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chris griffiths

Cubicles are an efficient use of space and allow for the spontaneous sharing of ideas and commentary – but's that's about all they have going for them.

My businesses have all had their share of cubicles. I used to be a big fan, and spent plenty of time trying to remind – convince – staffers that they were learning and cross-training by osmosis and the energy and synergy of an active open space was part of our character and culture.

I believed all that to be true – until I actually worked in one.

When visiting out of-town-clients in my consulting practice, it has become the norm for me to be assigned a cubicle for my temporary stay. And, frankly, I've found that it sucks.

It's no longer any wonder to me that staff I promoted negotiated for office space as much as they did for more compensation.

The spontaneity, culture and vibrancy of shared work spaces quickly turn into noise, distractions, disruptions and informal meetings that accomplish little, if they were even required in the first place. The work ethic around me is clearly inconsistent and personal calls and conversations expose me to more than I care to know.

It is actually tough to have private conversations with vendors, customers or remote workers when up to a dozen people can be listening. It's hard to tune out the noise and conversations that don't apply to you. The walk-by traffic can be intense and loud, and visitors tend to forget the sanctity of the workspace.

I have it easy. When visiting clients, my priority is face-to-face or shop-floor time, so my opinion has been formed from extremely limited and temporary use of cubicles.

I suppose that in a call centre or other role, like data-entry terminals, you learn to ignore the noise, and incoming work volume leaves no room for incidental conversations.

But how do you do creative work? How do you listen and speak intently? How do you come up with strategy or analyze? How you think?

I have a client who sits in his own cubicle in his own business and still finds he needs to work from home periodically to really get focused. He even reports that an hour at Starbucks can be more productive because at least the chatter around him has nothing to do with him or his business. He can tune that out.

Your small business needs to find the proper balance. If not offices, give your team extra cubicle space. Give them time to focus. Allow them to turn off the phone every now and then. Shut off the e-mail program for an hour or two.

Make sure you have plenty of ancillary meeting rooms for long or large group discussions. Consider allowing staff to work from home now and again. Go on brainstorming retreats, even if it is only to a different meeting room in town, or at a customer's or supplier's location. Take staff on tours of your customers' or suppliers' facilities or maybe even a like-minded, non-competitive company in town that you admire.

Do some or each as a pilot – maybe once a month – to see how it contributes to productivity.

The goal is not to eliminate the office reality of cubicles, but to recognize their drawbacks for your staff and offer breaks and changes of scenery. Get feedback not only from staff, but from the actual results they achieve. You may find a combination of solutions is best.

Finally, allow staff to make the most of their "cube" by giving them large ones and allowing them to decorate and customize them so they are as comfortable as possible and lets their personality and character shine through. Your staff spend more time working for you than they do any other single activity besides sleeping. Be sure to do as much as you can to show respect for that by maximizing the comfort of their environment.

Chris Griffiths is the Toronto-based director of fine tune consulting, a boutique management consulting practice. Over the past 20 years, he has started or acquired and exited seven businesses.

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