Anti-work Patterns

I absolutely hate cubes. Everyone sat in isolation emailing the person in the cube next door. Calling meetings to discuss a general issue that we should really just lean over and resolve in 5 minutes. Instead I book something into your calendar later in the week and we take an hour to make a group decision. And I can’t see a f’king window. That’s illegal in some countries.


Does it work for software engineers though? Well, I’ve worked with both semi-private offices and open plan – it was definitely easier to concentrate in the office of 2 – 4 people, and it bred a strong team spirit. In the open-plan space it depends on the mood of the office. When we were all mixed in together in a start-up environment it was perfect. If you wanted to get something done you could put your headphones on or just stay late. It got harder when the normal noise level was low – and that ad-hoc meeting didn’t seem to happen. Altogether though, I probably miss sofas the most now that I’m in 90s corporate hell.


But back to the question of productivity. Is it the cubes? Or is it just that bigger companies find it harder to get anything done? With so many projects on the go, as well as considerations for legacy systems, legal, policy, ever changing corporate strategy, etc. it’s pretty much impossible to focus on one thing – corner office or not. And to be honest, I think that’s where the problem is. In a startup, we’re driven behind a clear vision with no legacy systems to support, no nuisance lawsuits, we’re usually trying to define a market rather than plan nicely with the regulators, and the strategy only changes if we’re running out of money..

So for big companies the usual model is to bootstrap these initiatives using teams that operate in startup mode and then fold them back in when the time is right. But if we learn lessons from other large corporates this requires real discipline. Most of the time, the wrong kind of projects are funded for too long due to a lack of real policy or understanding. To cap this, folding a successful project back in is mismanaged like a bad M&A.

Only solution, if you want to invest in this kind of project, look to the practises of the best VCs, ask the tough questions, and kill it if it’s not working in the interests of the company. This way, when it comes to time to fold it back in – it doesn’t feel like Starbucks opening restaurants.

Ps – that’s not actually my cube, I just found it on flickr by typing yahoo cube. It just looks like my cube. It looks like everybody’s cube.


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