software solutions available (both free and not free), team work applications, secure networking, and remote desktop access does the world bother "going to the office"? I have remotely administered datacenters for years without ever having to step foot into them, yet I have to come into an office so I can sit at a computer terminal (that I could have always accessed from home via VPN). With only 1 meeting a week, I only talk to the people I want to about what I want to, and it usually is never work related, and usually occurs out of the line of site, and over top of the cubicle. If hardware needs to be fixed or updated, I can see coming in to work. Hell, I can even see coming in to work to have "team meetings", but forcing people to drive into a cube forest, to sit for 8 hours a day, to do something they could easily do at home, and STILL have the same amount of communication options available, is rather ridiculous. Why is the IT industry so anti-technology? I'd argue that using a virtual office is IN FACT more productive to an IT workforce. This forces you to leverage your workgroup tools, as opposed to getting up, away from your computer, email and telephone, to walk over, sit next to someone who is going to "show you something", and then proceed to talk about absolute nonsense for the next 30 mins until you get back to your desk. "telecomutting" doesnt mean "anarchy". You can still have enforceable standards such as "logging in" at a certain time and not logging off until a certain time. As mentioned in previous posts, just because you "show up" to an office doesnt mean your working, just like sitting there staring at a wall doesnt mean your not working either.
  • by rfc1394 ( 155777 ) <> on Friday November 24, 2006 @09:35AM (#16973540) Homepage Journal

    If you're going to get management to understand the reasons for better treatment of programmers, you have to make a business case argument. The simple matter is to argue (in the sense of making a proposal, not in the sense of expressing anger) that it is more cost effective to do it this way.

    Software developers are skilled professionals - or they should be, anyway - and professionals need proper tools and resources to be at their highest productivity levels. Higher productivity means more value for every peso spent. No one would expect even a moderately competent surgeon to work in a dark and cramped operating room with dull tools, doing every job in the operating room with no support staff, and expect anything but sub-par, low grade work with a very high mortality rate. And you wouldn't expect it of a world-class surgeon either.

    And this is exactly the state of software development today in the places that don't make it possible for their software development staff to do anything but sub-par, low grade work with a high probability of failure and an strong likelihood of cancellation of projects as unfinished and a waste of valuable resources.

    The purpose in having a programming staff is to deveop the software tools that allow your organization to obtain the one thing that no other organization in the world has: a competitive advantage and a reason for the customer to select your company over all of your competitors.

    Every piece of hardware you can purchase commercially, and every piece of shrink-wrapped software you buy does nothing but give you the same tools as your competitors have, because you all can (and do) buy from the same suppliers. Software either makes your company more efficient - that it can get more done with less resources than your competitors - or it gives you the capacity to offer products or services that are markedly better than anyone else, or potentially unavailable from anyone else.

    If software isn't there to give you a competitive edge relative to your customers, then what do you have software developers for? Why even bother to have them if you aren't getting something more than every other company with a checkbook? Fire them all and use off-the-shelf applications. If you have software developers, the whole idea is that what they are capable of doing, that no other people can do, is supply you with something different that no other company has, that you can use that difference as a competitive edge that makes your company more valuable to your customers than any of your competitors.

    An advertising company can purchase office supplies from anyone else, they can hire - or freelance - artists to do drawings, photographers and models for ad campaigns, announcers for voice overs, but none of these things can give them a competitive edge because everyone else can buy from the same suppliers, and none of these things will make a difference other than in the technical quality of the ads they produce. The competitive edge is in the people who can think up a great idea for an ad campaign that works to sell the customer's product or service. That competitive edge is something you can't buy, you need high-quality people who can think to get it.

    If you're in the business of selling a commodity product or service that they can buy from anyone else, your sales people are the stars that allow you to make a difference because your salespeople can give your customers new ideas on how to use your product or service more effectively, or show your customers reasons to use your product or service over anyone else. And for that, sales people are paid high salaries, or they get special compensation packages. Because the extra resources that they get provide the company with a competitive advantage.

