Leadership

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?

About

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.

87 comments
len.gilbert
len.gilbert

At my company, we have a combination of offices, traditional cubes, low-walled cubes, and open space collaboration areas with desks. Each area is an attempt to harmonize with the work styles of the teams involved. Support is in low cubes to facilitate collaboration and communication. Tech writers and most IT folks are in high-wall cubes. Architects and people with direct reports get offices for reasons of confidentiality or to minimize distractions. The programmers and QA moved to an open desk floorplan when we were using XP and have stuck with it even though we are not an XP shop anymore. It works for them. We are lucky to have this flexiblity in our work areas. It's not perfect for everyone, but it's a pretty good environment.

adamblevins
adamblevins

Having an office is great for personal space (I like to have hard copies of documents I'm working on pinned up, and make notes on them). Privacy, I don't mind being in a room with everyone, but I don't like sitting with my back to subordinates, or anyone, which is unavoidable in a cube. Team discussions become public, another down side. Some conversations are meant to be internal. Also, I think everyone should have a work space that makes them feel like working. Cubes are depressing, fluorescent lighting is flaky, and the overall feeling of our cube environment is gloomy and dismal. I'd prefer a shared area with my team... with our own bulletin board.. some form of daylight, and individual desks. On the positive side, proximity is good for team building and communication...and thats about the only good thing I can think of. :)

skrist01
skrist01

In a major corporation where I worked, many of us were removed from our offices and tossed into cubicles. In the very expensive remodeling, they also added a variety of conference rooms for "collaboration". This move had nothing to do with teamwork, the company was very specific that it was to make sure that we were seated according to our positions and value to company. For the most part, the higher up you were, the bigger your cube. If you were a Regional Manager with no support staff in-house (like me), you got a cube the size of a piece of lego. The incredible part of all of this was that my job involved working with confidential information about new products and launches. Our sales staff would have loved to get in on some of this and I was surrounded by them. This meant that everytime I had to take a call, I had to use my wireless phone to an enclosed area or take up a huge conference room where I could shut the door. Since everyone else was lining up for these rooms it wasn't easy to get them, and many times I took scheduled calls at home, in restaurants, or any place I knew would be secure from prying ears. I also had to contend with the "collaborative efforts" of the sales staff - much of which involved loud profanity. I spoke to media contacts - that always went over well. Of course, when I complained to their bosses, they had no idea what I was talking about. They were in offices at the other end of the floor. My suggestion - if you do cubicles, take a good hard look at the positions you put in them. Not everyone can be productive in a cubicle. I was more productive at home - thank God I had an understanding boss who worked in another state!

Jeff_T
Jeff_T

Office size 600, and I am a cube dweller. I also happen to be the one who does the cube layouts for my company, as well as programming, license administration, software analysis, software delivery, software support, and a whole host of other functions. My company has won the highest manufacturing award in the US for the past 3 years, and we don't manufacture anything. The single biggest stress in my work life is trying to satisfy 50 people when we re-org for a new project. I have no sympathy for you people, you do not own your computers your floor space, or anything in the company, and yet people like me try our hardest to make your lives as comfortable as possible with the best layout that meets the goals of the company that provides your paycheck while at the same time meets the best possible ergonomics for you. Do your work, stop whining, and put on head phones, or you could start a company and have it your way.

wrlang
wrlang

Cubes are good at times and bad at times. I agree with Brenner, but he states the obvious as far as I'm concerned. For help desk people on the phone that need fast access for questions, the boiler room setup is probably best. The original form of collaboration is best for me, what people called 'a meeting'. In fact right this minute, I can hear the details of 4 different conversations. How A.D.D. What happens is that I know all the intimate details of everyone's life and they know nothing about mine because I schedule a conference room or walk out to the parking structure with my cell when I need to talk in private. It is exhausting trying to concentrate. Why do I care that a person's Viagra has run out, or that last month's period was particularly cramping? Do I tell someone I know that their spouse is on the phone with a divorce lawyer? Just what kind of collaboration is that? TMI..TMFI!!! It always irked me that people on the phone don't realize that their mouth is a half inch away from the other persons ear. Think about it. How far away is the mouthpiece from your mouth and how far away is the earpiece from your ear. Half inch tops. Unless, of course, when the other person is yelling into their phone. Something about not being able to see the face for visual confirmation of understanding makes people yell into the phone. As if volume had something to do with comprehension. CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?

lcave
lcave

I can't hear myself think!!!! Whoever had this idea should be shot!

wmlundine
wmlundine

...cubicle I've ever seen was clear. It seems some call centers are using outsourced American prisoners and the clear cubicle adds a new level of "transparency". In this case I don't think collaboration or creativity are that important. Kind of like taking payments in an aquarium.

jimvpbiz
jimvpbiz

I have not been in a cubicle myself, but I do get tired of catching co-workers wasting time in their offices. Could cubicles help the accountability factor?

