Death to the Cubicle!

Want some quiet time? If you work in a cubicle, forget it. Those low walls are great for spontaneous collaboration, but also for spontaneous interruption. Here, a view to something better.

I've worked in offices, and I've worked in cubicles. (I'm actually writing this in a double-wide that I share with another writer. Thankfully, she's busy transcribing a tape, so I have a moment's peace.) And I'm here to tell you: Collaboration is great, but sometimes I'd kill for a door.

I will confess: Once, I almost did. I got into a loud bar fight with an architect on the topic of cubicles. Fittingly, this outburst took place just down the road from the University of Colorado, where in 1968, a fine-arts professor named Robert Propst came up with the "Action Office." Propst's vision was to give white-collar workers, then toiling amid rows of desks in huge open spaces, both more privacy and a way to individualize their space. By that measure, cubicles were an improvement. But in the hands of space-mad facilities planners, the idea was perverted to justify an officescape that resembled the Chicago stockyards. Dilbert was born. Scott Adams got rich.

The vogue for one-size-fits-all offices reached its apotheosis in the dotcom years, when Intel CEO Andy Grove famously foreswore his suite for an 8-foot-by-9-foot cubicle. Endearing as that egalitarian gesture was, nobody has yet been able to prove that shoehorning knowledge workers into . . . (Young colleague plunks himself down on my desk. Wants advice on an upcoming story. Go away!) Where was I? Oh, yes. Productivity. Lost. Right.

Like many problems in the work arena, this one turns on numbers. The savings that accrue from jamming employees into cubes rather than offices, particularly in high-rent markets, can be huge. The productivity gains that come from giving workers a space where they can do uninterrupted, heads-down work — those are harder to quantify.

Shockingly, there has been no defining Frederick Taylor-esque research on knowledge-worker productivity. But Tom Davenport, professor of management and information technology at Babson College, has tried to crack the code with a yearlong survey of workers, academics, and executives in HR, IT, and facilities planning. He found that three factors determined white-collar performance: management and organization, information technology, and workplace design. The last, he says, has a measurable effect — for good and ill. "Open offices do lead to more unstructured communication," he says. But "those same offices can lead to problems of concentration. If you value reflection or deep thought, it gets tough." Call it the attention-deficit office.

Office-design companies are struggling to remedy the problem. Herman Miller is rethinking both the cubicle and the office landscape and plans to unveil new designs in the near future. Its engineers are experimenting with a signal light that could connect from your phone — or a Word document — to the name tag on your "workstation" (to Millerites, using the word "cubicle" is like cussing in church), glowing red if you don't want to be interrupted. They've also developed a sound-muffling technology that allows workers who deal with confidential information to have voice privacy, although it creates too much of a din for widespread adoption.

But Gervais Tompkin, regional design director of architectural firm Gensler's San Francisco office, says simply designing a better cube is like putting lipstick on a pig. "Dilbert was a real-estate effectiveness issue," he says. "The effectiveness of the employee is now worth more than the real estate." That's why some progressive companies are relocating the space-planning function from the COO's office to the HR department. (A snorting laugh rumbles across the newsroom as a jovial editor regales coworkers with a tale about the University of Georgia's mascot. Much hilarity ensues. Where's my mute button?)

The solution, Tompkin says, is to customize space to various types of work. Give those who need uninterrupted time a quiet place to work and those who need to collaborate a more social space. That may mean a glass-walled office for heads-down work, and a variety of gathering places for group work. "As the workforce becomes more mobile," Tompkin says, "the office will be the main tool companies use to build a shared culture."

Davenport agrees, but says companies resist segmenting workers as surely as parents resist having their children sorted into algebra-loving eagles versus basic-math buzzards. It's the Lake Wobegon theory of office demographics: We're all doing above-average work here!

Yet as we return to a war for talent — and labor-force economists predict we will — knowledge workers may finally have their revenge. "If you want to keep people, you will have to have a business love affair with them," Tompkin says. "That requires seduction, dating, paying attention to the relationship. Office space is part of that work contract, and if you're not engaging employees, they're at risk."

I can see the ads on Monster.com now: "High-growth company. Competitive salary. Medical/dental/vision. Optional door."

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7 Comments

  • OBEX Panel Extenders

    Thankfully, not all cubicles have to sport those low walls that make concentration difficult. We find that more and more employers want to retrofit their workers' cubicles with panel extenders to increase productivity and reduce interruptions. Even making one or two walls higher in a high traffic area can make a difference. Increasing the height of all 3 walls delivers better noise control.

    Shasta
    http://www.panelextenders.com/

  • Cubicle Times

    Actually at work we got these 4-people cubicles, so we can put a table in the middle for some snacks and conversation. It's less privacy, but if you're sitting with people you like, it's actually not as bad as it seems :)
    By the way, I am hosting this website called www.cubicletimes.com to record the stuff going on in my cubicle, so check it out~!

  • Rich Pople

    Cubicles have become the metaphor for an unsustainable, unproductive, knowledge-worker existence (thank you, "Office Space"). But cubicles, work locations, flexible hours and casual dress all mask the real problem which is that it is just getting harder and harder to get switched on about most professional lives.

    The real underlying issue is that professional productivity gains are expected to continue in perpetuity, but in reality have stopped happening in real terms. The compelling argument is that today's corporate operating models can no longer drive productivity gains in professional staff and that a fundamental rethinking of how to engage employees is already starting to happen.

    Here's a link to an article that makes a very compelling case for the need for change.

    http://www.bis-insight.com/Sit...

  • Cristina Kuiper

    Cubicles are design poorly. There is no protection and this alone is just one of the many problems. There are ways to design cubicles to better enhance the space, increase profits and offer privacy without having to squeeze people together and make it worse. But first it's dealing with the people who work there and then designing space based on instincts and vulnerability.

  • Eamon Duede

    yeah, i'm really interested in this kind of stuff. for example, i recently saw an ad in an architecture mag for a company that offers movable walls (i.e. walls on wheels). offices can be instantaneously rearranged to suit any particular circumstance, which is pretty neat. Also, some architects are doing away with big spaces (those usually filled with farms of cubicles) and putting in more narrow, tubular, spaces so that employees can sort of find their own, temporary, workspace.

    anyway, this stuff is great. i talk about it a little bit on my blog (hr-worldview.blogspot.com)

  • Tammy Griffin

    Cubicles can be alright only half of the time. It is only nice during half of the day when it is quiet. I have a loud cackling laugh expelled from a woman next to me. This can be heard with the office door closed and in the closed restroom from the far end of the bathroom. IMAGINE being right next to it and trying to concentrate. Who is going to complain when she is the supervisor though? Then next to the loud aweful laugh I have an insanely loud woman from BOSTON that drives me nuts! She is so loud. She does not even care that people are actually working around her many conversations that are non-work related? She is a supervisor too....who decided that? Wow and to think that we are actually supposed to work around here. Sometimes I just want to go in there and say to her, "close your door and speak softely...no one cares about your husband Randy!". I have never met the guy, but I hear his name yelled in every conversation. Geez! I am glad to know that I may have a new job soon...away from the cubicle madness!