Being successful in business largely revolves around increasing productivity. If you want your company to succeed, you need your employees to succeed in doing their jobs. It then goes to follow that happy employees make for happy end of the year reports. This basic line of reasoning has inspired a huge wave of studies and experimentation regarding what kinds of environments make for happy and successful workers. There are many ways to improve your employees’ work lives - better benefits, ergonomic furniture, greater perks and incentives, etc. Studies have shown, though, that just simply the physical environment in which people work has a huge impact on their productivity.
This makes perfect sense, once you think about it. The more comfortable a person is with their surroundings, the better they will be able to perform the task at hand, and their brain is likely to work more creatively and innovatively. So, the question then arises: What type of office space is most conducive to happy and productive employees? Since the 1960’s, closed offices and cubicle settings have been the norm. However, in recent years, we have seen a huge surge of open office layouts - modern designs intended to foster collaboration and productivity. Just how well do these layouts work, though? When it comes to the deliberation between cubicle vs. open office, there are a few factors to consider.
History Of The Cubicle
When cubicles first hit the market in the 1960’s, they were considered a revolutionary new way of creating productive work environments. The brainchild of Robert Propst, designer and the former Chief Executive of office furniture company Herman Miller, he referred to his invention as the action office. It was meant to improve productivity by giving workers more privacy and allow for flexibility. While flexibility may not be a word we would associate with what we currently think of when we think of cubicles, it certainly was with Propst’s original design. These dividers had moveable parts that could be adjusted to alter your work environment and move from sitting to standing. You could say that Propst had office ergonomics in mind way before anybody started really talking about it. However, other office furniture suppliers caught on to the idea, and before long, Propst’s cubicle had taken on a whole new form. In 1998, Propst was even quoted in an interview as saying that his “action office” idea had been mutilated to create “hellholes” - not exactly a glowing review from the father of the cubicle.
With so many companies switching to open office layouts, cubicles have seemed to become a bit passe and even oppressive in the eyes of many. We picture large rooms cluttered with dreary gray fabric walls and miserable employees suffocating under mounds of paperwork. Pop culture has perpetuated this image a lot, especially in the 1990’s. Many of us remember reading Dilbert - the cartoon strip of the surly, middle-level office employee commenting on the dreariness of work life. He often depicted the sea of office cubicles as somewhat soul crushing, though, he sometimes tried to remain upbeat:
“They can make me work in a little box, but they can’t crush my spirit.” - Dilbert
Then, in 1999, the movie Office Space came out. As depressing a view as Dilbert had on cubicle-filled offices, Office Space blew him out of the water, taking the hatred for office design to a whole new level and practically begging for an office space revolution. Peter (Office Space’s main character) didn’t have quite as optimistic a view on work life as Dilbert:
“So I was sitting in my cubicle today, and I realized, ever since I started working, every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it. So that means that every single day that you see me, that's on the worst day of my life.” -Peter Gibbons.
Yes, this certainly extreme and overly dramatic - this was a comedy, after all - but the film struck a chord with a lot of employees and business owners, wanting a change in their work environment.
Money On The Mind
Pop culture isn’t totally to blame for cubicle backlash, though. A lot of companies are switching to open office layouts simply because of cost. Not only do the cubicles themselves cost money, but they take up a lot more space. That means that companies can fit fewer employees in a cubicle layout than in an open office layout. This saves companies a lot of money, and in theory, it increases productivity. More workers, more output, right? Especially in times of economic hardship, companies are wanting to streamline and cut costs as much as possible. Altering the physical space to do so seems like an easy and logical first step. So, sayonara cubicles! The open office layout allows employers to sit employees close together to maximize utilization of the space they have available. Some offices don’t even have assigned work stations for employees, allowing them to work from any space available. This certainly does cut costs, but doesn’t necessarily increase worker satisfaction.
Open Offices On The Rise
The open office layout got even more attention with corporate giants such as Google, American Express, and Facebook - companies just oozing with success - became big promoters of this new work environment. According to the New York Times, open office layouts make up roughly 70 percent of office environments today. That’s quite the explosion! So why have these titans of industry (and many, many other companies) made the switch? Cost may be one big factor, but there is another reason, as well. “Collaboration” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in the business world, and for good reason. Collaborating and sharing ideas is what propels companies forward and leads to important deals and practices that may never have otherwise been implemented. Open office floor plans are built around this concept, and are meant to increase collaboration among colleagues. The idea is that without barriers, workers can constantly share ideas and feel freer and more laid back. Without the walls of separation, communication is quick and simple. It’s a nice idea, but unfortunately, this hasn’t worked out quite as well as suspected. Proximity to your co-workers doesn’t guarantee better communication.