GoodOh
GoodOh

What sort of bronze age "scratching clay tablets with sticks" working environment are you in? How can you justify seeking the correct style for defragmentation by interrupting my thought flow because you can't be bothered to look at the online style guide right there in your networked computer? If your company doesn't have such a style guide get writing one now! No need for your co-workers to read this to get the staplers ready. If you do that sort of thing a lot I reckon they've had a contract taken out on you already. Don't walk alone at night. To hire people for their brains and then subject them to constant interruption (especially by people who come to work for social interaction because the rest of their lives are so barren) is just straight out stupid. You might as well set up a company to sell fast food and then keep every customer waiting 30 minutes - it's as bad a fundamental misunderstanding of what you are supposed to be doing. I have zero time for people who think the news about the latest bowel movement of their wunderkinden is something they should share with me while I try to do grown up work. To mistake yelling inane questions and interrupting me anytime it's convenient for YOU for collaboration is jaw-droppingly silly to my mind. Collaboration requires mutual respect and cubicles are first and foremost about breaking respect down. Learning to loath everything about the people around you as they display the sort of manners, lack of common courtesy and generally pig-like lifestyles that make you want to retch is NOT a fertile ground for cooperation and collaboration. Having scheduled meetings (and scheduled 'thinking' and 'doing') times is how to make collaboration work. Not having someone destroy my day plan while they spend 3 hours arranging child-minding for that night and then have them come ask a favour of me.

jjs75
jjs75

Cubicles truly do suck. I lead a design engineering group, but sit next to a large open space with a facility operator group. They collaborate with me not at all, but I frequently wind up getting drawn into their conversations which I hear clearly. I would give a lot for a floor-to-ceiling wall.

somethinggood4
somethinggood4

We have an open-concept office, which has both positives and negatives. Now that I'm spending more time coding to take our information processes to new efficiencies, I understand why programmers lock themselves in a room for twelve or thirteen hour with caffeine-based beverages and Ding-Dongs - trying to work out a solution to a complex logical loop can take enormous concentration, and our office environment makes that extremely difficult. It's nice to be able to put the grind on hold for a while and have important discussions about policy and direction without having to schedule a meeting at 8:00am, though.

lmarks
lmarks

See the middle one-third of this newsletter: http://www.ganssle.com/tem/tem145.pdf starting near the bottom of page 2. The author summarizes the classic DeMarco and Lister software productivity study which gives statistics skewering the notion that cubicles don't affect quality or productivity. Larry

Tell It Like I See It
Tell It Like I See It

I think there is one other reason management likes cubicles (though they won't admit it). They like the cubicle because they can more easily look around and see who looks busy and who doesn't. If they see everyone looking busy, they feel better about themselves as a manager.

Tell It Like I See It
Tell It Like I See It

Overall I think cubicles suck. About the only thing I can think of that would be worse would be having desks out in the open without even cubicle walls. I cannot even begin to count how many months of work I've lost due to people interrupting my chain of thought at the wrong time. "Well, it's not like you were typing or anything." Yeah, right. I wasn't typing -- yet -- because I was still trying to get things straight about what I had to do. And you just blew out the train of thought I had which took me 30 minutes to get straight. "Well, my issue is important because its for ME!" [yawn] Fine. Let's fix your issue. An hour later I begin to re-create my thought patterns that led me to that wonderful insight. 29 minutes and 45 seconds into the process I hear "HEY YOU! Drop everything and fix my oh-so-ultra-important issue." And so the cycle starts over again... At one point, I got to where I would wear my phone's headset even when I wasn't on the phone. It had the effect of getting people to think I was on the phone and couldn't be interrupted. Then some people began putting things together -- I was wearing my phone headset, but I wasn't talking -- and they start asking me directly. Well, it worked for a while.

Dr_Zinj
Dr_Zinj

I mean come on, there's no way I can conduct an physically active, discrete affair with a coworker without having a bloody audience like an Olympic judging committee.

mdhealy
mdhealy

I have an office with a door, my wife works in a cubicle. We have compared notes many times, and it is extremely clear that for us at least the frequent interruptions are a major major major issue. In fact, when my wife needs to catch up with actual work she spends a day or two telecommuting because she gets MUCH more done that way.

