• Open offices actually pre-dated cubicles and started it all
  • Cubicles and open offices both suck for different reasons
  • Office design trends evolve over several decades
  • Activity-Based Workplace (ABW) is the new promising hybrid 
If you started your working career in the 1980’s, 90’s or early 2000’s, chances are pretty good that your workspace was a bleak cubicle with high walled partitions covered with the dullest gray fabric on earth.

The charcoal-colored swivel chair, thin commercial-grade carpet tiles with alternating shades of gray and the beige laminated desk with matching beige file cabinets topped off the blandness.

This was the ultimate in drab and depressing workspaces. And unfortunately, there are still some of us that have this exact type of cubicle to this very day - no joke.

About the only good things that came out of the cubicle era were Dilbert comics and the 1999 cult classic movie Office Space. The movie also served as an informal high-water mark for cubicles and the start of its downfall as a standard unit of working space.

It was right around that time that the whole dot-com craze was entering peak insanity with business plans written on the back of napkins getting stupid amounts of VC money.

Then the house of cards all came crashing down when the dot-com bubble burst in 2001. This reset everything from top to bottom, including how companies attracted and retained workers.

Silicon Valley tech startups were all about disruption and breaking the status quo. So, they started the trend of creating new, fresh, hip and trendy open office plans to attract and retain talent.

And guess what?

Cubicles were neither part of the recipe for success nor an attractive option for employees. Cubicles were too “old school” and represented the out-dated way of doing business.

On the other hand, open workspaces represented the new way forward. The idea was that groups and teams could freely collaborate and be more creative with each other in a partition-less world.

However, the real reason for open office floorplans was that it was cost efficient and provided flexibility and scalability - all keywords that were core mantras for new world startups that now had to produce results.

The current dot-com style open office floorplan was a movement that started with Silicon Valley tech startups and has now expanded beyond the Silicon Valley tech companies to nearly all industries at varying degrees.

Today, some traditional industries continue to hang onto cubicles while newer startups favor open dot-com style seating arrangements and some have a blend of both.

The question is - which one is the best?

The Pros & Cons Of Cubicles

Traditional old school cubicles with high walls have pretty much gone away for most of us. However, there are a few stalwart industries and of course, government entities, that still use Dilbert style cubes.

When cubes were in their heyday of popularity with corporate facility planners, most all Fortune 500 companies had them. A lot of us started corporate life in a grey box. 

The Pros Of Cubicles:

For many of us, the cubicle was a dreadful, lifeless representation of being a small cog in a giant machine. But, it did have benefits that we’re only just realizing in today’s open-office environment.

1. Semi-Private Working Area

Having three walls may cut off your view of the outside world, but it provides a decent amount of visual privacy. Meaning, you didn’t have to worry about someone being able to easily see what you're working on - or not working on. 😉

The only time someone could see what you’re doing is when they’re actually in your cubicle or if they “prairie-dog” over the wall and peer into your workspace.

For a lot of people, having this kind of semi-privacy allows for “heads down” focused mono-tasking type of work.

2. Can Slack Off & Cyberloaf

The high walls also provide the benefit of allowing you to work on non-work related things at your desk like planning out your solo weekend getaway.

If you position yourself in between your monitor and the cube entrance perfectly, you could block visibility of your monitor to people walking by.

If you have the rare cubicle configuration where you’re facing the entrance of your cubicle, this is the prime setup because your monitor isn’t visible to folks walking by or even those in your cube.

You can easily slack-off and browse the web without fear of getting called out on it. It makes cyberloafing on the clock easy as pie.

3. Clear Boundaries

You’ve heard of the saying, “Good fences make good neighbors” right?

Well, the same is true with cubicles. The physical boundaries of the walls clearly denote your working space as your own. There’s no spill-over from your neighbor. Everyone’s stuff stays in their own space.

And when you have visitors, almost everyone waits by the cubicle entrance before entering. Having solid boundaries at work is a good thing.

4. Allows For Personalization

When you’ve got a clearly defined space for yourself, it becomes an open canvas for your personal decorative creativity.

The drab gray fabric is the perfect neutral background for all your colorful accents.

Wanna hang a physical calendar, cool posters/artwork or mini whiteboard?

No problem. You’ve got the wallspace to do it.

How about adding Feng Shui good vibes to your space?

Go for it.

5. More Space, Room & Storage

Usually, cubicles also came with an integrated file cabinet and desk drawers. If you were lucky, the cubicle also came with extra overhead cabinets as well.

