Office vs Open Space vs Cubes: What’s Better?

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Since starting my “real life” after college, I’ve had the opportunity to work in three very different styles of workplaces. My first job at Hinda Incentives in Chicago had your standard cubicle-style office with a few private offices on the outside edges of the work area. Then I went to Engauge and worked in a wide-open floor plan designed to encourage more collaboration. Now I’m at the DeMoss Group where everyone in our company has their own individual offices.

Since I’ve been in three of the main styles of floor plans, what do I prefer? There’s not a clear winner in my opinion but here are a few personal pros and cons, in order of their appearance in my career.

The Cube Farm

This is probably one of the most hated layouts but I can kind of see why. It’s not a perfect system (what system is?) but I was okay with it. I probably didn’t hate it as much as others do. There are fewer opportunities for distraction versus the open space environment. It’s also easier to play pranks on people in a cubicle environment.

There are cons. One being less opportunity for collaboration. You can hear things and talk to people next to you but you kind of feel like you need to shout. The one annoying thing to me was hearing other people talk or do something but not knowing where the sound was coming from. Someone could’ve been calling my name but I wouldn’t really know which direction to point my answer to.

While I didn’t hate cube farms, it’s probably my least favorite of the three. However, for the needs of Hinda, it was probably the best alternative possible. Many of the job functions required a lot of time on the phone but a shortage of real-estate made it impractical for close to 100 employees to have their own individual offices.

Open Floor Plan

Engauge's open floor space

Engauge’s open floor space

I left my cube at Hinda for my desk at Engauge. Our office was a hybrid between cubes and having a wide open space like what you see elsewhere. We all had our own individual workspaces with dividers but the dividers were about shoulder-level and transparent. Talking to the person next to you was fairly painless.

While you didn’t have as much space to add your flair or personal touch, there were many opportunities for more “serendipitous” moments of collaboration. You couldn’t help but overhear what your co-workers were working on and could learn from their triumphs/frustrations and learn solutions to your problems quickly. Engauge was big and open enough to where I could ask a question outloud and have a pretty good shot of having that question answered by someone around me.

The open space was collaborative, energetic and fun but made the times where you really had to buckle down and concentrate much more difficult. There was a joke that headphones were the new cube wall. If you wanted to drown out everyone around you or put up a sort of “do not disturb” sign, throw on your headphones with music and try to escape the chaos around you. It wasn’t uncommon to see folks holed up in corners or quiet spaces with their laptops or working from home if they were hitting a pressing deadline.

My Own Office

My office at The DeMoss Group. I work best in dim lighting for some reason

My office at The DeMoss Group. I work best in dim lighting for some reason

I went from the somewhat chaotic atmosphere at Engauge to the much more quiet offices at The DeMoss Group. The agency only has 25 people on staff so we have the unique luxury of having our own individual offices. Tenure or title is no object, everyone has a space to call their own. After a few years of working on a smaller surface, I now have way more desk space than I honestly know what to do with.

There is a luxury factor to having my own office. I have room for a very large 24″ monitor to work off of. I also have my own whiteboard to work off of in the office. It’s a fantastic tool to have at my disposal when I’m trying to brainstorm or think visually on a new project or business proposal. It’s also quieter which makes “deadlines” a little easier to manage. I have a solid case of ADD so this makes going home by 6pm every night a more realistic goal.

Are there cons? Absolutely. As I said earlier, no system is perfect. I personally like having background noise and a louder atmosphere to work in more often than not. It’s fun to me to have that ability to look over and ask someone a question. Sometimes, silence can be more distracting than a lot of noise, depending on the situation. There’s also less opportunity for more serendipitous collaboration. Any meetings or collaboration have to be intentional (which could be an advantage depending on how you look at it…less wasted time).

For our office, the individual office makes a LOT of sense. I’m unique in my role there as being one of the only people that’s not pitching reporters so it doesn’t impact me as much. However, most of my co-workers spend half their time on the phone. Doing that type of work in a wide open and loud office could make pitching media a lot more difficult.

So which is better?

It really depends on your company. I’ve worked at three different places that all had very different needs and business models. There were things I liked about all three. There are things I loved about a wide open and fun space like Engauge. There are also days where I’m extremely happy for the private workspace I currently sit in. The private workspace avoids competition for conference rooms if you just need a meeting with just a few people.

Then there’s days where hanging out in a noisy coffee shop or corner pub is my favorite change of scenery to get some work done.

What about you? Where do you work best?

 

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  • http://www.facebook.com/Milhouse4588 Josh Milenthal

    Great thoughts. I’ve come to like a half-cubicle type of environment. Engauge was too open for me and I got distracted far too easily. At Team Epic and Studiocom I have had a cubicle wall in front of me, which helps me focus, but the other “walls” aren’t completely built up. It allows for people to stop by or talk to you easily, but the corner where I face my computer still mimics the isolation of a cubicle. It definitely helps me focus.

    Another note, dim lighting helps productivity. I’ve read that in a few places so I’ll try to find it, but apparently you aren’t the only one who enjoys it.

    • http://www.brainwads.net/drewhawkins Drew Hawkins

      I can only really get away with it since I have my own personal space. There’s something about it I love. I think I’ve seen a couple of articles somewhere about benefits of dim workspaces.

      The space you’re in seems like a good middle ground of collaboration with minimal distractions. Distractions can make the work day a lot of fun but hard to get things done quickly.

  • Pingback: Brain Wads » Does Collaboration Kill Creativity?

  • Jim Hawkins

    I also work better in dim light. Was always told that in order to be productive, we needed sufficient light. I guess “sufficient” is variable. Good blog!!

    • http://www.brainwads.net/drewhawkins Drew Hawkins

      I would agree. There’s just something about dim light that makes me feel cozier and ready to work. Add a cup of coffee in my hand and I’m a happy camper.