Drawbacks To The Open Office Layout
While the intention of this modern, open layout may be to increase collaboration, it also vastly increases distractions. With zero privacy, workers are subject to endless noise, conversations, and interruptions from their collaborating co-workers. Naturally, this leads to a decrease in productivity. One study focused solely on the effect that privacy in the workplace has on job satisfaction and job productivity. The results of the study showed that not only are employees less satisfied with their jobs when they have less privacy in their workspace, but they are also less productive workers. So, though an open office layout may cause the sales of noise-cancelling headphones to rise, it is also likely to cause profit margins of other businesses to fall.
Studies have also shown this style to increase anxiety among employees. Being constantly so exposed to everyone around you can be nerve-racking. Some employers may prefer this, as it weeds out those who may be giving less than the desired amount of dedication to their job, but most employees definitely do not. Even the most dedicated employees, who would never dream of surfing the internet and checking their Facebook and Twitter accounts while on the clock, can feel oppressed by “Big Brother” watching. This level of constant surveillance makes employees feel less at ease - a discomfort that no amount of bean bag chairs, or other “modern relaxation” office setups, can lessen.
Not only does this increase anxiety and decrease employee happiness, but it even leads to more sick days. According to one scientific study, workers in open office environments took a whopping 62% more sick days than workers who worked in a cellular office. Much of this is likely due to a much closer proximity to potentially virus-carrying co-workers, but increase anxiety and decreased happiness also plays a part.
As for collaboration, a study done in 2013 showed that workers in closed offices never saw communicating with their colleagues as a problem. Apparently, those physical barriers posed no actual barriers to collaboration. In fact, not only did less than 10 percent of workers surveyed report physical barriers causing communication barriers, but the study showed that the open office layout actually caused more barriers to communication and collaboration. As it turns out, the noise pollution and lack of privacy in open offices do more to prohibit collaboration than it does to propel it.
Another concern with the open office layout is a lack of distinction between work and home. Now, this is certainly only pertinent to specific types of offices, but more and more frequently, offices around the country are getting rid of designated work spaces for employees. Rather, many modern offices have their employees working on laptops wherever they find a space. This molds to the already much studied and much-discussed issue - the effect that mobile technology is having on our psyches, and the possible negative side effects that can be incurred.
According to the American Psychological Association, more and more workers are constantly checking their work correspondence - before work, after work, on weekends, and even when out sick! Fifty percent of people have this habit, a habit that is largely attributed to the mobile, open office design. Without a set place to work, employees have a harder time distinguishing between work and personal, and employers are starting to expect their employees to be constantly available to them. Why is this a problem? Endless studies have shown how important taking breaks from work and technology are. Distinguishing personal from professional and taking times for ourselves not only makes us happier, but it gives our brain time to recharge, which actually makes us more productive when we are on the clock. Of course, even when people don’t have physical barriers defining their workspace, they have the power to shut off the professional and focus solely on the personal, but more often than not, they simply don’t. So, the argument could be made that the modern open office layout is causing people to lose touch of where work ends and personal life begins, which has a negative effect on both psyches and profit margins.All of this information is causing people to re-think the open office space. Is a return to cubicles in the future?
The Best Of Both Worlds
Rather than returning to the world of drab gray barriers that Dilbert described, we instead recommend a hybrid. The thing is, you can’t expect one type of layout to work for every type of employee or every type of company. Some workers may prefer the hustle and bustle of an open office layout, where others prefer solitude, free from distractions. Most workers, though, thrive on some combination thereof. Having collaboration space for colleagues to meet and share ideas in a more relaxed atmosphere is beneficial, but equally important is giving employees a space to go and have private meetings or work in distraction-free zones. Some offices achieve this by providing a communal area for employees where they can meet to discuss projects, while also providing sound-proof office spaces for workers to go when they need to really focus without interruption. Offering both spaces allows employees the freedom to change their scenery and workspace depending on what they need to accomplish the task at hand.
Clearly, not every office can accommodate separate isolation pods, cubicle zones, and collaboration areas. There are still some measures that can be taken to create a more hybrid workspace, though. Perhaps the solution is a return to the “action office” that Robert Propst originally envisioned. Privacy barriers, moveable components, and maximum flexibility. Being able to flow and adjust to your workers’ needs seems to be the key to maximizing productivity. Try investing in cubicles with wheels that can be easily moved around to allow for collaboration or privacy, depending on the need. Ergonomic office furniture also aids worker health, satisfaction, and productivity.