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The Corporate Miss: Cubefarms and Open Office Environments

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I work in a very interesting open office environment. And you know what one of the benefits of this setup is? Nothing.

It sure keeps us quiet. If that’s the idea, it works pretty well. We sit feet from each other and we stare into our “privacy-enhanced” dual monitors and we don’t talk. Talking would be rude. And when the younger group of consultants, talks about 50 feet behind me, it IS annoying. This is a huge miss. We’d rather send an email than drop by and say hi. For consideration of our neighbors.

So everyone wears ear buds and listens to music or pretends to listen to webcast presentations. We’re really just hanging out in our little fishbowl, wondering who is watching us and why they’ve got us all clustered together. This building has about 2 complete floors of available space. They could give us each cube and offices if they wanted to. But they don’t. Something about this layout says “innovation.” Something about this open environment says modern. What it really says to all of us, “I’m watching you.”

And if you know anything about corporate IT you already know they can watch every keystroke. Do they? No. It would be extremely boring and inefficient. But they put little sniffers on your computer. 1. Is he opening Facebook? 2. Is he checking his personal G-mail account too often. 3. Is he opening inappropriate sites? 4. What applications does he spend the most time on? (They can ask for a break down of you entire day, week, or month by application activity. So, it’s not like we’re going to get away with anything if we were not looking over each other’s shoulders.)

And the millennials are not much happier. Sure, they break out in song and dance every now and then to piss the rest of us off. But for the most part their joy is also muted by the observation of considerate silence.

I was walking around the building today and walking past a very clean and open cube farm. I once thought cube farms were the height of impersonal space. Today, I think a cube farm would be a major upgrade. When I visit my friends on the 5th floor, they’ve all got their own spaces. Their own walls to hang things. Their own extra chair for people to stop by and chat.

So what’s the motivation behind the open office environment? Enforcement? Compliance? Space savings? What ever it is, the research shows the detrimental effects of being in an open environment. I’ve just mentioned a few.

  1. Isolation – rather than open
  2. Noise – zero privacy
  3. High stress – as opening your Facebook page might get you busted

What they’ve shown, more than carrots and sticks, workers prefer being given the opportunity to succeed on their own terms. Mastery seems to be its own reward. So if they put us in spaces that respected our human nature the wouldn’t need a manager in a desk looking directly over everyone. It’s demeaning. It’s cruel. It fosters subversion and hiding in conference rooms.

Whatever the open office experiment was, it has failed just like the open classroom idea that came in vogue as I was entering 7th grade. No work got done. In middle school all we did was make eye contact with our friends and goof off. In the corporate environment the exact opposite occurs. We make zero eye contact, we rarely talk, and in the middle of a group of people we can feel more isolated than when we are alone.

I’m not going to change my company anytime soon. But I have to say, I’m really glad I only work with them as a consultant, part-time. If I were there 40+ hours a week, I’d bug out.

Reference: Why the Open Office Fails – Forbes

John McElhenney
@jmacofearth (also seen on Google+: jmacofearth)

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    One thought on “The Corporate Miss: Cubefarms and Open Office Environments

    1. That’s interesting! I know (from a soldier friend in the first wave) when we stormed into Iraq and took over their government offices the workers in place were kept and configured in an”American style” office set up with plenty of separate space. They literally could not function because they were used to working side by side literally touching shoulders. The change rendered them depressed, unproductive and useless so once we figured it out their desks were moved back together into close groupings and then they rejoined the workforce. Interesting how spacing affects us!

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