For the last fifteen years, cubicles have been slowly disappearing from the work environment. What was originally developed to put character into assembly line types of offices is now considered soulless and impersonal. The open office model replaces the cube system as the best formula for workplace synergy, aiming to improve collaboration and the exchange of ideas. Open offices and flexible workspaces are spreading all over the world. In the United States alone, seventy percent (70%) of all offices have low or no dividing walls, with information technology firms as early advocates of the open office model.
Open Spaces: The Good and The Bad
Open offices are cost effective, mainly by maximizing floor space and lessening furniture overhead. More employees can be assigned on a floor with open offices compared to a floor with cubicles. A better sense of community is achieved with open offices, along with fostering cooperation, collaboration, innovation and creativity. The loudest advocates of open offices are those in information technology especially in Silicon Valley, advertising, and media.
Barriers between managers and their subordinates are torn down with open offices, making management more approachable and accessible. Employees feel more like a part of a team, an enterprise that is, while more casual, innovative and dynamic. It also addresses the new kind of workforce, the mobile employees, who spend less than 60% of their time in the office. The rise of telecommuting and outsourcing contributes to underutilized workspace, one of the reasons why many companies, especially in the creative industries, opt for open offices. Some companies opt for open offices without permanent workstations for their employees, mobile or otherwise.
However, not everyone is sold on open offices. Privacy is lost on a table shared by many. People working on sensitive information would seek the privacy of conference rooms or smaller, private work areas (if any) to ensure security of data. Personal data almost becomes common knowledge with open spaces, due to close proximity of co-workers and also the lack of permanent workspace for others. The lack of permanent workstations can also add stress about privacy, with personal data trails left in the last workstation you used.
While camaraderie amongst employees improved, it is also the biggest distraction. A false sense of productivity is created with open offices, where the chief complaints are the noise and loss of quiet time. It is difficult to concentrate on work when others are talking, discussing, and people drop by anytime. Another problem with open office is that it doesn’t recognize the fact that people work differently from others. The idea that one way of working is good for all, is wrong. There is a time for concentration and a time to brainstorm. Most workers are forced to look for means to find time to concentrate, either by working outside the office, coming back to work at night, or buying noise-canceling earphones.
Cubicles: Simply Misunderstood?
Cubicles have been around since 1967, giving employees a small but rather cramped space of their own to work. These modular systems gave the illusion of having your own office, while at the same time giving managers a bullpen of talents to monitor with relative ease. The flexibility of the modular system allows the company to group teams faster, easier, with the idea of taking people of their offices to interact and collaborate more with their coworkers. The partitions of the cubicles give privacy and permanent space to each employee, alongside the accessibility. It also generally levels the playing field, with some team leaders or managers also working from a cubicle.
Most of the fuss about cubicles is about how little space is assigned to each worker. With companies trying to maximize space, the envisioned flexible workspaces become cramped and impersonal. Having more cubicles means more noise and distraction and therefore less work done.
Despite all the fuss about cubicles, on how little space and privacy they offer, even more privacy and space is lost in open offices. Open offices give us less space. A study by the International Facility Management Association shows, that workers now work in smaller spaces than they were 2010, from 225 sq feet in 2010 down 35 square feet to 190 sq feet in 2013. And open offices are one of the reasons why privacy is at an all time low, with 74% of people surveyed by Harvard Business Review are more concerned now of their privacy than a decade ago.
Open offices require teams or groups to share a table or workspace. Concentration is also at an all time low, with only half of western workers saying they are able to concentrate despite the noise and distractions. Job performance is an illusion with open spaces, and only a sense of privacy improves it. A study published in the Ergonomics journal has also found that those who work in open offices have higher rates of sick leaves. Infection travels faster in groups than when you can control your personal environment.
While the growing trend is to redesign office spaces from cubicles to open spaces, not every one is jumping on the band wagon. Open spaces are not the end solution to efficiency and innovation. It works for some industries, but clearly not for others. Cubicles are here to stay and more office space is still set aside for individual private spaces rather than for collaboration.
Featured photo credit: Stephen Coles via flickr.com