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Office Space

Created by dave. Last edited by dave, 18 years and 166 days ago. Viewed 6,113 times. #2
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About Office Space

I've been thinking about my office at the office (as opposed to the office at my home… if you follow me). Specifically, what makes a good office and what makes a bad office. There are different types of layouts, and there are different reasons to use them.

This is completely unscientific -- this is just what I've thought after working in these situations, and watching others work in these situations.

The Bullpen

This is typically an area, frequently a room where three or more co-workers with related duties share space. In the two times I worked in a bullpen environment, it was an equipment room where all the techs had their desks because there was no other floor space for us. Usually there are separate desks or workstations, but nothing in the way of privacy. Everyone can see what everyone else is up to and hear what they are saying.

This encourages a great deal of collaboration on tasks which otherwise may slow down the progress of a single person. Since the other people are right there, they are used as resources. Shared resources like tools, books, and spare parts won't tend to go missing since there is nowhere for them to go beyond someone else's desk This is an ideal situation for system administrators or network administrators who all share responsibility for a set of systems.

Since everyone is in close quarters with one another, the team can foster close ties and become even more effective. On the downside, there is a problem in the team, the individual members have nowhere to hide from one another to get relief from an unpleasant situation.

Since the team is very much in everyone's face, there is a certain amount of peer-pressure which will subconsciously be applied to each member. Everyone will feel the need to look busy when in the presence of others. (Note that this is not necessarily the same as actually being busy.)

The downside to this arrangement is the fact that if one of the staff has a job which requires a great deal of sustained concentration without any outside assistance or interference, the presence of the other team members can be incredibly distracting. This is magnified if team members, or people from outside the team, are constantly coming in and out of the space. It can be virtually impossible to focus on a task like programming in such an environment.

Individuals will quickly discover that phone calls can't be private at all. There are also health risks -- communicable diseases like colds or flu tend to go through such groups much faster than they might otherwise -- which might be a problem for you if your entire sysadmin team drops nearly-dead at the same time.

And then there is the question of the boss. If the boss is one of the members of the team in the bullpen, this can focus productivity even more than the peer pressure factor mentioned above. Hands-on managers will be able to keep a close eye on what each team member is doing. On the other hand, the boss' presence can act as a brake on the bonding between members -- individuals may be less inclined to build relationships by just talking to each other if the boss is constantly giving them the eye.

If the boss is elsewhere, which means all members of the bullpen are effectively peers, members can do the socializing which will lead to stronger bonds.

I've worked in both situations, one with the boss working behind me and one with the boss in an office around a corner. When everyone was working on a problem, or the team was in firefighting mode, it didn't matter where the boss' desk was -- he would be in there with us, helping solve the problems. It was the day to day environment where the difference would show. No one could play games if the boss was there, even if there was literally nothing else to do. We'd take our workstations apart and add new cards just for the sake of looking busy.

Where the boss was around the corner, if you were ahead of schedule, or just needed a brain break, there wouldn't be a problem with wasting a few cycles as long as things got done in a timely manner. This arrangement made us feel more like the boss trusted us to deal with the small stuff on our own without having to constantly be over the shoulder.

One other factor to consider in the bullpen is the nature of the dividers between staff and the desk layout. I've never had to work in a situation where there was another desk oriented so that a co-worker and I faced each other all day, but I can't imagine it being a good layout at all. At least when you can't see other staffers, you can plug your headphones on and create an illusion of privacy for yourself -- that would be instantly shattered by another staffer staring you in the face.

The Cube Farm

Disclaimer: I work in a cube farm. I hate my cube farm. The only good experiences in cube farms that I have had have involved incompletely-filled farms with a higher than average proportion of deadweight.

I might be biased.

Cubes can probably be described as anything from quasi-private to nearly-private work divisions, where the majority of other workers are not in immediate view. This is usually implemented by having work areas divided by five to six foot "walls" which are then open to the ceiling. Doors are non-existent.

