Will be transferring to a new program next year. As a developer with over a decade in the same private cube, with mainly independent assignments, I will be moving to a multiple person workspace - and am a little concerned.

I am assuming this may change many moment to moment dynamics. For example, as a very productive developer, I have been able to take breaks in my cube, browse stack exchange, read other information from time to time, to refocus my attention.

It helps me with work problems as well as enrich me in other ways that I do not get from work, all without abusing the internet (which is OK with company policy and also knowing it is monitored).

In return it really does make me more productive as I am a "high performer", exceed deadlines, solve very complex problems, etc.

However, even though I do not abuse the internet and it actually makes me more productive, I don't know if this is appropriate in a open desk setting around others. I'm not sure how the private cube mentality is "perceived" by others. Unfortunately perception is usually a determining factor for judgement. Even if it is not the internet and enriching my life in other ways, there is also a certain level of privacy and relaxation that feels like it might not be part of the open multiple workers space. For example, I usually do a 60 second meditation once and a while for my eyes.

How does one work without a private workspace?

  • 6
    Why not welcome the change? Being a developer myself, I recently went through this same change. Going from having my own office, to now being in a workspace with 3 other developers(team expansion). Honestly, while privacy may be stepped back a little - the gain from the development side is bar-none. Being able to bounce ideas off of one another in an informal way provided myself with a nice change of pace - especially when considering agile development methods. Open office workspaces are becoming more of the norm, moreso in computer science related fields.
    – SQLSavant
    Commented Dec 17, 2013 at 3:49

7 Answers 7


Desk Setup

How does one work without a private workspace?

This is a great question and one I have been heavily considering recently, because I find myself in a similar position.

I work in an environment which is somewhat open but have tons of distractions. I also have a walking path which means anyone walking by (of many) sees my monitors as well as causes distractions since we have barely 1/2 wall cubicles.

This beautiful ASCII illustration shows my desk arrangement:

                                          |          |
                                          |          |
                +----+--------------------|          |
                |    |                    | Additional
                |    |                    | Path by  |
                |    |  My desk           | my desk  |
                |    |                    |          |
                |    +--------------------|          |
                |                         |          |
                |                         |          |
                |     Whiteboard sits here|          |
                |                         |          |
                |                         |          |
                |    +--------------------|          |
                |    |                    |          |
                |    | Colleagues desk    |          |
                |    |                    |          |
                |    |                    |          |
 |                                                                  |
 |             Main walking path with TONS of people walking daily  |
 |                                                                  |
 |                                                                  |

Now, I also really like having a whiteboard at my desk. I use this all the time and had an extra at home which I wasn't using so I brought it in and mounted it like so:

enter image description here The net effect this has is twofold. First, I have a whiteboard at my desk which is great. But second, I actually block anyone walking behind me on the main walking path from seeing my monitors unless they are quite tall.

I'm not sure how the private cube mentality is "perceived" by others. Unfortunately perception is usually a determining factor for judgement.

All my coworkers love my setup, because a whiteboard is so helpful. The facilities guy hates it because it looks... hokey, but, everyone else likes it and I've gotten compliments from others about it. Plus the facilities guy actually is trying to find a cost effective but more aesthetically pleasing version anyways.


To help with the perception element, I've spent time talking with nearly everyone around me about the "needing to focus to be able to get work done as I'm an introvert" discussion. This is the important thing to focus on - the things other people will relate to. Odds are most of your future cube-mates are going to go "man I wish I was smart enough to think of that!" or something like that. But only if you explain the why. My current boss knows this too.

Most people generally can relate to the, "distractions cause me problems working effectively" question. Simply mentioning this, or asking coworkers, "how do you deal with distractions?" can make this a completely not awkward and easy conversation.

How to focus

Get yourself:

  • Earplugs (soft foam ones are most comfortable for long term use, learn how to put them in right - I'm not joking, putting them in this way is 10x as effective as what most people do)
  • Over ear headphones, I wear these, if you don't like music get yourself more "noise muffling" types
  • Baseball cap (like below works)

enter image description here

You can adjust the hat down in such a way that you do not see much in your peripheral vision but still see your monitors fine. If you have a natural "wall" on your desk tilt the cap sideways slightly to block the aisle next to you. Combined with a good set of headphones and earplugs, you can block a very large percentage of distractions this way.