Tig2
Tig2

In the row I work in, I am constantly derailed by five other people speaking to their conference calls so loudly that I am challenged to complete anything. And realistically to do so requires that I find an enclave. Enclave thinking, or at the least etiquette, requires a thought. Until that happens, I will continue to be less productive in my work hours. And not by my choice.

donford74
donford74

We do our work. The choices made in the service of economy just make that harder. I think the point of most of this conversation is that these choices end up as false economy because they come with a major productivity hit. Note that some of the top companies in the world pay more for facilities and salaries than anyone else and they make more money. Why might that be? Going with "industry standard" salaries and facilities is just another way of saying: "being average." Being average is not the way to be a market leader. If you want to treat people as interchangeable drones who can work in any environment, you will get the type of quality of work and quantity of productivity you deserve. And yes, I have worked every where from pure open plan to private office and I can tell you that software development is easier with a private office.

Kellster
Kellster

I am the Help desk coordinator for a small firm. I had a half cube, with a pole in it. To my left was an accounting person that came in early so they could talk with their Mother on the cell phone for 45 minutes in the morning, I think the kids were watching Grandma not the other way around. Then the other Accounting people would chat until about 10:00 with her. To my right (the cube walls were made of cheese cloth I think) was the customer service person with a voice decibel level of about 90. She ahd about 50/50 work related and personal calls. In back an inside sales person, half the time talking with his drinking buddies. On both sides several screaming dot matrix printers. I was going insane until I asked to move into the server room. I do have the hum of the fans, but it doesn't bother me as I have worked in data centers before. I am so happy in my new offcie where the door has to remain shut due to the fan noise getting out. No more ringing phones, personal conversations, screaming printers. I am about 300 per cent more productive. I hate cubes.

Absolutely
Absolutely

But inmates should never have access to your financial data. Or any other personal data.

TonytheTiger
TonytheTiger

[i]Could cubicles help the accountability factor?[/i] it'll just encourage them to learn how to [b]appear[/b] busier than they are :)

Absolutely
Absolutely

If their work is finished in less than 8 hours of work and they remain in the office to be available to their co-workers they're doing an excellent job. No, really. There isn't any problem with people not working at all times that they're in their offices. The only question is whether their projects are complete.

Shellbot
Shellbot

if they really want to waste time..a cubicle doesn't matter..where there is a will there is a way. maybe you've just caught them at a bad time? Can't be productive 24-7 :) I normally work very well and get the job done..if i've finished ahead of scheduale because i put in the extra tim eand effort..i take a bit of time to "waste time", such as reading white papers etc.. secondly, the only time my boss wants to come over to my desk and talk is when I've just opened gmail..friggin typical..she must think i do nothing except check my email..dang it!

catseverywhere
catseverywhere

Here's two of the 11 deadbeats I have to share my "office" with. (and this is my office): http://catworld.dyndns.org/pics/tingue.jpg http://catworld.dyndns.org/pics/tm-sleeps.jpg My job related "turd sandwich" is having to drive everywhere when called, though it's usually within 15 miles and this is a fairly backwoods area, little traffic. Never had to go beyond 30 miles. Normally I cover everything on a planned itinerary, an ounce of prevention... BTW the second one above is congenitally deaf, I've learned a lot from that one in our brief collaboration.

TonytheTiger
TonytheTiger

my train of thought is very fragile. Fortunately, I located an unused closet (10x6) and was allowed to confiscate it. put in a network drop but no phone. When I am programming (or need to hide), that's where I do it :) For everything else, I have a semi-open small (10x12) office.

jrensink78
jrensink78

Conference calls are definitely a big annoyance in the cube farms. I can't think of anything more annoying than hearing 2 or 3 people around me on the same conference call, with their speakerphones on, with the voices slightly out of phase with each other. You absolutely cannot concentrate with that going on.

Ed Woychowsky
Ed Woychowsky

I was wondering whatever happened to some of the folks that I used to work with. Seriously, I used to work with a guy that would deal with his voice mail using the speaker phone cranked all the way up. It was relatively easy to break him of this by having a kid leave a sobbing message; ?Daddy please come home, mommy and I will stop complaining about your drinking and beating us, if you?d only come home.? Revenge is sweet and best served with a side of onion rings.

