In Defense of the Cubicle
The lowly cubicle has gotten a lot of hate over the years. From comic strips like Dilbert in the back pages of newspapers to cult classic movies like Office Space, the cubicle represents the drudgery and lifelessness of office life. The cubicle is the daily grind in physical form, its grey fabric walls stretching endlessly to the office horizon. When office workers became fed up with cubicle workspaces in the late 1990s, many businesses and organizations used it as an excuse to cut costs and open up their workspaces, cramming even more people into the same space, and many office workers now long for the days of quiet cubicle concentration.
Open-Plan Offices Hurt Concentration
Proponents often proclaimed the open-plan office as the new creative, progressive, productive way to organize offices and employees, but for many businesses, open-plan offices hurt worker productivity because of social distractions, lack of privacy, and noise. (onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/9781119992592.ch6/summary) The average cubicle is 6 x 6 feet, but the average workspace in open-plan offices, with row upon row of cramped desks, drops to only 2 x 4 feet per employee. (fortune.com/2016/05/12/the-open-office-concept-is-dead/)
Open-plan offices are an efficient way to organize some routine jobs that don’t require excessive mental concentration, such as telemarketing and data entry. These professions, rapidly being overtaken by knowledge work, now need mixed-use workspaces for optimal employee productivity and creativity.
Cubicles are a great way to provide employees with spaces for quiet contemplation and reflection, and in many largely solitary, mentally intensive occupations, such as accounting and law, cubicles and closed offices remain the preferred work environments. Though cubicles might not be right for everyone, businesses reliant on knowledge workers should consider creating both enclosed and open spaces for employee concentration and collaboration.
The Office Plan Cycle
Like so many overused designs, the cubicle started out as a utopian vision of workplace harmony before being diluted and distorted into bland, endless rows of boxes. The cubicle evolved from the Bürolandschaft movement, which started in Germany in the 1950s as a response to the cramped open-plan offices of that era. (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-origin-of-cubicles-an/) This waffling between open and closed offices has a long history. The open plans of the 1950s replaced primarily divided offices in the early 20th century, which themselves had replaced 19th-century open-plan offices filled with endless rows of clerks.
Much like the hybrid, flexible office plans, some innovative companies are now using to replace open-plan offices. The Bürolandschaft movement attempted to design offices based on what the work required. Bürolandschaft designers combined many types of spaces, including closed offices, meeting areas, open desk pools, and semi-private spaces divided by fabric-covered sound barriers. Unfortunately, businesses latched onto the sound barriers and ignored the subtleties of Bürolandschaft design, letting offices devolve into endless rows of boxy cubicles.
When used wisely for employees who need privacy and distraction-free work environments, cubicles help increase business productivity and efficiency, but just as open plans are not right for every type of work, neither are cubicles. The best office plans use a mix of spaces, as appropriate to the kind of work the employees must do. There is hope in new hybrid designs, but if history is any guide, office design might continue to swing between diluted open and closed configurations.