30 Comments

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?

By Anne Zelenka

You're subscribed! If you like, you can update your settings

  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.

    Share
  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.

    Share
  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.

    Share
  4. 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

    Share
  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

    Share
  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.

    Share
  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?

    Share
  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.

    Share
  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.

    Share
  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.

    Share
  11. I keep thinking of the Chiat/Day office layout debacle, where all personal space was removed in favor of a “cyber-lounge” atmosphere — with minimal consideration for actual physical “property.” So cubicles and offices are just fine by me.

    Share
  12. As a developer, I liked working in an open plan environment. As a product marketer/strategist, I prefer having an office.

    It totally depends on the people. Some people thrive in an open plan. Certainly at my first small startup, it worked really well. I’ve worked at places where the people would not be able to function in such an environment

    Share
  13. We had a presentation by a firm that actually design different office set-ups and we were explained that even in an open-plan office space you need spaces where you can work in silence and solitude.

    So what you do is split up the office in several area’s. One communication area, for people that need to conference with each other while working, separate offices for managers or people that need confidentiality, a socializing area, where you can just chat with colleagues and drink your cup of coffee and an area where people work where concentration and/or silence is required and because you might need one type of working space one moment and maybe another later on, you make enough flex workspaces where you can just sit down with your laptop/log in to a computer. One size doesn’t fit all, so it’s important that a balance between both types of workspaces is created. Unfortunately space is money, so most companies just choose one of the other and make people fit in, with all consequences that come from it.

    Share
  14. Private offices.
    With them I can choose when to collaborate but I can’t make my noisy coworkers go somewhere else when I need quiet if we’re in a bullpen or cubicle farm.

    Share
  15. Having experienced both, offices is the way to go. There are times when you just need to close the door, turn on the music and go. Then there are times when you can leave your door open, and invite people in to “communicate” with you.

    It’s ridiculous that the argument for open plan workspaces is increased communication. You’re forcing a single communication medium on people then (face to face), when some people are better in e-mail, on the phone… whatever.

    Share
  16. I think that an open office layout is ideal for people working on the same task. Even if they aer only working on a main project together this might get distracting.

    I found that when I was working on a task for my company and we were grouped together in a u-shape, it was easy for me to ask questions to the group and get things done quicker because I didn’t have to walk to a different room or a separate cube.

    Share
  17. I work in the marketing/PR industry and there has been a gradual move towards the open office layout as a way of increasing collaboration and productivity. On paper, this sounds ideal, but in practice, it can be a disaster. Whether people are conducting business or socializing (yes, people do socialize at work), it can distracting. This whole thing about finding a quiet space to work is ridiculous. When you think about it, companies prefer the open space plan because it really provides another benefit for them…checks and balances. You can tell pretty quickly who’s in the office, who’s working etc. IMHO, I think this has more to do with keeping tabs than productivity.

    Share
  18. My personal preference is for a private office, giving me time and space to think. But in that situation it is ideal to have a private IM system to make communication easy when needed, but not *too* easy when it’s not needed.

    OTOH, a bullpen-style collaboration can be the most productive work environment when there is a specific goal to be achieved and everyone is pulling the same rope. So I like having conference rooms or “team rooms” at the ready for that kind of collaborative work.

    The best answer, as usual, is somewhere in the middle.

    Share
  19. I own my own business, so it’s pretty much just me in front of this pc for 18+ hours per day.

    I just wanted to say that I was drawn to this site and this posting because it was on the front page of WordPress.com, and the photo of Anne is quite captivating. :)

    -Kendall

    Share
  20. Let’s get this straight: Open-plan spaces are NOT about fostering communication, but about paranoid bosses. Bosses love open plans because they can snoop on their people at all times. (Of course, that’s why the bosses themselves have offices, so nobody can snoop on them.)

    Share
  21. This is an excellent article, hitting the best points about community workspaces. I work for a very large company that has decided to “trial” community workspaces; we have a large common area surrounded by “mobile stations” where any user can plug in, as well as, “anchor cubes” where employees with permanent desks sit.

    This format suits our increasingly mobile workforce, and affords visitors to the surrounding training rooms, a place to get cozy for sidebar meetings and phone calls. The problem is that it is so well utilized, that it is disruptive to everyone in the area because there aren’t any sound barriers; the sound problem is amplified by the half-height cubes in place to increase team interaction.

    In my mind every company should want their teams to interact more closely, developing a more cohesive relationship, but at what point is it too much? I think that is what companies will struggle with as more business look at similar models – it’s going to take soak time.

    Personally I dislike our setup, while open, the surroundings are still stale, void of anything inviting. It used to be our desks providing an environment that feels good, and with those removed or reduced, we need something else to stimulate our senses. Additionally, I dislike the fact that we’ve taken local employees and made them mobile; going mobile has removed more of the “team” cohesiveness than this furniture layout has, but in concert, it has totally destroyed it.

    I do agree that with today’s work/home lifestyles, a work environment conducive to team work, and making the employee comfortable and low-stress is very important.

    In the end I think a balance can be achieved, it is especially difficult in larger companies, but not out of reach.

    -The Big Cooler The Water Cooler Blog

    Share
  22. I have been working as a teamleader for a IKEA distribution center in Belgium and managment firmly believed that an open workspace would improve communication and production, we were sitting in blocks of 3 people in an totally open space with a total of 30 people. Because my group got a lot of incoming phonecalls from suppliers and stores it was very distracting, I never found it an advantage working in this way. People sometimes also just shouted over information to a table a few meters further which made it even more chaotic.
    So is working like this better? I’d say no, it does make it easier just to “hop” over to an other block without having to knock on a door first but people also use this as a excuse to have a quick chat. Nothing wrong with that but it is if your on a deadline and you have to listen to your colleagues talking about their weekend adventures. :)

    Share
  23. [...] I just read an excellent article on Web Worker Daily regarding team work areas, these areas may be called by many names, but to name a few: community areas, team areas or “open-plan” workspaces as noted in the article. Check it out here: http://webworkerdaily.com/2007/10/11/open-plan-workspaces-getting-cozy-with-your-coworkers/ [...]