All of this storage space meant that you could actually keep hard copies of documents and binders full of paperwork for reference. Because sometimes, it’s just plain easier to grab the physical file folder than search endlessly amidst your computer’s desktop digital clutter.

Plus, the extra desk space allows for more office chachkies, family photos, etc. Making your work area more inviting and fun to be at is a key tactic to keep you going throughout the day.

The Cons Of Cubicles:

Just like anything, there are positives and negatives. And, cubicles definitely have their fair share of detractions.

Here are some of the most unappealing aspects of being a desk jockey in a cubicle.

1. Feel Trapped And Blocked Off

High-walled cubicles really bring the phrase “boxed in” to reality. With high partitions that you can’t see over, the cube makes you feel trapped and disconnected to others in the office.

There’s something to be said about seeing your coworkers smile and making eye contact with another human being during the day. There’s emotional value in connecting with fellow co-workers.

In a traditional high-walled cubicle, it’s like you’re in a prison cell.

2. No Views Whatsoever

While high partitions provide semi-privacy, they also block all outward visibility beyond your workspace other than the acoustic tile ceiling above. Admittedly, staring at the ceiling tiles is one way to zone out at work, which is good to do occasionally.

Cubes can really make you feel like a corporate slave when you don’t see daylight during working hours. During the winter, it’s the worst.

If you’re lucky enough to be situated next to a window, you could just pull a stunt like this.

VIDEO: Office Space
YOUTUBE: CoqProductions
LENGTH: 00:19
Summary points:
  • When you just don’t give a shit, your confidence is unbreakable
  • Cordless drills are probably one of the best tool inventions ever
  • Window views are priceless for managing work stress

3. Sneak Attacks

There’s nothing more startling than when you’re in the zone and heads down on a project and someone sneaks up from behind and scares the shit outta you.

It’s even worse when you’ve got your headphones on to mask and drown out office noise because you can’t hear anyone calling your name. Your visitor has to tap you on your shoulder. It’s like getting an electrical shock.

This is why a lot of people have rear-view mirror accessories attached to their monitors. It minimizes the chances of these kinds of sneak attacks.

4. Noise

You’d think that having sound-absorbing fabric partitions and acoustic ceiling tiles would help with noise, but they don’t seem to do jack shit.

All sorts of sounds and noises can carry across the aisle and even the entire room or floor. Conference call conversations, sneezing/coughing, in-person discussions, ringing phones, printers/copiers, etc. all contribute to a mind-numbing drone of unwanted audible chaos.

All of this makes it impossible to focus in a noisy office to get shit done.

5. Dull And Lifeless

Traditional cubicles have zero character. They are all about the efficiency of standardization and modularity. And, it comes across in their lack of style and design.

It sets such a bland mood and atmosphere that it makes it hard to have fun at work.

When you’re working in a lifeless box all day long, it grinds down your optimism and happiness. It makes you feel less human and more like a corporate slave.

The Pros & Cons Of Open Offices

Thanks to the Silicon Valley startup trends, many of today’s companies have already transitioned to an open-office environment to varying degrees.

If you work in a dot-com or startup, your work space is most likely the long table layout with multiple people sitting side-by-side.

Or, perhaps your company isn’t a typical dot-com but more of a traditional one that has updated it’s office environment to an open plan layout that resembles elements of a startup for that “collaborative” spirit.

For some, an open office meshes with their style and for others, it’s a total productivity killer. Let’s go over the reasons why.

The Pros Of Open Offices:

When the whole open office style came out, it was a cool and hip thing. It represented the new world and a fresh take on office life. It was a 180 degree change from the norm. And during those early years, people loved and embraced it.

The following reasons are why it was liked so much.

1. Open And Airy 

When there are no high-walled cubicle partitions blocking your view, you can see all the way across the room and even the entire floor sometimes.

This wide and unobstructed view provides a sense of freedom and space. It provides an open and airy atmosphere for everyone to enjoy.

Open plan offices are less claustrophobic without a single cubicle box in sight.

2. Everyone’s Got A Window View

Back in the old days, the only people with a window view were the executive management and the cleaning crew. With open offices, now everyone’s got a view out of a window.

No matter where you’re sitting, you can just turn your head and see some natural daylight and maybe, even some green.

Being able to see out of a window during the day is such a huge benefit, especially when you’re suffering from digital eye strain. Looking out at some scenery helps to relieve your eyes and your mind.

3. See Your Coworkers

Sometimes, the smallest things can bring much needed joy into an otherwise dreary day. When your work BFF flashes a smile at you, it automatically uplifts your mood.

