Productive Work Environments - Office Vs Cubicle

Over the past 15 years, office design has been influenced by the idea that fewer walls=better communication=higher productivity. The workplace expression of that concept has been the mass cubicle-ization of the office. But the ugly truth is that nobody has been able to measure whether this arrangement has led to more knowledge worker productivity -- or less. The only thing we know for sure is that it's cheaper.

What do you think? Are you working better in a cubicle than you did in an office -- or vice versa? Do you communicate better with your team? Do you stay home to do heads-down work?

Would love to hear your thoughts for an upcoming story.

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30 Comments

  • J. D. Hunter

    We've been six engineers in a big room for years. We benefit from overhearing each others' conversations and we can summon anyone else's attention with a glance. We can see who is present. Anyone coming to "engineering" with an issue could simply arrive, state their problem to the group and the most cognizant of us would help them.

    But that changed. One Monday we were cubicleized.

    I DO NOT like it.

    Nobody consulted with me or any other engineer to see if we wanted cubicles. (We would have told them to forget about it.)

    I feel degraded. I feel flunkyized.

  • john `hamstra

    I have worked in the office environment and cubicle environment. I am retiring in a few days after working at this one company for 40 years. The cubicle life that I have experienced is unbelievable when I tell friends. I have been in this current cubicle position for over 2 years and have yet to have one word communication with the adjoining cubicles on one side.
    I have just come back to work from 5 weeks absence where my wife had a very serious illness (life threatening). The people knew about the situation with my life. I came back and the person in the cubicle next to me has yet to say one word and it has been 4 days.
    I believe the work environment will get even colder in the future. Some of the reasons for this cold environment I believe is:
    Cubicle height around 5.5 feet (cannot see each other)
    People so intent on interacting with the keyboard versus human interaction. I have gotten "nice job" E-mails from a boss that sits two cubicles away.
    My age
    This environment did not exist prior the dreaded cubicles. I actually want to make a short movie about this but have not located a spot where I could film my story.

  • Cristina Kuiper

    I can share from my experience and work as a space design consultant, hands down, people prefer offices over cubicles. The problem with cubicles and cubicle manufactures as well as corporations who buy into this, is that employees are put into vulnerable positions. (backs to everyone) creating lack of communication to start with and putting these poor people into a fight or flight position alllll day long. That is, they are constantly in a position of someone always sneaking up on them. Humans don't like this and don't work well this way and they will never feel safe either. To add, cubicles force individuals to face a wall that is usually less than 20 inches away, resulting in poor concentration and creativity. Then there is the file cabinets overhead which stuff you in this hole all resulting in poor concentration, lower productivity and lack of support and strength. When I am able to move cubicle spaces around, employees "love" their new positions and again it goes back to putting people in positions that they "instinctively" feel safe in and powerful in. It's very sad that cubicle manufactures and corporations don't understand what their actually doing to them selves and the corporate world but it's been my goal to change it and when I have, the profits speak for themselves because people are happier and have power when I do and communication increases positively and dramatically. Open space areas are ok for awhile but it all depends on how this space is created. Plus, we all need a retreat and place to settle ourselves and mind when working in a place for more than 8 hours a day. There is more to work space than is provided in our society today and in time, let's hope it changes and when it does, so will profits, growth and opportunities. I know this because I've seen the change and yes, space does affect you and how you feel and ultimately what you are capable of doing and producing as well. There is a physical test I put my clients through to actually "prove" how space really affects them. When I do this, they say to me, how did you do that? Funny thing is, I didn't do it anything, I just phow them the difference of a supportive position and vulnerable position and they felt and saw the results. It was that simple. Then they hire me ever time because it's real, it makes sense and again, it goes back to: Changing Corporate America.

  • 19 years in engineering

    I have worked in an office with a door, in cubicles, in cubical "groups" and now I am in a "basketball court" of desks. I am an engineer. I can tell you that I agree with a previous comment that if the boss sees a "flurry of activity" he/she assumes that a lot must be happening. However, there is no guarantee that the activity is useful. Especially when the needed "useful" activity might be actually quiet stuff like design, project work, programming etc. Think about it - all noise is talking. If you're talking, you're not thinking. i personally like an office with a clear glass door. Even if it's closed, people don't feel isolated either on the inside or out.

