Chaco Canyon Consulting

Bookmark and Share The True Costs of Cubicles

by

Although cubicles do provide facility cost savings over walled offices, they do so at the price of increased product development project execution delays and costs. Facilities planners and managers typically are not held accountable for project schedules, yet decisions they make can have dramatic project schedule impact. How important is this effect?


Gordon's fingers raced over the keys as he typed. He wasn't in a race, but the plan was finally coming clear in Gordon's 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.

Not his phone — Marcie's, in the cube across from his. He heard her pick up, and listened with interest. Marcie was divorcing, and Gordon was a mildly curious spectator. Married himself, he didn't think of her as a potential partner, but he was curious about divorce, and about how she was getting through it. Marcie's end of the conversation was clipped and cryptic — she probably knew that people were listening. She told the caller she would call back, and then left, probably headed for the conference room around the corner — the one everyone called "The Cone of Silence." Well, Gordon thought, not much learned here, and he went back to writing up his project plan. It would take him another ten minutes or so to get back in the flow.

Cubicles provide cheap office space. Cubicle-based architectures enable businesses to reconfigure spaces much more quickly than they can reconfigure walled spaces, and they support higher densities. From the point of view of Facilities Management, they make a lot of sense.

But compared with walled spaces, cubicles provide little acoustic isolation. People who do brain work experience interruption rates much higher than they would in environments that provide greater acoustic (and visual) isolation. High interruption rates increase the time required to accomplish complex thought tasks, and might even increase error rates, which raises the costs of rework.

Cubicles do provide facility cost savings, but they do so at the expense of increased project execution costs.

Effect on Project Schedules

So it seems that the interests of the company are different from the interests of the Facilities Management function. Facilities planners and managers typically are not held accountable for project schedules, yet decisions they make can have dramatic project schedule impact. Here are just two of many other ways in which facilities decisions affect project schedules.

LaptopIn-phase infrastructure investments
Organizations make infrastructure investments during quarters when Net Income looks good. For example, we wait until the record-setting quarter to upgrade our internal network architecture, to buy everyone new laptops, or to shut down half of the East-end elevators while we upgrade the motors and software. One effect of such "in-phase" infrastructure investments is that the inevitable disruptions that accompany them arrive at a time when they can cause maximum revenue disruption.
Like infrastructure investment, new product development is often in phase with Net Income. Thus, the disruptions associated with infrastructure investment are often synchronized with major new product initiatives. Consequently, we've developed an impression that new product development is more difficult to manage than it actually is. There are indeed difficulties, but some of those difficulties arise not within the context of the project, but elsewhere in the organization — at the level of the organization responsible for timing infrastructure investment.
Failure to relocate
Many organizations have a heritage of acquisition. As one result of a series of acquisitions over a period of years, they have organizational elements at several sites scattered around the country or around the world. When these organizations work on product development projects, the project team itself can be apportioned across those sites, with critical expertise drawn from those locations that possess it. This situation has led to much research and interest in managing geographically dispersed teams.
We can improve how we manage dispersed teams, but collocated teams will probably be more effective than dispersed teams for the foreseeable future. To really improve the performance of dispersed teams, the best approach is to consolidate them — to relocate people so that the team is no longer dispersed.
Sometimes we fear that if we try to relocate people, they'll elect to leave the company instead, and sometimes, they will. But failure to deal with these problems effectively condemns our organizations to high costs, project delays, increased communication costs, and a higher incidence of shredded schedules. In some organizations, it's time to face the possibility that promises made at acquisition time about never relocating might have been mistakes. It might be necessary to find ways to reconfigure the company geographically to facilitate product development and improve time-to-market. That effort might cause some people to leave the organization.

Accounting for Project Delays

In all three of these cases — cubicles, in-phase infrastructure investment, and geographic dispersion — one of the culprits is the typical accounting system, which fails to allocate accurately the full cost of facilities decisions, because it doesn't measure the cost of delays and disruptions throughout the organization. Accounting systems — even management accounting systems — were never designed for that purpose.

