Cubicles, Open Offices, & Flexible Work: The Form and Function of Our Workplace

August 02, 2019 by Milton Herman

10 min read

The cubicle office. Rows of tall walls separate workers with drab effect. The color palette always includes a shade of taupe, the color of moles. Or a bland mix of white, gray and dusty silver, the same used by your local penitentiary. And it provokes the same feelings. Your workstation is stagnant, with little room for customization. You spend your free time searching for landscapes and things to look at, yet spend the work day in confinement. Cubicle offices are morale-killing, disasters.

The open office. Crunched in just a few feet from one, maybe two neighbors. You can hear them type, breathe, and telling you their bad jokes. Their sneezes are your sneezes. Any cross-office disruption might as well be Thor smashing his hammer through your screen. You throw on $200 headphones when you need to do anything besides send emails or chats. Work from home days are scheduled when, “you need to concentrate.” Study after study shows how distracted and unproductive you are simply because of someone else’s decision to save money, save space or just to “be cool.” Open offices are productivity-killing, disasters.

Both of these statements are true. How can both office types be so bad?

The answer requires us to look at history, and the priorities of the past leading up to today.

People replicate behavior and ideas when they’re deemed successful. They often do this without a deep understanding of the nuance or conditions that contributed to that success. Misapplication of these ideas brings erosion over time.

Here’s how both of these ideas suffered that fate, and the best solutions for today’s workplace.

The OG Open Office

We’ve gone through this cycle of love then hate with the open office before. The open office was revolutionized by none other than Frank Lloyd Wright, some 80 years ago. The famed architect pioneered the open floor plan for houses before it was trendy, and did the same with the open office in 1939. The project formed with the perfect storm of ingredients. A modern-thinking businessman (H.F. Johnson Jr. of SC Johnson & Son Corporation), the tail end of the great depression and signing of The New Deal which led to a mass increase in the amount of jobs. Johnson specifically recruited Wright to, “build the best office building in the world.” Wright had already designed the Larkin Administration Building, which was known as, “the first modern office.” But that project was restricted by the available resources and technology. This time around he had the budget, fame, and an unlimited creative leash. Wright wanted to influence the workspace. He called boxy office designs of the time, “fascist.”

Frank Lloyd Wright, S.C. Johnson World Headquarters

Wright’s creation was the Johnson Wax Headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin. The design featured gorgeous dendriform pillars, bright pyrex ceilings and space, lots of space. A mezzanine level was included for manager offices. The layout provided the perfect blend of natural lighting, ample space and detail-oriented design. The office was a hit. Employees began having tea for an afternoon energy-boost, because they enjoyed working late hours.

The concept was copied again and again, but the derivatives lacked attention to detail. Plus, the cost of real estate and the amount of white-collar jobs continued to rise. Twenty years later, open offices were cramped and loud, as seen in “The Apartment” and “Mad Men”. This erosion of the original continues today with a fresh spin of “cool.” The distractions have proven to outweigh any potential communication and collaboration benefits. A 2018 Harvard Business School study found participants who switched from cubicles to an open office actually spent 73% less time in face-to-face interactions, so the perceived collaboration and communication benefit was nonexistent. They also spent significantly more time on email and chat opposed to work that requires critical thought and focus.

We’ve all experienced the negative effects of an open office. There’s evidence of how much workers dislike them and an ever-growing collection of data on how they don’t work on offices with multiple levels. But these studies, and the reports that follow, fail to provide solutions.

Are cubicles really the answer?

The Cubicle Renaissance

By 1967, another creative genius was on a mission to fix the tainted open office design and traditional walled office design alike. Inventor and academic Robert Propst was hired by the Herman Miller Research Corporation, a powerhouse in furniture design and research. Propst struck gold with the Action Office 2, a cubicle design that focused on quality materials, natural flow of movement and interaction without distraction. The creation took off after competitors released similar designs, validating the ingenuity.

Action Office

At the core of Propst’s original creation was giving workers a sense of purpose. Everyone had their own space, he was the first to introduce pinboards where you could hang family pictures or important notes. Another genius touch was what ultimately led to the cubicle’s demise, each space was modular. Teams could alter their wall height and position based on the day, season or their own personality.

Over time, Propst and his counterparts were not able to control installation of their designs. The installations were controlled by managers who saw the modular function as something else - a cost-cutting method.

Managers would implement the most cost-effective walls and material with little thought about workplace morale or productivity. This created the “cubicle farms” we know today, which include several variations of bad. Some cubicles are high-walled and restrictive, so collaboration is discouraged. Some cubicle plans smush people together, eliminating the benefit of privacy and ability to focus.

