Saturday, December 03, 2011


Is forcing developers to work in cubicles a worst practice?

Last year, you could have found me working in a cubicle on the fifth floor in a building known as North Plaza where I frequently referred to my jail cell as an office. Today, as an Agilist, I have escaped the world of cubicles and am helping others escape as well...

If you think about the role of Architects and Developers unlike other roles, you will quickly see that much of their work is a combination of art and science. Project Management on the other hand tends to be more scientific in its approach. That is if you ignore the point in time where project managers indicate on their status reports that their project is green. On a six month project, they are 90% done and nine months more to go. You know what I am talking about.

Anyway, Programming is an intense activity that requires extended periods of quietness and concentration. Cubicle environments are noisy and distracting. Programming often involves brainstorming (whiteboards are historically one of the tools of choice). Cubicles do not support large whiteboards. Going from a remotely placed whiteboard to the cubicle workstation requires copying the contents of the whiteboard onto paper. This is time consuming.

Programming often involves reading books. Books are best read with directed and controlled lighting (reading lamp, natural light over the shoulder, etc). Cubicles offer overhead indirect lighting shared by all. Books are also best read in comfortable chairs. Cubicle chairs are ergonomically designed for workstations and activities such as typing on a keyboard and looking at a monitor. Even the best of the architects and developers I know, at best only spend 25% of their time typing. So, at some level, cubicles de-optimize the majority of the activities spent done by architects and developers while optimizing the minority of their time.

Artists do not work in cubicles, they work in studios. They need space and natural light. They need a muse. Scientists also do not work in cubicles, they work in laboratories. They need equipment and whiteboards. They need inspiration. If we as IT professionals continue to deliver projects late and of suboptimal quality, then how come no one hasn't put on their thinking hat and figured out that we don't need more methodologies but simply a change of environment?

In a culture where your CIO is craving innovation, isn't it ironic that he/she puts their people in cubicles and then tells them to think outside the box? One trend that deserves further analysis is the teleworker movement. Many corporations in fear of liability surrounding workers compensation claims are mandating that teleworkers establish equitable work environments. While your walls at home may not be covered in fabric, at some level the policy is encouraging one to still work within a box.

So, you can either work in a box at work or work in a box at home. Why are there only two choices? If you have ever visited a large enterprise and truly cared to find the place where productivity is at its highest, may I suggest you visit the cafeteria outside of lunch hours? You will see many having the space they require, convenient access to life's necessities and most importantly the ability to have an open conversation at human tone without disturbing others...

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