modern office space with cubicles
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Commentary

It’s Time to Bring Back the Office Cubicle

Jan 18, 2017

I’ve had it with the modern-day open office: bright fluorescent lights; fish-bowl distracting conference rooms that always leaves you wondering who your manager is meeting with; long shared desks.

When I worked on a Wall Street trading floor years ago, there was nowhere to hide; nowhere to find some peace and quiet; nowhere to think deeply. My entrepreneurial friends have also opted for shared working spaces, in the name of teamwork and collaboration. But open plan office spaces, with gabbing colleagues and malfunctioning copy machines, can impede you from getting high-quality work done. Paradoxically, to be more productive, we might need to think “inside the box” and revisit the cubicle as the preferred format for workspaces.

Once upon a time, corporate executives thought cubicles were an optimal format for workers. Furniture giant Hermann Miller created the first cubicle in 1967 as a response to the chaos of open offices: rows of desks laden with clattering typewriters and chattering telephones, which was thought of as tremendously distracting and counterproductive.

You can say the same thing about open offices, but cubicles actually absorb and reduce sounds, and their walls cut down on visual distractions. All this makes it easier to perform better at your job. For example, cubicles seamlessly integrate technology by incorporating power and data management in panels, so you can easily plug in and situate your monitor without disturbing your colleagues. Moreover, cubicles give architects and designers flexibility when designing office spaces.

But cubicles are about twice as expensive as a benching system — those long desks that accommodate many workers. Though the cost of office furniture is opaque because it is usually bought through a sales representative, an average cubicle runs about $3,000, whereas an office bench station costs $1,250. It’s attractive for companies to save money on furniture like a benching system, and if they hire more workers, they can pack them like sardines at the same desk. But more workers, less space, and saving costs doesn’t lead to more productivity.

Consider the whole picture: Say that switching to a benching system saves about $1,500 per employee for an office lease of 15 years. The cost of a cubicle is likely amortized over the course of the lease because of productivity by the employee who has a more functional station like a cubicle. The question every office manger must ask is whether the better experience a cubicle provides will likely help employees be more productive.

Ultimately, the decline of the cubicle may have come about because of costs. Very often, executives are held accountable for metrics, such as spending and what the payoff is for the company, and less on qualitative measures, such as workplace satisfaction

Incentivized in this way, large companies have pressured major furniture manufacturers to reduce prices, which, in turn, have produced anemic, marginally functional designs to save on costs. A long flat desk with a common cable trough, now called a benching system, is far cheaper than producing all the parts and pieces required for a cubicle.

The end result is the loss of privacy and productivity for employees. In her book Quiet, Susan Cain recognizes how open office plans are part of a “New Groupthink,” in which collaboration and teamwork must be fostered to a fault. She quotes a marketing agency director who says, “Employees are putting their whole lives up on Facebook and Twitter…There’s no reason they should behind a cubicle wall.” But when the time calls for thinking deeply, you probably need walls to block out the distractions.

Indeed, a recent survey by Oxford Economics shows how open office plans can impede productivity: 53% of the 1,200 people surveyed said they were less productive and satisfied when they could hear ambient noise.

But it’s hard for company executives to measure the quality or value of the cubicle format, especially when they can readily point to material cost savings of using open work environments. So the next time your colleague yawns loudly, her computer resets to the tune of the Microsoft Windows greeting, or there is an ad-hoc “what are you doing this weekend?” powwow happening nearby, riddle me your answer.

Kabir Sehgal is a New York Times bestselling author of several books including Coined: The Rich Life of Money And How Its History Has Shaped Us. He is a Grammy and Latin Grammy Award winner. He was previously a vice president at JPMorgan.

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