Feed on

I’ve just spent more than a year working in a development group. We sit around a big oval table and work. We meet there, write code there, prepare presentations there, eat lunch there. There’s no “head” of the table; no “kids table”. It’s an island, and everyone’s on it. We’re all equals, peers and have as much to learn as we have to teach. There’s no politics. No heroes. No wallflowers. There’s just “the work”. Oh, and it’s just plain fun. Every freekin’ day.

Cubicles are the worst invention in the history of business. I’m still trying to think about how/why somebody thought this was a good idea. The only thing I can come up with is a secret society of Janitors, maintenance people and office furniture salespersons have formed some kind of plutocracy that actually control how we work.

Cubes make sense if you just take them in a two-dimensional plane. They are configurable in thousands of ways. You get a desk. You get a chair. You get some drawers and overhead storage. It locks. When you’re not there, you can put everything away and it’s all pretty and clean. And beige, or gray, or some kind of color that a tribe in Peru may call “Llama Vomit”. They were made for another place and time.

I have sat in cubes for the last 15 years except on a few wonderful occasions. They all pretty much looked the same. High walls that caused you to “gopher” when any kind of sound or personal communication was needed. Cramped and created so you face away from your door, so collaborating with anyone or even coming into another’s cube is an unexpected interruption at best, downright startling at worst. If you’ve been sentenced to a cube, how many of you have “rear view mirrors” or your monitor is positioned in such a way as you can see shadows behind you?

Of course, if you’re some kind of “middle manager”, you might have one of the “bigger” cubes that have a “desk” that protrudes through the middle and allows others to sit at it facing you. You get to be the “boss”, because it’s “your” cube, “your” desk, and others are there to seek your patronage. Now think about it. You’re really not going to do any “serious” business and your superiors sitting in their offices are showing that they have given you no “real” power. If you raise your voice above a whisper, you’ll be heard by persons 20 feet away. Nothing important or sensitive can be discussed there, so a “meeting room” must be booked or squatted in. Worthless.

Cubes have fabric walls and fixed furniture. Want to do some design? Where do you put the whiteboards? How do you collaborate? There’s drawers everywhere, and cubes are designed to stick your monitor in the corner (designed when monitors were 17″ wide and 20″ deep, too) and anyone working with you at your desk will be constantly banging their knees in the crappy “guest” chair that he’s borrowed from the cube around the wall.

Then there’s the cube farm. Row upon row of cubes in a giant room. 6 feet high, 50-75 feet wide and 150 feet long. The rows have hastily-printed pieces of paper in fourteen-point type that tells you who “lives” down that row. It’s like some kind of weird Stalinist housing project gone horribly wrong.

But it’s really easy to keep “looking” clean (whether it’s actually “sanitary” is debatable). I’t easy for your boss to walk down the row and quickly see who’s there and if everyone’s working. Everyone has their place. Everyone knows their job. Everyone is pounding away, waiting for 5 o’clock or a meeting to come up on their dilapidated, ancient version of Outlook, or the biannual review.

It’s also a Petri Dish of the germs that kill a company. People don’t collaborate. People have to book meeting rooms just to have any kind of communication, and that communication is delayed until the meeting room can be booked or until the “weekly” standing meeting because nobody actually talks or can collaborate in a free flowing environment. If someone has a question, they must get up, find the target person’s cube and interrupt whatever they are doing, simply because they have no idea if they are busy or not and have wasted time walking many yards across a room just to get a quick answer, and as soon as they “peek in”, the unwanted distraction has occurred. Politics and backstabbing occur in a cubicle environment. People “go back” to their cubes to stew, and only communicate by email or instant messenger. How many times have you read a message or mail and misread the intention of the sender? How often has a sender sent you an email and beat the thing to your cube so he/she can interrupt you anyway, just to ensure that you’ve been “papered”? How many times have you heard gossip wafting over your cube?

Cubes are STUPID-expensive and?inefficient. A single cubicle can cost upwards of $2000. Each cube takes up large amounts of empty space. It is expensive to move, very heavy and incredibly bulky to store. They have all the character of a minivan. An area that has 5 cubicles can support 10 persons sitting around a large, comfortable table with the best chairs, open lighting, a possible view out the window and… wait for it… face-to-face interaction!

What I’ve found out as I’ve sat around a table with 6 colleagues is:

  • You can’t lie to anyone when you stare them in the face 8 hours a day, 200 days a year
  • Nobody gossips, ever
  • There is no disciplinary action — your peers keep you on the straight and narrow — you have to face your colleagues and pull your weight
  • If you have a question, you either ask the person you’re working with, or you wait until they have a free moment
  • Meetings start and end on time, and most of the time, nobody gets up. We schedule meetings not only by looking at calendars, we actually go around the room and make sure that the time is good for everyone.
  • We more often than not eat lunch together at our table
  • There’s no heroes, no chumps, no wallflowers and everyone carries their own weight
  • If there is a knowledge gap that needs to be filled, the group will find a solution through pair programming, mentoring or pointing out the best places to find the information
  • There’s just not a lot of paper, ever
  • People TALK instead of EMAIL; the amount of time I’ve spent reading my email has dropped dramatically. I don’t even leave my email program up in plain site, anticipating some communication.
  • The room is bigger — with no walls, the air flows freely around the room, light comes in from the windows and shadows are cast by human beings
  • There are no “cold cubes” or “hot cubes” because of ceiling vent positioning
  • We’re all happy to come to work. Stupid-happy. We all get along. We know things about our families and care about making sure that everyone is lifted to make the team, and the company a better place
  • It’s better to “run with the Buffalo” instead of standing in your own poop with like a steer

And the biggest thing I’ve learned? We innovate. We invent. We create great code because we’ve combined our best practices. There’s no real “leader”, no “tail end charlie”. We write code with few bugs.

We get things done.

I’m doing the best work of my career. I have the best working relationships of my career. I have the best bosses in my career, I know exactly what is expected of me, have confidence in my place in my group, and feel empowered and sometimes humbled by the abilities of my colleagues. I feel respected and willingly give respect. I am happy.

The cube has become a Dinosaur Feed Pen. It’s long past it’s sell-by date in the modern corporation. In fact, it might be the single-largest factor in an unhappy and unproductive environment. Let me tell you, the happier your workers are, the better off you are. Would you like happy or sad people to build your car? How about unhappy airline mechanics? Do you want people that write the code, the intellectual capital of your eCommerce or IT department to feel like people are watching them all the time, or that they will be constantly interrupted, or wasting time to go somewhere to “get some air”? Companies face the necessity of cutting budgets and squeezing dimes to make a dollar. Simply sitting around a table with a great wireless connection, a projector, screen, places to put cards and some whiteboard space, will yield huge dividends.

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