How Your Cubicle is Holding You Back – Stories from the Trenches

As companies look for ways to cut costs, one fast-growing trend is a move away from private offices toward cubicles and even “open plan” offices where workers sit side by side with little privacy.

While companies that move toward this type of floor plan say it fosters collaboration and team work, workers say that the lack of privacy and increased noise hamper productivity. Here are 10 of your stories of how your increasingly less private work space is getting in the way of your work.

1. We have to book a room for every call

A couple of years ago, my company switched from traditional offices (for anyone middle management and higher, with cubes for others) to a more open plan. Now only C-level execs have their own offices, though thankfully it’s not a completely open space.

The planners of the new space failed to consider the vastly increased need for conference room space once you take almost everyone’s offices away. Quick client calls that used to happen in someone’s office now require booking of a room, which means that pretty much every conference room is booked solid, all the time. For those execs who are jumping on the open-office train, please think about the fact that employees need places to meet and be on conference calls without annoying the rest of the office!

2. Designed for two, housing seven

We have a space originally designed to house two people that now houses seven. With one bathroom right in the middle of the space. Three of us sit completely in the open, right on top of one another.

For the three of us in the bullpen, it can be extremely distracting when one or more of us is on the phone. There are times when I flat-out can’t even hear myself think. And my coworker right next to me smacks her lips incessantly, even when she isn’t eating.

Add in having the bathroom in the middle of everything, which really offers no privacy and the occasional massive distraction of stench, and it’s not a productive facility.

We’re hopefully moving this year to have more space and cubicles with partial walls. And men’s and women’s restrooms that aren’t right next to all of our desks. I’m crossing my fingers.

3. No private conversations

We are completely open office. No place to have private conversations – we have one small meeting room but its not really private, anyone can hear if they walk by, and everyone sees you going in there to discuss something private so it ends up raising more curiosity. This is hard when you want to discuss a sensitive matter about a project, client, confidential deal, not to mention performance issues or handing in your notice. A relatively minor matter like wanting to ask the boss’s advice/approval on how to handle a performance situation with someone I manage becomes overblown because I have to email her to ask to speak with her, find time in the room that everyone sees us going into, speak in soft voices, etc. Performance reviews themselves have to be taken out of the office to a nearby lunch place, which brings up a whole other set of issues because its in public, the waiter and neighboring diners can overhear, etc.

4. Why don’t we have “quiet rooms” every day?

We have a “quiet room” where people go when they need to focus. I need to focus every day.

Last summer, there was a project that came up suddenly and needed to be done in a few short weeks. My coworker and I were tapped to do the programming. Because it was so high-profile, they reserved a conference room for us for all 3 weeks and put computers in there. Because we needed to be able to focus. Ummm……shouldn’t we have the kind of workspaces already where we can focus? Why is it only important under certain circumstances, and it’s OK to be barely productive the rest of the time?

5. Hiding under the desk for privacy

I work in an open office and while I love it for interacting with coworkers, it’s also sometimes the hub for gathering, and people don’t take the hint when you’re on the phone. I’ve had to take conference calls under my desk because it was so loud. Once, my boss was even in our office area and saw this, but did nothing.

6. Swearing, humming, sniffing coworker

Open plan office here. And one coworker who listens to drum’n’ bass all day long on his iPod, loud enough for all to hear. Apart from that, he makes constant “noises”: coughing, swearing, humming, “popping,” sniffing, sighing, talking out loud to his computer, you name it, he does it. It drives me mad and it’s one of the reasons I’m seriously considering leaving this office. We’ve of course tried talking to him, but he just gets angry and doesn’t change a thing. Management won’t talk to him.

7. I don’t need to know about your issues with the butcher

I have an office now, but when I first arrived I was in a cubicle near to a secretary with anger issues. She was on the phone all day with personal calls, generally swearing at the person on the other end for some or other small matter (the butcher doesn’t have the cut of meat she wants; the mechanic is not finished with her car; etc.). She also swore and slammed things if the printer ran out of paper – when the refills were right next to the printer. It would have been entertaining if I wasn’t quite so close by.

It was almost impossible to get any work done without earplugs, and sometimes I would go and work all day in the library just to get away from her. It did, though, teach me to take all personal calls outside so as not to disturb others.

8. No assigned work space

We have a progressive office environment in which most people have cubes, very few have offices, and many people don’t even have assigned workspaces at all but rather must “hotel” into spaces when they need to (otherwise they are out on assignment or working from some remote location, or from home).

The downside of it is that you never know who your neighbors will be from day to day, since many of them are hotelers and will change daily. Another downside is if you have an assigned space but are off, traveling or working from home, your space is up for grabs by hotelers — so you might come back and your supplies are missing or the desk chair is the wrong height or there’s a mess. Just came in today from three days working remotely and my PostIt notes were gone.

