HR Strange But True!
October 18, 2002

Advocates of the open-plan office say it fosters communication and collegiality. But we know better. Open-plan offices, with their three-walled cubicles, also foster nosy behavior. Co-workers can eavesdrop, intrude, and interrupt.

So as the Associated Press reports, entrepreneurs have figured out that there is money to be made in helping employees regain control of their work environment.

Washington-based Ai Architects sells stacks of soft blocks in different shapes and colors called Protoblocs, which can be piled alongside cubicles to form barriers. By rearranging the blocks, workers can communicate to colleagues when it's OK to stop by (a green pyramid), and when to scram (a red square).

But some snags remain to be worked out. In 1999, Ai gave 300 workers at mortgage lender Freddie Mac some Protoblocs to test. Three years later, many workers have grown immune to even a glaring red square. "If we need to speak to somebody, we disregard all signals," explains Eileen Moran, a graphics designer at Freddie Mac. "We just interrupt and go straight to the source."

Then there's Cube-a-Door, made by Flexible Designs of Denver. Since 1996, thousands of cube dwellers have shelled out $20 for a 5-foot-tall cardboard panel that folds like an accordion and has the phrase "Please Do Not Disturb" emblazoned on it in four languages. According to the AP, the barrier works - sometimes. "Some people just hang their head over the top," says Cube-a-Door user Sandra Stierwalt, an administrative assistant at Raytheon . "'Do not disturb' does not apply to everyone."

Lawyer and former dot-commer Chris Ryan offers, for $19.99, the Cubicle Survival Kit. It includes ear plugs, a rear-view mirror, a fake window, and cardboard signs that say "I'll Stop By" on one side and "Come Back Later" on the other. (The delux version, for $69.99, also includes a white noise machine.)

Source: Associated Press, via the San Francisco Chronicle

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