Wendy Waters
by Wendy Waters
Mon Sep 15th 2008 at 7:19am UTC

Private Offices Versus Cubicles

When the cubicle was first invented – apparently 40 years ago – it soon became the butt of jokes, source of fear, and eventually symbolic of a dehumanizing aspect of some office work.

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?

6 Responses to “Private Offices Versus Cubicles”

  1. Elizabeth M Says:

    I felt “important” when I had an office, but I also felt a little removed from the “clique” of those in cubicles and open spaces outside my door.

    When I worked in a cubicle, the atmosphere of my department was collaborative so that was fine. But the one thing that always drove me nuts was that the layout of the cubicle pretty much forced me to have my back to the entrance. One particularly odd coworker – rather than announcing her presence – used to linger in peoples’ cubicle doorways until they turned around and noticed her. After several instances of having the bejeezus scared out of me, I situated my computer so that I could see out.

  2. Jack Says:

    I worked in a private office for over 25 years most of it in senior wealth management roles. I moved into my first cubicle one year ago. I earned it when I won the competition at work to be the Senior Financial Planner for a government ministry. I did have to give up my larger office with the view in order to take on this much more senior. What is of interest is that the office I needed to vacate is still empty.

    I came from private practice having worked in the banking/brokerage business. There I was use to bigger promotions bigger offices. But this government setup seems a little wierd. Cubicles are noisy, people hear your conversations, the smell of other peoples’ food is always present and it just is not as private as having an office. Also being a 50 year old finance executive with an MBA and six professional designations managing $100s of millions of dollars or other people’s money, you’d think privacy would be important. But like I say, the government is different than private business.

  3. Wendy Says:

    Jack raises an interesting issue about government workplaces versus the private sector. In my research I’ve tended to focus on private corporations because of their need to respond to market forces in the attraction and retention of talent and ensuring people are as productive as possible. The government should have to do this, but I don’t think has been nimble enough to date to address this issue.

    Private companies, even giants like the big 4 accounting firms, can still shift directions quickly when it comes to workplace policy.

    Elizabeth’s comment raises the subject of gender and workplace. I haven’t found too many formal reports addressing this. But anecdotal interviews with workplace consultants suggests that having more women in senior positions is contributing to greater use of more collaborative workplace layouts. One consultant told me she believes that women “bosses” prefer to be surrounded by the people they work with and are less concerned about privacy than male bosses.

    Other consultants would say this is generational and not male/female. I’ll write about this soon in this “column.”

  4. Richard Florida Says:

    Wendy – Great post. MPI’s space is almost completely open plan. We designed it with a library/ lounge filled with books and sofas and tables; a big room for seminars that seats 15-60; a conference room that seats 12-16; a bullpen for group work; and a cafe for socializing. We included 3 private offices; and were told that was too few. Let me tell you.

    Our big room has turned into an incredible project space. The offices are doubled up in. Our library/lounge has become a seminar room, we had a class of 20 or so there today.

    If we had to do it again, we’d probably give up all 3 offices. I spend precious little time in mine.

    We’d take as much reconfigureable group space as we could get out hands on.

    Yet we are by far the exception in an academic environment, which is built around private offices for professors, classrooms, and cube farms for research assistants.

    I may well be the first professor in my unit to give up a private office.

  5. Wendy Waters Says:

    MPI’s layout sounds very “current.” Is everybody on mobile technology?

    I think an academic institute probably needs one or two private rooms, but these wouldn’t have to be assigned offices. They could be for whomever needs privacy at any given time.

    This would allow for those private, personal conversations that sometimes need to take place in academic settings or any workplace for that matter. You could also use them for conference calls, video conferencing, or small group meetings in which you don’t want to disturb others.

    I’m not sure if you’re the academic exception, or the academic exception when people have had a choice. Many academic research offices, typically much less well funded than yours, seem to grab whatever space they can get — at least that was my experience with them. And, sharing 250 square feet with four other people made for great collaboration and cooperation.

  6. William Says:

    To Jack’s point. I was a senior MD at a large financial institution and have now branched out to start my own fund. I “grew up” on the trading floor (no sound dividers just monitors) and loved it. Being on the floor gave me an instant understanding of what was happening on any of the trades we were managing and also provided instant accountability for all members of the the team. Later when I became more senior, I was offered my own office just off of the floor. I accepted and used it as my team’s private conference room for conference calls, etc where we needed more privacy and/or less background noise.

    Needless to say, my fund now has very few private offices. I think the proximity contributes to the sense of there being a real team and not just a bunch of people working together. It also helps to equalize people, and since I don’t know whether the next big trading idea is going to come from me, our most senior traders or the kid we just hired, I would rather have people mixing it up together.