  • Disgruntled Cube Habitant

    I work in a cube. I work in the accounting department for a property management company. There are 5 in our department with about 4 more full cubes around us. We are in the center of a large open room with offices along the walls. These offices are held by our supervisors and "higher ups". We recently acquired a new boss a few months ago, and we've aparently received a lot of noise complaints for our department. Other staff which frequent our area overhear our conversations both work related and normal chatter. We've received numerous emails asking us to keep down our chatter and how it appears that the "accounting staff" isn't busy or isn't completing their duties. All of us find this rude and offensive. If that statement were true, then I'm sure we would be reprimanded on not meeting our deadlines. In any office (primarily women in our department) you are going to have chatter. It is far easier to ask a question over the cube wall instead of walking around it to get the same answer. We have been instructed NOT to talk over the cubicle, but when we walk to the other side to get our information we are accused of hanging out in the other person's cube chatting. Of course someone in another department walks by when we step into the cube and start asking our questions and it may appear that is what's happening but for the most part that is wrong. Now our boss has brought up the idea of making our cube walls longer and higher. (We have a couple double wide cubes with 1/2 wall in the center) Also talking about adding doors to our cubes. Not for privacy, but to keep us locked in, away from our collegues who we need to converse with many times during the day. I like the idea of having a door to close so when we need to bunker down and get some intense work done, we may avoid interruption. But at what cost is this going to come at? Are we going to feel more relaxed and ready to put in our full day or are we going to feel like lab rats locked in a cage!! I guess only time will tell. I heard somewhere that a happy employee is a productive employee...I just wish someone would let our boss know!! I might have to make a sign for my padded cell.

  • Paul Sparrow

    As one who has worked in a high wall cubicle environment and now works in an "open office" concept I will attest to the fact that I want my walls back!

    All day long I sit listening to cell phones going off, hands free conversations, group desk meetings, printers printing 200 page documents 10 feet from my desk and more. Oh did I tell you about the girl who's pissed off cause it's her time of the month. Like I need to know that.

    Open office concepts don't work. It allows for great flow of conversation but is that what you really want? Because if I'm talking and not coding then I'm not working for the most part.

    Least productive office I have ever been in. Yet it is the most ascetically pleasing offices ever.

  • Iszi

    I'm on board with anyone that hates the cube farm here. Personally, I haven't had the experience of working in an enclosed office environment just yet, but I can tell you that I would most certainly see it as a huge relief if it would ever happen.

    A big point was made in a few posts above, that I think is probably very much under-rated in general. Speakerphone abuse is a productivity killer! For me, it used to be just one guy a few cubes away that would constantly use his speakerphone for every single call, (business or personal) and he's not exactly the most friendly person in a phone conversation either. Now more people have moved into the cubes around me, and it seems like I'm surrounded by at least two or three people who have no problems all using their speakerphones at the same time, and talking very loudly into them - sometimes not even all in English!

    Not only do these people use their speakerphones for active conversations, but they even use it to check their voicemail! (Once, this resulted in me finding out that I wasn't the only one receiving unsolicited messages on my work phone, here.) Forget courtesy to the people around you trying to focus themselves away from listening to your phone messages, what about having consideration for the people leaving the messages? Personally, I'd be quite offended if I found out that any message I left for someone on the phone was automatically being heard by 20 or so people nearby who had no business in hearing it!

    The only way I've been able to focus myself in the midst of this noise is to crank my headphones to maximum volume and hope my "next-door" neighbor doesn't complain about being able to hear that! Even then, for me that only helps when I'm trying to grind out a series of quick repetitive tasks. When I need to actually sit and focus on writing an e-mail or researching a particular issue, my brain just doesn't work the same and the music is just as bad as the noise - so I'm out of luck either way!

