Cubicles: A look at the argument in their favor

When office cubicles first made the scene, they were pitched to company executives as a cost-effective measure. The flexibility of cubicles eased the cost of accommodating a workforce that could go up or down in size.

In order to sell the idea of cubicles to staff, executives pitched the idea of "collaboration." Everyone has their own space but can easily interact with their co-workers. You know, a corporate group hug.

But here we are years later with lots of empirical data about cubicles that may be able to tell us if either or both of these suppositions is true.

Are cubicles really economical?

Rick Brenner, of Chaco Canyon Consulting, raises some interesting points in a discussion of the economics of cubicles. He says that, in cubicles,

"...people who do brain work experience interruption rates much higher than they would in environments that provide greater acoustic (and visual) isolation. High interruption rates increase the time required to accomplish complex thought tasks, and might even increase error rates, which raises the costs of rework."

In other words, if you're working away on a project and I, as your neighbor, have to make a call to my kid's school, your work would get interrupted from the time it takes to complete the phone call and through the time it takes you to get back in the groove you were in. That's time wasted and, as we all know, time is money. If you multiply this by all the phone calls people have to make and all the people around who get interrupted, your loss of productivity (and, consequently, money) could be profound.

Basically, while cubicles may make economical sense as far as Facilities Management is concerned, they may not be in the best interest of the company as a whole. Brenner also says, "Facilities planners and managers typically are not held accountable for project schedules, yet decisions they make can have dramatic project schedule impact."

Also, typical accounting systems aren't designed to accurately reflect the cost of facilities decisions in regard to delays and disruptions throughout the organization. Brenner says, "Measuring the cost of interruptions of the thought processes of cubicle occupants is beyond the reach of typical accounting."

Collaboration is good

I'm cynical enough to think that the collaboration angle of cubicles was not proven at the time; that it was merely a way to pitch cubicles to employees who would react adversely to the very idea. But, you know, it turns out that, at least for me, cubicles are good for collaboration. As a writer and editor, I really like being able to throw out a question like "Is defragmentation hyphenated?" and getting a quick answer without having to leave my chair. (Yeah, I know, numbing minutiae. Welcome to my world.) Working in an open environment also helps ensure that everyone receives the same information at the same time. I feel a sense of "team" working in the same large room as my co-workers that I wouldn't feel holed up in my own space. (That is, until my pro-office co-workers read this blog and start bludgeoning me with staplers.)

Wouldn't it be ironic if the theory of collaboration is proven true in many cases, while the solid economic one doesn't hold water?

So what do you think about cubicles? Do interruptions affect your work? Do you like the collaboration effect?


Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

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