Locrian_Lyric
Locrian_Lyric

of the 'conventions' going on by my 1/2 cube

scott
scott

Well my company (a large global publishing corp) used to have 95% private offices throughout its headquarters. Then, the campus was sold off to a management company, and we went from owning a 40-acre campus to leasing less than half of the original building we were in. So what happens when you try to squeeze all those employees into 1/3 of the space? You get a large amount of job cuts and ... yep .. CUBICLES!! So all these people who have had offices for years went to cubes. Morale: wayyyy down. And now...our accounting dept. just got half-size cubes from their original full-size cubes because they're too CHEAP to find more space! Ridiculous! Of course...our President still has her own office with a private bathroom...go figure.

catseverywhere
catseverywhere

They should never be working in the privarte sector, period! Read yer science fiction; give the bastards at the top 10-20 years and they'll figure out a way to make "prisoners" out of ALL OF US! capice?! Why do you think in the last 10 years America has become a jailer of it's own to the degree we exceed ALL OTHER NATIONS OF THE WORLD COMBINED! (no justifiable reason for this except PROFIT $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$) Sorry for yelling, but this ain't "the land of the free," and any who disagree are free to open debate with me in private. I warn you, you will loose any argument in defense of "government." cat

wmlundine
wmlundine

...that if you are calling to make a payment, or buying an airline ticket in particular, chances are good that you are giving your CC info to an inmate that sleeps in a cell at night (not work release or parole or anything). Moreover; I worked for two years for the worlds largest outsource payment taker(NCO 2003-4). Most employees made $6.15 an hour. Some were fresh out of prison. I saw piles of CC numbers written down on scraps of paper all the time even though that is not supposed to happen. Makes web payments look safe by comparison! The facilities were not secure either; One morning we came in to work and about 20 computers had the side off. Someone came through early and stole the ram! I remember one supervisor who was arrested for BANK ROBBERY! ISYN!

LocoLobo
LocoLobo

It's amazing. Wonder around with a clipboard and make check marks and everyone thinks your busy! :)

Locrian_Lyric
Locrian_Lyric

I had a boss who would reward efficiency with down time. In return, we rewarded him with the kind of loyalty bosses only dream of. If you get a good two way trust between boss and employee, things go great.

Shellbot
Shellbot

I love it when they sleeping and they curl their paws up :) Do they like the computer? One of mine doesn't come near me untill i get the laptop out..then I'm her best friend!

Locrian_Lyric
Locrian_Lyric

I was doing some heavy debugging work with a nasty logic error and had the drone in the next cell with his speaker phone on full volume, with numbers being read off about the upcomming layoffs... The only way I could drown that out was with my headset set so loud that you could hear my headset in the next cube....

JamesRL
JamesRL

Haven't these people heard of a meeting room or a conference room? We'd never tolerate that. In fact when we have had people attend a meeting from their desk when they could attend it in a room thats been booked, we often have a quiet chat afterwards, indicating we would prefer their attendence in person to get their full attention. If you attend a lot of conferences by phone, get a headset. I have an office, and the guy next door will come over and close my door sometimes. James

JamesRL
JamesRL

I was in a huge cubicle land, and one guy had the volume on his mac cranked up and this bothered lots of people. At the time we had a mail system that would automatically play voice attachments to mail, as a feature. Someone recorded the restaurant scene from "When Harry met sally" but of course left out the prologue, and just included the "faking" part. They must have known a mail admin because they used a mailbox not used by anyone to send the file to him. So everyone within thirty feet of this guy hears the sounds and many assume he has clicked onto some porn. He reached around the back of the computer and pulled the plug. We never had a problem after that. James

Shellbot
Shellbot

Good choice..i used to use Korn for that a lot in my previous job.. i also use to wear the headphones even when i wasn't listening..kept the fleas away from my desk.. nothing like having a perfect mental examle of the intricate relations between a bunch foxpro tables and your just about to write the most amazing query ever..only to have some moron sit on the side of your desk and whine about how loud everyone is and how they can't get their work done.. *sigh* best one ever was when i had my headphones on, a co-worker stood behind me, leaned over my shoulder and started talking close to my ear..while she was EATING a sandwhich..she got bread crumbs and lettuce on my shoulder..behind her back her nickname was then "Bread & Shoulders" dumb t!t

fcarr
fcarr

I don't know what I'd do without my isolation headphones to block out noise and to discourage casual answer seekers from bothering me. Right now I'm in a shared office with one other person. This is better than the cube farm although it's not as good as an individual office.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Can't work with Rammstein going, even typing to the beat doesn't work for me. :D

wmlundine
wmlundine

This is the land of "capitalism for the poor and socialism for the rich". The Prez has to look out for his peeps.

Locrian_Lyric
Locrian_Lyric

Heh, I have a cousin in Germany who got 2 months of paid vacation, along with the rest of their unit. They met all of their goals by October, everyone got November and December off. Funny thing, they didn't have a slacking problem......

