Cubicle, bullpen, office, cafe or kitchen table — where do you work best?

By Caitlin Kelly

English: cubicle
English: cubicle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s a heartfelt plea for the end of open-plan offices, from Fast Company:

Every workspace should contain nothing but offices. Offices for everyone. Offices for the junior associate and the assistant editor, and offices for the vice president and the editor-in-chief. Take those long tables, the ones currently lined with laptops at startups, and give them to an elementary school so children can eat lunch on them. We’ll have to do away with all those adorable communal spaces, but they were always a little demeaning, a little not-quite-Starbucks. We won’t need them now that we all have our own meeting place.

Peace and quiet and privacy and decency and respect for all. We people who spend more waking hours at work than we do at home, we people who worked hard to be where we are, we deserve a few square feet and a door…

Employees in cubicles receive 29% more interruptions than those in private offices, finds research from the University of California, Irvine. And employees who are interrupted frequently report 9% higher rates of exhaustion.

As someone who has worked in huge, open newsrooms with zero privacy — the New York Daily News, the Montreal Gazette — in one with cubicles, The Globe and Mail and in (yay!) several magazine jobs with a real, private office with a door that I could (and did) keep closed, this is an issue dear to my heart.

When New York’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio takes office, he’ll be re-structuring the famous bullpen created by his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg.

English: The RedBalloon office - an example of...
English: The RedBalloon office – an example of an open plan ‘Bullpen’-style office. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We all know what powerful effects our workspace can have on us, for better or worse. At best, they offer plenty of natural light, clean and attractive decor and furniture and spaces for public and private communication.

Newsrooms, sadly, are often the ugliest, dirtiest and meanest places imaginable.

I worked at the Daily News for a year. The newsroom is impossibly large — with one section of it stretching an entire city block, between 33d street and 32d street. The only daylight came from a high row of clerestory windows.

I arrived on my first day to be greeted by a computer keyboard so encrusted with food and drink I could barely stand to touch it, a broken, dirty chair and a desk drawer filled with a smelly, dirty pair of men’s sneakers.

My desk was jammed up against those of three other reporters, those on the I-team, the investigative reporters.

In the first few months, three of those reporters managed to avoid saying hello, smiling or pausing to chat with me. I once made the fatal mistake of trying to chat up one of the paper’s stars, who stared resolutely ahead and pretended I didn’t even exist. The photo editor, a legendary bully, dressed me down there at full volume, knowing a new reporter would hardly welcome everyone in earshot knowing she was in trouble.

And a reporter who sat behind me was so routinely toxic and inconsiderate of everyone sitting around him that a red-faced, irate co-worker sitting next to me once came close to punching him.

Not exactly a calm, supportive work environment.

My husband works at The New York Times, whose offices are eerily quiet. Most reporters and editors have small cubicles, with small glass-doored private conference rooms available when needed, and round tables for impromptu meetings.

English: Newsroom of the New York Times
English: Newsroom of the New York Times (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I now work alone at home in our one-bedroom apartment, typing at a desk or a table, and have done so since June 2006. We have no kids or pets, so it’s normal for me to spend the entire day not speaking to another soul — unless it’s for work. Lonely? Yes. Focused, certainly!

I often write with music in the background or NPR’s talk shows. Even during our recent kitchen renovation, having missed the demolition part, I found it easier to be home and working (available for quick consultations with the workers) than to go elsewhere. I actually enjoyed the company.

I rarely work in a public space like a cafe (noisy, crowded, the electrical outlets usually already claimed) or restaurant (if the food is good, let’s focus on it.) I occasionally head to the library for a change of scene but, after school gets out and the teens pile in and chatter loudly, I flee home for silence.

The one cool helper Jose bought me is a MiFi, a credit-card-sized personal Internet hotspot. With it, I can connect from anywhere — a moving Amtrak train, inside the car, on a park bench.

When I worked for others, I loved having an office with a door. I hate fluorescent light so I always turned it off and used a desk lamp instead. I got a lot done without interruption, as I do today.

Each workspace offers its own challenges, though. I really miss the buzz of a productive newsroom, chatting with smart, fun colleagues, learning from tough editors.

Do you better tolerate isolation or interruption?

What sort of workspace do you work (best) in?



48 thoughts on “Cubicle, bullpen, office, cafe or kitchen table — where do you work best?

  1. An office! It has to be an office with a door! I’ll leave the door open almost all the time and even face the door, but I have to have a closable door. Even though, with doors closed, I can still hear my neighbor’s conference calls, just closing the door is all I need sometimes.

    I don’t mind interruption, but I like it to be brief and not a total surprise, like when I hear familiar friendly footsteps coming down the hall. At home? I can’t do it, because I have too many well-loved distractions lying around and no sense of purpose-for-others-sake (necessary for working).

  2. I dislike intensely those fluorescent office lights, Caitlin. It’s as if you are under severe questioning all the time. So on my desk is a lamp and there always will be just a lamp. I thought I was lucky when I got a cubicle of my own – there is nothing like sitting right behind someone who really needs to do their laundry. My husband gets lonely sometimes, I think. He stands at the door waiting for me to come back to earth but being a great guy, he made made me a little sign that, if I put it out, means no interruptions.

