Do Cubes Make Sense?

The people who need solitude the most, software developers, quality engineers, etc. are working in noisy cubes with constant interruption. Meanwhile, managers, whose job is to primarily communicate and organize, have offices. Yet managers spend much of their time away from the offices, communicating to people not in their offices.  Developers who would benefit from doors to close, rarely get them. The logic is managers need doors to close to discuss private matters. In my experience, if I am closing my door a lot, I’m doing something wrong. Why businesses should give developers offices is well-covered in Peopleware, yet most developers remain in cubes.

Cubes made sense, once. In the age of mainframe computing, your IBM 3270 was not portable as it was hardwired to the server. To work, programmers needed to be at their desks. The idea of programmers working from home was not feasible early on. Most everyone in the data processing industry had a cube. Eventually we got modems, SLIP, PPP, broadband connections, laptops and now, wireless. Today, where you can sit, you can work. Beds, coffee shops, couches, air ports, trains are all potential work locations. Why do we still have cubes?

Some people like a small space to personalize that is separate from their home. For some working from home is more distracting than in a cube. Some people like the distractions and opportunities to socialize with co-workers.

Many larger, slow-to-change, businesses have yet to figure out that cubes are overhead and a waste for those who don’t want or need them. Sometimes, corporate culture can be slow to change.

Companies fear that people not co-located won’t work together effectively. I’ve had employees work from home and from the other side of the world effectively. If you have competent people that are motivated, you can trust them.

What would I like to see? A quiet-as-a-library work area, with desks, chairs and couches. Near the work lounge would be numerous small rooms for teams to collaborate. Adjacent to that would be a large space where people could talk, have many white boards, sit down, eat and be noisy. However, some people may need or want a cube – give it to them. However, split some of the cost savings for those who choose less expensive options like working from home or shared work areas. I don’t see a problem with cubes, but if less expensive options exist with equal promise, why not try them?

Ironically, though, after we transition to shared work areas, cubes will become a a luxury. Imagine that.

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