Combined, these three items lets me block all noise distractions and after a while you learn how to position your hat in such a way to block a considerable number of visual ones.

Last, this might be obvious, but close out of email/IM/SE completely and you will nearly completely remove distractions.

When I'm working like this I am completely in my own world and actually feel bad when people need me because I'm completely and utterly oblivious.

  • Cute rig with the wrench. Shouldn't you be using duct tape? Commented Dec 12, 2013 at 22:59
  • @MeredithPoor I didn't really want to leave residue. I really should find some black gaffers tape or something so it looks a bit more... oh professional.
    – enderland
    Commented Dec 12, 2013 at 23:54
  • @enderland: awesome, not sure if the whiteboard will fit in this area too well but perhaps I can use this idea as inspiration for a new design.....I think the conversations will really help too, great idea, thank you. Commented Dec 13, 2013 at 1:52
  • 2
    You could go with those clamps that have the squeeze handles and rubber on the clamp part. That would hold.
    – user8365
    Commented Dec 13, 2013 at 2:08
  • @GregMcNulty the key point is that in many situations, everyone is terrified to do anything - the thought of redesigning a workspace is unheard of. I work in a fairly conservative office environment, too, most folks here probably have office environments much more receptive to such setups.
    – enderland
    Commented Dec 16, 2013 at 13:55

I think it's important to observe the company culture. This is not as easy as it sounds and may take longer than you think. Different groups may have different rules or behaviors are different when the "boss" is in the office.

Things to lookout for:

  1. Time of day - Some places have slow starters, so it's all right to chat while coffee is brewing. People say, "Hello" to everyone when they walk in or leave, but stop doing it throughout the day. There may be those that want to get their day in order, so the first thing in the morning they check email, calendars, etc. and prepare for the day. Some may save personal activities for lunch hour our some other acceptable break time.
  2. Location - In an open space, they may provide private places for phone calls. I worked at one place where people would only take breaks in the break room and never at their desk. You may have to resort to using a mobile device in the cases where it is more appropriate to do away from your desk.
  3. Who Cares? - It may not be a big deal at all, but some supervisors may be more likely to comment on it than others. I've seen some senior executives get wrapped up more than the direct supervisor on getting to work on time and other perceptions of slacking off. Some places are truly performance driven. Some companies preach work-life balance, so if people are spending more than a normal workday in the office, they're probably doing some personal things from time to time (otherwise the company as failed at this). Companies that have a lot of remote workers are probably more in tune with this practice.
  4. Be Open - Don't become the "Master of Alt+Tab" every time someone approaches your work area to hide what you're doing. It's just too obvious. Hopefully open space means open communication and not as a method to keep people from hiding. Talk about your interests to others. Let them know what your interests are. Offer to send a link to an article you're reading. Someone may find a way to enrich their learning or use that information to benefit the company.

Eventually you'll find out what works and what doesn't. It would be great if you could just ask your supervisor directly, but I don't think many people are really honest about how they feel about certain things. I've had managers say they didn't mind but their boss did, so keep it to yourself. Some coworkers are so use to former jobs that had a traditional corporate culture that they cannot break old habits. They can be so paranoid that they'll never admit to anyone that they ever take a break, search the web, relax their eyes for even one second on the job.

The answer is it depends on where you work, but that doesn't mean there aren't ways to figure-out what is appropriate and what is not.



A cube gives you more personal space and gradually you develop your private zones based upon your surroundings for example people used to working in crowded places have smaller personal zone and farmers have a very large personal zone to the extent that they prefer distant "hii" from "handshaking" ref:- Allen Peas body language. So you will face some issues be ready for it every thing will not be same or comfortable.So lets discuss them.

1.Personal space:- If the space between work station is pretty good and people can just see each other then it will be little easy.Other wise things like your co worker wearing wrong perfume or not wearing a perfume at all might bother you. At your end you can try to keep you smell signature low (food and chemicals i take hygiene for granted). Keep your sound signature low (it grinds my gears when people mobile vibrates on common desk sending little quake) summary be as much invisible as you can comfortably.

