CXO

Cubicles or open workspace: Here's how to select the best plan for your shop

All developers have an opinion about cubicles vs. open space work environments. Use our checklist to determine which layout is best for your office and your team.


Whenever I find myself at an event or talking to one of my peers about their new job or office space, the conversation often shifts to a discussion about workspace environment. The opinions range from, "I hate cubicles" to "Open concept is insane. I want my cubicle back."

I've collected the arguments for both options here, so you can decide for yourself which strategy is best for your shop and your developers. Here are the pros and cons of both layouts and a checklist you can use to help make a decision.

The cubicle as a maze for rats
Dilbert has done a lot to demonize the cubicle. I can't remember the last time I walked into a cubicle developer environment that didn't have at least one Dilbert cartoon posted somewhere. There are a lot of things not to like about cubicles, including these often cited issues:
  • They stifle creativity.
  • They are bland and uninspiring.
  • They are demeaning to humans.
  • They don't promote interaction.

My favorite argument against cubicles is, "I like reading Dilbert; I don't want to be Dilbert."

Pop culture views of cubicles aside, there are some good reasons for using cubicles.

The cubicle as a home away from home
Yes, there are developers that prefer cubicles. Some of the reasons in favor of cubicles are:
  • Personal space
  • More space for shelves and manuals
  • Wall space for posting diagrams and other documentation
  • Easier to concentrate
  • Less distraction

I've also found that many cubicle fans are in fact open concept refugees.

Open space leaves no room for private conversation
My first open space job in a developer pit as we called it was before the dot com boom, but the New Economy era did seem to spur a large number of open concept workspaces. There are still a fair number of them but they're not the standard work space yet.

The chief complaint about open work spaces seems to be the close proximity to coworkers. Even if you're not interested in knowing the details of their lives, you can't really avoid learning them in these close quarters.

Some of the typical comments that I've heard from developers about open concept workspaces include:
  • Lack of privacy
  • Inability to concentrate
  • More distractions
  • Lack of wall and shelf space

Whenever I find myself at an event or talking to one of my peers about their new job or office space, the conversation often shifts to a discussion about workspace environment. The opinions range from, "I hate cubicles" to "Open concept is insane. I want my cubicle back."

I've collected the arguments for both options here, so you can decide for yourself which strategy is best for your shop and your developers. Here are the pros and cons of both layouts and a checklist you can use to help make a decision.

The cubicle as a maze for rats
Dilbert has done a lot to demonize the cubicle. I can't remember the last time I walked into a cubicle developer environment that didn't have at least one Dilbert cartoon posted somewhere. There are a lot of things not to like about cubicles, including these often cited issues:
  • They stifle creativity.
  • They are bland and uninspiring.
  • They are demeaning to humans.
  • They don't promote interaction.

My favorite argument against cubicles is, "I like reading Dilbert; I don't want to be Dilbert."

Pop culture views of cubicles aside, there are some good reasons for using cubicles.

The cubicle as a home away from home
Yes, there are developers that prefer cubicles. Some of the reasons in favor of cubicles are:
  • Personal space
  • More space for shelves and manuals
  • Wall space for posting diagrams and other documentation
  • Easier to concentrate
  • Less distraction

I've also found that many cubicle fans are in fact open concept refugees.

Open space leaves no room for private conversation
My first open space job in a developer pit as we called it was before the dot com boom, but the New Economy era did seem to spur a large number of open concept workspaces. There are still a fair number of them but they're not the standard work space yet.

The chief complaint about open work spaces seems to be the close proximity to coworkers. Even if you're not interested in knowing the details of their lives, you can't really avoid learning them in these close quarters.

Some of the typical comments that I've heard from developers about open concept workspaces include:
  • Lack of privacy
  • Inability to concentrate
  • More distractions
  • Lack of wall and shelf space

Open concept promotes open collaboration
The first time I saw an open concept workspace, I thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Finally, I thought, humans being treated like humans instead of being cooped up like animals. There are a lot of good things going for the open concept workspace. When development work calls for collaboration, open offices provide a great forum. The comments I most often hear in favor of open space for developers include:
  • Greater collaboration
  • Increased creativity
  • Easier access to team members
  • Less opportunity to slack off and surf or talk on the phone aimlessly

What's better for you and how to decide?
Whether cubicles or an open environment will work best for your development team depends on these factors:
  • The work being done
  • The size of the organization
  • The personalities of your staff
  • The need for creativity
  • The need for rapid collaboration
  • Focus
  • Privacy

Use a checklist (see Figure A) to decide the environment that best fits your needs.

Figure A
Answer the questions and add up the check marks to help decide which layout to adopt.


I've worked in both open environments and cubicles as a developer and as a manager. In certain cases, I prefer one to the other, but it really depends on the task at hand and the people who will inhabit the environment. However, with all the Dilbert cartoons I've got cut out, it's always a shame when I don't have a wall to put them on.

 

Open concept promotes open collaboration
The first time I saw an open concept workspace, I thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Finally, I thought, humans being treated like humans instead of being cooped up like animals. There are a lot of good things going for the open concept workspace. When development work calls for collaboration, open offices provide a great forum. The comments I most often hear in favor of open space for developers include:
  • Greater collaboration
  • Increased creativity
  • Easier access to team members
  • Less opportunity to slack off and surf or talk on the phone aimlessly

What's better for you and how to decide?
Whether cubicles or an open environment will work best for your development team depends on these factors:
  • The work being done
  • The size of the organization
  • The personalities of your staff
  • The need for creativity
  • The need for rapid collaboration
  • Focus
  • Privacy

Use a checklist (see Figure A) to decide the environment that best fits your needs.

Figure A
Answer the questions and add up the check marks to help decide which layout to adopt.


I've worked in both open environments and cubicles as a developer and as a manager. In certain cases, I prefer one to the other, but it really depends on the task at hand and the people who will inhabit the environment. However, with all the Dilbert cartoons I've got cut out, it's always a shame when I don't have a wall to put them on.

 

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