Nov 5, 2007

The Demise of the Dreaded Office Cubicle - Modern Approaches to Office Design

Cubicle offices are a downer, don't you agree? With wireless networking, we are now starting to see more and more the demise of the cubicle office environments.

In reading an article at Wired Magazine, entitled, "Sorriest Looking Cubicles" the thought occurred to me, "there are NO GOOD OFFICE CUBICLES. All cubicles SUCK! They are ALL sorry-looking!"

Picture (above) from Fotolia under license.

Have I struck a nerve?

Okay, for the C-level managers at companies like DELL, IBM, HP, Google, Time-Warner, AT&T, and just about every other major corporation in existence, they'll probably read this and go "oh my God, how can he say that?" because, you see, the top officers from most companies in the world (at least, the USA) WANT you to like working in cube farms. After all, it lowers their cost of office space. And, believe me, from an Human Resources and Facilities level, Sq. Foot per employee IS an important cost factor at most companies.

But, as both an employee, and as a manager, I've never liked cubicle environments. At least, not for salespeople and creative types. I've put together a list of the problems and possible remedies, here.

The top 7 reasons cubicle environments drain your productivity:

1. I can't hear myself think in a cube farm. Too many other people are talking around me, and their discussions are highly distracting to me working at optimum level. Yes, I'm auditory, and only about 20 - 30% of your workforce is auditory. But, that's 25% of your team who is impacted by the noise/disruption factor.

2. It is impossible to have a focused high-level conversation from a cubicle environment. The CEO will tell the sales team: yes, sell high, sell wide, and you'll have better results selling. I agree. But HOW are your top salespeople (or bottom salespeople, who aspire to become top salespeople) going to get there when they can't focus or hear their conversations? I recall my earliest days selling at Businessland: when I had to make outgoing prospecting calls, I did them from the CONFERENCE ROOM. Why? Because people would walk by my cube and yell things, or conversations would make it hard to hear my critical selling conversations. The problem isn't just outgoing calls, though, as what can you do when a CEO or important prospect returns your call? When you're in a cube, the answer is NOTHING.

3. Privacy doesn't exist in cubicle environments. For people who like to operate in stealth mode, privacy is critical. This can be true for your key developers, idea people, and others who might need more security. There is no security in a cubicle environment.

4. Absence of life! I also can open my sliding window and smell the fresh air - something absent from most corporate environments. How many corporate cube farms have plants of any kind within them? You'll notice lots of cartoons, as employees fight to keep their sanity in a cube farm. I suggest planting more real plants in portable, potted containers.

5. Lack of natural light. Cubicles block natural light. False light has been proven to cause an increase in depression. Depressed employees are less productive. I guess people forget this common sense when planning their offices. How many offices have rows of fluorescent lighting overhead, the little square ceiling tiles that cover the acres of cabling running overhead, and below that is spaced the little crammed-in cubicles that people are supposed to gratefully spend all these hours slaving away for their company? I'll tell you the truth: MOST OF THEM. It's disgusting, how few companies have made the small investment into natural lighting. In my home office, I have installed natural lighting wherever possible, and use my blinds from windows that face the ocean to control my lighting throughout the day. Now, while today is foggy, most days are sunny. I happen to LOVE the sun! How about you?

6. Class-system enforced through square-footage. If the CEO has the large corner office with the conference room, administrator, and special teleconferencing system installed, and you're in a 4x6 cubicle, with one little area for your books, a picture frame, and two filing cabinets, what does this say about your position versus the CEO's position? While I agree that the CEO may have different needs and different visitors to their office, nevertheless there ought to be an office for salespeople and creative types, too. If you want to create a paradigm-shift in how you structure your company, and go from top-down to inside-out (see the Diamond-Circle model I've created and offer consulting to implement), well, you can't do it if you're stuck in the old class systems.

7. A door gives privacy, security, comfort. Cubicles have no door! Talk about the perennial open-door policy. In evaluating every company I worked where I made sales, I experienced my greatest success when I had an office with a door that closed and windows to the outside world. When I didn't have the door and windows, I maintained my success by spending 8 - 12 hours per week working from my home office, even before it was widely accepted to do so.

