Friday, December 7, 2012

To Cubicle, Or Not To Cubicle

Many companies have either already adopted (Google, Facebook, Dropbox, Path, Locu, etc.) or are experimenting with (e.g. athenaHealth) the open office layout for their development teams. As we start thinking about the office environment at our startup (, we are weighing the options of an open layout compared with a "traditional" Office Space-esque cubicle layout. We're currently only a small team so it's less of an issue, but when we start to grow, this can become a serious topic of conversation.

As with most things, there are pros and cons to both options. Joel Spolsky points out that developers need to have a quiet location where they can bang out their code. Nothing is worse than when you are in the middle of writing some code (or trying to find that deeply buried bug) and someone comes over to you and interrupts your train of thought. Once that train leaves the station, it takes several minutes (at least it does for me) before I'm back in the groove and making the same mental connections I was making earlier. If those interruptions happen multiple times a day, that's quite a few minutes that are wasted just trying to get back on the proverbial horse. Not to mention, it may lead to the introduction of bugs or other errors caused by not being in that "coding nirvana" state of mind.

On the flip side, cubicles, and other such designated quiet rooms, isolate people. As many have said, proximity and interaction yield innovation (take a look at the first couple of chapters about the "adjacent possible" and "liquid networks" in Where Good Ideas Come From for a decent overview). Innovation is exactly what every (software) company strives for. Without innovation, products become dated, poor design decisions are made, and ultimately the product (or even company) may fail. Even more business oriented books such as businessThink, make a point of saying that companies need to "create curiosity." Employees, no matter their level, need to ask questions about why things are being done the way, and be able to provide alternate (possibly better) solutions. Something that is markedly harder in the traditional office that is ripe with grey dividers and neon overhead lights.

I've had the "pleasure" of having worked in both environments. During my graduate career I was predominantly in a 6 person "office" that was setup like an open layout -- there were 6 desks, 2 large windows, and everyone could see everyone (and the sun outside!). At my postdoc it was the exact opposite. I was in a 2 person office with harsh neon lighting, while many of the other employees were working in cubicles in the middle of the building with hardly any access to any natural light (take a look at this regarding the effect of natural light on building occupants). If it weren't for the weekly group meetings (or trips to the coffee machine), I doubt most people would have interacted with each other. If it takes effort to do something, most people won't be bothered to exert the effort. Oh, and worst of all, there were hardly any whiteboards that we could use to sketch out ideas.

So, what is better, a quiet space for each developer where there are little distractions or a more free-form layout where interaction is encouraged? While some may beg to differ, I prefer (and our startup will adopt) the open layout. It allows for easy reconfiguration of desks for flexible team arrangement, encourages collaboration, creates an open feel that makes even a small office look and feel much larger, and reduces office politics by eliminating things like, "Who gets the cube by the window?" Yes, there need to be rooms designated for meetings and for occasional quiet work for those that are in the "zone", but those are the exception, not the rule. Importantly, we also want to foster a collaborative community where everyone feels comfortable asking anyone a question about anything -- there is no such thing as a stupid question.

That being said, I urge anyone thinking of switching to the open layout to make the best investment they can make for each of their devs, a great pair of headphones. A pair of $100 headphones (I personally use, and love, my Audio Technica M50s) are not only cheaper than a single set of cubicle walls, but also create that "quiet" space for each employee without isolating them from their colleagues. As an added benefit, it's cool to tell your potential employees that when they start working at your company they will get a free pair of headphones -- all perks are good perks.

So, be like Peter Gibbons in Office Space and knock down those dividers and start innovating!


  1. I use the Sony MDR-7506 -- it took a while to get use to them but they're great headphone and should last many's a ear ... I mean year! :)

    The Wire Cutter's take:


    1. Those look nice -- might have to try them at some point! I've personally gone through various pairs of headphones all with their pros and cons... When I had a private office I really liked the Grado SR225s (; for my daily commute I have been using the same pair the Etymotic ER4P in-ear headphones ( for the past 10 years. Oh, and a bunch of my co-workers have the Bose QuietComforts ( and love them.