Cubicle farms continue to live long and prosper and have become the de facto method to organize millions of corporate employees. But in a world where transparency and social collaboration dictates how we work and play why does the curmudgeonly cubicle still make sense? Sometimes it doesn’t as companies like SAP (my current employer) are finding out.
A recently opened two-story, 42,000 square foot building on SAP’s Palo Alto campus, designed specifically for its cloud computing teams, contains zero cubicles and is the latest in a series of moves to foster lean, agile product development.
But can an innovative work space help SAP create really cool products at a much faster rate (think months instead of years) that its 180,000-plus customers crave?
For Mike Tschudy, formerly of eBay and now vice president of SAP’s cloud product design, the answer is a resounding “yes.” Tschudy says the new workspace is designed to be open, flexible and transparent, facilitates inspired creativity and easy collaboration, as well as heads down work.
“There are no cubes, no corner offices and everyone sits together in an open environment,” says Tschudy. “This eliminates ego and hierarchy and encourages teamwork, collaboration, productivity and efficiency.”
This barrier-free environment also comes on wheels. Everything, including desks, chairs and writable walls allow for varied room set-up and fast changing teams and projects. The new building also accommodates different work styles. Open, collaborative spaces lead to quiet, private areas when and where needed.
As hinted at earlier, creating a fancy, new workspace can only take a company so far. Connecting these workspace investments to company priorities, like product innovation, is where the rubber meets the road, according to Barbara Holzapfel, managing director of SAP Labs North America.
“If we expect people to be innovative by putting them in a cubicle farm, the chances of them being successful are pretty slim. We want them to be inspired, bounce crazy ideas off each other and scribble them down in places where they don’t have to book a meeting request,” said Holzapfel.
Is it working? Kevin Nix, executive vice president, OnDemand at SAP thinks so.
“After the first 48 hours of watching people work, you could already see the positive implications.”
Nix said open monitors allow nimble “scrum” teams of 10 people to very quickly project something onto a screen instantly, as opposed to forcing them to waste time securing a conference room to huddle around a small monitor. “It emphasizes collaboration,” said Nix. “People are discovering what other people are up to.”
Nix said as much as we might try to have more formal e-mail communication, it’s actually the human element of being able to walk up to a group or individual and jump into a conversation that spurs innovative ideas and products.
“The classic model of cobbling together a bunch of cubes – which actually ends up spreading people out even more due to building logistics – completely negates what you are trying to accomplish. It’s working against you, not with you.”