Startup office design: Time to reconsider cubicles?

Edited excerpt from Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain:

Open-plan offices have been found to reduce productivity and impair memory. They’re associated with high staff turnover. They make people sick, hostile, unmotivated and insecure. Open-plan workers are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure and elevated stress levels and to get the flu; they argue more with their colleagues; they worry about coworkers eavesdropping on their phone calls and spying on their computer screens. They have fewer personal and confidential conversations with colleagues. They’re often subject to loud and uncontrollable noise, which raises heart rates; releases cortisol the body’s fight-or-flight “stress hormone; and makes people socially distant, quicker to anger, aggressive, and slow to help others.

Indeed, excessive stimulation seems to impede learning: a recent study found that people learn better after a quiet stroll through the woods than after a noisy walk down a city street. Another study, of 38,000 knowledge workers across different sectors, found that the simple act of being interrupted is one of the biggest barriers to productivity.

Backbone Entertainment, a video game design company, initially used an open office plan but found that their game developers, many of whom were introverts, were unhappy. “It was one big warehouse space, with just tables, no walls, and everyone could see each other. We switched over to cubicles and were worried about it — you’d think in a creative environment that people would hate that. But it turns out they prefer having nooks and crannies they can hide away in and just be away from everybody.”

(1) Cf. The problem with open offices.
(2) The problem with cubicles is lack of natural light and a view of the outdoors. See Office design: two tips to get seating right.
(3) How can you get privacy (“nooks and crannies they can hide away in”) without sacrificing natural light and views of nature? Ideas, anyone?

9 thoughts on “Startup office design: Time to reconsider cubicles?

  1. In a large plate office space, the middle was offices, ie they didn’t have windows but looked out onto the cubes. The cubes had the glass outside walls on one side and the offices on the other.

    Result was awesome views for devs and less awesome views for managers..

  2. 1) I agree with Kprasanna’s comment – one way to do cubicles with natural light is to have the cubicles line the exteriors of the office space, with meeting rooms, kitchen, etc. in the interior.

    2) Another way is to work on a floor with high ceilings where the windows go all the way up to the ceiling, so the outside light is visible wherever you sit. The more extreme version of this is to work on the top floor of a building where skylights have been installed, and natural light can hit all parts of the office.

    3) Even in open space offices, people do not always get “natural light and views of nature.” Oftentimes it is narrow windows that look out on partial views of other office buildings. So perhaps the “loss” of that limited window access is a relatively small sacrifice relative to the potential gains of increased privacy and fewer interruptions.

    4) Why not let people self-select? Some individuals work better in the “nooks and crannies,” others prefer the buzz of open space. A mixed office space, that has some open areas and some partitioned areas, might be the best of all worlds.

  3. Subjectively, I’d say that any system (office-planning or otherwise) is only as good as its implementation. In an office, everybody is by definition part of the implementation.

    A few months ago I walked into an office for the first time, and one of the things that I loved was the open-plan layout. 🙂 Regarding Backbone’s experience, there will be anecdotal data out there both for and against open-plan.

    However, it seems to me that in return for the benefits of an open-plan space, it’s important to develop a culture of collective awareness and responsibility, in order that productivity isn’t adversely affected.

    This could include (not limited to):
    1. Making a conscious effort to moderate volume. Generally, colleagues do not seek to disrupt, rather they may simply not be aware.

    2. Slipping into a side room for prolonged discussions or those involving lots of people. Discussions with more than two people seem to raise volume levels exponentially, as do prolonged discussions in close proximity. One of the most impressive open-plan office I’ve been in, contained non-bookable meeting rooms, used for just such a purpose.

    3. Walking over to a colleague rather than shouting across the office.

    4. Raising awareness that not all roles are built the same. Some roles tend towards deeper thought in a relatively small number of domains. Others are more focused on brainstorming across wider domains. One whose role is the latter type, who feeds off fleeting inspiration and context-switching, may not intuitively realize the challenges to the former in terms of staying in “the zone”.

    5. Online chat tools such as Hipchat can mitigate across all of the above, depending on the nature of the discussion. The number of people involved in the discussion has no bearing on its noise level.

  4. Pingback: Group brainstorming doesn’t lead to creativity; this does | A Founder's Notebook

  5. Pingback: The two key elements in WeWork’s better office environment | A Founder's Notebook

  6. I used to work in an open office where the managers had the inside/core of the floor and everyone else had window views. It was nice, but after a period of time, I noticed people actively avoiding walking in front of their managers window so they could not be seen leaving or walking around.

    I agree with this article as I have personally witnessed this behavior or lack of privacy.

  7. Pingback: The problem with open offices | A Founder's Notebook

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