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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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  • by NerveGas ( 168686 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @04:06AM (#16971644)

          Our company moved into a relatively nice office building, paying quite a bit of rent, just because the president of the company thought that it gave us more credibility - even though we rarely have ANYONE from the industry come to our offices.

          One day, I took the VP aside and gave him some numbers - I showed him that if we were able to telecommute, we could run a t1 to every employee's home, and still come out a few thousand cheaper each month than rent. Because the VP once new someone who slacked off when telecommuting, he completely rejected the idea. Ah, well.

          Even though we're officially a non-telecommuting office, that doesn't mean that it doesn't happen. When I really don't feel like going in to the office, I call and tell them that I can either work from home that day, or just take the day off. I usually get to work from home.

  • Telecommuting (Score:3, Interesting)

    by EmbeddedJanitor ( 597831 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @04:08AM (#16971654)
    Beats everything! Just like offshoring, except no damn foreigners!

    Lots of selling points: No office space costs. Employees pay for own coffee. Envionmentally friendly. It is the new wave.

  • Office (Score:3, Interesting)

    by slidersv ( 972720 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @04:14AM (#16971692) Journal
    If top management believes it's the best choice, no staff would convince them otherwise. The only way i see it is form some kind of petition BEFORE your company is moving to new offices or before reconstruction.
    I'm not sure how the petition would work when everything is already in place.

    Few complaints here and there isn't going to deter top management's belief.

    Fortunately my company has open-space for some and offices for others, so all I had to do is get promoted. Some companies do not offer offices for nobody but the top-management. Then if it bothers you that much, you could either rise through ranks to board member, or join another company.
  • Re:Simple solution (Score:5, Interesting)

    by killjoe ( 766577 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @04:31AM (#16971798)
    Depends on your company doesn't it? I used to work for a giant company. The decisions about our working conditions were made across the country literally thousands of miles away. Yes you could email those people but they literally had no idea who you were and didn't give a flying fuck. To them your entire location was just one number on the spreadsheet. If updrading the bathroom so that it doesn't smell like stale ass made that number go up then they wouldn't do it.

    In large companies it's another world. At my company when the programmers requested offices with doors (two to an office) the company refused. When the assistant to the accountant demanded an office she got one. The only office available was too big for her position so they spent a ton of money making the office smaller. What's odd is that making the office smaller for her actually cost more then building walls in the programmers space to give the programmers walls (we know this because we got quotes from the same construction company).

  • by mwanaheri ( 933794 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @04:36AM (#16971832)
    On balance, if I like the team I'm working with, I prefer working in the cube farm.
    According to my personal experience, the most efficient team-size is up to five. If you group your teams in offices, there is no need for cubes. Big pro of non-cube: you see where the noise comes from. I find that less disturbing/hate producing. Having your teams in offices, a good placement of coffemaker and xerox machine makes inter-team communication easier. Corridor-drums are very efficient.
  • Re:Simple solution (Score:2, Interesting)

    by polar red ( 215081 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @04:37AM (#16971840)
    strike. We IT-people let shit on our heads to much.
  • by shawnmchorse ( 442605 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @04:49AM (#16971912) Homepage

    Granted, I can see where an open plan might be stressing in a corporate environment. Fortunately I'm not in one of those, and instead work in an office with anywhere from three to ten others. We have a few visual barriers around (bookcases sitting on desks), but for the most part are desks are all open and right next to each other. I find this the most productive way to work on things, overall. If I need to ask a question or consult with someone, all I do is take off my headphones and stand up. It also keeps me more focused on what I'm doing overall, since others can chat with me just as easily (and that tends to remind me of what I should be doing at the time). I'm positive that I'd get a lot less work done in a private office with nobody bothering me, because I'd get sidetracked on random things for too long.

    My one caveat is that desks should, if possible, never be arranged such that people can walk up behind you without you seeing them. I carefully positioned my desk when moving into our current office so that I could see both the door and the hallway leading to actual offices, and that may be a key reason why I don't think it's stressing.

  • Re:I Quit (Score:4, Interesting)

    by cliffski ( 65094 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @05:00AM (#16971978) Homepage
    Best answer. You shouldnt spend half your working life explaining to your higher-paid employer how he is doing his job wrong. I went one further and quit entirely and now work for myself. My employer has a perfect grasp of what I need to boost my productivity.
  • by Archibald Buttle ( 536586 ) <> on Friday November 24, 2006 @06:08AM (#16972350)
    Couldn't agree more. I like working in an open plan office. When I want to isolate myself I just plug in my headphones.

