That which is not an office is a cubicle. That which is a cubicle is not really a cube. It can get quite confusing really. It makes me wonder where the concept of cubicle came from? Was it some manager’s way of cutting costs? Was it some kind of symbolic reference to a caste system where upper class employees have an office and those who don’t have real power at all? Could it really be that simple? Of course not, but it does make you wonder.
I’ve discovered that Wikipedia has an article about cubicles that reveals some key history points. The conclusion is that cubicles were first created around 1965 and that it is possible that Intel was the first major user of them.
Here’s a sample from Wikipedia of the typical cube:
The experience with cubicles seem to be universal. A large part of cubicle culture has been openly ridiculed by movies and comic strips alike. It’s a very easy target. There are so many things wrong with cubicle life that most employees would quickly select an office even if it was smaller and in a bad location.
From a designer point of view, cubicles are very efficient since they use less materials, cost less, and can fit more employees into a given space. Walls are expensive and are difficult to rearrange based on changes in the work space. Walls also make it more difficult to manage employees, or at least that seems to be the hidden message.
Most fish bowl residents of cubicles have no sense of space. Nothing is done without potential observation by practically anyone. You never know when someone might pop through through your “door” or maybe a neighbour will pop over the wall to have a peep and a brief chat. Either way, you are exposed in a big way. You might as well install a few web cameras around your office pointed in your direction and declare yourself the next candidate for eviction from Big Brother.
The point is that being in a cubicle is a comical affair. You have to pretend that you can do things that you just can’t. For example, you really don’t want to listen to the argument your neighbour is having with his wife over the colour selection for the new house but you can’t help yourself. You really want to check the stats on you latest fantasy football league but you are afraid someone walking by might see it. Instead you wait for lunch in the hope that everyone will be gone so that you can quickly switch screens to see if you are winning against Frank in the cubicle down the hall. When the tables turn and you really need to do some serious work and you pretend that you can fully concentrate when various noises and voices fire around you like some kind of off beat pinball machine yelling out for attention. You simply can’t win. You must assimilate and become one with the cubicle reality. You must accept that you will never win this battle and it is far better to make fun of it and just enjoy.
I’ve seen this cubicle world in action over a number of years in cubicles myself. The dynamics of it are just so amazing that you just have to appreciate the shear genius of the existence of cubicles in the first place. I mean, if no one in the workplace really wants them, then who does? I think that is the whole point. You and I don’t want them and I’m sure if I did a poll that most employees would respond with a big NO! So, what is this? Is this some kind dictatorship? Is this some kind of over sanctioned fever of the use of cubicles even when they don’t make sense? Well, that is an easy yes.
So, why do people put up with them? The answer is also simple. Either become important enough to justify having a office or just stay there in your pseudo office. If you can’t achieve the position you need to get a real office with a door and you hate your cubicle, well I’m sure there is an assortment of companies that would be willing to hire you… and place you in a cubicle as well. If you find that company that gives you an office as a grunt then appreciate it because most likely they will go out of business having spent too much money on nice offices for their employees. They went broke simply because they just cared too much!
So, what do I say to you comrade? Walk right into your manager’s office and declare your affinity to having his or her office for your own. State that Jeff Muir thought it would be a good idea to declare your democratic right to say that you want better and that “I’m sick and tired of being treated like someone that belongs in a cell”. Well, I’m hoping you aren’t taking this advice to heart but I do hope that you are inspired to imagine what life would be like outside your cube and in your office “cave”.
Now, for the confession. I don’t reside in a cubicle. I have my own office and I can keep it as messy as I want. In fact, if I wanted to I could move to a bigger office without difficulty assuming that building an extension could be expensed. I work from home which means that a room that would have been a bedroom is now an office with the full office support. So, why do I bother to write about cubicles? I don’t know. Oh, I wasn’t sure what to write about and then my wife suggested writing about cubicles. True story!
A great book on why engineers (and other workers that need to “think” ) should be in offices, or at the very least in communical offices (A large room, where you can have 3 desks perhaps and a little sitting area) is Peopleware by Tom DeMarco (http://www.amazon.com/Peopleware-Productive-Projects-Teams-2nd/dp/0932633439).
I remember when I was a manager at Citrix in Sydney trying to justify more offices and it was like suggesting that all people should be treated as equals (as most of you know, treating mere employees as equals is the scariest prospect for management ;-))
I have personally worked in a “communal” office, where we had 3 people in one area and a nice little couch and a blow up penguin (don’t ask… ) It was great for collaboration…
I have also worked in a cube (for 3 months) and it was not something I would recommend…
I respect Tom DeMarco’s work based on your past advise. Another favourite that comes to mind is 6 hats.
When Citrix moved to Ft. Lauderdale in 1997, it tried very hard to get everyone an office. For some time, they succeeded until eventually the growth required them to better use the space.
In order to foster certain kind of environments, it is necessary to create certain work conditions. In the case of cubicles I would suggest that they only work well when the workgroups have control over where they go and how they are used. Offices are guaranteed to be more successful based on simple issues like noise and interruptions. A closed door means the worker is busy. A cubicle doesn’t have this luxury. How many managers would want to be without a door?
I would suggest an experiment whereby the managers temporarily switch places with employees to get the cubicle experience first hand. Perhaps they would get a better sense of why the benefits of cubicles are quickly outweighed by the negative.
One last thing to say about cubicles. I had one from 1993 to 1997 at the second Citrix building in Coral Springs. We didn’t have much space or money and I completely sympathised with the situation. Back then we were always cutting corners to get the most done with the least. We were highly motivated as a team and did not mind sacrificing certain things to get the job done.
However, a successful company is only asking for trouble when it forces employees into cubicles when it doesn’t need to. It becomes a matter of not providing the right work environment even though there are funds to do it properly. Eventually employees get disgruntled and either leave or continue to get more disgruntled. Either way the company loses. It seems like a silly thing to fight over on both sides of the fence. Unfortunately when one side is holding all the cards the other side is going to take exception to it.
The issue not really mentioned here yet that is terribly important – and at the same time tragic – is that Peopleware demonstrates with references to research results that the imagined cost savings of cramming engineers/developers into cubicles are lost many times over by the subsequent productivity drag. You can even point this out to managers, but when it comes time to invest in people productivity somehow the checks are not forthcoming, despite the fact that far more will be spent on salary than on office space rent/purchase.
Engineers are hired to *think* deeply about problems and come up with solutions. This requires focusing on the problem, getting into a mental state where you have all the relevant angles in your head and you’re productively working on how to get to the desired goal. In a lot of literature this is called a “flow state”, and it takes anything from 15 minutes to an hour or more to achieve from scratch.
Every time your attention gets distracted by a conversation or noise around you, you lose all or most of your progress towards achieving a flow state.
It’s easy to see in many offices that the total amount of flow state time in a day may be minutes at best, not the several productive hours that management would like. Ever wondered why almost all cubicle dwellers wear headphones much of the day, or go home when they _really_ need to be productive?
In my work at another company, I calculated that each cubicle could hear the telephone ringing in the nearest 100 cubicles – and we did. We also heard the voicemail of someone near the outer edge of that circle of 100 cubicles because they habitually played it on speakerphone. I observed that some people, when they had an important document to read and understand, would go to the restrooms with a printout and stay there until they had finished reading, as they were far quieter than the office environment itself.
Offices themselves are not a panacea either – attention must be paid to sound isolation, rather than a mere visual partition. There are plenty of offices where you can hear most of a normal volume conversation/phonecall next door which really defeats the purpose.
check out Conan O’Brian on a tour of Intel Cubicles …. you will laugh ….