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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Systems@Work takes some Agile principles, like offering quiet areas in addition to open team spaces with lots of whiteboards, plus some of the ideas behind the "hoteling" approach to office design, such as the notion that employees outfitted with laptops and cell phones can sit anywhere to get their jobs done.

"No one has an official cube that they go to and own. It allows us to be very flexible," says Greg Schneider, function director with State Farm's software products group and a designated early adopter of Systems@Work. "We ask people to travel light so they will be able to move within 24 hours." Employees' possessions -- their laptops, cell phones, personal effects and other items -- should be able to fit into a box that they can pick up and bring with them. If an employee can't fit all of his stuff in the box, Schneider says that he would suggest that the employee get rid of some things.

While reconfiguring the office layout represented a considerable expense, State Farm facility specialist Anne Driskell says it was worth it. The return on investment is positive, she says, though she declined to say how big the savings were or share details about how the change cut expenses. Furthermore, Systems@Work is getting good reviews by employees, she says.

Schneider agrees, although he says that at first many IT employees had a love-hate relationship with the new layout. Some still have issues with the lack of privacy, saying that the new layout doesn't offer enough confidential space for one-on-one discussions with managers, he concedes.

Driskell maintains that the design doesn't take the open layout philosophy too far. "We set parameters; we could have taken it further, but we tried to be sensible and do what makes sense for the organization," she says.

What's really best for IT?

The current trend in office design is to offer open space that fosters collaboration while still offering some workstation definition -- that is, some kind of physical boundary between one worker and the next, says Derek Hille, president of Office Space Planners Inc., a national office planning and design company headquartered in Portland, Ore.

For example, opening out traditional L-shaped cubes, where the two legs of the L form a 90-degree angle, to a configuration where the two sides form a 120-degree angle, increases workers' space while still giving them some boundaries.

Office Space Planners cubicle
Opening out the angle on a traditional L-shaped cube gives employees more room while still creating an atmosphere that fosters collaboration.

Hille says he gets more requests for open layouts at customer sites from IT departments than from accounting or sales departments. That said, he acknowledges that it's often management that wants to implement an open layout, not necessarily the workers themselves. Hille says that while many of his clients are Internet companies with employees who want and need to collaborate, "I've got to think that if people are writing code they need a heads-down work environment."

At least one IT pro agrees with that assessment. "Larry," a business intelligence consultant who asked that his real name not be used, estimates he has worked in 25 different IT office environments over the years on both coasts. For him, the best setting is a cube with high walls located in the same area as other people who are working on the same project, regardless of job function.

That way he can have the privacy to focus on his work, but also be able to stand up, take a few steps and ask questions of his co-workers when needed. Larry believes that the push toward collaborative, open environments comes from management, but the individual determines whether that layout produces the intended results.

"Management has the philosophy that an open plan sponsors teamwork and cooperation, and at times you do need to meet with people," he says. "But most of the time you are heads-down trying to work on something, and when your thoughts are so focused, distractions are really a problem."

Garretson is a frequent Computerworld contributor from the Washington, D.C., area. She can be reached at caragarretson@gmail.com.

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