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Cubes Considered Harmful

February 24th, 2006 Leave a comment Go to comments

My apologies to Edsger W. Dijkstra but it’s not like I’m the first to play off his classic Go To Statement Considered Harmful. Now, I doubt I’ll ever have the pleasure of offices like Joel’s, but when you consider how little work it really takes to truly craft a space that enables developer productivity…well, I just don’t understand why someone hasn’t done something about it.

But then I remember this quote from Paul Graham “Big companies think the function of office space is to express rank” (in the essay Great Hackers). Clearly, that’s been the case everywhere I’ve worked. At my last company, there were strict rules about who could have an office and thus a door (VP and above) and who could have windows (AVP – no window, VP – one window, SVP – you could get a corner office). Heck, the code even covered the types of chairs you could order! How absurd is that? It doesn’t matter if you space is productive or not – it just has to designate your place in the food chain. Graham continues (my emphasis):

But hackers use their offices for more than that: they use their office as a place to think in. And if you’re a technology company, their thoughts are your product. So making hackers work in a noisy, distracting environment is like having a paint factory where the air is full of soot.

This is part of the point I was trying to make in You Have 11 Minutes – the modern office just doesn’t adequately meet the needs of the typical knowledge worker.

Maybe we finally have some ammunition though – something that managers can actually quantify. Apparently, cubes make us dumber. Perhaps this quote from Kathy Sierra will get their attention (my emphasis):

You always knew that dull, boring cubicles could suck the joy out of work, but now there’s evidence that they can change your brain. Not mentally or emotionally, no, we’re talking physical structural changes. You could almost say, “Dull, lifeless work environments cause brain damage.”

Elizabeth Gould has some striking research that basically says “Complex surroundings create a complex brain.” Gould’s work indicates that we should have a far more dynamic and stimulating environments than the bland cubes that most of us toil in everyday.

I’m reminded of a trainer I had once that used to work at Nike (I must confess – I *love* the swoosh…). He said that the shoe designers had very cool office space. They all had tons of squishy toys, there were lots of bright colors, and it was very “non traditional”. Of course it was only the designers that had what I’ll call functional space – everyone else had boring beige. Some will be quick to say “the designers are different, they’re creative types” and I’d be the first to agree – but don’t most 21st century knowledge occupations require innovation and imagination?

What if you were building a new factory to produce widgets? Do you think you might want your manufacturing line to be as ergonomic and efficient as possible? If it resulted in greater productivity, you sure would; even if it meant some extra up front cost. Yet for some reason, we don’t apply this same logic to those of us that create ideas instead of widgets – I wonder if that will ever change. Imagine what would happen if a company actually put their workers in a position to excel.

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