    The same thing applies to any company that uses software developers to create software used in their business. If your business is the development of software, this is an even more imperative issue, because the software you sell is the only thing t

  • by AbRASiON ( 589899 ) * on Friday November 24, 2006 @10:26AM (#16974012) Journal
    Radios should be OUTLAWED at ALL office style workplaces unless an anonymous vote of ALL staff within earshot chose yes.

  • by coldtone ( 98189 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @12:00PM (#16974950)
    Putting people in cube farms is how a business tells you:

    1. Your job is easy to do.
    2. You are not vital to the companies goals.
    3. You are easy to replace.
    4. You are not likely to find anything better.

    Are they wrong?
  • by mikael ( 484 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @01:19PM (#16975854)
    It does - some European cultures (noticeably Mediterranean) do seem to respect personal space less highly than the UK/US does.

    Some time ago, there was study done in the UK which showed that the personal space of a person was determined by the population density of the area that the person lived in. For someone in the countryside, the personal space is around 90 centimetres, while someone from London, the personal space is around 60 centimetres. This was made most obvious when attempting to cross a moderately busy shopping street or chatting at a party, and you found yourself wanting to take a step sideways or backwards.
  • by jc42 ( 318812 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @01:28PM (#16975974) Homepage Journal
    It's telecommuting that's the dumb idea, and the managers all know it. Email and IM simply do not have the bandwidth of face-to-face communication.

    Well, yes and no. As with the claim that cubicles and open-plan offices are always bad, this also depends on the task.

    Historically, technical people have often collaborated very effectively via print media. The reason is well understood: There are a lot of technical concepts that can't be expressed easily in English or any other "human" language. To communicate effectively, you need to use a blackboard or a piece of paper - or email. Things like equations, diagrams and software can't be communicated effectively via a speech medium; they can only be expressed in writing.

    I've seen this on a lot of projects. Very often, I end up just listening quietly in meetings, because it's obvious that people aren't communicating very well. Afterwards, I'll type up my analysis and suggestions, and email them. That's where the actual communication takes place. Then management wants a meeting to discuss things, and we have another meeting where people are talking past each other, and again I mostly sit and listen.

    Note that I'm not claiming that this is always true. Some topics can be discussed verbally. And if the group's problems are mostly personal, verbal interactions can be the fastest way to get to the crux of the problems.

    But saying that telecommuting is a dumb idea is itself a dumb idea, as bad as claiming that open office plans are always wrong. Some of the most effective computing projects have been done by groups that never meet face to face. I've done some successful projects with people that I've never met. And I've seen group meetups that were quite enjoyable and successful social occasions, but which didn't contribute at all to the project's progress.

    It all depends on what you need to communicate, and what's the best language for that communication.

  • by kabz ( 770151 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @05:46PM (#16978300) Homepage Journal
    I'm just a cube drone in a big 200 people cube farm now, but about 18 years ago I worked there too, after I graduated in 1988, and at that point we were mainly one to an office as I remember. I had a big office upstairs with the purple chaise longue where I could take a nap in the afternoon. Chris and our state of the art Dell 286 worked on hardware and board layout along the corridor, and Martin(?) was in an adjacent office. Dave and Mark had offices in the other direction towards the tennis courts. James and Neville were downstairs, with the secretaries being posted along the entrance hall. My wife and I still refer to my 'home office' as 'The Batcave'. Good times, good times.

    Back on-topic, I've worked in open plan areas and a true open plan area populated with only your project team is a pretty good setup. Sadly the company I currently work for just resized the group of 4 cubes into group of six cubes (two long areas with 100 people each side), but with judicious positioning, it's possible to manipulate your nest into something workable. On the whole I work from home or in the giant empty 'overflow room', or off-site at a clients whenever I can swing it. Of course, 'managers' have windowed and doored offices around the edges, from which they can swoop down and annoy you whenever you approach getting into 'flow'. In fact I mainly do 'admin' during working hours, and all my real programming gets done at the kitchen table on weekends, or when working from home.

    One day we'll look back on cubicles as a really 'bad idea'.

The shortest distance between two points is under construction. -- Noelie Alito