Cubicle wars: Best and worst office setups for tech workers

Open office layouts are all the rage these days. But is that how IT folks work best?

Image courtesy Office Space Planners Inc.

Consider the modern office layout: Open floor plan, lots of common space flooded with natural light, clusters of "pods" with low partitions (or none), all designed to encourage teamwork, boost productivity and -- management hopes -- improve the bottom line.

That type of office layout looks great on the company's Web site, and most likely the creative team loves it, but does IT? After all, many high-tech employees prefer to work in solitude, or at least in an environment quiet enough to foster intense concentration for significant chunks of time. Are these trendy open office layouts torture to the techie brain?

To be sure, Web 2.0 has birthed new types of technology employees who depend on -- even thrive by -- working in groups. Web designers and developers, project managers, system architects, even some software developers are embracing office layouts that encourage interaction. Practitioners of the Agile Software Development movement have even come up with templates for office furniture arrangements that are physical embodiments of the Agile principles of openness and collaboration (see example, below).

On the other hand, asking programmers or network administrators to do their jobs in an open space where noise, distractions and interruptions abound can be akin, for some of them at least, to departmental decimation.

Computerworld spoke to IT managers at a range of companies, from giants like Google to small consultancies, to get a sense of which office layouts are better for which types of high-tech workers -- and which, emphatically, are not. Here's what we found about IT's likes and dislikes and why office layout is not a decision to make lightly.

Open vs. office, the eternal debate

The IT profession attracts people who multitask in the extreme, declares a tech manager who oversees a staff of 15 at a U.S.-based grocery chain. These types of workers need some privacy to stay on task without interruptions sending them off in even more new directions, she says.

"Most people I [manage] are high-functioning multitaskers who can't stand to sit still; they're always doing something. They want offices so they're not disturbing others," says the manager, who asked not to be named.

She has twelve years of experience in management, and she says that every IT worker she has managed has jumped at the chance to move from a cubicle to an office when given the opportunity. And yet these workers still want their offices to be located close together, so they can easily bounce ideas off people who understand what they're talking about. "When they have a problem, they can quickly explain it to someone to get an answer," she says. "But they also like to be able to withdraw." (Article continues on next page.)

Extreme Programming workspace

A workspace designed for maximum collaboration, annotated by Extreme Programming proponent William Pietri. Key: 1. Product manager's work space (just out of frame). 2. Current stories. 3. Techie to-do's. 4. End-of-iteration meeting agenda. 5. General-purpose whiteboard space. 6. Main story card board. 7. Developer workstations. 8. Old story card board. 9. Continuous integration server.

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