Open concept vs. cubicles – What’s right for your office?

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In Generation X, Douglas Coupland’s character called them “veal fattening pens”. Dilbert gave us the term “Cube farm”. The poor cubicle has been given rough treatment in popular culture while the exposed brick and open-concept office style television series situate in re-purposed factory lofts has fed into the hipster mystique of boutique advertising and “almost” artists studios.

In designing the ideal workspace, there are three key assumptions every company needs to address before deciding to go cubical or open concept or, more radically, with a mix of the two.

Is maximizing the use of space to save on real estate costs the biggest priority?

The maxim of “location, location, location” in our technologically interconnected world brings to mind only the funniest caricatures of inauthentic real estate agents. And yet, cities are economic performers and hot locations where everyone wants to be close to everyone else come at a premium. London, Toronto, New York and California’s Silicon Valley all stand as examples of the expense of convenient urbanity.

Cisco, which has offices in some of the world’s highest rent business districts, originally designed its offices with the assumption that employees would spend the majority of their work day working in cubicles. Instead, they found that employees were spending almost 65 percent of their time in meetings, in client locations off-site or working at untraditional hours from home offices. Their sales force was out-of-office for the vast majority of the work day.

The company employed a strategy that mixes cubicles, private meeting rooms and open concept areas with a practice better-known as hot-desking when employees can book the type of space they require to complete a specific task for different portions of the day.

“By designing a space without assigned seating, two-thirds of which is vacant at any given time, Cisco could comfortably assign more people to the same size building,” the company said in a self-published report of its experience. “The building used for the proof of concept could accommodate 140 employees compared to the 88 who would be assigned to the same space in a traditional Cisco building. Real estate costs would drop by 37 percent.”

However, not all business takes place in high-rent districts. Many companies outside traditional business areas do have space to spare. They can have a mix of workspace and meeting space solutions and offer their employees to choose the best option to meet their personal work style.

Is spontaneous interaction between non-team members a path to productivity?

The issue of personal work style and office space is just one consideration. While the current thinking views spontaneous interaction between various teams and departments to be a boon to innovation and problem-solving, too much communication can threaten productivity. The line companies have to walk between encouraging creative interactions between employees and supporting their productivity can be fine one. Just ask the IT staffer who gets waylaid on her way back from the coffee machine by colleagues who need her help with minor computer support issue after minor issue to the point she can’t get her project work done.

That fine line between interaction and productivity isn’t something only managers feel. It’s been well-documented with results split down the middle. According to a review of literature on workplace design conducted by management professor Anne-Laure Fayard and organizational behaviorist John Weeks for the Harvard Business Review, what we think we know about designing office space to support interaction can actually inhibit it and open-concept office spaces are often to blame.

“Common sense, it turns out, is a poor guide when it comes to designing for interaction,” the authors found. “Take the growing enthusiasm for replacing private offices with open floor plans in order to encourage community and collaboration. More than a dozen studies have examined the behavioral effects of such redesigns. There’s some evidence that removing physical barriers and bringing people closer to one another does promote casual interactions. But there’s a roughly equal amount of evidence that because open spaces reduce privacy, they don’t foster informal exchanges and may actually inhibit them.”

Screenshot from the film Play Time, showing a heavily cubicled office
Screenshot from the film Play Time, showing a heavily cubicled office

Are quiet time and assurances of privacy a priority?

Weeks and Fayard say that the need for privacy and the desire to support interaction are linked. You can’t have one without the other. They say that interaction comes down to privacy, proximity and permission.

“The physical requirements of privacy are the most obvious ones. At a minimum, people need to be confident that they can converse without being overheard,” the authors found. “To ensure such confidence, spaces must be designed with visibility and acoustics in mind; privacy is enhanced when others can’t see whom you are talking to and when you can see others approaching or within earshot. There’s a subtle implication here: True privacy allows you to control others’ access to you so that you can choose whether or not to interact.”

The humble and much-ridiculed cubicle may actually be the answer. The office and furniture designers and manufacturers Herman Miller recently published a research paper that went back to Bob Propst, the inventor of the Action Office, which is widely considered the first open- plan panel office design system. Propst proposed what we now recognize as the prototypical cubical in The Office: A Facility Based on Change, published in 1968.

Herman Miller Research, Design and Development Vice President Don Goeman and Rick Duffy made these observations: “It’s time for the office landscape to do what it’s supposed to do: reflect the realities of the work and the people populating it. It’s time for a new set of planning guidelines, planning tools, social arrangements, communication protocols, new group spaces, work plazas, team neighborhoods, and places for heads-down work alone. It’s time for a new species of interior elements, evolved to help people confront new demands in work environments.”

That means every company has to balance its real estate costs with its cultural need for both interaction and privacy, and for personal work style accommodations that result in employee satisfaction and greater productivity.

In terms of real world design, that calls for a careful balancing of solutions that mix cubicles, open concept spaces and usage models that may be set according to design, or reserved according to presence, the nature of the task at hand and time of day.

Flickr photo via Creative Commons

What do you prefer, open concept or cubicles? Let us know below or via Twitter over at @b2bnewsnetwork

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Kate Baggott

Kate Baggott

Kate Baggott is the Managing Editor of B2BNN. Her technology and business journalism has appeared in the Technology Review, the Globe and Mail, Canada Computes, the Vancouver Sun and the Bay Street Bull. She is the author of the short story collections Love from Planet Wine Cooler and Dry Stories. Links to recently published pieces can be found at www.katebaggott.com
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