Cubicle wars: Best and worst office setups for tech workers

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."

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

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.)

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.

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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.

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.

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.

Have your say

What's the worst work environment you've had to endure?

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.

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.

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