Propst criticized penny-pinching executives who eroded his invention until he died in 2000, saying, “they make little, bitty cubicles and stuff people in them. Barren, rathole places.”

A Lesser of Two Evils? Think Beyond

What these two stories have in common is the blind pursuit of cost reduction will always have a negative impact on our work. Whether it’s a noisy, unproductive open office or a cubicle forest which suffers from the same issues it’s designed to address. But no matter how many hot takes there are about bad open offices are. This isn’t a simple problem that can be solved with an order of partitions.

Business leaders have to look at their situation and ask, why do we have an office? For an increasing amount of companies, the answer is, “we don’t need one.” Elastic, the company behind Elasticsearch, went from launch to IPO with an entirely remote workforce.

However, many businesses cannot operate on a remote basis, either for practical reasons or preference. There has been some research for comparing these office types. A University of Sydney study looked at more than 40,000 workers in 300 office buildings. They compared five types of offices: enclosed private offices, enclosed shared offices, cubicles with high partitions (>five feet high), cubicles with low partitions (<five feet high), and open office without partitions. Private offices were the highest rated for all sixteen factors which included privacy, noise level, cleanliness, air quality, temperature, and amount of light. The results were very close in multiple categories so the conclusion was less than conclusive.

Gensler, a leading global design firm, conducted their own study of 4,000 office workers across 11 industries. They found the most effective office layout was an open plan with shared desks, but with barriers high enough so workers had to stand to see their neighbor.

This illustrates how there is no indisputable solution. Each office setup, whether it’s for a startup or a new corporate branch, requires custom planning and analysis of variables.

Fortunately, there are a few other tactics for creating positive and productive offices.

Another Tool for Great Offices: Flexible Work

Offices can be the best of both worlds. Workers can have individual spaces without losing important interaction time. Cubicles can be cool. But there’s a reason we don’t see many offices that resemble Frank Lloyd Wright’s open office masterpiece or Robert Propst’s AO-2 treasure - cost. Our history lessons prove that today’s application of open offices are not works of genius, but an effective way to save money. Especially for startups, office design and planning is not on the top of the priority list. Most office designs being used today probably aren’t fully optimized, even for mature businesses.

But there’s another option for decision makers to consider, flexible work policies.

Flexible work prioritizes getting things done over how it gets done. Many consider this a startup ploy to entice millennials with unlimited vacation time and kegerators, but in reality those with families and children benefit the most from flexible work policies. It’s also true that many flexible work policies are shot down by “butts in seats” managers who are incapable of measuring non-attendance based productivity. There are several initiatives in place by companies today, such as:

  • Workations (part-time work during extended vacations)
  • Distributed teams, remote work
  • Agnostic work hours
  • Flexible weeks or years (for hourly employees)
  • Job sharing

Essentially, all of the above are a form of a Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE). This idea was published in the book, “Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It: The Results-Only Revolution.” It takes set office hours, office presence and vacation policy out of the equation. And measures performance, results or output instead. This occurs in quota-based sales organizations, and can boost accountability and fulfillment if applied carefully across an organization.

Flexible work is not a push button solution. It requires critical analysis of business operations and how a workforce interacts. And it should not be confused with contract labor, or even “The Future of Work” we hear so much about. There’s nothing about flexible work ideas that is particularly groundbreaking or technologically advanced (besides that it’s easier to work remotely in today’s age). Flexible work is about thorough communication, crafty management and creating fulfillment in the workplace - the policies are simply a result of those ideals.

One powerful success story shared by CEO Ricardo Semler in a past Ted Talk. He took over the Brazilian conglomerate SEMCO in 1980. He replaced managers who were stuck in their ways, then installed a policy of trust for all employees. Many of his Semler’s ideas resemble the “new-age” flexible work ideas listed above. His initiatives were:

  • Ability to trade salary for extra PTO days
  • Flexible work shifts based on commutes and office proximity
  • One-week of shadowing before hire
  • Managers were reviewed by employees
  • Transparent salaries
  • Open board meetings and votes

A compelling lesson was the idea that leisure is not the opposite of work. Our leisure time is spent doing things we enjoy. Idleness is the opposite of work, and people don’t enjoy idleness e.g. being confined to a cubicle or being crippled by distraction. Or being bed-ridden from a sickness.

If work becomes a place where we can get things get done, while feeling fulfilled and happy - it has a much more powerful effect than any type of office floor plan.