    Just as bad as speakerphones, nearby meeting rooms can be a noise problem, too. Some meetings actually use speakerphones that are loud enough to be heard down the hall even through a closed door. Or, some of the larger rooms have PA speakers in use which are just as bad when the cube farm is just outside the door.

    I like the idea "Dilbert" posted. Let's put the CEO, CFO, CIO, et al. in some cubes for awhile and see what happens to the office space.

  • Dilbert

    If there are real business benefits derived from employees being in cubicles, why don't the Executives take advantage of that benefit?

    CEO in a cube anyone?

  • sherrie

    I hate working in a cubicle. I feel like I am in a fish bowl. EVERYONE stares at me EVERY TIME they walk by. Any time I make a sound (flip the top on a can of coke etc.) everyone has to look to see what it is. Can't take a bite of my sandwich without someone staring in my face. Can't speak to anyone without everyone in every other cubicle listening in. Privacy - what is that?

  • themba

    it is problematic in the sense that there is no privacy and confidentiality at anopen plan office and there a lot of distraction constantly there clashes and tiffy that could have been avoided in enclosed offices.

  • Gary

    For software development a quiet private office is the only way to go. Even sharing an office with one other person is too crowded.

    Software development requires a lot of interaction with other developers, but it also requires periods of concentration on a programming task. A private office doesn't limit the interaction. If fact, it may enhance it if there is some excess space and a whiteboard on the wall for small meetings. But it is the only way to get the long periods for concentration on a specific task.

  • L K Tucker

    Although this may be off point to the question asked none of the posts seem to be aware of the reason cubicles were created.

    The open plan workstations Propst designed were changed because some workers using them began having bizarre or psychotic episodes. The problem was peripheral vision reflexes, Vision Startle Reflex.

    Herman Miller Inc added walls to the Action Office One by 1968.

    The problem is caused by a conflict of physiology. That conflict is that although humans can learn to ignore vision reflexes that break our concentration we can't "stop seeing" the movement that triggers the reflexes. We can't tell our brain to stop attempting to break our concentration each time threat movement is detected.

    A narrow slice of your peripheral vision operates subliminally to detect threat movement. That subliminal operation prevents you being aware anything unusual is happening to you.

    The subliminal visual stimulation eventually causes a mental break. (Subliminal Distraction)

    L K Tucker
    http://VisionAndPsychosis.Net

  • Robert Mudgett

    Take a look at what some blogs are saying on the subject:

    Andy Pierce
    "The guy across the wall from me exhales very loudly on a continual basis which grates on my nerves. It's not just an exhale but it is mixed with some kind of subtle groan. I don't think he's in pain over there. There are also some folks with loud voices and laughs as well. I wear headphones and listen to music to override such aggravating noises."

    Tropic/of/Cubicle
    "One tendency for employers receptive to the latter concerns seems to be to keep the cheap, reconfigurable cubicle farms, but to dole out a few 'quiet rooms,' akin to those at public libraries, as well as cell-phone areas. So workers would have to leave their primary workspace to eliminate distractions and they'd also be encouraged to leave for a raucous phone conversation? I should have known -- we can always look to condo life to interpret the ways of the future. In this case, it's the Time Share Office. Instead of a few weekends a year in Perdido Bay playing golf and washing down Metamucil with pineapple daiquiris, it's twenty peaceful, glorious minutes alone with your spreadsheet beneath the flickering fluorescent light of a private office. Of course, another alternative can been seen when companies pat themselves on their backs for sending a pool of executives to the cubicle floor, as if it's somehow an egalitarian, morale-boosting (rather than cost-saving) maneuver; the reality is more likely to be that they've boosted their population of disgruntled employees."

    Frank Schmidt
    "How would you feel when you work and every few moment someone either looks over your stable walls or they walk thru the room - easily visible to you and everyone else. A request of the programmers to change the situation to give them some kind of working privacy by extending the walls to the ceilings was immediately turned down by the CTO. 'Let's first see how it goes.' It didn't go at all. Many complained about the loud music of others, the noise of phones from the help desk. Within a year the two best senior programmers in the company were gone. Coincidence? Morale, quality of work and willingness to take the extra step which had helped the company to be become a big player all went downhill."

