By Tamara Sheehan
Director of Business Management
Sometimes I find myself pining for a cubicle to call my own. Three walls that are just mine, where I can decorate with family photos, make my sport affiliations known, and spend a few minutes zoning out without anyone checking up on me. Then it hits me: in cubicle life I’m separated from other human beings. Contact is made by peeking over carpeted walls.
It’s a good thing those walls have come down.
Cubicles vs open office? Open offices were seen as the antidote to isolated cubicles. But they aren’t perfect. According to Ethan Bernstein, a professor at Harvard Business School—or anyone who’s sat next to a particularly chatty colleague—open offices kill productivity because they’re loud and visually distracting. And they’re right. When improperly designed, an open office just might kill the spirit of your more introverted employees while the office gossip reigns supreme. That’s why business owners should consider flexible designs when outfitting the company office.
Cubicles and open plans speak to our prehistoric human needs. We’re naturally drawn to shelter that keeps us safe from the elements and predators…but not total isolation. We also like to see what the world has in store for us. Our brains react positively to landscapes, natural light, and other living beings. An office should be designed to fulfill both.
An open office is typically viewed as benching systems, where employees tuck in next to each other to work without escape. Outfitting an office in such a way is cost-effective; long desks take up less space, accommodate more people, and are much less expensive than cubicle systems. But an assembly of long desks is just as depressing as cubicles.
So when considering an open office plan, create a dynamic layout that fits every possible workplace scenario. The design, typically called an agile or activity-based workplace, caters to the cubicle evangelists as well as the social butterflies.
The reason subdivided offices lasted as long as they did is they absorbed and reduced sound, which in turn increased focus. In an activity-based space, workers who thrive in the quiet have the option to use a private room, typically meant for phone calls that require extra discretion. But another reason cubicle dwellers kept calm and carried on for decades was because you can go unnoticed in a cubicle, giving way to personal distractions or leisure while on the clock.
The open office removes the ability to slack off. Some say this is a pitfall of the open plan because employees are always being watched. But having eyes on you isn’t always a bad thing. There’s a motivating force in knowing that anyone can see what you’re doing, so an open office keeps people accountable and productive. Open-office naysayers argue that with all eyes on you, you’re less likely to interact with colleagues. While there may be some truth to that, removing physical barriers is meant to encourage collaboration and socializing.
In an activity-based office, group projects, and social encounters get their own space. Meeting rooms are often outfitted with whiteboards and large tables, birthing an atmosphere where creativity thrives. Lounge areas exist for quiet, thoughtful work while kitchens and coffee areas act as socialization spaces during breaks.
What Ethan Bernstein did get right in his article, “The Impact of an Open Workspace on Human Interaction,” is that the design gives human beings agency as to how they use an activity-based workplace. If that means burrowing oneself into a cubicle-like hole for a day of distraction-free work—or perhaps a little daydreaming—then so be it. Business owners should equip teams with tools and spaces to accomplish tasks. When tools no longer match employee needs, it’s much easier to make a change.