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By Jack Ganssle

Cubicle Madness

Summary: Cubicles are productivity-killers. Yet they're here to stay.

For my money the most important work on software productivity in the last 20 years is DeMarco and Lister's Peopleware. For a decade the authors conducted coding wars at a number of different companies, pitting teams against each other on a standard set of software problems. The results showed that, using any measure of performance (speed, defects, etc.) the average of those in the 1st quartile outperformed the average in the 4th quartile by nearly a factor of 3.

Surprisingly, none of the factors you'd expect to matter correlated to the best and worst performers. Even experience mattered little, as long as the programmers had been working for at least 6 months.

They did find a very strong correlation between the office environment and team performance. Needless interruptions yielded poor performance. The best teams had private (read "quiet") offices and phones with "off" switches. Their study suggests that quiet time saves vast amounts of money.

Think about this. The almost minor tweak of getting some quiet time can, according to their data, multiply your productivity by 3x! That's an astonishing result. For the same salary your boss pays you now, he'd get essentially 3 of you.

Too many of us work in a sea of cubicles, despite the clear showing how ineffective they are. It's bad enough that there's no door and no privacy. Worse is when we're subjected to the phone calls of all of our neighbors. We hear the whispered agony as the poor sod in the cube next door tries to work it out with his spouse. We try to focus on our work... but being human the pathos of the drama grabs our attention till we're straining to hear the latest development. Is this an efficient use of an expensive person's time?

Later studies by other researchers found that after an interruption it takes 15 minutes to get into a state of "flow," that Spock-like trance where you're one with the computer. Yet the average developer gets interrupted every 11 minutes.

Yet the cube police will rarely listen to data and reason. They've invested in the cubes, and they've made a decision, By God! The cubicles are here to stay!

This is a case where we can only wage a defensive action. Educate your boss but resign yourself to failure. In the meantime, take some action to minimize the downside of the environment. Here are a few ideas:

* Wear headphones and listen to music to drown out the divorce saga next door.

* Turn the phone off. If it has no "off" switch, unplug the damn thing. In desperate situations attack the wire with a pair of wire cutters. Remember that a phone is a bell that anyone in the world can ring to bring you running. Conquer this madness for your most productive hours.

* Know your most productive hours. I work best before lunch; that's when I schedule all of my creative work, all of the hard stuff. I leave the afternoons free for low-IQ activities like meetings, phone calls, and paperwork.

* Disable the email. It's worse than the phone. Your two hundred closest friends who send the joke of the day are surely a delight, but if you respond to the email reader's "bing" you're little more than one of NASA's monkeys pressing a button to get a banana.

* Put a curtain across the opening to simulate a poor man's door. Be sure others understand that when it's closed you are not willing to hear from anyone unless it's an emergency.

The ultimate irony of cubicles is that shortly before he died in 2000, Robert Propst railed against cubes, calling them "monolithic insanity."

Robert Propst invented the Action Office, which was eventually perverted into the cubicle.

Published September 17, 2010