Open-office fad has workers pining for cubicles

It is an indisputable fact that nothing crushes the soul of creativity like an office cubicle farm.

So today’s Boston Globe story on the subject is worth a double take. Once we lose our cubicle, we miss it. So stunning is this assertion, that it made the paper’s front page today.

Today’s workers, apparently, are rebelling against the open-office trend in which walls are removed and people are encouraged to interact. It’s also cheaper for the company.

How horrible is the open office? People would rather be in their soulless cubicles, the Globe says.

A little privacy can go a long way, it turns out. At a factory in China, teams with curtains around them were 10 to 15 percent more productive than those out in the open because they felt more comfortable experimenting and taking risks, said Ethan Bernstein, a Harvard Business School professor who conducted the research in China.

Bernstein also found that at a corporate headquarters that moved from cubicles to an open layout, face-to-face communication declined by 70 percent and e-mail increased in its place — possibly because of the proliferation of people wearing headphones and a reluctance to discuss sensitive information in front of a roomful of people.

Joe Caputo, a principal project manager at Primetals Technologies USA in Worcester, can relate. Since the manufacturing and engineering company moved into a building with an open floor plan a few years ago, “the e-mails have picked up tremendously,” he said. “If I have something important to say to someone, I really don’t want to say it in front of everybody else.”

Another says the open-space in her office is “keeping three coffee shops in business.”

  • Mark in Ohio

    I am a mechanical design engineer and currently have my own office, but have worked in cubicles, a converted supply closet, and even in a wide spot in a hallway. I visit a customer who recently remodeled to a more open floorplan, where everyone has a cubicle, but the walls are so low that you can see over them when seated. I find it horribly distracting, and think back on my time in the wide spot in the hallway, where every time someone walked past my desk, it was a small distraction. After that, the converted supply closet was a welcome upgrade. Add to that the noise distractions from everyone’s routine phone calls,
    even when only business related, and I’d have to wear headphones to keep myself dug in on a project. I’ve felt that the open floorplan concept was only good for certain (very limited) types of activities, and not conducive to the grind of trying to concentrate hard on a project.

  • PaulJ

    Wait until people tire of open floor plans in houses, much more difficult to fix.

  • It’s funny. Newsrooms used to be very noisy places what with scanners, and radios and TVs and wire machines, and telephones and reporters yelling at each other. And it all masked all of the distractions that drive people crazy in today’s environment.

    Offices are too quiet so any small amount of noise is amplified. I blame the digital age. And headphones.

    • John O.

      Animal could always retreat to the darkroom on “Lou Grant.” Now it’s Photoshop…

      • 212944

        Animal would still find some retreat, I am sure.

  • Noelle

    Our cubicles are almost more private than the offices in our office, which have tall windows next to the doors with no curtain. After working in one for a day while the light over my cube was being fixed, I was actually glad to be back in my private little cube – every time someone walked by the office, they would peer in the window.

  • jon

    Left my Cubicle back in December, currently sitting at my “Bench”

    Watched as people who used to work from home once a week now work from home 4 times a week.

    People who were always in the office (myself) work from home a couple of days a month.

    I see many of my co-workers less in this more “collaborative” environment than I did in the cubicles.

    I never had a beef with Cubicles though.

  • 212944

    It is a false choice.

    Compared to open space design, people prefer cubicles. Add actual offices to the options and I would be surprised to see cubicles come out on top.

    • Rob

      Yes! Cubicles do indeed crush the soul, and open space plans are too distracting. I’ve been fortunate to have workspaces that always included fully enclosed offices with lots of windows.

  • Since the company I work for moved to an open office environment, they have started requiring people who want a dedicated work space for themselves to be present in the office at least three days a week. Many just decided to forgo the office entirely and now work from home full-time.

    And while my company said this is supposed to help with collaboration, the people we work with were already located in multiple locations throughout the country, so increasing collaboration by eliminating cubicles never made sense. I still had to pick up the phone to collaborate with those with whom I needed to anyway.

  • Kassie

    We are moving to more people working from home, but I will only be at home once or twice a month. That means lots and lots of phone meetings. The more I’m on the phone, the more I distract the others in the office. If I didn’t have a cubicle, I’m sure I would drive people crazy. Actually, I’m sure I already drive people crazy, but that’s what you get when you put a Project Manager next to a Developer.

    Also, without my cube, I wouldn’t have my file cabinet. And without my file cabinet, where would I keep my union contracts and union supplies, food for lunch and shoes?

    • John

      at my wife’s county office (where they get a spot when they show up in the morning – no longer do they have assigned cubes), they all get lockers for their lunches, coats and shoes.

      No paper records allowed any more. everything is supposed to be scanned and digital.

      • Kassie

        We are moving in that direction too, but not for people in the position I have, more for people who are developers, quality assurance, or phone agents.

        And honestly, I could go down to almost nothing. I have no paper documents 98% of the time and could keep my union stuff in the space the employer has provided to us. I wouldn’t even mind not having the privacy, but I would drive others crazy with how I work and the amount of time I spend having one on one meetings at my desk or on the phone. We don’t have available meeting rooms for those things due to serious space shortage.

  • Mike Worcester

    The education world went through the “open” fad for a time and found out quickly that classrooms which allowed in all the noise and distractions from the other rooms did not make for an effective workplace environment. I’m a bit surprised that it took the corporate world as long as it did to learn the same lesson. Granted schools and workplaces are not entirely synonymous, but the concept seemed to be similar.

    • jon

      My jr. high school was built for an “open environment” various classroom “nooks” all centered around a sunken library.

      I attended school there in the 90’s and all of the classrooms had been walled off (which made for an interesting floor plan with some weird hallways, and some classrooms only accessible by going through other classrooms), but the new “walls” were not particularly solid, I think they were designed to be pushed over in the event of a fire, you could still see where the original rooms were supposed to be, cinderblock walls marked the original construction.

  • Jeff

    Here’s an interesting podcast about the origin of the “Open Office”:

    Apparently it didn’t go well even when it was first introduced…

  • Jerry

    This is what comes to mind when I picture an open office plan (courtesy of Billy Wilder):

  • Jack

    I recently worked remote in our new office space which has the open floor plan. The first day I left midday to go back to my own site due to the lack of privacy and the loudness of the facility. Tried again a second day with slightly more success.

    If my position moved to such a facility, I would opt to telecommute the vast majority of the time as no one wants to hear me talk on the phone 6 hours a day and quite frankly, my work conversations need to be behind closed doors due to sensitivity of matters.

    I’m just wondering how this environment suits people who have autism or other conditions that can be overwhelmed by too much stimulation. My senses were overwhelmed as it was and I don’t have any such condition.