    Share
  24. I favor the open plan office, but you certainly need to create sound barriers between the different departments. My first job was in an open office space with 50 people. It was a Japanese company and so it was generally pretty quite in that big room but not oppressively quite. It made it much easier for everyone to stay current on what the rest of the department was doing without spending my entire life in meetings. I was miserable at my last job stuck in a deathly silent office all day long with minimal contact with the other employees.

    I think your office layot preference does depend a lot on your job and prefered work style. I hate silence and find it impossible to work when it’s too quite (unless I was looking for books, I was never in my school’s library). That said if your coworkers are petty, clock watchers the open plan can lead to trouble since they will resent your socializing especially if they don’t realize socializing is part of your job.

    Share
  25. I couldn’t work without my office. I work in a corporate communications dept. and am part of a three-person Web production team, so most of the work that goes on in the hallways and in the cube farm is only semi-relevant to what I do. I overhear enough obnoxious stuff in this place on an average day even WITH the office; I don’t know what I’d do without the option of closing my door once in a while.

    Share
  26. If management wants to “increase the level of communication within the team”, then I am quite certain that the open floor plan will do that… The problem is that productivity will probably decrease… The communication will probably be a lot more BSing and other non-work related chat. People overhearing other conversations and chiming in. People trying to concentrate, having their concentration broken, and then at some point, getting frustrated and just getting up to walk it off. Maybe dropping in to another persons cube, interrupting them and then having a conversation about something that’s not related to productivity.

    I recently moved to a new office. Used to have an office. I’m in a cube now. It’s awful. I keep headphones on… sometimes turning it up fairly loud to drown out conversations nearby. It’s not nearly as productive. It sucks.

    Everybody should read Peopleware (mentioned above).

    Offices for people who need to concentrate, enough conferences rooms to support teams that need to communicate more, without disturbing others who aren’t part of the meeting.

    If you want to increase communication amongst a team, try letting people out of work at 4pm once in a while and sponsor a happy hour at a local bar. I worked at a company that did this twice a month, onsite. Beer, wine, and some food to pick on (cheese, crackers, fruit, veggies, chips). There was a lot of communication going on. People enjoyed working there too. Company was bought by a major corporation, and out went the happy hours, not to mention all the fun.

    Share
  27. I just finished a documentary about cubicles that explores a lot of what you talk about in this article.

    What I found is that open spaces offer the ability to collaborate and communicate while closed offices give you the privacy to focus and get work done. Cubicles are just an ineffective compromise that blocks impromptu collaboration and doesn’t offer the privacy of a closed office.

    I’ve got some videos about work spaces at the doc website:
    http://www.cubiclesfilm.com/blog

    Share
  28. Office Supplies are pretty boring, but what about organization, productivity, office humor and annoying your coworkers? http://blog.officenmore.com

    Share
  29. The department I’m working in is started from ground up, so my boss decided to experiment on the open space layout based on what he saw at a multinational company. His plan is just desktops for writers and cameramen, and workstations for the editors but no one assigned his/her own workspace (except him). I’m against it but he’s the boss. Whereas previously, people could personalise their own cubicles, he didn’t like it because he says “people get territorial” over their space. Within a month, tabletops get cluttered with cups, paper, trash, etc. He has brought up the issue on housekeeping several times during department meetings but to no avail. Why? Because when people don’t have their own space, there’s no ownership. My bigger concern is that when there’s only shared space, people may not be able to set down roots here. I think the hot-air on the whole open space layout will fizzle out when companies realise how it affects productivity and morale. I personally hate it.

    Share
  30. Its a terrible idea. Obviously, our “masters of the universe” forgot that the classical image of a great genius at work is the solitary figure, brow furrowed. It is difficult to hang onto a train of thought for very long, when you are also being bombarded by several other, frequently unrelated, conversations at once. If you are the least bit inflicted with any level of hyperactivity (ADHD), then this environment is anathema, and as such, discriminates against people with that “disability” (Id like to add that the hyperactive mind is frequently also highly intelligent and creative, just the kind these companies supposedly want). This may be a wonderful and “fun” environment for the gregarious chatterbox types or a coffee klatch, but at some point, you have to be able to furrow that brow and CONCENTRATE to bring great thoughts and ideas to fruition. I dont believe any of the hype that the open environment (at least, not a perpetual, 9-5 type) is conducive to productivity and creativity. Its all just a trojan horse for what is really being pursued – the ability to monitor every move of every employee, and to impose a kind of heavy-duty self-conscious peer pressure due to being within eyeshot and earshot of all your peers and superiors, at all times. But fear of being repirmanded for not toiling strenuously away without pause like a good little workerbee is no replacement for the creativity and excellence that comes from undistracted brow-furrowing work. Also, how could this possibly add to employee cameraderie – 8-10 hours of close proximity day in and day out with people less favored than close family could drive certain people to extreme irritability, let alone psychopathy! I prefer cubicles, with a central “group hang-out” spot. Let those who (supposedly) function well in that coffee klatch environment simly migrate over to the central gab-fest as the spirit strikes them. Let the rest of us work on taking over the world in silence, like all evil geniuses generally do. Leave the 100% open environment to the child’s classroom, please.

    Share

Comments have been disabled for this post