Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Office, Cubicle or Open plan?

There is a debate that surfaces from time to time about the best way to arrange your office. There seems to be a belief that once upon a time everyone who worked in an office actually had their own office. Maybe this arose because 100 years ago relatively few people did office work and a higher percentage actually did have their own office. Personally I think it is something of a myth.

But still, how do you organise your office space? Individual offices? Dilbert style cubes or open plan?

Each has its proponents, each its detractors and none of them seem to be able to agree.

Some argue that individual offices give you privacy, confidentiality, space and quiet to think in and say that the company values you.

Fans of cube argue that giving everyone their own office isn’t practical but a cube gives you some private space, some confidentiality and at least some space and quiet to concentrate in - how can anyone work in open plan?

Open plan fans usually emphasis the sociability of an open plan office, and how you can be connected to people, hear what is happening, see your colleagues - information flows around much easier - cubes put you in a box and stifle your creativity.

The subject came up in last months book. Davenport notes research that concludes
“Our research, ... , indicates that the more ‘open’ plan office environment, the more conducive it is to overall work effectiveness, when communication and interaction are critical elements of the work process.” Thinking for a Living p. 167.

But, he can’t quite believe it himself and wonders if the need for concentration and quiet is under valued.

The subject was also covered by Knowledge At Emory a couple of months ago, Do Cubicles Help Productivity or Hurt It?

I find both these references flawed. In a word they miss Europe. As research they are flawed in two aspects, first they ignore an alternative source of data and second they ignore culture differences that help explain the effects.

Both the Wharton piece and Davenport’s critique betray their US bias. The thing is, most people I know in Europe work in open plan offices. Over ten years working in the UK I’ve never seen a cube. Few colleagues I know would swap their open plan desk for a cube. Conversely, my two years in California were spent in cubes. I hated it but I couldn’t persuade my American colleagues of the alternative.

I’ll continue to regard all studies of offices, cubicles and open plan offices as flawed until I see one that at least acknowledges that different countries do different things.

My conclusion is: a lot of it depends on what you are used to, changing from one layout to another is more about cultural change than space and information flows.

Personally, I’m an open plan man, yes you get distracted, and need some more quiet - especially in my current desk - but I see people, you have ad hoc conversations and you hear things around you.

Why mention all this now? Well actually, it links up with a theme of the last couple blog entries: software developers as the prototype for knowledge workers in the future...

Software developers, especially those trying Agile development techniques, are increasingly trying novel office layouts - like caves and commons - and sometimes working in pairs - the infamous pair programming.


  1. I think you should check out Pixar's 'non-cubicles'. They seem to achieve a nice balance between personal & shared space.


  2. One cubicle workplace in Europe that worked: the Intel factory in Dublin. Half the workforce are suppliers, running their operations in the factory from their cubicles. As they tend to compete against each other for Intel business, the open plan would not work. The setup succeeded in creating a sense of equality among site workers in spite of huge difference between the way suppliers treated their own employees.
    Paramount to this happy setup was the cafeteria, serving hot, fresh food 24/7. Great, informal meeting space and big (and noisy) enough to be reasonably private.
    So, cubicle can work. But don't use it to penny pinch...


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