On a productive note, in an open office, you can see when your colleague is back at their desk. It makes it easier to get what you need from unresponsive coworkers. No more endless email follow ups. Just walk on over and say hi.

4. Easier Approachability & More Frequent Greetings

When there aren’t any formal doors or cubicles, it’s much easier for employees to wave and smile at each other more often. It feels less intimidating and allows happiness to happen more often.

Quite literally and figuratively, there are no barriers to making informal connections and just saying hi. From different departments to up-n-down the management chain, everyone is more accessible. 

5. Access To Execs

Talking about accessibility, in some cases, everyone up to and including the CEO are all part of the same open office layout. They’re no longer holed up in a glass office, but out in the open along with everyone else.

This is something we appreciate and respect.

When the top brass is “in the trenches” with the working level staff, it feels more like they’re part of the team and not just sitting in their ivory towers like some fucking clueless executives.

The Cons Of Open Offices:

As the open office trend really started to take hold across industries outside of tech, many people soon realized its downfalls.

Once the initial cool factor and honeymoon period ended, the realities of working in a wide open space made a lot of people change their working and communication styles - and in many cases, against their will.

1. Lots Of Noise

If you thought a cubicle farm was noisy, then you haven’t experienced an open floor plan office full of sales and customer service employees. It’s a constant mind-numbing drone of conversations, ringing phones, clacking keyboards etc.

There’s no peace and quiet - ever.

When you’re sitting shoulder-to-shoulder or across from loud people, it makes it hard to concentrate on work when you’re hearing them blab for hours about stupid shit. Dealing with noisy coworkers is just another unnecessary stressor in your day.

2. Zero Privacy

When everyone’s workspace is out in the open with low or no partitions, nobody’s got any privacy at all. And, we’re talking about both self-privacy and privacy from others.

Everything you say and do is right there for all to see and/or hear. Talking to your doctor or sorting out family issues can’t be done at your desk. And taking care of personal business online is a lot harder to do when your monitor is viewable from all angles.

Everyone knows about your personal business and it feeds into the rumor mill when you’re trying your best to avoid the gossip trap at work.

This study from the University of Sydney clearly showed that open offices provided the least satisfaction for sound, noise and visual privacy - duh. Private offices were the best - no shit, Sherlock.

3. Can’t Slack Off

Who hasn’t watched a YouTube clip every now and then during office hours? Or just browsed social media on their phone during some down moments at their desk?

We all have.

It’s one of the ways that can help you get through a rough day.

But, when everything you do can be seen by pretty much everyone, it’s a lot harder to take cyberslacking breaks or take care of personal tasks online.

If you’re in this bucket, one thing that you can do is incognito meditations at your open office desk. It’s totally undetectable. 😉

4. Everyone Knows When You Arrive And Leave

In a cubicle layout, you can work the maze to your advantage to strategically avoid being seen by your boss or other certain coworkers - even if it means taking the long way to your desk.

In an open office layout, this strategy doesn’t work.

If you happen to roll into work late or need to leave the office early, everyone can see it. And if it becomes a habit, it’s not good for your personal brand or office reputation.

5. Not Enough Space

Typically, in open office layouts, each employee has only just enough floor space for their desk, chair and maybe, just a small under table file cabinet - that’s it.

Without high partitions, there’s no additional cabinet storage for stuff or wall space to pin up work-related documents, calendars, personal decorations, etc.

And forget about finding a place to “hang your hat” or jacket or finding a safe spot for your purse. There’s no space.

6. Neutral Zone Spillovers

Without physical boundaries or partitions, it’s really easy for your desk neighbors’ random items to slowly drift over and into your personal workspace.

That thin gap between your desk and your neighbor to the side or across from you may be the only indicator of property lines. But, for some coworkers, that line is merely a neutral zone and it’s not a big deal if their paperwork crosses over a bit.

Employees like this really need to declutter their desk, get their shit organized and respect boundaries.

Or, you may end up having to resort to other more drastic measures like this.

VIDEO: Pencil Fence
YOUTUBE: The Office Clips
LENGTH: 00:19
Summary points:
  • The old #2 pencil still has useful applications today
  • Pencil fences are like pillow forts - not very resilient
  • OSHA probably wouldn’t let this fly

7. Easier To Spread Viruses

In barrier-less office environments, it’s very easy for someone that’s sick to spread their virus to others nearby. All it takes is just one good sneeze and everyone in that area of the floor is vulnerable to catching that virus.

What makes things even worse is that many office ventilation systems don’t effectively filter and kill airborne bacteria or viruses. They just recirculate the air through basic industrial filters, not medical-grade HEPA filters.