But the plus side is that you get to meet a lot of new people, and in certain times there are no people around you if no one has “hoteled” into those spaces.

9. Developers need quiet

My last job had the worst office space I’ve ever dealt with. We were in an old two story building. My software developers’ workspaces were facing the outer walls (backs to the center of the room) at what were essentially long tables with 15″ high partitions every 40 inches. Plus we had two people in the middle of the room. As the manager, I got the part of the table that was in the corner, under the leaky part of the roof and termite droppings.

We had hardwood floors, metal partitions, high ceilings, and everyone in the whole company had to walk through our area to get to the conference room — there was an unbelievable amount of noise. Plus we had a CEO who values “collaboration” and couldn’t understand why all the developers preferred to wear headphones and instant message each other instead of talking.

I can’t believe how much more I get done every day where I am now, and I attribute much of it to having my own office and being in a culture that understands developers are concentrating and quiet without constant interruption helps a lot of them to do it better.

10. Someone who loves an open office

I am in a large open setting and I love it. I feel that people actually show more restraint than in the cube farms I’ve been in before this job. It doesn’t bother me to be interrupted, I have no problem stopping what I do, answering a couple of questions, and picking up where I left off. And no, my work is not mindless stuff, it’s actually non-repetitive. I feel I am a lot more in the know of what is happening in the company, of my coworkers’ projects, and many things get done faster and easier.













Alison Green

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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  • Cloggie

    A major downside to open plan or bullpen setups is that employees start yelling to each other across the room instead of emailing or using the phone. At a previous job, we sat in bullpens and I sat next near a lot of people who would just speak really loudly to communicate. Of course, people had to increase their volume to talk over each other. Also, a colleague was allowed to listen to the radio at her desk while I was forbidden from wearing headphones while working because it “looked bad”. Clients never had any reason to be in our area and weren’t even able to get onto our floor without an employee escorting them.

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  • Catt

    We have both assigned seating for full time staff members,
    and what we call float stations” for folks who are part-time or generally worked
    remotely, etc. We’ve found that it works
    “okay” and it does save space not having to have an assigned seat that is empty
    all but two days of the week… however, upon conducting exit interviews, folks
    often mentioned that not having an actual place to “be” whenever they came into
    the office made them feel like they weren’t really a part of the staff or connected
    to our programs/outcomes (which was not at all true.) It’s a tough balance that
    we’re still working on, and yes… the need for conference meeting space
    sky-rocketed with the change to the open floor plans! Thanks for the article!

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  • Jef Miles

    Wow you have some “colourful” stories there Alison :)
    I’m actually a fan of open office spaces, I feel it does create a bit more comradarie however you are right it can be tough to take a personal call :O

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  • Jeff Warner

    A few points I’d like to make here: 1) Cubicles do not equal “Open Floor Plan”. 2) In almost every one of those stories, the main problem was either terrible/non-existent planning or horrific people management. Open plan working may provide the environment in which these other issues are exposed, but they are generally not the root cause of such issues. 3) People in general are resistant to change. So if you poll people that have had a private dedicated space for 5+ years, they probably aren’t going to be excited about it. It feels like punishment. “They’re taking something away from me – what did I do wrong?” But the new, millenial generation of workers does, and will continue to, value this kind of efficient, mobile, highly collaborative working environment. I contend that no matter how many negative articles I see, with quotes from workers upset that they’ve lost the status and privacy of their private permanent space, this work style is here to stay. WELCOME TO THE NEW WORLD!

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  • John Campbell

    Jeff, you are right, to decry the ‘open plan’ has become the rallying call for many and a band wagon journalists looking for material have jumped onto. I live in an open office environment and compared to being stuck in an office before it is a vast improvement. I am much more connected with my team and can turn my head and see when people have their heads down doing concentrated work. It is in fact a much quieter work environment than when we had the equivalent of cubes and offices. Sure there are times we have social chatter, but by good change management we spent time on the etiquette, which people on the whole respect and have the authority and do call people out when they do not respect it. We have multiple meeting rooms of different sizes for people to go to for private calls etc..
    The success to implementing any good office design is to understand the Company’s culture, business processes and drivers and then develop a solution that matches those attributes. Each Company has their own culture which will help drive the solution. Open plan offices are not inherently wrong, it is about providing an array of different work settings that with wireless connectivity one can seamless move between depending on the particular work type being undertaken at any moment. Most of us do not spend the whole day tethered to a particular location. When undertaking a workplace transformation project the workplace design is only part of the journey, a robust change management process is essential. We have seen tremendous success with the design and change management dovetailed together.

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