    I've worked both as a developer, and as a manager, up to CTO position, always in open plan offices. Not all members of senior staff want to be locked away from the action.

    I'm used to some noise and people talking about what they're doing. Indeed a recent job of mine was at an online music store and we usually had music playing the whole day. What I'm finding not great about my current office is it's a bit too quiet for me - the place is virtually silent with everyone quietly doing their thing, little discussion about what's going on. 99% of the time all I can hear is people typing and the air conditioning; as a result I'm tending to feel somewhat isolated and not so much part of a team.
  • Re:I like open plan (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Znork ( 31774 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @06:48AM (#16972632)
    "but it can be more sociable too."

    Very true. That would be one of the great upsides if my employer actually paid me to be sociable, and if 'chatting with coworkers' had it's own fully financed timesheet code.

    I dont dislike open plan offices, and I'd like them even more if they came with beer. But frankly, they're just not very conductive to actual work.
  • by mark ( 495 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @06:59AM (#16972698)
    Cube farms are offices designed by people who don't know how to design things. It's hardly surprising that they are shitty places to work.

    Offices isolate the members of what should be a reasonably social job (software development) from one another, so that's no good either. who wants to work in a rabbit warren?

    open-plan has problems too. some people need to have spaces where they can be approached discreetly. that's why many open-plan spaces still have some separated spaces. it's nothing to do with elitism. i have an isolated and private desk space, in a corner with a bookshelf between me and everyone else. i need this because at least half of my day is spent on the phone to clients, and even if the constant sound of my voice didn't drive my staff mad, the sound of my staff would send my clients away. my staff also need to be able to approach me with personal matters -- if not in complete privacy then at least with discretion.

    if I have a developer complaining of a lack of productivity then i suggest that they work from home for a while. unfortunately, telecommuting comes with it's own set of problems, and if you let someone telecommute for too long then my experience has been that they start to disconnect from the other people in the office and become, effectively, an outsider (or worse: kind of paranoid). this situation is clearly not in anyone's interest, so my policy is that telecommuting be limited to distinct periods for specific jobs, and not be a regular way of work.

    Speaking as one of "them", who was formerly one of "you", I think that offices are overrated. I've had them and I prefer the space we now share to any office I've ever had in the past.
  • Re:I like open plan (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Tim Browse ( 9263 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @07:39AM (#16972882)

    The best environment I've ever worked in was an office that was an old country house [], and most offices had 2 people in them. A few had 3 people. It's probably still the most productive environment.

    However, one of the reasons was that there was a communal kitchen (well, when I say kitchen, it was a sink/drink making facilities at the end of the corridor), and people used to go there for tea/coffee breaks at 11am and 3pm. And when I say those times, I mean we would do it religiously. There was no official time or anything, it just seemed to be a subconscious consensus (it sometimes reminded me of synchronisation of menstruation via pheromones, but only superficially :-)).

    The important thing was, those coffee breaks would often last 30-40 minutes. To a manager, that seems like an awful lot of wasted time - 15 coders standing around chatting for an hour a day. But the important point was that was where/how we socialised, and how a lot of problems were solved. It probably saved a lot of time, because you had 15 smart people standing around hearing (mostly) about what everyone was working on that day, and the problems that had come up. Everyone knew what was going on in all the other sections of the project they were working on, and how things were going.

    Interestingly, when a kitchen was opened upstairs (we were on two floors) the staff then split into two kitchen groups. The managers were upstairs (along with some of the coders), and the downstairs guys often complained that they were out of the loop, and didn't get to hear about everything they should have. So it's a tricky balance, but like I say, I've never been so productive. Other aspects of the company were less than ideal, but the physical working environment was pretty good.

    I still can't believe I only drank 2 cups of tea a day while working there...that can't be right.

  • by fantomas ( 94850 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @07:42AM (#16972898)
    Ok, I'll raise to your bait. I'm in the UK and I hate open plan offices. There you go! one more complaint to add to your "few" :-)

    I'm a PhD student in a department of the Open University (yes there are on-campus postgrad students at the Open University). I work in an open plan office. I'll say up front we get a generous amount of space, a big desk, our own shelf space, comfy chairs. There are 24 spaces divided into 6 areas. These are in the middle of a whole floor single room area. But not everybody 'lives' here: this is how the building was designed, but then the senior management insisted that they needed offices, so offices for the more important people were built the length of the floor on both sides against the windows. So we have offices down the sides (one and two person) and open plan up the middle.

