Cummins Drops Cubicles For Collaborative Workspace

Since December, employees assigned to the area have worked without assigned desks. They have assigned lockers for storage, but they sit or stand wherever best fits their need.

COLUMBUS, Ind. (AP) β€” Cummins Inc. is introducing some of its employees to the office of the future. And the future is clean, bright and full of open space.

In the basement of the Cummins Corporate Office Building, dark, dusty and aging cubicles assigned to specific employees have made way for the Cummins Collaborative Workplace, a wide-open area with bright adjustable desks, the occasional plush chairs and meeting areas that employees can use whenever they need them. The space is stocked with lockers, laptops and treadmills instead of traditional desks.

Since December, employees assigned to the area have worked without assigned desks. They have assigned lockers for storage, but they sit or stand wherever best fits their need.

On a recent Tuesday morning, one employee was sitting on the floor, back against the wall, laptop plugged in next to her.

The area previously had about 35 cubicles.

"It was really dark," said Vanessa E. Cunningham, Cummins Collaborative Workplace planning leader.

The workplace now has a capacity of 65.

"It turned around what was really an undesirable area," Cunningham said.

Cummins leaders conceived the idea after employee surveys and observing the employees' behavior.

Cubicles at Cummins often are empty, Cunningham said, because many people travel or are attending conferences and meetings. Many employees spend more time away from their desks than at their desks, she said.

"The old model ... it really wasn't working out, Cunningham said.

Coupled with space constraints from global growth and a steady influx of new employees, the cubicles had to be discarded like an old, non-compliant, diesel engine.

But the pragmatism also was anchored by the company's philosophy: Tough challenges require collaboration among a diversified group of employees. And to foster their collaboration, the walls between them had to be torn down β€” literally.

The collaborative workplace in the corporate office serves as a pilot program, Cunningham said. The company is conducting a full-building pilot next door in the Irwin Office Building. More pilots are taking place in Brazil and India.

Cunningham's team adjusts the workplaces through employee feedback that can be left confidentially in a notebook. The first lockers were too deep and too much space was wasted. Initially, file cabinets and lockers were separated. Now they're together.

Cunningham said she's constantly experimenting with different colors, cloths and textures.

In one area, high-backed chairs curve over the occupants' heads, almost like the big wicker chairs on European beaches. Two such seats were facing each other, almost enclosing the occupants in a cocoon.

With stark white lockers and desktops, wide open spaces and unusual, adjustable and movable furniture sans desktops and monitors, some areas convey a futuristic and somewhat sterile spirit, reminiscent of the film "2001: A Space Odyssey."

The lingo Cummins employees use for their new digs also screams future corporate speak. The Cummins Collaborative Workspace is called the CCW. Specially designed furniture provides "acoustic privacy." Employees who are assigned specific desks in the CCW are called "residents." An area with two TVs, a couch and laptop connections is called a "Mediascape." A cubicle-like structure for private conversations or conference calls is a "focus booth." TVs on walls are "digital signage."

The company wants to get away from the notion that every meeting has to be confidential, Cunningham said. Sometimes it's just easier for a small group to sink into a couple of couches or stand around a chest-high countertop to share charts and other documents.

And while some employees prefer to sit at their desks, others like to stand. Cunningham pushed a button at the front of a desk at about hip height, and with a small electronic whirring sound, the desk moved about two feet higher, allowing employees to comfortably stand while typing on a laptop.

The treadmills enjoy frequent use after lunch, Cummins officials said. The machines' speed is limited to 2.5 mph.

"We want you working on the treadmill β€” not working out," Cunningham said.

Employees and interns said they generally like the new arrangements β€” though some warned that it takes some adjustment.

Tobi Herron, a 4.5-year Cummins employee who works in corporate responsibility, said she abandoned her cubicle about five months ago.

"There's an adjustment when you first come in," she said.

The cubicles block noise, and she said she misses being able to place Post-it notes near her desk.

Overall, however, she said the new office fosters more interaction and allows employees to form closer bonds.

Marsha Allamanno, controller for the corporate responsibility group, said she, too, had to adjust. She's been with Cummins 26 years.

"I had a nice, big office (with) window," she said. "Now, I'm in the basement."

Baby boomers view the size of one's office as a status symbol, she said, which made it difficult to move to a collaborative space.

However, Allamanno said the new setup makes connecting and communicating with co-workers much easier, and she has enjoyed being able to just turn to one side and ask for help about Microsoft Excel, for example.

Cindy Frey, who joined Cummins eight months ago, said the new office helped her integrate. In her cubicle, she said, she felt isolated. And if she had a question and got up to ask someone, she often found nearby cubicles empty.

Interns Ali Hendricks and Zach Franklin also said that the new office helped them integrate into the company β€” but their different reactions to the CCW also exemplify why Cummins is trying to maximize workplace flexibility.

Hendricks, of Columbus, who studies public relations and advertising at Butler University, said the new setup surprised her.

"I like the more traditional setting," she said.

Hendricks, who grew up with one sibling, prefers working in a quieter environment. In college she works at a desk or in the library.

Franklin, of Hazard, Ky., grew up with six siblings and said the college library is too quiet for him. He said he prefers the open office to the cubicles in which he worked in previous internships.

Hendricks said she has moved to a quieter area in the new office.

"I found ways to adjust," she said.

People who absolutely hate the new office can move upstairs into a cubicle, Cunningham said. But given the feedback so far, she expected the pilots to continue.

Some employees also are incorporating some of the new office's features into their homes. Herron, for example, has more than overcome her initial skepticism of the office treadmills.

"I bought a computer holder for my treadmill at home," she said, eliciting chuckles from her co-workers.

More in Operations