IT Staff and Privacy: Striking Balance Between Collaboration, Concentration

Ann All

With our office layouts, as with most aspects of our lives, all most of us really want is a variety of options. We like a place to gather with coworkers for informal confabs but we also appreciate more private space for making phone calls or working on projects that require lots of concentration.


That's what Ken-Hardin found when he wrote about office layouts way back in 2007, when many tech companies including Cisco, Intel and Microsoft were opting to open up work spaces by removing cubicles in an effort to boost collaboration among employees. Ken quizzed several of us in IT Business Edge's editorial department, who at the time worked in what was referred to as a "super cubicle" environment. Supervisors sat in the midst of a group of workers in an open space, though some privacy was offered with low partitions. Among responses he got when he asked folks for ideas for work space improvements: "would have been/would be nice to get a choice" and "more flexibility in how workstation is set up."


A Computerworld story features several companies trying to create environments conducive to both collaboration and concentration by offering a mix of public and private spaces. It presents office environment as kind of an IT-specific issue, noting "many high-tech employees prefer to work in solitude, or at least in an environment quiet enough to foster intense concentration for significant chunks of time." Um, I guess, but sales folks working on proposals, accountants laboring over quarterly statements and writers trying to complete a piece on deadline need to concentrate too.


Shaun Walter, senior Unix system administrator of midrange systems at financial services company Ally Financial, tells Computerworld his company strikes the right balance with a large, open area filled with aisles of cubes divided by low partitions, with a variety of different-sized conference rooms around the edges. Employees can also duck into small areas called "touchdown rooms," tiny rooms with a desk and a phone, to make calls or handle personal issues. Oddly enough, that's the approximate layout for much of IT Business Edge's staff. Like Walter, I'd agree it works well most of the time, though noise levels and occasional Nerf battles can sometimes be distracting.


At Google, employees can choose between individual workstations or offices they share with a few coworkers. The company's VP of real estate and workplace services says about 60 percent of engineers opt for workstations and 40 percent go for offices. I'd say the fact Google gives its employees a choice, not to mention the fact it has a VP of workplace services, might be one of the reasons it shows up so consistently on "Best Places to Work" lists. The VP's quote:

I think where a lot of companies go wrong is thinking about it as an "or" statement, not an "and" statement. We try to have both. People can be heads-down in front of their computer, but when they get up to stretch they have many opportunities to [interact] with other employees.

I think the mistake many companies make is imposing open work spaces without making some provisions for privacy. When I wrote about collaborative work spaces, I cited an article that mentioned Cisco had begun giving small storage lockers to workers sitting at communal tables rather than individual workstations. Sheesh, as if it's any less depressing to start your day by going to a small gray locker instead of a small gray cubicle. Going back to Ken's survey, several folks at IT Business Edge mentioned a desire for more privacy.


I'm pretty sure I wouldn't like the environment at State Farm Insurance Cos., which according to Computerworld houses IT workers in an area where "no one has an official cube they go to and own." An executive from the company mentions not all IT staff like the arrangement, with some saying it doesn't offer enough privacy. I could foresee skirmishes over desks and chairs, similar to ones that occur when employees become attached to preferred (but non-designated) parking spaces.


An office planner tells Computerworld he gets more requests for open layouts from IT departments than from accounting or sales departments. But he suggests managers, rather than employees, drive those decisions. I think some managers are too quick to buy into the latest trends (like open office layouts) without asking for employees' opinions. I also think the mix of private/public spaces probably works best for most organizations.

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