    I can't concentrate in the open plan area: there is too much noise. It's ok if I just want to do routine work, but if I have to think hard then there are just too many noise distractions. I think there's some basic sociology happening here: I don't believe 20 or so people can all be on the same work rhythm. 4 people in an office maybe: you can negotiate when is 'heads down hard concentrating' time and when is 'ok lets let off some steam and chat about tv/sport/whatever' time. I just don't think this can happen with 24 people. Particularly in an office like ours where people keep different time schedules. I don't think people are being selfish, they just forget other people are maybe in a different head state at different times. Some people can work with headphones on listening to music, but me, I just end up concentrating on the music....

    Add to this the offices down the side: I've noticed an interesting effect: people will go into the rooms to do serious business and have their meetings, but as they leave the office, standing in the doorway, they have broken out of serious business mode and that's the place they carry out the chit-chat /social grooming ("how are the kids? did you see the football last night? let me tell you a funny joke..."). And... standing in the doorway means - 1.5 metres from somebody in the open plan area's desk!!! So we get the disruptive social chat.

    Also at one end of the floor is the entrance, at the other end is the meeting room. So we get passing meeting room traffic. Another distraction. Grrr. Life in a goldfish bowl when you are trying to do the hardest work of your life. What do I do? I pay for a broadband connection and work from home....

    Sorry about the length of the post, you can see this has been therapy letting off some steam, grin!!!

  • Re:Simple solution (Score:4, Interesting)

    by kilodelta ( 843627 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @09:14AM (#16973326) Homepage
    I don't recall where I read it but some time back someone had posted a long explanation that 150 was a magic number. That was the point at which everyone knew everyone else in an organization (even a company!) and anything over that meant that you had a serious disconnect going on.

    There's a manufacturer in Delaware that practices this. Each factory caps at 150 people and then they open a new facility, until that too gets to 150 people and so on.

    What they found was that productivity and communication improved in such circumstances. And it doesn't mean you can't have large companies, what it means is that you've broken management down into units where the so called leader now knows the employee. Makes a big difference.

    When I worked for a major university, it was hard to get to know the people because there were so many staff. But then when I worked for a state agency with only 238 people it became easier. Even then, my strategy was to get to know the support people in the various groups, they'd then clue you in to other details.
  • Peopleware (Score:4, Interesting)

    by famebait ( 450028 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @09:15AM (#16973336)
    Buy the boss a copy of the book "Peopleware" for christmas. It goes into great detail in documenting how stressful environments do not make economic sense, in a way that is believable for business people too.

    That said, private offices are not necessarily the best solution. People who work together on the same thing can get great benefits from sitting together. The tragedy of the cube farms and open plan offoces is that they are almost never used for what the whole point was: to rearrange frequently according to needs.

    My ideal office has "project rooms" that can house a handful of people working together, and shielded them fom disturbance from other groups. Enhances communication, less disturbance overall, and the noise there is is less of a problem, because noise from someone working on the same thing as you is much less distrubing than noise from unrelated activities.

    But a good and often more realistic runner-up is to just lobby for the opportunity to use the capabilities that cube systems and open office plans offer: arrange your project group togeter. Use a lagoon layout (sit back-to back) so you get a "safe" and cohesive "inside" area, a good perimiter to shield against the rest of the world, and easy access to scoot over to your coworker when you want to show or discuss something. Avoid the more obvious island arrangement (face-to-face), where monitors act as walls betweeen project partners, and you ahve to take a walk to see someone else's screen, the outside world stresses you out behind your back, anf the feng shui is just generally destructive.
  • I just quit (Score:3, Interesting)

    by cdn-programmer ( 468978 ) <> on Friday November 24, 2006 @10:25AM (#16974002)
    I quit a long time ago since I'm an old fart (and a PHB).

    I just quit. Programmers need solitude. While I quit, others may look for a different strategy.

    It is my opinion that people tend to employ a strategy in life that they feel will help them get ahead. Most look for acceptance by the group and tend to be very gregarious. For these people, figuring out what is politically correct is the first order of business. The second order of business is to look good and fit in. Given a difficult decision to make, these people will tend to want to put it to a vote. Given a technical or scientific or mathematical problem to solve - they will tend to fall back on the strategy they know best - and will tend to try to put it to a vote AS WELL . A good example of this is the debate on global warming. Science in general and global warming in particular are not subject to public opinion. Yet look at the dimension of the political pressure that is applied on both sides of the issue.

