Return of the Cubicle: Why Walled Workspaces Are Making a Comeback

It wasn’t but a decade ago that open offices became the choice for startups who wanted a workplace conducive to creativity and collaboration.

The open office wasn’t just a workplace decision; it was a generational decision, too. As startups brought new ways of thinking to their industries, they happily left old methodologies. Cubicles were tossed out along with cumbersome business models and traditional power structures.

Cubicles are making a comeback, however. Employers have realized all the collaboration and ingenuity open workspaces were supposed to provide didn’t quite meet expectations.

We talked with marketers and consultants about their experiences with open offices and asked them if there is any value to moving from expansive, borderless spaces to more defined workstations with walls.

What we discovered was quite interesting and affirmed the fact that, while open offices may never disappear, they’re under fire from both the young and old.

Open Office Proponents Overplayed the “Cubicles Are Prisons” Hand

In an article about the changing work world, marketing speaker and columnist Samuel Scott pointed out something that we’ve known all along.

Open offices aren’t nearly as infallible as the work world thought and, conversely, cubicles weren’t nearly as awful as the common stereotypes made them out to be.

Here’s what he wrote in a Jan. 2018 article for The Drum:

“The most eye-rolling claim in the tech world is that open offices encourage collaboration – as though no one ever worked together until they were all crammed into rows in single, large rooms like sweatshop factories,” Scott wrote.

He went on to point out that one of the main motivations of an open office may not be creativity – it may be price.

Referring to a post on LinkedIn by branding consultant Geoffrey James, he noted that, while the average open office will save you money up-front, they’ll end up costing about three times as much in reduced productivity.

As we’ve discovered in our own research, open offices tend to have more cases of sickness and, as a result, more employees taking sick days.

Of course, not all open offices are bad. Companies who take the time to sit down with an expert and plan out an office layout that matches their company goals for productivity and workflow tend to have better outcomes than those who do an office because it’s the thing to do.

A good example of this is an office redesign we did for New Orleans-based accountant firm Bruno and Tervalon. They wanted to transition their workspace from an open office to a hybrid design. We were able to incorporate elements of an open workspace along with private workstations.


Contrary to Popular Belief, Cubicles Promote Productivity

As we mentioned earlier, cubicles became the punch line of jokes about offices being more of a dungeon than a dynamic arena for growth and progressive thinking.

However, multiple studies over the past 30 years have shown that humans need a sense of spatial and auditory privacy for their brains to feel secure enough to focus, think critically and generate new ideas.

Matt Dubin, a workplace expert and leadership consultant, noted that as introverts’ unique needs have come into the consciousness of employers, cubicles have become a necessity.

“Cubicles can be quite productive, especially for introverts,” Dubin said. “While open floor plans have been glamorized recently as being the layout of choice for progressive companies, they usually work best for extroverts who draw energy from constant interaction.”

Introverts need a quieter space to excel, he said. Enter the cubicle.

“For employees who are more introverted and are energized by more quiet spaces that promote internal thought and reflection, cubicles can be more effective for their productivity,” Dubin said.

Ideally, he said, offices would implement a floorplan that includes a mix of cubicles and open spaces similar to what we did for Bruno and Tervalon.

“All offices should have a combination of cubicle-type areas and open spaces that encourage both focused, deep work and in-person collaboration,” Dubin said. “Office plans that incorporate both will maximize the unique strengths and personality of all employees.”

We’ll Help You Make Your Cubicle/Open Office Decision

The Office Planning Groups implements a three-step process for crafting the right office for your business. We start with a free space plan and design consultation, work with you to come up with the perfect office and then install that office with our trademark efficiency and professionalism.

That first stage is where we can help you decide if an open-office, cubicle or hybrid layout is best for the type of culture you want to create and the level of productivity you expect.

Contact us today to take the first step in designing the perfect office.

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