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San Jose Mercury News – Out of the box: Valley companies dump cubicles for open office spaces

I’ve read two great posts on the future of office space configurations, namely this one “San Jose Mercury News – Out of the box: Valley companies dump cubicles for open office spaces” and this one by the CEO of FeedBurner. Both make strong arguments for open, flexible office spaces. I hate to lump these two posts together as they make different arguments. I have a tough time arguing with most of the things that Costello says – most of it rings true from my experience in startups. However, I do find the piece about Cisco and other large companies moving to truly open and flexible work spaces to be a bit troubling.

The larger your company, the higher the likelihood that you’ll have people who prefer to work in different office configurations. For small companies, I can see why the speed of information transfer outweighs any personal inconvenience associated with having every conversation, phone call, or interaction broadcasted publicly. However, as a company grows, it’s likely that there will be people who simply don’t want to work that way. Is it wrong to accommodate those folks who do want a bit more privacy in the workplace? Having designated “private spaces” where people go to make personal phone calls or conduct other business only highlights the distinction between public and private time. In an environment where people are logging 10+ hours at work, is it reasonable to think that they won’t conduct some personal business at work? Even a modest cube produces enough privacy to make those calls or check those messages without making a public scene. At what point is a company sufficiently large to have a distinction between personal and company business?

The serendipity of close contact – A lot of the cool and unexpected stuff that happens from close, tight-knit groups happens due to eavesdropping. There’s a conversation going on between person A and person B and person C decides to drop in and insert himself/herself into the conversation because it sounds interesting or relevant. A lot of this serendipity happens only because people are co-located – you can’t recreate it over IM, videoconferencing, or any other medium. I’ve certainly seen what it costs to lose that close contact and the serendipity it produces – allowing people to work form anywhere on campus and be truly mobile can undermine this.

This is a long-winded way of me asking what you think about workplace configurations, including the costs and benefits of having a high degree of flexibility of how and where you work.