So, it’s no surprise that during flu season, when one person gets sick, it quickly spreads to others in the office. 

The Office Design Pendulum Swung Way Too Far To Open Offices

If we look back on the history of office workplace designs, it all started with open plan styles way back during the industrial revolution. So, in fact, open offices actually pre-dated cubicles by a long shot.

But like any other trend, office design trends have evolved over time. It’s like how hemlines have risen and fallen, pants that have gone from baggy to skinny and ties that went from fat to thin.

When the working world was clamoring for more privacy and space, cubicles grew in popularity due to their balance of cost efficiency and employees’ desire for more personalized workspace.

Cubicles became so popular that they epitomized corporate life. And whenever something becomes way too popular, it’s an easy target for change. It gets “played out” and people become eager for something new.

This was when the office design pendulum began to swing back to open offices, but in the new dot-com way.

Well, the pendulum has swung waaay far over to the open office style that it’s become detrimental to productivity. The new open office is essentially a more dense version of what we had back in the 1950’s and 60’s.

In fact, this Harvard Business School study proves that open offices don’t actually increase face-to-face interactions, but actually reduced it!

The study was done using wearable technology to measure and track how often people interacted with each other in person and compared that to how much email and IM volume there was.

And their conclusion…

“Contrary to common belief, the volume of face-to-face interaction decreased significantly (approx. 70%) with an associated increase in electronic interaction. In short, rather than prompting increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact instead over email and IM.” (Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban, Harvard Business School)

We’re now at the point where the dot-com style open offices have become the bane of many employees. If you’re part of this trend, our sympathies go out to you. If you’re not, consider yourself lucky.

Companies are now starting to see the negative consequences of it and some are now thinking more seriously about the possibility of transitioning to the next new format.

The New Emerging Hybrid: Activity-Based Workplace Design

(Credit: Office Principles)

What is now emerging is a new hybrid layout often referred to as “Activity-Based Office Design” or alternatively, “Activity-Based Workplace” or ABW.

This new format attempts to address the many shortfalls of all previous office configurations while still providing the cost-saving benefits that companies require.

The ultimate goal of ABW office layouts is to provide the appropriate type of working environment that each employee needs/wants for that given activity and/or general workspace preference.

The layout would include areas for individual work, group/team work, quiet focus rooms, video conferencing rooms, social gathering spots, etc.

So, for the introvert that needs to proofread a legal document, they can hop into a solo quiet focus room.

The team video call can take place in the dedicated conference room.

The duo of coworkers coordinating on a common project can put their heads together in a small meeting room.

The salesperson can occupy a sound-proof “phone booth” for customer calls.

This is all about providing the right working environment for the given task.

Watch this 4-minute whiteboard animation to see an example of this in action from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).

VIDEO: Activity Based Workplace Whiteboard Animation
YOUTUBE: Kram Gallery
LENGTH: 4:10
Summary points:
  • ABW is the new adaptable and flexible office design for today’s work
  • Individual focused work time and team collaboration both get done effectively
  • ABW supports your day-to-day work activities in the way that works best for you
For those companies that have bought into this new hybrid ABW format, it’s been proven to be an improvement for employees as it provides options for individual working styles and preferences.

This leads to increased productivity which results in increased happiness. People feel good when they get all their shit done. It makes any job more fulfilling and awesomer.

The Best Office Layout Is Yet To Come, But We're Getting Closer

So, have we finally found office layout nirvana with ABW?

Well, it’s not perfect but it’s a good evolution to something more suitable for the varied and dynamic productivity needs of employees.

It seems to strike a good balance between what employees need for productivity and what companies could live with in terms of added costs.

However, the jury is still out on whether or not companies value these “soft gains” in employee happiness and productivity more than the “hard cost” increases of ABW design.

Will ABW continue to expand or will it just fizzle out as just an office design fad?

Only time will tell.

We’d like to see the evolution to include more “work from home” telecommuting options as more and more of our work can actually be done pretty much anywhere and anytime so long as we have a laptop and an internet connection.

Or in more broader terms, the option to work from wherever and whenever you choose, so long as the work gets done.

All the pieces are there in terms of technologies. But, this is a huge ask and very few companies are progressive enough to have the trust in their employees to do this.

So, for now, we think ABW is a good step in the right direction.

Who knows, if ABW really takes off, we might all find ourselves working in cool new digs soon. And, the current dot-com style open office plan will be the “old-school” out-dated way of doing business.

Whatever office layout you're suffering from, just know that we’re all going through the same shit. It will get better - eventually.

Feel Better,
[Cubicle Therapy]

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