How Your Cubicle is Holding You Back - Stories from the Trenches

Mar 13, 2014
13 Min Read

As companies look for ways to cut costs, one fast-growing trend is a move away from private offices toward cubicles and even “open plan” offices where workers sit side by side with little privacy.

While companies that move toward this type of floor plan say it fosters collaboration and team work, workers say that the lack of privacy and increased noise hamper productivity. Here are 10 of your stories of how your increasingly less private work space is getting in the way of your work.

1. We have to book a room for every call

A couple of years ago, my company switched from traditional offices (for anyone middle management and higher, with cubes for others) to a more open plan. Now only C-level execs have their own offices, though thankfully it’s not a completely open space.

The planners of the new space failed to consider the vastly increased need for conference room space once you take almost everyone’s offices away. Quick client calls that used to happen in someone’s office now require booking of a room, which means that pretty much every conference room is booked solid, all the time. For those execs who are jumping on the open-office train, please think about the fact that employees need places to meet and be on conference calls without annoying the rest of the office!

2. Designed for two, housing seven

We have a space originally designed to house two people that now houses seven. With one bathroom right in the middle of the space. Three of us sit completely in the open, right on top of one another.

For the three of us in the bullpen, it can be extremely distracting when one or more of us is on the phone. There are times when I flat-out can’t even hear myself think. And my coworker right next to me smacks her lips incessantly, even when she isn’t eating.

Add in having the bathroom in the middle of everything, which really offers no privacy and the occasional massive distraction of stench, and it’s not a productive facility.

We’re hopefully moving this year to have more space and cubicles with partial walls. And men’s and women’s restrooms that aren’t right next to all of our desks. I’m crossing my fingers.

3. No private conversations

We are completely open office. No place to have private conversations – we have one small meeting room but its not really private, anyone can hear if they walk by, and everyone sees you going in there to discuss something private so it ends up raising more curiosity. This is hard when you want to discuss a sensitive matter about a project, client, confidential deal, not to mention performance issues or handing in your notice. A relatively minor matter like wanting to ask the boss’s advice/approval on how to handle a performance situation with someone I manage becomes overblown because I have to email her to ask to speak with her, find time in the room that everyone sees us going into, speak in soft voices, etc. Performance reviews themselves have to be taken out of the office to a nearby lunch place, which brings up a whole other set of issues because its in public, the waiter and neighboring diners can overhear, etc.

4. Why don’t we have “quiet rooms” every day?

We have a “quiet room” where people go when they need to focus. I need to focus every day.

Last summer, there was a project that came up suddenly and needed to be done in a few short weeks. My coworker and I were tapped to do the programming. Because it was so high-profile, they reserved a conference room for us for all 3 weeks and put computers in there. Because we needed to be able to focus. Ummm……shouldn’t we have the kind of workspaces already where we can focus? Why is it only important under certain circumstances, and it’s OK to be barely productive the rest of the time?

5. Hiding under the desk for privacy

I work in an open office and while I love it for interacting with coworkers, it’s also sometimes the hub for gathering, and people don’t take the hint when you’re on the phone. I’ve had to take conference calls under my desk because it was so loud. Once, my boss was even in our office area and saw this, but did nothing.

6. Swearing, humming, sniffing coworker

Open plan office here. And one coworker who listens to drum’n' bass all day long on his iPod, loud enough for all to hear. Apart from that, he makes constant “noises”: coughing, swearing, humming, “popping,” sniffing, sighing, talking out loud to his computer, you name it, he does it. It drives me mad and it’s one of the reasons I’m seriously considering leaving this office. We’ve of course tried talking to him, but he just gets angry and doesn’t change a thing. Management won’t talk to him.

7. I don’t need to know about your issues with the butcher

I have an office now, but when I first arrived I was in a cubicle near to a secretary with anger issues. She was on the phone all day with personal calls, generally swearing at the person on the other end for some or other small matter (the butcher doesn’t have the cut of meat she wants; the mechanic is not finished with her car; etc.). She also swore and slammed things if the printer ran out of paper – when the refills were right next to the printer. It would have been entertaining if I wasn’t quite so close by.

It was almost impossible to get any work done without earplugs, and sometimes I would go and work all day in the library just to get away from her. It did, though, teach me to take all personal calls outside so as not to disturb others.

8. No assigned work space

We have a progressive office environment in which most people have cubes, very few have offices, and many people don’t even have assigned workspaces at all but rather must “hotel” into spaces when they need to (otherwise they are out on assignment or working from some remote location, or from home).

The downside of it is that you never know who your neighbors will be from day to day, since many of them are hotelers and will change daily. Another downside is if you have an assigned space but are off, traveling or working from home, your space is up for grabs by hotelers — so you might come back and your supplies are missing or the desk chair is the wrong height or there’s a mess. Just came in today from three days working remotely and my PostIt notes were gone.

But the plus side is that you get to meet a lot of new people, and in certain times there are no people around you if no one has “hoteled” into those spaces.

9. Developers need quiet

My last job had the worst office space I’ve ever dealt with. We were in an old two story building. My software developers’ workspaces were facing the outer walls (backs to the center of the room) at what were essentially long tables with 15″ high partitions every 40 inches. Plus we had two people in the middle of the room. As the manager, I got the part of the table that was in the corner, under the leaky part of the roof and termite droppings.

We had hardwood floors, metal partitions, high ceilings, and everyone in the whole company had to walk through our area to get to the conference room — there was an unbelievable amount of noise. Plus we had a CEO who values “collaboration” and couldn’t understand why all the developers preferred to wear headphones and instant message each other instead of talking.

I can’t believe how much more I get done every day where I am now, and I attribute much of it to having my own office and being in a culture that understands developers are concentrating and quiet without constant interruption helps a lot of them to do it better.

10. Someone who loves an open office

I am in a large open setting and I love it. I feel that people actually show more restraint than in the cube farms I’ve been in before this job. It doesn’t bother me to be interrupted, I have no problem stopping what I do, answering a couple of questions, and picking up where I left off. And no, my work is not mindless stuff, it’s actually non-repetitive. I feel I am a lot more in the know of what is happening in the company, of my coworkers’ projects, and many things get done faster and easier.

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