The main problem with the cube farm is that even though your co-workers are out of sight, they are not out of hearing. You can hear everything -- two workers discussing a problem an isle over. The person on the other side of the cube wall banging on her keyboard. The idiot three isles over who is listening to a conference call on a speaker phone. The constant hiss of air conditioning. Everyone's computers. A co-worker digging through a drawer full of parts. Cell phones ringing. Desk phones with their 'distinctive ring' at full volume from the other side of the floor. The annoying laughter from the director's open office door fifteen meters away. And that's just what I hear right now -- and it isn't annoying right now. This is just typical noise.

In this environment, I am constantly amazed that anyone gets anything done.

The reason why this is a common arrangement is, of course, because it is cheap compared to individual offices. People have their own space, which is important to employees, and there is a measure of privacy.

Individual Office

This is exactly what it sounds like: an individual office, with walls and a door that closes. For many people I have worked with, this is like the holy grail. The ultimate goal.

I've only had this once, and not for very long. It was an ideal environment to hunch down over something long and involved -- you could close the door, put on the walk man headset, and just go. No interruptions, especially if you stuck a sign with some variation on the the theme fuck off I'm busy to the outside of the door.

On the other hand, when you didn't have anything to do, this is a very lonely existence. It also makes it harder to get assistance from co-workers who also have offices, since they tend to get annoyed at interruptions and stick variations of the same sign on their doors. And it made it virtually impossible to maintain a central store area for shared resources -- things inevitably would get borrowed, and then put down somewhere in people's offices where they would get lost.

If I had a long term, single-person task to focus on, this would be a perfect arrangement -- but for the kind of work I tend to end up doing (interrupt-driven support team of some kind) it doesn't really work.

Other Things

The Window

The window is usually used as a perk for those staffers who don't yet rate a private office of some kind. In my experiences, companies with extensive cube farms generally don't have enough real offices for those who might rate one if there were more available, and used the cubes with windows as a status location.

I've had a couple of window cubes. One had a single window, while the second was the prestigious "vice president's cube" -- a cube in a corner with windows on two sides.

In both cases, I found the window was a good way to waste a couple of cycles whenever a brain break was needed. One could stand up and stare out the window instead of having to go for a little walk -- this could improve the efficiencies of the brief brain break, letting one get back to work faster. It did nothing for you when a longer break was needed or when a brief walk was in order.

The health benefits of the window are not to be trivialized either -- for some people, seasonal affective disorder is a real problem. My wife says that I am hugely better with a window than I was when in the middle of a cube farm, and she can even see the difference between the VP-cube and the current one with only one window.

When it comes to crunch time, the window can be a constant source of distractions -- the lower down the building you are, the more distracting it can be. (Especially during spring and early summer when the cute summer students are all working for the government building across the street if you follow me.) Fire trucks, weather, even shouting can distract quite easily.

The other downside of a window is the very fact that it gives you a view on the outside world. I know that some of the worst feelings I've had in the office have been moments when I look up from what I'm doing and notice that it is dark outside. For some reason, looking at a clock and seeing 2200 on it is different to the mind than is looking outside and seeing night. I tend to wonder just why I'm here, what is so desperately important that I am still in here rather than out there. I never thought that when I was buried in the middle of a cube farm (at least, not until I'd finished up and gone outside).

Managing the window can be trivial or simple, depending on the location on the building. My VP cube was perfect, it got no direct sunlight except for about an hour just after quitting time. The current one needs to be closed for most of the day in the winter (the lower sun on the horizon casts a glare on the screen) but during the summer the blinds can be left open as the sun just shines on the floor behind us.

Naturally, the easiest windows to manage are the ones on the side of the building that never get any sunlight. :)

Some people don't like the ideas of windows, but since I'm not one of them I can't really tell you why.


As with everything else, all the pros and cons can be altered -- or completely reversed! -- with the right or wrong location. Some of the distractions can be overcome by isolations, and highly disruptive teams can be given their own places around traffic patterns since they are going to be interrupting each other anyways.