So, these are the top reasons why cube farms drain productivity.

However, with the advent of "wireless" technology, there is good news for office workers:

According to an article from The American worker hasn't had much to celebrate lately. Wages and salaries are declining, benefits are getting the ax, unions are struggling. But there's one workplace development likely to bring joy to more than a few: The demise of the dreaded office cubicle.

What's happening in office spaces is actually a bit encouraging: major corporations, like Capital One, Google, and others, are leading a revolution in office-space design. Spaces are becoming more open, more collaborative, even, dare I say it: more ALIVE.

Do you want suggestions for ways to improve your corporate environment?

1. Drop the walls. In environments where people NEED to communicate fast and need the interaction, consider lowering the cubicle walls. This creates a natural space where people can interact together. Another way to deal with walls are to create louvred walls, that can be raised or lowered depending upon the circumstance. According to the GovTech article, employees at CapitalOne found they had 87% more productivity when they dropped the walls. Instead of emailing back and forth, they could simply talk to each other. Certain environments - especially customer support and call center types of environments, thrive with an open room format.

2. Build different offices. Where you have salespeople and creative people who need to be most effective, offer more space for these people to get quality work done. I suggest a small office for a desk, two chairs, a filing cabinet, and a bookcase, at minimum, for basic offices, then a series of conference rooms that facilitate collaboration. Offer employees the ability to book conference rooms for various team activities and customer-related activities. Create entire centers to spark creativity and design collaboration with customers into your environment.

3. Create revolving-offices. Offer "revolving offices" for people who come and go from remote locations and home-office environments. Just make sure you have the correct number of offices to people. The only way you can know this is to measure the amount of people, the number of hours, and divide by offices. In fact, you might go a step-further and load balance, depending upon PEAK usage.

4. Offer creative "home-office" options. I've always liked having an office to go to, but I also love working from home, because it is the quietest place to work, in my experience. I get the most done there, and can complete most of my tasks in that time, alone, when working for a company. Now that I run my own operation, I still love working from a home-office. This is a good option for companies, because they save a considerable amount on square-footage. Just make sure you create the revolving office for people to work out of when they DO come in to the office.

5. Bring in more "home-style" furniture. I remember visiting Google's office headquarters in 2002. It seemed innovative at the time to see lava lamps and bean bag chairs in Google's corporate headquarters. But, really, I think this is how offices used to be, way back. They got away from it, with cube farms. An office will make you more relaxed and comfortable (read: more productive) if you have more natural furniture to work from. Make sure you have some "comfort" pieces around the office, and make sure your chairs support healthy posture.

6. Consider collaborative spaces. How do kids collaborate? In a play room? At recess? Around conference tables? Why not create similar work environments for your teams?

Additional ideas include the following:

7. Convert fluorescent lighting to natural lighting.

8. Install skylights.

9. Create an outdoor workstation environment as much as possible.

10. Offer more security for employees (lockers, files, etc.).

11. Bring in more natural plants that can live in limited lighting environments.

12. Take brainstorming sessions to a remote environment. Create brainstorming session areas within your office space, if possible.

It is important to take into consideration HOW your team works. Do you need some people left alone? Do you want others collaborating? Do you want some alone sometimes, collaborating other times? You'll need a variety of spaces to accommodate each of these needs.

The cubicle, to me, offers the least attractive office-space option. It isn't very flexible, it is loud, and yet you can't collaborate easily with anyone. If you haven't done it yet, consider dropping the cubicles out of your office environment, create more open space, more "alive" space, and more flexible office space, and see if you don't discover a boost in productivity.

If you have additional ideas on ways organizations can improve work conditions, please contribute your comments (below).


Post by Scott Andrews, CEO of ARRiiVE Business Solutions.

For more information, contact info (at) ARRiiVE (dot) com, visit, or call us at 1 (805) 459-6939.

Copyright © 2007 by ARRiiVE Business Solutions. References in this article to an article © 2006, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via Newscom. No violation of trademark or copyright intended. All Rights Reserved. You may republish this article only if you publish in WHOLE with the COPYRIGHT and ALL ACTIVE LINKS intact.

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