On May 20, 2012, John Tierney of the New York Times published an article that struck a chord with cubicle dwellers everywhere, so much so that “From Cubicles, Cry for Quiet Pierces Office Buzz” appeared on newspaper sites across the US with hundreds of comments decrying lack of privacy, the “wall of the headphones,” loss of productivity, increased anxiety and more. Speech masking technology such as “pink noise” systems and high-grade acoustical ceiling tiles can make a significant difference, but corporate culture and changing norms of etiquette also greatly impact your productivity and job satisfaction. Whether you are a lone writer on a project team or part of a technical communication staff, you deal with the challenges presented by the physical environment that you work within. Tierney’s piece cited studies showing how the more economical open cubicle layouts actually reduce productivity, and commenters backed that up with plenty of anecdotal evidence. A few folks, including at least one former technical writer, came down on the side of open layouts because of the collaboration and improved speed of getting information from colleagues. With so many technology professionals working in global teams, the rate of face-to-face communication may be dropping in favor of conference calls, email and instant messaging, which gives rise to questions as to whether meaningful or relevant communication takes place in a “bullpen” environment.
However, at least in the US, productivity of knowledge workers continues at an all-time high, so we have to wonder what’s really going on here. Are there circumstances where an open layout is advantageous to technical communication professionals? Are there downsides to tall cubicles, shared office space, noise-canceling headphones, or the ability to close a door? Is telecommuting the only viable option for actually getting your work done?
If you have found ways to be productive in an open office environment, please share them with us, via a comment or on the TechWhirl email discussion list. We know that technical communication productivity is part of the larger question of demonstrating our value, and sharing ideas and experiences is key to finding the best route to productivity.