  3. I’ve always seemed to find a job where I can be by myself. If for any other reason than it is hard to concentrate, especially while broadcasting. Done the Barnes and Noble thing, now safely at home I can broaden my skillsets, for what that is worth.

    1. It is very tough for many people to concentrate when surrounded by others…People working in newsrooms get used to it, but it also depends how noisy the place is and how often you are interrupted.

  4. Thanks for places a perspective on office space. I’m a banker and it’s a luxury were afforded; but we’re not creators, in fact we’re simply repeating what is profitable.

    Loved the article, I’m going to bring my office mates an item that spurs creativity.

  5. Jane

    Having my own office is a long time dream! I work with my hubby & share an office with him & another employee. My view is of a wall covered in our adverts & awards. Luckily my long exposure in open plan offices means I can filter out all the other stuff swirling around.

    1. When we finally did our kitchen renovation, it included three custom-made drawers in the pantry — that’s my “office” where I finally have a dedicated spot to hide/file all my messy papers. Congrats on your adverts and awards!! I have my National Magazine Award framed and in a corner of the living room. It’s nice to have those acknowledgments.

      I agree — once you’ve worked in an open office (if people are pleasant), you can generally just get on with things.

  6. in an office setting, i work best when i have a quiet space i can go to, with a door i can close and a space i can share with others for brainstorming. (my ad days). as a kindergarten teacher i share a rug and tiny chairs and no real desk with 18 littles and 2 other adults. how it needs to be to be present in every way. on breaks, i seek out a quiet room by myself or 1 or 2 other to talk or plan.

    1. I thought of you especially as I was writing this post. πŸ™‚ I recently saw a film in which a character teaches kindergarten and it was striking what a different way of working it is. It must be an interesting balance for you — lots of littles and then time to re-charge.

      1. yes, as visible as i need to be for my job, in right in the thick of things, i still need my quiet space throughout the day to recharge. great post )

  7. I work in a cubicle and get interrupted all day long. It makes my crazy. I get random people asking me to help them with everything including how to format word documents or powerpoints or fixing a paper-jam on the copy machine. I also hate overhearing everyone else’s conversations. The people who sit around me are on the phone all day too so I usually have my headphones and listen to music or podcasts just to block that out. The worst is when I am eating my lunch of leftovers at my desk and someone comes by to talk about work. By the time they are done, my lunch is cold and I’m annoyed. I get so much more accomplished when I work from home. I can listen to music and sing along plus the interruptions are very much reduced.

    1. Ouch!

      Sorry to hear this — all of which is very familiar to anyone in an open office. I always made it a point to flee my desk to eat, even sitting on a bench outdoors, to have some quiet, private time. I also hate having crumbs and food/drink mess in my work area.

      Would it not be possible to be a little tougher with those lunch-time interruptions? You need your break, even if you have to be more assertive claiming it than you might prefer.

      1. I work a reduced schedule so that time is still valuable to getting things done. I agree that I do need to step away from my desk for lunch though. The other benefit of working at home is having windows that open so I can hear the birds and get fresh air. Fresh air makes a world of difference.

      2. So true!

        I recently wrote a story about “evidence based design” — which uses science to back up interior design choices. One of the most crucial is natural light and a sightline to nature — even a mural or poster. At home I can open our balcony door and we overlook treetops and a river…with birds all around. It’s very calming…so glad you have that too!

  8. It depends which job I’m working at and what I’m doing. At my radio job, I enjoy the solitude of the control room when I’m on the air or the production room when I’m recording. But the announcers’ bullpen is a great source of inspiration and creativity and an excellent place to get pumped up before an air shift. At my marketing and public relations job, I definitely appreciate the office with the door. My door is never fully opened; even having it partially closed provides a good buffer against noise and interruptions. For writing at home? My writing desk in the guest room. If the door is closed and you hear music, don’t think about knocking unless the house is on fire.

    1. If the house is on fire, knocking is probably too subtle! πŸ™‚

      I envy you such a great variety of workspaces — and the creativity they help to foster. The one thing I really miss is having smart, fun people to exchange ideas with. I do it on-line all day, but it’s very different face to face.

      What a fun life you have!

  9. I don’t know what my best work environment is. I wish there were a safe way to work on my book while driving. I have the most awesome ideas when I’m driving between Austin and Dallas to see my son, but getting those ideas down is difficult. I keep meaning to try Evernote to see if that works, but the muse sneaks up on me before that happens.

    At my paying day job, I’m stuck in a cubicle that’s like a heinous cavern. I expect Gollum to come out of the woodwork at any moment trying to rip the ring off my finger. I’ve set it up for privacy as best I can, but the place is pretty depressing. It’s an old state hospital’s mental ward that was converted into office space for our purchasing division. It’s creepy, cold, smelly and needs to be torn down, but the state is cheap, so that won’t happen any time soon.

    I’d really like to try working in an office set up similarly to Google’s offices with open spaces and private cubbies to work in as needed. I could deal with working in a bean bag chair surrounded by smiling people all day, I’m sure.

