Before the 1970s, the typical corporate office arrangement had managers in private offices and their subordinates in open “bullpens,” at desks lined in rows. Then along came the cubicle. And the rest is history. Unfortunately it’s a gloomy history, as the creative and progressive ideas envisioned by the creators of the concept soon were ignored as companies sought ways to pack more and more, cheaper and cheaper cubicles in less and less space.
“Today, 40 million North Americans now work in cubicles and they are being installed from Bangalore to Beijing,” according to an article that appeared in The Economist Magazine.
Bottomline: Cubicles don’t work. Here are just some of the negative and non-productive issues caused by cubicles that the Economist identified:
1. Health problems
Sharing an office raises the chances of getting more than two colds a year. In 2011 Danish scientists found that workers whose offices held at least six people took 62% more sick leave than those in private offices.
Too much noise causes high blood pressure, sleep problems and difficulty in concentrating. And cubicles’ flimsy walls do little to dampen sound.
3, Cubicles block light
Many cubicle-dwellers see no daylight during office hours, with miserable effects on their well-being. A recent study found that workers deprived of sunlight get less sleep and physical activity than those who sit by windows.
4. Cubicles block views
A study in 2003 in Sacramento found that call-centre workers with the best views processed calls 6-12% faster than those with no view. Office workers with better views were much more likely to describe themselves as healthy, and less likely to say they were fatigued. They also performed 10-25% better on tests of mental function and memory recall. Higher cubicle partitions were associated with working more slowly.
5. Cubicles make people rude
Researchers at Cornell found those in cubicles were more prone than those in open-plan offices to have long, loud conversations—sometimes unrelated to work—with colleagues or on the phone. The reason seems to be that cubicles mask the social cues such as facial expressions and body language that influence social interactions.
What next? The no-desk office?
If cubicles are so bad, what are the alternatives? According to the Economist, look for approaches like Herman Miller’s “Living Office” that attempts to combine the best of private and social space.
Here are some of the features of such an approach:
- Open-plan but desks set in friendly clusters and separated by low, clear partitions.
- Workers can perch at a counter-top next to the coffee station, or lounge on sofas in a plaza or café-style seating in a courtyard.
- Benches are placed outside conference rooms to encourage post-meeting chats.
- Pods are available for concentrated work, and even for relaxation.
- Lots of glass-encased meeting rooms and a few solo spaces.
- Many employees have no permanent desk but work at tables or in common spaces.
- Light streams in and sound is controlled with dividing walls and “pink noise”—white noise focused on the frequencies of human speech, which can reduce the distance at which a conversation is audible from 50 feet to 12-16 feet.