Office furniture manufacturer Herman Miller designed the cubicle in 1964 as a means of privacy for office workers who were used to the open office interior design approach of a bullpen work environment. Since that time, cubicles have weathered a love/hate relationship among employees across the world, mainly due to their consecutive pros and cons. Today we’re going to discuss the cubicle, and the impact it can have on your work environment. When thinking about office layout ideas, should you opt for these classic workstations, or is it better to set them aside in favor of more contemporary workplace trends? The answer might be more complex than you think!
THE DISTRACTION FACTOR
While the concept of an open work environment may appeal to many workers (especially millennials), it does come with some unforeseen caveats. Take distraction, for instance. With so many people moving to and fro, it’s much harder to concentrate on the task at hand, especially if a friendly workmate passes by and finds it easy to fire up a conversation about what you did over the weekend. An office cubicle might serve as an ideal solution in this instance, but it comes with a cost, namely that feeling of collaboration and engagement with others. It really boils down to the individual worker, and the nature of their work, in general. Some people prefer a distraction-free environment, and office design with a cubicle can serve to beneficially isolate them in order to complete a task in less time, with far better quality output.
THE NEED-TO-KNOW FACTOR
There are other things to consider as well, including privacy, especially when it comes to sensitive material that shouldn’t easily be viewable by all employees, such as company financials. In this case, an open work environment would be positively disastrous, so it’s important to bear this in mind during office space planning. Thankfully, most employees engaged in this kind of work (accountants, most notably) will probably already have their own office environment, well away from roaming eyeballs. Office cubicles may also be beneficial for those in the creative field, whose work might attract onlookers, and potentially lead to their noseying about, which can waste time. After all, many creative projects have tight deadlines, and the last thing anyone needs is a busybody asking questions.
THE VOLUME FACTOR
An open office space can be beneficial for most, if not all employees, depending on the volume level of the office. For instance, many sales call centers opt for an open environment in order to inspire salespeople by allowing them to hear each other successfully close calls, which can ignite their excitement and cause a trickle-down effect. These fast-paced, loud environments already attract sales people used to this kind of energy level, so there’s rarely any need to worry about individuals who may feel like a fish out of water. Similarly, a staff of writers could find an open office space attractive as well, given that writers tend to be quieter, and more tightly focused on their content, which requires concentration. It should go without saying that mixing and matching different employee volume types in an open environment could lead to chaos and frustration among some employees. It’s best to analyze the nature of your particular office environment before deciding if it’s worth going all-in on an open concept.
THE CRAMP FACTOR
It has widely been theorized that cubicles went wrong somewhere during the 1970s, when corporate economics overshadowed the goal of fostering creativity and productivity in the workplace. Cubicles gained notoriety as business owners attempted to cram as many employees into a workspace as possible, creating a blowback effect due to their inflexibility. Next came the size reductions. Between the mid-80s and mid-90s, cubicle partition sizes plunged almost 50%, creating a stifling closed-box environment that felt constricting and corporatized. As of 2014, the average amount of space per office worker in the U.S. dropped to a scant 176 square feet. Thankfully, many companies are now reversing the negative image of the cubicle, thanks in large to the embracing of modular ideas which allow cubicles to have more versatility, customization and space. It could be said that the cubicle started off as a noble idea that became corrupted by logistics, and later refined to match the original vision.
THE BIG BROTHER FACTOR
It may sound Orwellian in nature, but the inability to hide your daily actions from co-workers (and the Boss) in an open environment can yield beneficial results. It keeps everyone on the ball, and can have the effect of motivating employees to be as productive as they possibly can be. Naturally, this can have side-effects, such as increased tension, a sense of pressure, and a feeling that you’re being distrusted. While cubicles might provide incentive for employees to slack off here and there, it would be unfair to categorize everyone in this way, as many are hard-working individuals who merely want the right space to focus in, without apprehension.
USE AGILITY TO YOUR ADVANTAGE
The term “Agile Workspace” was coined to describe a versatile work environment that is capable of catering to every kind of worker at the same time. It includes cubicles for those who prefer a distraction-free work day, and an open environment for those who enjoy a collaborative space where they can mingle freely. It’s the best of both worlds, provided you exercise a little foresight. This hybrid environment can also help diversify your workforce as well, by attracting top-tier candidates with different work styles and personalities. It would be a shame to lose out on a fantastic employee with a strong skill set, simply because your office environment may be unpalatable to them.
To summarize, the cubicle has never been an enemy of the ideal workplace. On the contrary, when utilized properly, cubicles can offer significant benefits that a contemporary open workplace does not. It’s important not to cast them aside due to stigma. The days of stuffy, drab, energy-sapping cubicles are a thing of the past. Today’s office furniture companies are re-thinking the cubicle, and re-shaping them into stylish, hip and attractive workspaces that can give employees a positive space to work in.
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