But arguably the cubicle has also been a positive innovation in workplace design. People who would never get a private office often had more privacy. Having fewer people in private offices and instead in more flexible and movable cubicles reduced workplace costs. In today’s more collaborative environment, research suggests that the right type of cubicle can improve productivity.
The workplace furniture company Knoll has an excellent research department. They recently published a report summarizing research into offices and cubicles from a variety of perspectives. Here are some findings:
Advantages of open office spaces (according to Knoll):
- Helps to create a sense of community.
- Encourages better communication and improved information exchange among co-workers.
- Some employees feel greater work satisfaction being among other people rather than working alone.
- The open work environment allows more people to “be in the know” about what’s happening with the company – more transparency.
- Allows better inter-generational communication. More mature workers can learn new ways to work or new technologies from younger co-workers; meanwhile younger workers can receive less formal mentoring from working around those more experienced.
Advantages of enclosed, private offices (according to Knoll):
- 90% of participants in a Knoll study reported privacy as the #1 benefit of a private office.
- Noise reduction can be another advantage (although see below).
- Private offices typically allow for more individual space.
- Private offices can be seen and used as a status symbol.
On this last point, another section of the article suggests that technology may be becoming the status indicator rather than office space. The person with the “mobile toys” like a Blackberry, iPhone, or advanced lap top is starting to rival the private office in some companies.
Subtleties of open plans: not all cubicles are created equal. The Knoll report found research to indicate that different cubicles work in different ways:
- Computer programmers preferred open-plan workstations with “seated height privacy” – this allowed them to stand and communicate quickly or see what others were doing, but privacy to focus while seated.
- Another study found that proximity to a window significantly affected employee satisfaction with their jobs as well as feeling of personal well-being.
- Cubicle auditory privacy can exceed that of private offices: 60″ high acoustical panels used as cubicle walls along with acoustical ceiling tiles and sound masking can achieve 93% acoustical privacy, according to Knoll. Meanwhile, typical dry-wall offices only achieve 75% acoustical privacy.
- If done well, with proper communication with and participation of employees, changing over to a cubicle environment can bring significant corporate efficiencies from reduced real estate costs to higher productivity says the Knoll report. One study found a 5.5% reduction in “business process time.”
- Knoll also cites a 1996 UCLA study of companies that had changed to open plan to encourage collaboration and found performance increases of “440 percent” – which may be a typo (but without a Harvard Business Review subscription, I couldn’t check the source), but even if the number should be 40% or 44% that’s a noteworthy increase.
Thinking back through my own work history, I felt at least as productive if not more in the open plan environments as in ones when I’ve had a private office (although my roles have been different in each work environment).
What has your experience been?