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?

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There's a big difference between the needs of a network administrator and a help-desk staffer, says Shaun Walter, senior Unix system administrator of midrange systems at financial services company Ally Financial (formerly General Motors Acceptance Corp.) in Fort Washington, Pa. That's because some IT jobs require large blocks of uninterrupted time for concentration, while others involve reacting to situations as they arise.

If a network administrator is interrupted midtask, it could take him 45 minutes to figure out where he was in his project, "and if you're constantly working in 45-minute [increments], you're never going to get there," says Walter. On the other hand, a help-desk employee needs to talk to other staffers to quickly get information, such as whether a server is down or if a security patch has been applied, so constant contact is necessary, he says.

Walter says he believes Ally strikes a good balance between open and private. It offers IT workers a large open area filled with aisles of cubes divided by low partitions, with a variety of conference rooms -- ranging from ones large enough to fit about 30 people to small ones that accommodate just three or four -- scattered around the edges.

For employees in cubes, Ally provides small areas called "touchdown rooms," spaces not much larger than a phone booth where people can go to talk on the phone or deal with personal issues in private, says Walter. Each touchdown room has a desk and a phone that employees can use to dial other extensions and make local calls; people can also use the rooms to make calls on their cell phones.

Google: Meet me in the micro kitchen

A Google micro kitchen
At Google, micro kitchens are designed to facilitate "casual collisions" among employees.

Maintaining a balance between private space and open space is the key to keeping IT workers happy and productive, says David Radcliffe, vice president of real estate and workplace services at Google, which has roughly 60 offices in 20 countries around the globe, with more than one-third of its 23,000 employees located at its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters.

Google makes collaboration a priority, so everything about its office design attempts to facilitate that. For example, its buildings feature strategically located cafeterias and "micro kitchens" that are designed to facilitate "casual collisions" among employees.

When workers need quiet time to focus, Radcliffe says, they can retreat to their individual workstations, which typically have at least a partition or low walls to separate people from their neighbors, or to offices shared with a handful of teammates. Employees generally get to choose which configuration they prefer -- of the engineers who work at Google, approximately 60% are at workstations and 40% are in offices, says Radcliffe.

Of the private vs. open debate, Radcliffe says, "I think where a lot of companies go wrong is thinking about it as an 'or' statement, not an 'and' statement. We try to have both. People can be heads-down in front of their computer, but when they get up to stretch they have many opportunities to [interact]" with other employees. (Article continues on next page.)

Google Korea cubicle
Google's cubicles typically have low walls or partitions separating workers from their neighbors, as in this office in a Google facility in Korea.
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