    Coding Horror
    "Staying late or arriving early or staying home to work in peace is a damning indictment of the office environment. The amazing thing is not that it's so often impossible to work in the workplace; the amazing thing is that everyone knows it and nobody ever does anything about it." (excerpt from Peopleware)

    Joel on software
    "Here is my description of a good workspace for software development: A quiet private office with a door and a clear window for each individual developer. For team projects the offices should be arranged together with convenient common areas."

  • Chris Brown

    I think the notion that cubicles increase *fruitful* communication is complete bunk. It certainly leads to more noise, which may appear like there is more communication, but it's mostly useless chatter.

    When it comes to driving productivity through enhanced communication, the *corporate environment* is much more than the arrangement (or lack) of walls. If the corporate culture is one of open, rapid communication, it makes no difference whether there are cubes, walls, or doors. Similarly, if the culture encourages fear, self-preservation and unhealthy competition, putting everyone in a hot-tub together isn't going to open downed lines of communication. There are always people who can't adequately communicate in an office environment, but they don't do any better in a cube environment, in my experience.

    As another poster noted, difference tasks are achieved most efficiently in difference spaces, so I've enjoyed workspaces that offered both on an as-needed basis.

  • Chris O'Leary

    Here's something I always found ironic with respect to space and productivity.

    For a number of years I worked as a highly-paid management consultant doing technology and other consulting. One thing I generally found was that on projects the client would put us in their worst, left-over space. While this was generally a problem, it was particularly bad when we were doing programming and other concentration-requiring activities. I often wondered if some of the problems we had in meeting deadlines had to do with our working conditions. They weren't conducive to programming.

    As an aside, I found that glass walls often did a good job of balancing the two requirements that spaces feel open and vibrant but still provide people with acoustic privacy that they needed to be able to concentrate for long periods of time.

  • megcy

    I have just started working...n m in a cubicle kinda environment.......here employees who are the senior kind of personnel get personal office space. May be they need to work more seriously....but for me its better to b in a cubicle as u feel closer to colleagues and atleast exchanging smiles with them makes the work place a better place to be in.

  • Jay Miller

    Cubicles? Please! They're purely a cost-savings measure. Privacy in a cubicle is a sham. Anyone who's received a phone call of a personal nature knows that, and so does the rest of the office.

    "Hey Bob, how's your wisdom tooth?"

    Ultimate office space? Take a look at the little huts they use at Pixar studios. A sense of privacy and community.

  • Ravi Kannan

    I have spent years working in both a cubicle and an office. Both have their own pros and cons. From experience I think an office works better if you leave the doors open. Close it only when you are on a client conference call, personal call or when doing serious work, which requires less noise around you. Also I have found that keeping your doors closed all the time has a very negative effect on people as they are hesitant to communicate with you. This can be very de-motivating to co-workers. As long as you keep an open door policy and are accessible in your office, it helps in communication and creates a more productive work environment.

  • Ravi Kannan

    I have spent years working in both a cubicle and an office. Both have their own pros and cons. From experience I think an office works better if you leave the doors open. Close it only when you are on a client conference call, personal call or when doing serious works which requires less noise around you. Also I have found that keeping your doors closed all the time has a very negative effect on people as they are hesitant to communicate with you. This can be very de-motivating to co-workers. As long as you keep an open door policy and are accessible in your office, it helps in communication and creates a more productive work environment.

  • dave

    After spending years in both a cube and an office. There is no comparison. An office is the much more productive and offers the best chance to work efficiently. Cubes do offer easier communications, which means you have to work over serval conversations or meetings nearby. Additionally, there are many who break etiquette and use their speakerphones and/or speak very loudly. As long as you keep an open door policy and remain accessible within your office, communications are not hindered. If the time comes where you cannot have distractions, you can close your door and focus entirely on the task at hand.