Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 2, Issue 16;   April 17, 2002:

The True Costs of Cubicles

by

Although cubicles do provide facility cost savings compared with walled offices, they do so at the price of product development delays and increased product development costs. Decisions of facilities planners can have dramatic project schedule impact.

Gordon's fingers raced over the keys as he typed. The architecture was finally coming clear in his mind, and the pieces were now fitting together as if they were meant to, like the pieces of a puzzle. He felt satisfied and thrilled. Then the phone rang, interrupting his flow.

Why phones are noisyNot Gordon's phone — Jeff's, in the cube across the aisle. Jeff picked up, and Gordon listened with interest. Jeff was about to become a dad again, and Gordon was mildly curious. Jeff's end of the conversation was clipped and cryptic — he probably felt people listening. He told the caller he would call back, and then left to finish his call in the conference room that everyone called the "Cone of Silence."

Well, Gordon thought, not much learned here, and he returned to writing. In ten minutes, he was back in the flow. Ten minutes lost.

Cubicles provide cheap office space. They support high densities, and they can be reconfigured much more cheaply than walled spaces. From the perspective of Facilities Management, they make a lot of sense.

But cubicles can increase project execution costs.

With our increasing dependence on the telephone, cubicle occupants now experience higher interruption rates due to the noise of telephone calls of other cubicle occupants. And people who work on teams need to talk to each other too, often in person, and often in "the cubicle next to mine." Cubicles may be one of the driving forces behind telecommuting: "I'm working at home today so I can get something done."

Cubicles are cheap to build
but they depress the
productivity of anyone
who has to think
When people doing brainwork experience elevated interruption rates, they take more time to finish complex thought tasks. They also make more mistakes, which lowers quality, increases the cost of rework, and lengthens time-to-market.

What can we do?

Since the interruption rate experienced by a cubicle occupant is roughly proportional to the number of cubicles in the room, reducing room sizes reduces the interruption rate. We could also return to walled spaces. Both approaches raise Facilities costs.

It's a trade-off. Since facilities planners typically aren't accountable for project schedules, their interests are different from the interests of the company, but most of the time they have a lot of control of the trade-off.

Facilities planners aren't the problem — the typical accounting system is. It fails to allocate accurately the full costs of facilities options, because it doesn't measure the cost of delays and disruptions that are traceable to Facilities. Accounting systems were never designed for that.

If we want facilities planners to have a company perspective, they must be accountable in a budget sense for the impact of their decisions. Unless they are, the trade-off they prefer generally will lower facilities costs and increase interruption rates. While that trade-off makes Facilities sense, it's often business nonsense. Go to top Top  Next issue: Responding to Rumors  Next Issue

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