Cubicle costs

WorkingAs our dependence on the telephone as a tool for business operations increases, we can expect that interruption rates due to telephone calls will also increase. Measuring the cost of interruptions of the thought processes of cubicle occupants is beyond the reach of typical accounting. Still, we can measure the frequency of telephone rings within the hearing of a typical cubicle occupant, and we can make estimates of the time lost to such interruptions.

In cubicle installations, the interruption rate experienced by an occupant is roughly proportional to the number of cubicles in the room. Thus one way to reduce the interruption rate is to reduce the sizes of the rooms that contain cubicles. The facilities planner could make room-size decisions by trading off facilities cost against interruption rates.

Historical trend data for interruption rates in typical cubicle installations could be a useful tool in making such facilities decisions, but unless Facilities is accountable in a budget sense for the impact of such decisions, the trade-off will generally produce lower facilities costs and higher interruption rates.

In-phase infrastructure investments

If the accounting system did measure the total organizational cost of the infrastructure improvements, including the cost of project delays, justifying out-of-phase infrastructure investment would be much easier. To change the organizational perspective, begin by collecting historical data. Estimate the costs of project delays due to facilities improvement projects, and charge them to a facilities budget. This practice motivates development of a new approach to infrastructure investment, one in which we undertake improvements out of phase with Net Income.

Reducing geographic dispersion

To accomplish consolidation with a minimum of losses of key people is a difficult problem. Begin by honestly accounting for the cost of not solving it. Use these cost data to make a case for applying significant resources to a quick and effective relocation solution. Applying those resources in novel ways to provide financial support and to ease stress for the people who must relocate is the key to successful consolidation.

Ideally, these costs should be recognized as acquisition costs. If they are taken into account at acquisition time, the organization and its shareholders will have a more realistic picture of the financial value of the acquisition.

To achieve high levels of organizational performance, we must have cost data that reflect that performance. Allowing some functions to force other functions to bear costs without consequence enables those functions to make decisions that make local sense, and global nonsense.   Go to top  Top
Bookmark and Share


Do you want to examine how operational functions contribute to project delays in your organization? Through assessment, consulting, or coaching, I can help you to:

  • Assess the use of cost-export practices across operations units
  • Model the financial costs of operational decisions in terms of time-to-market
  • Reduce the frequency of interruptions in your organization

Contact me

Contact me to discuss your specific situation, by email at rbrenner@ChacoCanyon.com or by telephone at (617) 491-6289, or toll-free at (866) 378-5470 in the continental US.
Reprinting this article
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info
Workplace Politics Awareness Month KitIn October, increase awareness of workplace politics, and learn how to convert destructive politics into creative politics. Order the Workplace Politics Awareness Month Kit during October at the special price of USD 29.95 and save USD 10.00! Includes a copy of my tips book 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics which is a value! ! Check it out!
Support
Point Lookout
by starting your Amazon search here
When you start here, a part of every purchase you make goes to support Point Lookout, at no cost to you.
Search Now:
52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around.
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
Comprehensive collection of all e-books and e-bookletsSave a bundle and even more important save time! Order the Combo Package and download all ebooks and tips books at once.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace -- with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
404 Tips for Business TravelTravel is essential, but the hassles of travel aren't. Learn how to convert business travel from a time-wasting hassle to a breeze.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks away!
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Terrific Technical Presentations!Audiences at technical presentations, more than most, are at risk of death by dullness. Spare your audiences! Captivate them. Create and deliver technical presentations with elegance, power and suspense.
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
A Tip A DayA Tip a Day arrives by email, or by RSS Feed, each business day. It's 20 to 30 words at most, and gives you a new perspective on the hassles and rewards of work life. Most tips also contain links to related articles. Free!

Follow Rick on Twitter!Connect with Rick at LinkedIn.com
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
SSL