Vivek Haldar

The Cubicle Dilemma

I’ve only ever worked in cubicles, and often wondered what it would be like to work in a closed individual office.

The two layouts encourage very different styles of work, and even different styles of thought. In a recent study of a war room environment1, extremely easy and frequent communication among team members was a huge advantage. The team in question delivered projects on time and on budget consistently.

But there were caveats.

You have to be a certain type of engineer to thrive in this kind of environment: “… [this] environment is not for every engineer nor for every design team. Certain types of personality, such as being flexible and adaptable, are needed to be able to work in such a public environment. Most work is visible to all (except intermediate calculations), especially mistakes. Team members unable to adapt to an unstructured environment do not last long on the team. Moreover, they have to be able to withstand the stress generated by noise and time pressure; despite these distractions, one must be able to continually monitor the conversations, exchanges, design status, and changing mission parameters, as well as the team leader’s remarks…. Almost all current Team X members report being mentally tired at the end of a session. Yet results from a questionnaire I administered to each team member showed the mean satisfaction level working in this environment to be quite high: 9.4 (sd=0.9) on a scale of 1 to 10 (high). One engineer described the experience as exhausting but thrilling, like riding a roller coaster. The key is to enjoy problem-solving in a highly social atmosphere.” (emphasis mine)

On the other hand, the frequent disruptions that tightly packed arrangements encourage are extremely detrimental to the flow of work. In another study, the same author measured the cost of interruptions2 on daily office work. One might think that interruptions related to the task at hand are different from interruptions related to a completely different context. This turned out not to be the case: there is no such thing as a good interruption. “Our results showed that any interruption introduces a change in work pattern and is not related to context per se.”

Surprisingly, people took longer to complete tasks in the absence of any interruptions. But there was a caveat: “When people are constantly interrupted, they develop a mode of working faster (and writing less) to compensate for the time they know they will lose by being interrupted. Yet working faster with interruptions has its cost: people in the interrupted conditions experienced a higher workload, more stress, higher frustration, more time pressure, and effort. So interrupted work may be done faster, but at a price.”

How do we reconcile this? Being tightly packed with your coworkers does seem to offer significant advantages, but not without a price.