Cubicle configuration could cultivate creativity

I’m almost too old to be in this situation, but the over the weekend my sister-in-law and her partner came over for dinner with my nephew, and we didn’t have enough regular chairs for our dining-room table. So, like college students everywhere, I wheeled out the swivel chair we keep by our desk, and I was aghast when my sister-in-law’s partner insisted on sitting in it. Then I realized his strategy: my nine-month-old nephew would not stop moving around and getting into trouble, and the swivel chair made it easy to glide over whenever intervention was necessary.

You can kind of do the same thing in some offices, but not many. I realized this when I was recently working on a story about ways technology professionals can be more creative. Among those I interviewed was a young 35-year-old game developer, who had an unusual response when I asked what she needed to get the innovative juices flowing.

“It’s going to sound kind of funny, but I would seriously like someone to come up with cost-effective, simple, cheap, office furniture with wheels,” she said. “Right now when I want to collaborate with someone I have to walk over to their desk. Moving my desk is a huge pain. That’s why I recently took off a third of the walls from my cube. Now it’s less of a cube and more of a space. My team needs to get to me, and I feel we need to take the walls out of our workspaces.”

Personally, I’ve gone through almost every conceivable cubicle design. In one of my first jobs they were like little self-contained booths, with little ability to see out the sides unless you happened to stand up. My best experience was in an office where the cubicles were grouped into pods of four. You had a shared space in the middle and a person working in each corner. True, your back was turned to them every time you checked your e-mail, but it felt more like a team environment. Now I toil in that new breed of workplace, the cubicle office – looks like an office, but the walls don’t reach the ceiling, giving the illusion of privacy but really amounting to a glorified holding pen.

Any IT departments I’ve seen are usually walled off near the back, because they are inevitably surrounded by half-opened cardboard boxes with monitors and PCs. The desks are also usually so strewn with stray (computer) mice, a spaghetti of cabling and piles of paper that even if the desks were on wheels, you wouldn’t want to move them.

There are, of course, digital tools that should allow us to act as though we’re sitting next to each other, but we all know it’s not the same thing. You don’t have the same sense of urgency when you’re working via e-mail as you do with a colleague staring at the same PC screen. There’s also the hotelling concept, where users just log into a generic cubicle on an as-needed basis, but that provides little sense of security among people who like to feel they are really part of something, and in any case works better for field staff.

The idea of configure-on-the-go cubicles is in some ways an apt metaphor for IT management itself. CIOs and their staff are expected to set up shop with marketing, sales or operations, depending on the project, often working as though they were regular members of that particular team. I don’t know if we’ll ever have the kind of cubicles that offer that level of flexibility, but maybe we’ll eventually think about office spaces not as fixed entities but as works in progress. Kind of like our IT itself.

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