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Cubicles are back, and we have open plan offices to thank

A crop of new startups are racing to reinvent the cubicle, catering to businesses that want more private space for their employees.

Cubicles are back, and we have open plan offices to thank

In the past three years alone, half a dozen new companies have materialized out of thin air, all offering a new kind of office product. Call them pods. Boxes. Micro-offices. Phone booths. Cubicle nouveau. There’s no one name for them, but they all aim to fix the same problem: the misery of the modern open plan office.

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These tiny, prefabricated rooms run from a few thousand dollars to over $10,000 apiece. Whereas cubicles of yore were open-air dividers, these new spaces are fully self-contained rooms. Most are the size of a phone booth, but some can squeeze in two or even four people. They have four walls and a roof, with soundproof paneling, active ventilation systems, and power for your laptop and USB devices. They’re private in every way–except for the fact that most feature a full-panel window on one wall. Setting them up can be as simple as rolling them to an open corner and plugging them in.

Unlike most cubicles, which house one employee each and every day, these are temporary spaces, meant for a few hours of work at a time, max. “While cubicles provide some sense of ‘territory’ or personal space, they still have shortcomings that phone booths can mitigate,” as Anthony Maraccini, CEO of the company Cubicall, puts it. In contrast, phone booths “provide a personal space that meets the four pillars of privacy: sound, visual, territorial, and informational.” Like many of his competitors that I spoke to, he insists that these pods are “not meant to replace one’s primary workspace. It’s an office feature to provide privacy and focus when needed.”

So why are these little rooms here, and why now? For one thing, because open offices are bad for the people who work inside of them–and companies themselves are guilty of squeezing too many people into too small of a space. Fixing these problems, or even just mitigating them, is a huge business opportunity for the companies that make these micro-offices–and their burgeoning industry offers a glimpse at the future of offices.

[Photo: Cubicall]

Open offices are broken

As many as 70% of offices in the U.S. are now of the “open plan” variety, where shared areas take priority over personal offices, according to an oft-cited stat from the International Facilities Management Association. In the 2000s, open offices certainly had a certain cachet, as a pointed rejection of ’90s cubicle culture. They were thought to increase collaboration. Prized by startups, these build-outs were also less expensive than traditional offices–and the seating arrangements allowed more people to be crammed into a smaller space.

As companies have migrated from suburban parks back to urban high-rises, real estate costs have grown while square footage has shrunk. Open offices are essentially sardine cans that offer a bohemian feel–like you’re in a casual relationship with your employer rather than a legal contract. They seemed so cool!

That was, until we learned about their psychological and social costs. In an open workspace, everyone is working on display all the time. In turn, making a simple phone call can feel like an intrusion to your coworkers, and women in particular feel as if they’re being constantly judged. Even productivity took a hit. And now employers want that productivity back–within the same open office footprint.

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“We’ve heard a lot about open offices and how horrible they can be, which is true when you don’t offer choice,” says Kelly Griffin, principal and workplace strategy lead at the architecture and design firm NBBJ. “When you do offer choice . . . a place for people to go for privacy, that makes the experience much better.”

[Photo: Spaceworx]

Much of Griffin’s job at NBBJ is talking to companies in the earliest planning stages of office rehabs and build-outs to try to match a space to their culture. In her experience, a lot of offices have been built out without really considering whether or not eavesdropping is a welcome part of the office culture or not. Micro-offices, on the other hand, “are a nice retrofit option when an office realizes we do need to accommodate a place for private phone calls.”

They’re also relatively cheap, and forgiving, in the grand scheme of running a company. “If a company has a short-term lease (less than five years), it’s not cost-effective to build conference rooms and privacy booths,” explains Ben Waskey, a product specialist and principal at Spaceworx. “With a modular product, it can be disassembled and moved to their next location.”

But isn’t there something inherently inhumane about sitting for hours inside a three-foot-by-three-foot box? “We had one in our office for a couple months,” says Griffin. “At first we were reluctant–I felt a little on stage, a little exposed. But we kind of fell in love with it after a while because it gave you a nice sense of a cocoon. Sometimes, you want to get into your little cubby or cave, and you want to feel protected.”

[Photo: ROOM]

The billion-dollar box

The companies making these phone booths are all relatively small, and either self-funded or only operating under limited capital. The five companies I talked to had just a few designers on staff because they run relatively simple product lines. Most are self-funded or bootstrapped. But they are all growing, fast. Most told me that sales might not be large, but they’re doubling year-over-year. One notable entrant, Room, was founded in May 2018. It raised a $2 million seed round, and has since sold $10 million in phone booths to over 450 companies like Nike and Salesforce.

The potential benefits of phone booths to companies do seem very real. Overall, the average worker has a third less space in their office than they did just nine years ago. Booths can turn a particularly wide hallway into a row of short-term private offices. And private offices can bring back the efficiency lost to open floor plans, at least for an hour here or there. Utilizing unused square footage to squeeze in more employees while also giving employees a more efficient workspace is like an office-design double dip.

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[Photo: Cubicall]
In this competitive industry, each company seems to be looking for a leg up. Room touts a $3,450 price tag and free shipping–which seems to be the rock-bottom pricing for the field, if only by $50. Cubicall is proud of its bifold door, which opens and closes just like an old sliding phone booth, ensuring the door doesn’t swing out into walkways. It also has a deal with Warner Bros. to sell booths with a Superman wrap. Zenbooth is the first to build in an electrical-adjusted desk, to boast better ergonomics–it was also the first company to ship flat-pack booths, packed like Ikea furniture, to get them to clients cheaper. TalkBox brags that it has the largest interior space–when measured in cubic feet (in other words, not just footprint, but the vertical footprint). These are the feature-rich claims of companies elbowing for attention in a rapidly crowded, and perhaps rapidly commoditized, market.

However, if 70% of offices are open offices–and open offices stink–the potential market could be big enough for everyone. Of the companies I asked, only one could share firmer numbers than promises that this was “big” or could have “millions of customers.”

Citing data from the Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS), Maraccini points out that 12.5 billion of U.S. commercial office space currently houses 66 million people, costing businesses an estimated $54 billion in furniture each year. Based on their back-of-napkin math, a phone booth could take a slice of the spending that goes toward seating sales (28%), tables (12%), or other (5%). In other words, phone booths could become a multibillion-dollar market, if they replace even a small percentage of office furniture.

More important may be the fact that they’re marketed and sold as furniture rather than large-scale architectural products–which means they have less logistical overhead than a full-fledged, permitted building renovation.

[Photo: Talkbox]

“As build-outs have been completed, it is quite expensive to make revisions. Combining the design and construction with permits and/or building codes, the cost could exceed $10,000+ per room–and that’s if the building code allows for it,” says Maraccini. “Our phone booths are like furniture, which can be placed in areas of need and be moved should those needs change.”

This flexibility isn’t just an attractive option for businesses on a budget; there’s a case to be made that architecture, across the board, is transitioning from producing static spaces to layouts that are perpetually in flux, optimizing themselves all the time.

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For instance, Airbnb has an initiative called Backyard that’s planning to distribute prefab and mechanical housing that can reshape itself in the moment. The MIT-born company Ori is considering the same problem for closets and bedrooms in urban dwellings.

As Griffin explains from her own experience building offices for clients, rethinking the room itself as a mobile module, rather than four pieces of floor-to-ceiling drywall and glass that are permanently stuck in one place once installed, is a radical shift in her industry.

“These guys are sort of pushing the boundary and our construction practices in a way that’s interesting,” says Griffin. “There’s a modular hotel in Seattle where all rooms are lifted into place. I think that’s where our profession needs to go.”

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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