2.Scopophobia:- don't mind its my personal one.. i cant code if some one is casually watching my monitor.But over time i have learned to deal with it using proper font and monitor choice.People do tend to look at your screen when you are entering your password/appkeys yes they do. Don't do this to others.

3.Random personal Activities :- these can range from normal to annoying. a once in a while stretch goes unnoticed so does a occasional yawn but many things like eating a nonveg burger besides your vegetarian co worker can really be bothersome. Little consideration will go long way.

Summary its not that bad and you will do great since you are a performer i guess you will be engrossed in your work most of the times. Be considerate to others and follow the golden rule "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" and at times don't give a damn

  • 2
    People look at your screen when entering a password? Unless your password is: ******** Is that really a problem?
    – user8365
    Commented Dec 16, 2013 at 13:19
  • 2
    Shoulder-surfing is a legitimate security concern. Are you sure they're looking at your screen - or are they watching your fingers as you type? Plus, it's a matter of personal space & being polite.
    – alroc
    Commented Dec 16, 2013 at 15:24
  • Ok my bad but password is not the only important thing happening on my comp screen ... don't want to start a debate just igore every thing and read only password stuff ;D
    – amar
    Commented Dec 16, 2013 at 16:18

I don't think using Internet without abusing it is a problem. In these days, almost everybody is doing the same. The worst perception you could get is like "Oh, you are the same." or "You are watching the same web site I just did."

I do think I usually do a 60 second meditation once and a while for my eyes. will be a problem. In most companies, paricularly in America, sleeping on the job could cause you an HR action. I know, it's just a meditation. But, as you said, it's a perception issue. You need to consider quitting it. Or, go to somewhere else where nobody can see you and then do it.

  • 4
    This is a good point. If you're going to do something not-work-related, go somewhere else and do it. For instance, I stretch in the basement of our office instead of at my desk.
    – jmort253
    Commented Dec 13, 2013 at 7:06
  • 2
    I agree, you don't want senior management strolling past and thinking you may be sleeping! Commented Dec 13, 2013 at 9:36
  • @scaaahu: this is true, the internet is now much more embedded into our thought process... Commented Dec 13, 2013 at 18:18
  • Closing your eyes for 60 seconds on the job can be a problem? That sounds like an awful place to work. Commented Dec 16, 2013 at 9:53
  • 4
    @bjarkef Someone passing by your seat would think you have closed your eyes for over 10 minutes. It's perception issue!
    – Nobody
    Commented Dec 16, 2013 at 9:58

My initial thought is that there's precious little difference between browsing Stack Exchange (and other similar content) for a directly related work problem and for general insights and knowledge and shared best practices - from the point of view of the observer. As you say, it's slightly different when you are taking a break and changing your focus for a bit - from your perspective - but the real concern here is being perceived as goofing off vs. taking a much needed break, and I think with work related content, you're fine.

My experience of shared work environments has been that there is a higher degree of connectedness in the teams that do this - they are more aware of each other's life patterns, like who gets coffee when. And they end up thrashing out some norms for interrupting each other or acceptable behavior. Mostly I see that along the lines of not bothering each other when someone's focusing on something.

My bet would be that you are far more likely to get notified that you do something annoying that you were previously unaware of than you are to be prodded to avoid a refocusing behavior that is basically the same experience for all external observers. For example, you may get feedback about snapping gum, cracking knuckles or twitching while you think - mostly unconscious behaviors. But staring at a monitor and typing into a keyboard is so similar to regular work that it's unlikely it'll read as odd or different.

Most people don't want to be micromanaged themselves so the desire to scrutinize and micromanage others is pretty low.

  • that's true, walking by it is hard to know what context is happening and others don;t want to be micromanaged either... Commented Dec 17, 2013 at 3:23
  • +1 for "Most people don't want to be micromanaged themselves so the desire to scrutinize and micromanage others is pretty low." pretty true
    – Rémi
    Commented Dec 17, 2013 at 22:02

Q: How does one work without a private workspace?

