Commentary: Help! I'm A Prisoner In A Shrinking Cubicle

It's not paranoia. It's not claustrophobia. The walls really are closing in. Offices are being torn down to make way for cubicles, and big cubicles are being chopped into small ones. Facility Performance Group Inc. in Ann Arbor, Mich., says work spaces have shrunk 25% to 50% over 10 years for most workers at 70 big trend-setting companies. Offices now require 5 to 6 parking slots per 1,000 rentable square feet, up from 3.5 to 4 a few years ago, the International Facility Management Assn. says.

This is one unhealthy trend. If it keeps up, by 2097 a typical middle manager's work area will be 8 square feet--just enough for one person of ordinary girth, a plaque with the corporate motto ("People are our most important asset"), and a set of Dilbert cartoon books.

The first problem here is the eagerness to save money on real estate at the expense of employees' comfort and dignity. Second is the assumption that open spaces promote teamwork. If that's so, then why are upper managers--who spend entire days in meetings--hardly ever encountered in cubicles?

Disclosure: We at BUSINESS WEEK's New York headquarters recently were informed that most of us will lose our private offices in a year or two. This prompted a closer look at cubicles, which are occupied by some 35 million of the 45 million white-collar workers in this country.

Cubicles do have advantages. They're cheap to install and rearrange. They save on rent. They make it easier for managers to monitor employees--always a popular pastime. And they increase communication, because people overhear one another.

In fact, they overhear one another hour after hour. For many workers, cubicles are too open to permit deep concentration. At the same time, they're too closed for spontaneous collaboration. Indeed, companies with cubicles are now creating meeting areas to foster teamwork. Good idea--except they're shrinking cubicles to make room for the new communal spaces.

Here's a solution: Take a hard look at whether cutting costs on real estate is driving away good employees and shriveling the brains of those who stay. Then, give cubicles to people who can thrive in them, and private offices to people who need private spaces--based on function, not pay scale. Microsoft Corp., which has development projects requiring intense collaboration, nonetheless gives its programmers private offices. Why? So they can think--and because the perk helps attract top talent. Adobe Systems Inc. likewise went from 40% private offices to 98% when it moved into new headquarters in San Jose, Calif., last August.

Shooing people out of private offices doesn't guarantee a burst of brilliant collaboration. "There's a tendency for people to assume you can buy the right furniture and suddenly get teams out of it," says Jeff Reuschel, manager of officing research for Haworth Inc. in Holland, Mich. Brainstorming among people lacking peace and quiet produces brain drizzle. Companies such as Microsoft and Adobe understand that.

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