There are main 2 ways that you'll be working in an office environment if you're a programmer. And that's either in a cubicle, which we've seen plenty of in movies and such, and there is the open space plan, which many new companies are adopting. Many notable companies, like Google and Apple, are setting the bar high by removing boundaries and getting their employees to coexist together in large expanses of open space. And that's a pretty fantastic idea for the most part. At least in theory and in aesthetics. But it doesn't come without its shortcomings.
Having worked in both type of environments, I'd definitely have to agree that there's nothing wrong with either and it's more up to the type of person than anything else. Are you a quieter less social person, or are you an outgoing and team-oriented person. But cubicles, for the most part, tend to get bad reps. They're too isolated and depressing we say. Well, if the person sitting in the said cubicle is either of those things, then yes. But if the person is hard at work and in the zone as it were, then cubicles make sense.
Cubicles offer an isolated and quiet work space
Some people hate them while other's enjoy the privacy that cubicles provide. I fall in the middle and tend to think that they get a bad rep for the most part, but that long-term exposure to cubicles can have certain negative effects. Here are a few pros with cubicles:
- You get to personalize and keep your belongings there.
- You can be messy or clean.
- You can be yourself for the most part.
- It becomes your own mini home.
And now for some cons. Cubicles create this immediate barrier that most people walking by won't want to cross. You'll sit there for a while before someone stops by to say hello. And that's kind of a problem, on a social level since humans are social animals. They thrive on interaction with each other. They get ideas and lose ideas and relax and breathe when they're with other people. And cubicles are more work oriented, which again, isn't a bad thing.
And that's not to say that you can't have social interaction in a cubicle. I've had fantastic hour-long conversations while sitting in one with passing co-workers. And my desk was as barren as any future wasteland. So it also comes down to how you want to treat your cubicle.
Open spaces feel social and look great
Open spaces are essentially very nice to look at. And they circulate air very well. Which are important things, technically. But they're busy. I mean, they're open, that's their job. You can go to Pete and say "how's it going Pete!" without any obstacle in place. Which is great! Except for when Pete has a big deadline and his job is on the line. Then Pete puts on his headphones and ignores those around him in search of dire isolation to get some work done. And that's the part that we don't normally get to see in company profile photos when looking at open space environments.
And this lack of privacy and personal space is where the open space model begins to fall short.
Having spent some time in an open space environment, I can say that they are distracting for sure. You never really quite own your space and there's always someone's eyes on you from some random location, which you can't quite pinpoint. You tend to keep it cleaner than you normally would, which again, is a good habit to have, but overall it's just more work that you have to do on top of already going to the job.
and somewhere in the middle..
In order to work efficiently, you need to be able to work in both environments. You need to be social when you're social interaction has been low. And you need your space sometimes to really get into and enjoy your work. This is particularly true with programmers who tend to need more time alone to work, yet still, require the social element to not go insane. There are phases that programmer's go through in which they pretty much type nonstop as ideas are coming out like black holes collapsing in on themselves. And you can't just pause while a black hole is collapsing.
Having said that, having a mini-universe of explosions going on around you 24/7 is not sustainable in the long run. And being in an open environment where coworkers are socializing is definitely a big plus to some extent. Some of the most productive meetings that I have had in my career were during open table discussions crowded around some random member of the team with people using plants and standing desks as chairs.
Balance is definitely the key. And that goes with anything in life. Removing walls from employees, however, isn't the perfect solution. Let's keep the walls in place but find better ways to be humans at work. This isn't a 0 or a 1 issue. There are other solutions and ideas that can motivate employees and ensure that they are enjoying their work hours at the same time.
By just tearing down the walls we're only looking at a very surface level solution with little substance underneath. It is time we start to become a bit more creative.
Walter Guevara is a software engineer, startup founder and currently teaches programming for a coding bootcamp. He is currently building things that don't yet exist.