Absolutely
Absolutely

But if you look busy, the same work will be given to somebody else who looks ready for more work. Which brings us back to the point above about managers who reward efficiency vs. managers who are so stupid they merely look for a "heads down" posture.

Locrian_Lyric
Locrian_Lyric

Treat people right, and they treat you right. As you've noted there are exceptions, and the way to handle those exceptions are exactly as you've handled them. I think the 'punish everybody' approach springs from managers who are lazy and don't want to handle the individual, as you did.

JamesRL
JamesRL

I encourage some social interactions with others at work since I think that building relationships helps greatly when you have to work with someone on a project. I take my staff out for coffee. I've bought lunch. I encourage them to chat with people in other groups. I don't mind too much when staff from other groups hang around our cubes. Even when I know its the hockey pool. Now all day long I'd have a problem. I expect my staff to manage their time well. And when I find, as in a recent case, that they don't do enough work, and surf too much or play chess online all day, I fire them. James

Shellbot
Shellbot

I'm only 3 floors up..and its a nice enough area..so it doens't bother me too bad.. the highlight of my day is going home though. the walk i take from my train to my house is along a river!!! Which has a good few trees and loads of wildlife. Its so relaxing walking along there for 10 mins watching the ducks and swans..it makes me forget some of the days stress. ANd then i get home to the cats :)

catseverywhere
catseverywhere

...my random destination above included a "post" operation somehow... ...anyway, the cake was when I came down in the morning to find a new icon on the desktop named "null." That was amazing enough, but out of well over a thousand icons to "choose" from, the one she ended up with was the icon for a Linux app called "kugar..." An orange circle with a black cat paw print in the middle of it. Imagine my surprise! How she made an icon for "null" is beyond me, I can't duplicate it. But that icon... this cat must be a genius. She did build her own "arcade," a large separation in the 150+ year old floor boards here where she got some (stolen) marbles stuck in the channel. They roll up and down the crack but she can't get them out. She plays with it constantly: http://catworld.dyndns.org/pics/arcade.jpg Here's my calico, deceased. I saw her leap 6 feet vertically and come down with a bird off the feeder once, the consummate killer. I really miss her: http://catworld.dyndns.org/pics/kiki.jpg It is a great office, the "politics" is all raw, basal animal instinct! Easier to deal with when you know ego isn't at play! Enjoy them chickadees. It is telling what happens in the soul when other people are set aside for a bit... Hope all you high-rise dwellers get the chance to venture out doors at least once in the day. Do you?? cat

catseverywhere
catseverywhere

Lucky you. I had the greatest cat in the world, until she got hit by a car at the young age of 9. Smartest cat I've ever met, and I've known many. My wife has worked for vet clinics for 20 years. We've taken in all manner of rejects and defects. (have 9 cats-2 dogs atm, all "rescues") Anyway, I have a backup computer running all the time, and that holy terror deaf white cat performs some magic with it. I could unplug the keyboard, but I find the random mayhem rather comical. She renamed the "system" desktop icon once to 256 random characters. She has opened as many as 171 (keeping count) "search" dialogs. She's pulled up dialogs I've never seen before, once with a prompt "are you sure you want to move "trash" to "/bdverp1DDDDddddglJR42222

Tig2
Tig2

Of cats is far superior to the collaboration of many humans. As a cube dweller in a place with some nice scenery, I find that taking a cup of sunflower seed out back and watching chickadees and nuthatches make fools of themselves over it nearly as relaxing as trying to keep my calico from sending email to everyone in my address book. I would give much to work in your office!

catseverywhere
catseverywhere

Yes, these two are especially prone to stroll over when I sit down at the computer, especially the deaf white one. (we call her "TinyMight," she has rearranged the entire house single handedly.. pawedly? Anyway, if I went back to a big office environment I'd insist on an office above the 5th or 6th floor... so I could jump out of it. God bless y'all stuck in cubicleland. But the claws in my back don't have an agenda in 'em. cat

TheGooch1
TheGooch1

My office has these very low-walled cubes that block out zero noise, and I can see the heads of people sitting around me. Now, when I have a development project, or any other task that requires concentration, I have to put on headphones and blast music. That takes care of most of the audio distractions, but the visual distractions continue as most people who visit nearby cubes are standing , and they are visible to the sides of my monitor, and around my cube. Sigh, I was much more productive at my last job where I had an actual office ( quite large, with a conference table, even! ) .

jmgarvin
jmgarvin

I've had to buy noise cancelling head phones because people are so damn loud!

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