You set your mind to continue to work exactly like you did in your private workspace MINUS any behavior that is either distracting to other employees or not directly related to your job. In 2009 I transitioned from a private office to an open work-space where we did not even have cubicles. Worse my desk was next to the printer. The situation was distracting/difficult, but also a blessing. In the end, I was just as productive as before (perhaps even more), and my conduct at the workplace was more professional.

While at your workspace, you engage in two types of behaviors: (1) behaviors that are job-related or directly impact your productivity, and (2) behaviors that make you comfortable or that you enjoy doing. Starting with the latter, here is a list of personal behaviors that have no bearing on productivity:

  1. Slouching in chair
  2. Leaving desk cluttered
  3. Removing shoes
  4. Listening to music (even at low volume, but no headphones)
  5. Talking to yourself
  6. Snacks/beverages left out for easy access throughout day
  7. Dressing sloppily or too relaxed

And on and on and on. When in a private office/cube, you can get away with being a slob or even being a little distracting, but those behaviors do not lead to increased productivity. They are simply bad habits that people will consider negatively when they observe them in a more public workspace. These are all easily fixed: (1) sit up straight, (2) make it a habit to tidy your desk once a day, (3) keep your shoes on, (4) only listen to music with headphones on, (5) talk only when necessary - and personal phone calls should be taken away from your desk, (6) keep food in drawers and only take them out when you want to eat them, (7) make an effort to dress nicer. These behavior adjustments WILL have a positive impact on the way people perceive you, and often it takes working in a public workspace for people to make the adjustment. The result is that you will become more professional at work which could lead to better opportunities and even promotions.

Now, your core question focused on behaviors that you claim improve your productivity:

  1. Browing internet / time on stackoverflow
  2. 60-second meditation window

Neither of these two actions have EVER been frowned upon in my experience, especially for high performance employees. Most managers understand the programmers need to have brain-refresh periods, either by looking at something they enjoy or by taking a cat nap. If it improves your productivity, then all the better.

To close this answer, based on your question you have nothing to worry about with the behaviors you referenced. However, if you have not worked in a public workspace, I hope you keep in mind that everything you do is observed by others and minor personal behavior improvements will go a long way to enhance your professionalism. This is why I said my transition to open workspaces was also a blessing as it does create an environment where you can enhance yourself professionally and give your image within the company a boost.

  • thankf for the numbered tips for good habits, this is true it can be a blessing too. Commented Dec 17, 2013 at 3:16

After reading your question, I get the feeling that you like your privacy, and this has given you a feeling of freedom, and rightly so I think.

So there's two aspects to this question.

  1. The perception of your working habits by colleagues.
  2. The problem of increased external stimuli providing increased distractions.

As far as the perception of your productivity is concerned, I'd just keep doing what you were doing. There's no reason to change, as long as there are no productivity problems. If anyone raises the question because they notice you doing other stuff, say that you need to do this for mental relaxation, and point out that mental relaxation is a prerequisite for good coding. You can point out your results if they're really bugging you.

If you're bothered by an increase in external stimuli interfering with your serenity, try to find ways to lock them out. Maybe listening to music that doesn't distract you can help to keep the outside world from interfering with you while you work? You could try to use noise cancelling headphones to keep it to a minimum.
As for visual stimuli, those are harder to block, unless you're in a cubicle or some other semi-walled environment that hides the movements of people around you. If no cubicle is present, you could erect a wall of monitors in order to keep distractions from movements to a minimum. It kind of depends on the policies that apply to your office and the budget available. I sure like enderland's whiteboard set-up, but this might not always be practical in every office set-up. You might want to start a discussion that will improve your situation. Finding support with your co-workers in increasing the workability of that environment is certainly worth giving a try. (my guess is that there will be more people with similar needs at your office, and you can try to make a case for your needs if you band together)

  • 1
    And why exactly is this a bad answer? Please enlighten me.
    – Onno
    Commented Dec 16, 2013 at 17:05
  • thats' true, headphones will help for distractions... Commented Dec 17, 2013 at 3:30

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