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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."

A version of this article appeared in the June 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.

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