“Nothing says three-day-weekend has ended like HEARING SOMEONE CLIPPING THEIR DAMN NAILS FROM THE NEXT CUBE OVER,” my friend wrote in a status update this morning. I don’t think he knows how lucky he is to have a cubicle.
While I sympathised with my friend’s plight — the sound or visuals of someone clipping their nails in public is gross and grating — my immediate reaction was “HOLY SHIT YOU HAVE YOUR OWN CUBE? THE DREAM!” The idea of a cubicle of one’s own is an antiquated concept in many modern offices. I’ve only worked in digital media, and every office I’ve occupied features the open layout — rows upon rows of desks, with nary a divider between workspaces.
Open offices were originally conceived as a way to open up the lines of communication. But as the New Yorker wrote last year, “a growing body of evidence suggests that the open office undermines the very things that it was designed to achieve.” Noise pollution is generally pointed to as the worst culprit in damaging the dream of a free space utopia.
Open offices have become enough of a problem that organisational psychologists are investigating. When an office in the New Yorker piece was monitored following a change from a “traditional” plan to an open model, “the employees suffered according to every measure: the new space was disruptive, stressful, and cumbersome, and, instead of feeling closer, coworkers felt distant, dissatisfied, and resentful. Productivity fell.”
On our floor at Gawker Media, we’re all writers and editors (also: video and photo editors). There is zero privacy in an open office. Writing is an intensely private activity that, in my experience, is best achieved with a minimum of distraction. The romantic idea of scribbling away in a busy coffeeshop does not compare with trying to focus in a room of 100 other people attempting the same.
We have long tables lined with people on both sides, and the office is subject to sudden bouts of raucous laughter, the product of Slack conversations that not everyone is a party to — it’s like being perpetually exposed to a joke you don’t get. In the past, I’ve shared space with unrelated teams in open plans — all of whom had different ideas and priorities in terms of talking and even playing music without headphones. The point is that in an open office, you can’t ever control your own environment.
I can’t help thinking that if we all had cubicles, productivity and happiness would increase. Of course, the opposite may be true. I read endless Dilbert cartoons growing up and adored movies like Office Space that make cubicles seem like lonely, isolating places best designed to waste one’s time.
So I’m curious about your own experiences where office plans are concerned. Has the perfect office layout been designed? Do you work in it? Or does the way your office is setup interfere with the very work you’re supposed to be doing? Tell us all about it. Bonus points for pictures of your desk.
Pictures: Office Space; Gawker Media office via Flickr; Dilbert by Scott Addams