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Summary:

Some tech companies are blasting cubicle and office walls, installing software developers and other workers into open-plan workspaces in a bid to increase communication and collaboration. But while open-plan workspaces certainly lead to more conversation, not everyone agrees that they’ll lead to greater productivity overall. Oracle […]

Some tech companies are blasting cubicle and office walls, installing software developers and other workers into open-plan workspaces in a bid to increase communication and collaboration. But while open-plan workspaces certainly lead to more conversation, not everyone agrees that they’ll lead to greater productivity overall.

Oracle developer Puneet reports on an open-plan experiment at Oracle happening in one of Oracle’s headquarters buildings in Redwood Shores. Puneet has moved to Building 300’s renovated 16th floor, where 24 developers are sitting bullpen-style in blocks of four people, each block surrounded by a short wall. “The main driving factor for this experiment is to see if this results in an increase in the level of communication within the team,” says Puneet.

As Puneet points out, Google prefers an open layout for its workers, putting them in shared four or eight-person offices or large shared cubes of four people each. One Google employee told me “it’s really easy to be distracted” in a large open plan with many people but says there are many common areas he can escape to.

A Googler turned Microsoftie says, “Google doesn’t seem to think that private offices are valuable for technical staff. They’re wrong.” Joel Spolsky, head of Fog Creek Software, agrees: “Open space is fun but not productive,” noting how a conversation between two people can distract a bunch more, whereas more private workspaces keep distraction from spreading to all people in the space.

What do you think? Do you prefer a private office or shared workspace? Or would you prefer to escape the office setting entirely and work from home or café?

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By Anne Zelenka

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  1. We just moved from cubicles to an open layout. A handful of the manager types have cubicles (next to HUGE windows), but the rest of us got thrown into “the pit”, a big open air workspace.

    I’m the only web person (I work for a magazine), so all the print people around me ramble on about print / design / stories all day, while I’m trying to hand code quizzes and build photo galleries. I hate it.

  2. I really don’t understand the “trendy” obsession with little management tricks to “increase communication”. People will communicate better when they understand that communication is valuable. This can only be done by setting the example — hire workers who value communication, and they can train in new workers to share that value as well.

    Putting people in an open-plan workspace is asking for trouble. Will it increase communication? Sure. Will that communication be on-task, on-topic, and valuable for productivity? I strongly doubt it. Technical people, especially, need large blocks of distraction-free time to be truly productive. Most techs I know who work in “open-plan” or small-cube offices end up staying late, coming in early, or taking work home in order to find that productivity. That’s not good for morale, for work-life balance, or for overall productivity.

    Inevitably, someone will say (or at least think), “but open plans help with brainstorming and promote consensus-building.” These things can just as easily be done in conference rooms, or even by e-mail. Besides, it’s already been demonstrated that brainstorming as a group is not the most effective strategy.

    I say, build more private workspaces, and encourage people to value communication — not shove it down their throats. Productivity will grow organically from happy, un-distracted workers.

  3. Interesting to see this cubicle vs. walled offices vs. open floor plan fight continues. During my tour with a large aerospace company (one of those that still provides serious health care and a pension, ah !), the launch of a new business unit inspired the unit’s chief to re-define the cubicle. The result was a wacky and contorted approach whereby folks had different types of cubicles depending on their rank and position. Only VPs had walled offices or those on the chief’s so-called “leadership team”. Otherwise, bottom-up, you had clusters of folks with classic 3 walled cubicles but only one wall was fairly high, leading to high volume conversations and disruptions. Next level up had full cubicle walls (3). Highest level had what we called a “shower door” that slid to “close” the cubicle off. Ridiculous, as you’d still hear the person in there when they closed the “door”, and folks would still pop-over the edge. We had “ad hoc” rooms we were to use for telecons or private mtgs, but inevitably they weren’t available when you needed them so folks did their telecons in the open of their cube anyway. Without exception, everyone hated the scheme. It reinforced hierarchy and status but with no benefit of quiet offices, and produced stratified “communication” dictated by the assorted cube types and their layout. Awful.

  4. Jesse Middleton Thursday, October 11, 2007

    An interesting question to ask readers because everyone has their own likes and dislikes. I enjoy the quietness of an office or a cubicle for some things but also like the openess of half-walls or open tables for conversations and project work.

    It would be great is more employers offered both options. I have a conference room and breakout room right near my desk. The desk is surrounded by half-walls and that helps cut down the noise but doesn’t lock me in. The breakout room and the conference room both offer the ability to work freely with people and have open conversations. Since I’m a social person, I don’t think that I would fare well in that environment all the time because I wouldn’t get any work done. As soon as someone started to talk I would be done with what I was doing and join in on the conversation.

    Just my 2 pennies.

    Jesse Middleton
    Director of Technical Sales
    http://virtualsmith.net
    personal blog. http://srcasm.com

  5. Cubicle architecture is not enough to create a collaborative workplace. If there is a need for “ad-hoc” spaces to “escape” to, you have created a problem, not a benefit. Give your highly paid technical workforce the tools they need to do their job. That includes the freedom to design a workspace that works for the team. It may change from project to project. One size doesn’t fit all.

    I commented on this very subject over a year ago:
    The Myth of the Collaborative Cube Farm

  6. I currently work in a semi-open floorplan, but I’ve usually worked in cubicles in previous jobs. I find it really difficult to stay focused in the open space and usually have to force it by wearing headphones so that I don’t hear other conversations. I also changed my work hours to come in an hour earlier than everyone else. I get more done in that first hour than in the entire rest of the day, but it isn’t that good for my sleep needs.

  7. I thought the definitive answer was given decades ago in Peopleware by Demarco & Lister. Is the current batch of Googlers so contemptuous of shared body of knowledge that they need to relearn that lesson again?

  8. Perennial argument!

    If any team was making the transition from offices to open spaces (or vice versa), I’d happily give them all access to our RescueTime private beta (http://www.rescuetime.com). A few months of data (on both sides of the switch) would answer the question… Or at least provide some interesting data.

  9. I worked in technical support on the (walk-in, phones, help desk) for a few years, and an open layout would be a nightmare for people who work on the phones. A bullpen style layout where there are cubes but they all face the walls and there is a shared open space in the middle of the room was the layout style that inspired the most communication among the techs in my experience.

    Since then I have transitioned to Technical Writing. I think all Technical Writers should have a walled office, period. Writing and Editing take a great deal of concentration at certain points in time. A cubicle is simply not good enough unless it has a door that can be locked from inside (which is rare). People just “dropping by” to discuss something is a major distraction, and in an area with no or low cube walls, sound is a constant distraction.

    You should also consider the job functions of each team and design their workspace accordingly. Just because a team of developers needs to collaborate on a regular basis does not mean that an open air workspace will work for them. Maybe normal cubes with their own conference room where they can all come together to brainstorm is more appropriate. A design or creative atmosphere may be completely different. The point is that you can’t stick every kind of department or team into the same style of seating and expect it to work.

  10. I despise open office spaces like this as my concentration is easily broken, especially by people walking by. It’s bad enough that I currently work in a (single high-wall) cubicle — even now people seem to think that I’m available for chatting even though I’m visibly concentrating on my computer. The multiple person low-walled set-ups are hell on my productivity.

    If I could I’d work in a cave and get a lot more done.

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