Technical Writing Poll: Office Layout and Technical Communication Productivity

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.

What kind of office floorplan works best for technical communicators?

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Lauren Hart

Lauren Hart

12 years ago

This is a really interesting topic. That article about cubicles makes some excellent points. It doesn’t seem like there is a perfect solution right now. I’m not sure how I would feel about the booths. I think it could work as long as they weren’t so close to the other people. I think it’s funny that when they turned off the pink noise machine that people complained.

I work in a very open office with these semi-cubicles and “eavesdropping is encouraged” here so that we can incorporate each other’s ideas into our thinking. It is often very distracting when people are on the phone or having a conversation nearby. Almost all of us use noise-canceling headphones to tune out the noise. I just read this article on yahoo about headphones.


12 years ago

My office has tried many configurations. Some teams got rid of their walls and sit at tables like a newsroom and others have various cube configurations (standing, sitting, treadmills). The teams practice scrum and I have been embedded on one team or another as needed. Finally, I asked for a cube away from the teams so I can concentrate when needed but take my laptop around the office and visit subject-matter experts at their own desks or in meeting rooms.

Joyce Fetterman

12 years ago

In my career I’ve had private offices, I’ve had cubicles, and I’ve shared an office. My favorite workplace office plan gave me and my SMEs each a small private office on a common hallway. When I needed to concentrate or have a meeting, I could close my door but otherwise the door was open so that I could hear what was happening among the SMEs. It encouraged communication without making us feel like we were under-valued or working in a fishbowl. That layout encouraged productivity and reduced stress.

Gary Michael Smith

12 years ago

I wrote the article that started all this some 12 years ago. Here’s the story: Around 1999 or 2000 my company had moved the 40 or so employees to a cubicle environment. Some staffers were managers or former managers and were used to having offices, and now were annoying their neighbors with speaker phone conference calls, cube meetings, and general loud talking. Our director asked me, as the technical writer, to search for an article on cubicle etiquette for distribution to the team. All online searches back then found absolutely no hits. So I came up with my own practical and workable list that was published in the international trade journal Technical Communication. It wasn’t long that I was getting reprint requests, which continues to this day, from China to Australia, UK to the US. The article was reprinted in the same journal again in 2005 and has been plagiarized many times. For instance, a search now will show hundreds of articles on the topic, with some even containing (without credit) entire text blocks lifted from my article. I don’t care as long as the word gets out. The article has been posted in my research and technology park’s break rooms and wall boards, but for the most part workers still like to yell over walls and commune with colleagues. After a while you get used to it.

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