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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ThoughtWorks: An Agile office layout

One of the common misconceptions about open floor plans is that what you see is what you get, says Adam Monago, vice president of client services at ThoughtWorks, a software development and consulting company based in Chicago.

A visitor -- or a new hire -- who walks into a busy office of IT workers talking around small tables or working in teams at whiteboards might assume there's no privacy. But even for a project that requires a lot of collaboration and teamwork, workers need a place to retreat, he says.

ThoughtWorks embraces Agile methods for software development and organizes its workers accordingly. The company's offices are divided into core project team areas that all have a main work area with shared tables and comfortable seating, ringed by quiet workstations or pods around the perimeter, as well as small meeting rooms that offer privacy, says Monago.

Since one of the tenets of Agile development is the concept of pair programming, where two developers work together on writing code, there are stations outfitted with dual monitors for this purpose. Strewn throughout the office are large, visible charts -- whiteboards, monitors or paper -- that let an interested party quickly get up to speed on the status of a project without having to interrupt a team member.

ThoughtWorks dual-monitor setup
At ThoughtWorks, some workstations are outfitted with dual monitors that allow software developers to work in tandem.

When ThoughtWorks sends developers to a customer site to work on a project, the company recommends that the client create a similar setup to maximize communication and information-sharing, says Monago, although he acknowledges that not all companies will go for reconfiguring their workspaces. At a minimum, ThoughtWorks emphasizes establishing team space -- an open area with a table or a large conference room -- as well as more private space for the length of the project.

While ThoughtWorks has had great success with this type of Agile-inspired layout, Monago concedes that some IT workers might find it too open, especially if the layout isn't implemented correctly. "You need to have enough space per person, so people can spread their elbows make a phone call or eat lunch."

"We have regularly had to address the issue of individuals who relish the privacy of their current office and worry that they will not be able maintain adequate personal space in an Agile team-room environment," Monago continues. "I don't think anyone has a problem with the idea of giving people constant and immediate access to teammates, but when they think that's the only space [available to them], they become fearful."

The best response to employees with such concerns is to emphasize that the recommended ThoughtWorks office configuration includes both shared team space and private office or cubicle space where team members can retreat when they need quiet time to get work done or make phone calls.

State Farm: No desk is 'yours'

When executives at State Farm Insurance Cos. noticed many empty cubes at the insurer's Bloomington, Ill. headquarters, they realized that the company wasn't using its space efficiently and decided to reconfigure.

State Farm engineers also employ the Agile methodology, and the company has adopted some Agile office layout principles. In early 2009, State Farm began implementing a program for its 5,600 systems employees called Systems@Work, designed to make the most efficient use of space and foster collaboration.

"With Systems@Work, we tried to build a variety of spaces where people can move around and be fluid and have the tools they need: laptop, cell phone -- things that would not tie them to a specific area," explains Rick Probus, a State Farm business analyst and lead analyst for Systems@Work, adding that the company chose to roll out the program in the IT department first and will eventually bring some of its elements to nontechnical departments, making tweaks as appropriate.

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