I've had two cube farm cubes on major traffic areas. One had the entry way to my cube directly opposite the bottom of a 'T' intersection -- people could, and would, look into my cube from a long way back. There was no way to avoid the distractions. If I put my back to the cube entry way I would see reflections in my monitor. If I put the monitor to one side, I'd see them in my peripheral vision. Couldn't win at all.

I've had two or three cubes at the end of a row, so that there was almost no way that anyone would walk past me without intending to see me. One was buried at the far end of an empty cube cluster -- there was no one around me at all. I spent three months working in this cube, and it was pretty lonely. One of the others I shared the end with another cube, so that when people came to visit that other person (something which happened quite frequently) it acted as a major distraction. I'm sure that some of my conversations were distractions for him too, so it all works out (to the negative) in the end.

Even offices are not safe from location problems. One of my co-workers was thrilled that he was finally getting the office that he deserved. The only problem was that it was across the hall from three of the large meeting rooms, which themselves were on a major traffic route. He had to resort to keeping his door closed all the time in order to muffle the constant comings and goings down that hall. This, we found, actually decreased the value of the door -- other people are more likely to honor a closed door if it isn't closed all the time.


By fixtures, I mean things like desks, chairs, keyboard trays, shelving, that kind of thing.

The important thing is to give the employee a place where they can get comfortable. A good desk isn't going to wobble when someone is pounding on their keyboard. A good chair will let the employee lean back if they want to, or hold them upright if they don't. A good keyboard tray will provide the dual win of letting the employee place the keyboard in space and orientation as they like it, while simultaneously freeing up desk space.

Quality stuff also tends to age better. This is a work environment where people work -- there are going to be spills, bangs, drops, scrapes and scratches. The better stuff will wear this damage without looking like it just came from a garage sale. I'm not saying that good looking stuff will improve morale, but I think that working in an area that looks like a demilitarized zone would be discouraging.

I've found that my ability to work productively is almost directly proportional to the quality of the fixtures and customizability of my work area. I like my keyboard just so, and my chair at a certain level, and tilt-able to a certain level with a certain amount of resistance, and a certain amount of bounce. You can't get that with lawn chairs and a foldable conference table.

The other important thing to do is to have enough storage for the stuff necessary to do the job. This is a personal preference, but I like to have a clean desk. I get frustrated by stacks of paper and piles of junk -- old computers that are being kept for parts, longer term projects, etc. To some extent we can't get away from it, but I have had situations where there were mountains of old equipment, wires were run everywhere, and none of the running computers had their cases on or were stowed away. It felt like I was working in a store room, not an office. (As it happens, it was a store room.) It was neat for the first little while because there were lots of piles of stuff to explore and discover. But after a while you felt like you were just another component thrown onto a pile somewhere.

Work environments in the home are even more critical -- too often you encounter computers jammed into some tiny corner with they keyboard wedged in between massive stacks of paper. This may be fine when you are a high-school or college student, but it won't do for me now.

So what's the perfect office?

I think that the question of what would make the 'perfect' working arrangement depends a lot on what a person does and how much they will need to interact with other people in order to do it.

That said, I think that the answer is going to be some combination of the types of workspaces listed above.

One idea I had was for a team to have a bunch of cubes -- but their cubes would be collected in a larger room, the remaining space of which would be a communal area for conferences, meetings and such. That way everyone would be together, but with the illusion of privacy necessary to concentrate on the task at hand. Another possible layout would be a collection of private offices, all opening into a common area with tables and chairs and white boards for meetings, lunch, whatever.

Of course the problem with both of these ideas is that they tend to stay fixed in terms of layout -- when a team grows beyond its number of cubes or offices, then it becomes a problem to find a larger space, and expensive to renovate the existing space to add enough floor space for the new member.

I know that personally I want an office with a door. It will probably never happen, but I can dream.

See Also:

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