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What kind of office do you work in?

This isn’t a rhetorical question. I was surprised at how few people asked this after the recent dust-up with Yahoo’s telecommuting ban. The real issue isn’t whether you can stay at home in your sweats but what happens when you come to work and set down your laptop. Having been in hundreds of different offices of many tech companies, I have noticed that there are some pretty major different working styles, both of the common folks and the executives. How the company treats both matters more than where they are doing the actual work. (Assuming that they are working from home and not just watching Downton reruns.)

There are several office styles that I have seen over the years:

– The bullpen. This is the current favorite, although it certainly isn’t new. I remember my first job out of college was working for Nameless Insurance in midtown Manhattan, where our desks were practically touching. Nobody called them bullpens back then. This being the 1970’s, no one had a computer on their desk: heck, about 20 of us had to share a single phone (and it had a rotary dial too). Today’s bullpens are boisterous, noisy, and full of activity. When I was last in the Big Apple, I worked for a client in their bullpen-style office, and noticed that the conference rooms that ringed the exterior were often occupied with people who were meeting or working solo. Noise cancelling headphones are a must. Do bullpens make for more collaborative places? I honestly don’t know. But they certainly are popular.

– Private or shared offices. I now work in my own private office, which I did share for a time with an office mate for a few years. Microsoft has this model on their original buildings. Two people share a room with a window and a door. When I have been to Redmond, most of the times the doors are open. But still you can close them when needed.

– Rent-a-desk. With the number of people that telecommute, you have lockers where you can store your stuff and then get assigned to a desk/cubicle/whatever when you actually make it into the office. IBM has done this and says they have saved tons of rent on their real estate. yes, you have to shuffle your picture frames and totems from the locker to the rental location, but a lot of people like working this way.

– Cubicle farms. This used to be the standard for many tech companies, and Cisco and Intel use them extensively. They are depressing to see at first, but many of us can get used to them over time. The fancier farms pipe in white noise to make things more bearable.

– The Googleplex. It and its regional offices is in their own class. So much has been written about their style. (You can read something that I wrote after I visited one of their offices.) I consider it a cross between a college dorm, Trader Joe’s and a Best Buy. There is all the free food: three meals a day, sometimes, and not just high-school grade stuff-on-a-shingle either. At CMP, we had our own employee cafeteria and childcare, even back in the 1990s. But it wasn’t up to this level. The break rooms are legendary in terms of the availability of free snacks (hence the TJ’s reference). If your laptop breaks or you want a new monitor, you just go down to the geek patrol and ask for it (hence the BB). There are bicycles for getting around campus or the vicinity, free Wifi-equipped commuter buses for getting to work, classes and massages and four-star chefs and who knows what else by now. Totally out of control, but there are plenty of cars in the parking lot after 5pm showing that people can’t bring themselves to leave, so it is working. Can Yahoo out do the ‘plex in terms of all the benefits? Doubtful.

So that’s fine for the hoi polloi, but what about the executive digs? Has anyone else noticed that Yahoo’s Mayer, who is trying to make her company more collaborative, has her own office? This is pretty rare in most of the tech firms where I have been. Everyone from Mayor Bloomberg to Jack Dorsey of Twitter (thanks to that infomercial on 60 Minutes last night) have eschewed this. Most have done away with the mahogany paneling and fancy power desk. Instead, they manage by walking around to talk to their people. Again, this is nothing new: even Intel’s Andy Grove had a cubicle just like everyone else when he was CEO, and that was back in the early 1970s.

Some day I should write a book about this, with copious illustrations. In the meantime, tell me about your ideal work environment.


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More Stories By David Strom

David Strom is an international authority on network and Internet technologies. He has written extensively on the topic for 20 years for a wide variety of print publications and websites, such as The New York Times, TechTarget.com, PC Week/eWeek, Internet.com, Network World, Infoworld, Computerworld, Small Business Computing, Communications Week, Windows Sources, c|net and news.com, Web Review, Tom's Hardware, EETimes, and many others.

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