Tear Down Your Cubicle Walls

Jurgen! How do you feel about open office spaces?

The thing I like most about an open office space is that it enables me to move people around all the time… You people are working together? Go sit over there, so you can talk more easily! Is development growing bigger? Let's move the service administrators out of the way! Are too many juniors sitting side by side? Everybody stand up, turn around, do a little dance, and mingle with the seniors! Are you promoted to development manager? Move to a strategic position where you can see the account managers approaching, so you can shoot them before it's too late… I think having an open space enables us to be smart, flexible and agile.


Steve McConnell wrote two days ago that noisy crowded offices are classic mistake #8. Such a big open floor obviously runs the risk of being too noisy. That's true. So we've made a number of rules to compensate for that. No yelling. No running. No meetings (except for 15-minute stand-ups). And no disturbing of people when they're wearing headphones. (Many of us like listening to their favorite music while working.) Anybody not following the rules? Tell them, or give them the evil eye.

Privacy vs. Teams
In Peopleware Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister wrote that open offices are bad for productivity. They claim that it is better for software engineers to have their own private or two-person rooms. That's true, provided that those people are working as individuals or pairs. However, I believe this is not true for people working in larger communication-intensive teams. Team members should be able to see each other, mix with each other, make faces, point fingers, share jokes, and hear each others desperate groans when using the latest IE beta version.

I do believe that cubicles are possibly humanity's worst invention ever (after the Sinclair C5). Cubicles combine the drawbacks of open space (risk of noise) with the drawbacks of private offices (no team communication). To everyone reading this blog while sitting in a cubicle, my advice is:

Tear Down Those Cubicle Walls, Now!

Be inspired by the picture above. Remove the walls. Get together. See your colleagues. Laugh at their faces. Share your body language. Give them a compliment, with either a thumb or a middle finger. But be a team!

Two days ago Mike Griffiths wrote that another value might be added to the Agile Manifesto:

"Challenging the process over following the rules."

Being agile means challenging established rules and practices. Circumstances might require you to choose your own way. Our office is a 90-year old protected monument. We are not allowed to change it! Therefore, Tom and Timothy: thanks for the good advice. But the open office is our way.

Agreed? Not? Tell me! Or read another article:

Specialization is Good

Why I Would Never Hire Steve Yegge

The Cone of Incompetence

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  • Follow Your Mind, Not Your Rules
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  • Joel Sieberg

    People are actually supposed to be INSPIRED by the picture you provide here? Working at a little table in a sea of little tables where people are constantly walking directly behind you and in front of you. Working in an environment where you barely even have enough personal space for a coffee cup. Working in an environment where you can’t even cross your legs without several people knowing it. Working in an environment where you cannot help but feel even more temporary than the tiny moveable table you are working at?
    I went to college, worked as a software engineer for over 20 years, to be repaid by THIS?

  • http://profile.typepad.com/jurgenappelo Jurgen Appelo

    Wow, and you base all those “observations” on a picture?
    Contrary to you I have actually _worked_ there, and I can tell you from actual _experience_ that none of what you wrote is true.

  • http://www.feasible-time-management.com Gaetan Giraud

    Hi Jurgen,
    I think it has a lot to do with the company culture and with the local national culture.
    I actually worked now for many years in the Netherlands, and my observation is that dutch people are pretty open people who don’t mind having other people looking over their shoulders.
    Think of the typical dutch street with the big windows and the curtains opened.
    My dutch colleagues never seemed to be bothered that everyone could see that they were on facebook, and the managers didn’t really care.
    I’ve also worked in less open culture, in France and the UK, where people are a lot more “private”, and I can tell you people just resent the fact that everyone can see what they do. Add to this very conflicting work environments, and you can understand why open plans have a very bad press in some countries.
    In my opinion it is more of a moral / cultural issue that can not be easily solved.
    PS: Great site by the way!

  • http://profile.typepad.com/jurgenappelo Jurgen Appelo

    I think, in the examples you give, the bad culture is the problem, not the open office space.
    But thanks anyway. 🙂

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