    1. Hmmm….I bet there’s a way to rig up a hands-free recording device — Iphone? I agree that the best ideas often come when we’re least prepared to record them! I’m forever scribbling on napkins and the backs of whatever I’m reading.

      Gross. So sorry to hear it. I know my mood and productivity are much better in a clean, quiet, pretty space — aka my home. I found it very difficult to work well in shitty, small and uncared-for spaces. I wish more employers really thought more about this, not just cool tech employers…

      Having visited Google’s HQ, I can assure you I was quite shocked by the offices…The man I profiled for the NYT shared an office the size of some closets. They do it deliberately.

  10. This issue is dear to my heart too. I think having our own space to work is really important! The happiest I’ve ever been was in Vermont where (as part of residency) I had a small but comfortable office all to myself with a window overlooking a river. I had never experienced that kind of privacy and freedom to write before, and have been trying to recreate it ever since.

    At my job, I’m very lucky to have a cubicle next to a large window and away from the heavy hallway foot traffic. But there’s still constant interruptions, no privacy, and little autonomy.

    At home, my office is right next to the kitchen, has no door, and I’m often interrupted by my dog. The only way to get anything done is when she’s sleeping. One day soon, I will have my own office again, though I might have to leave Ruby outside. πŸ™‚

    Are you thinking of renting a small office for yourself? Love the MiFi card!!

    1. Those residency programs sound quite alluring!

      I’m not sure about the co-working space…I wouldn’t spend the $$$ to rent an office. Right now I am happy enough (and productive enough) at home. If I do rent something, it might be the co-working space one day a week…

  11. Gilraen

    I recently moved from open space to a shared office. I share with one of my co-workers that I also have a close working relationship with and actually like. Our work hours mean that each of us is alone in the office about 50% of the time. It is perfect or me. Enough privacy but also enough interaction.
    I usually have the radio on as I need background (white) noise. It helps me to focus. If there is no music I start to focus on my tinnitus and that is not a happy noise.
    I occasionally work from home and either I really focus there or I am totally 100% distracted by the internet. Nothing in between.

  12. I don’t like a lot of noise when I’m working and with the exception of a contract position that lasted eight months and a bit of time in offices when I was in the army, I have never had a workspace in an office building.

    My car was my office for years when I was in sales, but now I have a room that my husband built for me after we married in 2009 and it’s where I do most of my writing. Although the sofa makes for a comfy writing space too, a little to comfy sometimes … zzzz.

    Here’s a link from 2010 that gives you an idea where I work now. The view of the garden has changed in huge ways. All the bushy trees are gone now and I have a lovely view of the Cornish countryside.

    1. I sometimes blog on the laptop on the sofa or in bed in the mornings…but for *serious* work…nope. Usually has to be at a desk.

      I used to sit at the desktop but I’ve grown really fond of the flexibility of the laptop.

  13. One of the best jobs I ever had took place in a modified cube farm with four to a cube and low partitions that allowed us all to talk back and forth and even to overhear other conversations easily. I thought that setup was very beneficial for the nature of the work we did, though I’ll bet some people were uncomfortable. It was interesting that the managers, in much more private cubicles, seemed perpetually clueless.
    But the mission of this group was support for repair and maintenance of fiber optic equipment at a (big) telecom, and everything we were doing was in real-time–I would liken that in many ways to a newsroom. Now, for writing, I have a study that is fairly private. I never shut the door, but I couldn’t be productive sitting out in the dining room or somewhere like that.

      1. And this explains the interest in workplaces, I think. Sometimes we forget that the people we work with are around us and interacting with us much, much more than our own family members, and they take up a very large part of our head space.

      2. I wanted to add, that is why we should probably pay more attention when people advise us to “do what we love.” And why it’s a shame that sometimes that is such an unrealistic goal.

      3. I think it’s important to enjoy our work as much as humanly possible, as so many people are deeply unhappy at work. But the fantasy that “passion” = $$$$? Sadly inaccurate.

  14. Isolation! Absolutely. I write poetry in public places, sure. I grew up in a very small, cramped house with no doorknobs and zero privacy. I wrote all my homework assignments with headphones blaring music to block out the sound of the television and the band practice going on next door. I am a past master at maintaining concentration despite a constant level of background noise on public transport, or in a cafe or restaurant. However, years of contract admin work in open plan offices during my early twenties, where other people use your desk as their trash can (including for items of food!!!) and hold loud, unnecessary and inconsiderate meetings stood right next to you, or even looking over your shoulder from two inches behind your seat while you are struggling to finish whatever currently requires your undivided attention… impossible! These days I still jot down original ideas and short poems on the bus, but I do my editing and write any longer bits and pieces sat on a pilates ball in my personal library where my desk faces the wall, with both the window curtains and the door firmly shut.

  15. I like working in public spaces with generous table top space. Coffee shops and libraries come to mind. I don’t mind the noise as long as I have headphones, but isolation is a must. It doesn’t matter if I’m not communicating at all with someone, but if they are WITH me, I can’t relax enough to work. Still very much a hermit, mentally.

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