    Programmers and engineers, technical people in general, tend not to be part of this group. These people need to deal with real science, math and logic. Programs and bridges are not open to politics and popular opinion. If there is a bug in your program it will crash regardless how popular you are and being politically correct likely won't help your bridge stand up if you are an engineer. In fact, many of the disasters which have happened are due to trying to applying political solutions to technical problems. The sinking of the Titanic is probably a good example. Double hulls were in use for over 100 years and high bulkheads to fully compartamentalize the ship were also well understood. These were eliminated or compromised. Even the breakneck speed the ship was travelling at indicates a clear lack of respect for reality and the powerful, yet subtle desire to gain status in a peer group.

    Managers and supervisors tend to be in the "people oriented" group. Since they see their strengths as comming from the group, they want to round everyone up (like a flock of chickens in some cases). Often they simply cannot understand that technical people cannot work in such an environment.

    This is compounded by who makes the money. Sales people tend to be gregarious. Customer service people tend to be gregarious. There is a simple test one can do to confirm this.

    Suppose you have an issue with say billing from a utility. Suppose you just simply refuse to pay the bill until they fix the problem. Your other option is to attempt to call them and they will put you on hold for hours and try to make you listen while their robots annoy you with elevator music.

    The thing is that you cannot simply tell them "hey - you have a problem - please fix it". For some reason these people cannot seem to work unless they have you on line and are wasting your time. See the need for "personal interaction"?

    Ok.. so you undertake to not let them waste your time. If you don't pay the bill - you know they will eventually have to call you up. At least you avoid most of the robots. Again - you are unlikely to be able to get them to do anything to correct your account unless you are willing to let them put you on hold.

    IMHO part of the rift between the sexes falls into this area. Women have always carried the lion's share of the responsibility of raising the next generation. Babies and children need constant attention and were it not for their mother's propensity to talk, babies would propbably never learn to speak. Given this, is it such a surprise that women tend to like careers that are "people" oriented? People like this tend to view solitude as punishment, certainly not an opportunity.

    Back to cubicals. The rift is that the people who manage the company and who tend to bring in the revenues via sales and marketing all tend to be "people oriented" and see their strength in the group. When they go off on their own they tend to shut down. It is di
  • by g2devi ( 898503 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @10:48AM (#16974222)
    Agreed, but for other reasons.

    I used to work in an office that had one cubicle per person. It was extremely noisy -- not from sales or tech support since they were far from us -- but from other developers. The problem with cubicles is that people automatically assume that just because any neighbours that they aren't there, so they talk louder. When the walls come down, you see your neighbours, so you tend to talk in a quieter voice. This is precisely what happened when the walls came down. The whole development area was *a lot* more quiet and it was a lot easier to concentrate.
  • Different people (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Spazmania ( 174582 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @11:58AM (#16974936) Homepage
    Different people respond to cubicles and open-plan offices differently.

    Management tends to consist of extroverts. They're in meetings or on the phone with lots of different people all day. This energizes them. Spending an entire day in a closed office typing code on a keyboard is the worst torture they could think of. They understand that you like it, but they have no idea why. At least with cubicles you're able to chat with your neighbors while you work so that your experience with the company isn't so awful.

    Engineers, especially the good ones, tend to consist of introverts. Spend an entire week with nothing but a problem to be solved and your tools and you're in heaven. Meetings and chatter with your neighbors are not good things: they're interruptions. Worse, they're draining. The definition of torture is that you accomplish nothing all day due to constant meetings and chatter. Its exhausting and not in a good way. If you're lucky your music headphones at least let you pretend that your alone so you can occasionally get some work done.

    Its a personality trait thing. Any good psychologist could explain it.
  • by phallstrom ( 69697 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @01:06PM (#16975734)
    Just like the airline VP's who eat their own airline food a couple times a week, make the VP use a cube for a week or two and then let him decide. If he's still able to concentrate, make phone calls, etc... then he probably won't change his mind, but if he's not, perhaps he'll understand.

    At the very least he'll know a bit more what it's like.
  • Re:Simple solution (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 24, 2006 @05:17PM (#16978078)
    The 150 rule was discussed in The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. Pick it up, it's interesting stuff.
  • by kabz ( 770151 ) on Friday November 24, 2006 @05:54PM (#16978364) Homepage Journal
    You put your finger on it in the last sentence.

    If your time is chargeable, at say $150 /hour, and you are working on a time and materials project, why would your company *want* to make you any more efficient?

If I had only known, I would have been a locksmith. -- Albert Einstein