Jack Ganssle, Editor of The Embedded Muse Jack Ganssle's Blog
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Does Coronavirus Spell the End of Open Offices?

May 5, 2020

Everyone hates cubicles. Even Robert Propst, the inventor of the "action office," the cube's predecessor. Late in life he lamented it was one of his worst ideas. He called cubicles "monolithic insanity."

But there's no such thing as a bad idea that can't be made worse, so today many companies embrace open offices: a sea of desks without any partitions.

Open offices are touted as innovation incubators. Supposedly the quick exchange of ideas facilitate great new products. Yet in engineering we need long intervals of deep thinking. Random questions, incessantly-ringing phones, circulating jokes, all conspire to keep us from that intense focus we need.

One study ("The Impact of 'open' Workspace on Worker Collaboration") showed that in many open offices headphones are the norm. Those wall off workers from that supposed free exchange of ideas. The same study revealed that, since everyone can see each other's desks, many workers are more concerned about looking busy, rather than getting worthwhile work done.

I think the appeal of open offices to upper management is the reduced cost of floor space. "The Moral Life of Cubicles" by David Franz showed that office workers are getting more tightly squeezed together every year. I've graphed the data:

But who can resist extrapolating this? I figure by 2030 we'll be down to zero square feet per person:

Studies indicate that workers in open offices take 62% or more sick days than those surviving their time in cubicles.

Now, cram too many people into a small space. All perfectly happy and healthy, but one worker's spouse just came back from overseas travel... or maybe a quick trip to New York. He's shedding SARS-CoV-19. As of this writing we don't know the R-naught, but the evidence from nursing homes and meat-packing plants is that this virus spreads with the speed of a raunchy joke.

It's hard to see how open offices can survive. Perhaps only every third or fifth desk will be occupied. If so, the savings in floor space disappear. Perhaps they'll erect partitions around desks. Maybe a few inspired outfits will makes these floor to ceiling, an idea once known as "walls." Seems to me these innovative "walls" would halt the spread of infection.

Here's an idea: extend those walls all around the desk. That gives the developer a quiet space where she can be super productive, and halts the spread of disease.

We should come up with a name for this concept. I like the moniker "private office" and am thinking about patenting the notion.

Just how much do cubicles kill productivity? This article shows by almost a factor of three.

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