Death of the Cubicle

Rethinking Form and Function in a Changing Work Environment

An effective, cost-efficient work environment is an essential consideration for most businesses. So it’s no surprise cubicle workstations have dominated office design for decades.

Yet imagine entering an office where cubicles never really caught on. Maybe they were tried in the early 1960s and deemed unsuitable for the needs of the employees. Or perhaps in the very recent past, those working in these ice-cube tray environments had rebelled, forcing the designer, project managers, and client leaders to heed the call of “enough is enough.”

Imagination aside, with the increasing popularity of mobile devices enabling employees to work efficiently offsite, are cubicles becoming obsolete for most businesses anyway?

A 2012 study by Cisco reports 60 percent of today’s assigned offices and cubicles sit empty during a typical day. This realization is prompting companies to decrease the size of their employee work areas. The International Facility Management Association states the average office worker in 1994 had 90 square feet of personal work space, but by 2010 this number had been reduced to 75 square feet.

In response to this transitioning business environment, many designers and architects are rethinking form and function. By saying goodbye to isolated work cubes, they are focusing on environments to maximize human interaction.

In doing so, they are also wrestling with questions, like what will these the new workspaces look like? How will their designs impact human behavior and performance? Though questions abound, one thing is clear. The resulting creative, innovative and promising ideas will be a far cry from the traditional cubicle.

The Action Office II cubicle system (AOII) revolutionized office design when it was introduced 45 years ago. Cookie cutter in design, the cost effective AOII provided an alternative to rows of open desks while ensuring personal space for every employee. Over time, enhancements and gadgets — from ergonomic controls to uniquely shaped work surfaces — allowed for more personalization. But accessorizing these isolated workstations did little to increase the employee experience.

Although personal space continues to be important as work has increased in complexity, people have sought better ways to communicate, collaborate, and interact to solve dynamic business problems. More and more, people are recognizing that cubicles are hindering the collaboration process.

Envisioning the new workspace

For this reason, future office designs will undoubtedly focus on the need for greater community over the desire for personal space. As a result, “Our Space” will trump “We Space” and “My Space.” Overall, office design in the future will reflect the industry and company goals with each space aligned with work behaviors necessary to deliver business results.

Office layouts will concentrate on providing areas for people to collaborate, as working alone will occur primarily outside the office. Although shared spaces and multi-use areas will dominate the new designs, private areas for personal talks will also be included.

Overall, utilizing “the rule of triads,” or the social dynamics based on people working in sets of threes, is beneficial to rethinking the workplace without cubes.

Examples of possible spatial types include:

Focus Triads for teams of three: Designed for groups of three to congregate, discuss and share ideas, these spaces serve as the initial building blocks of a strong communication foundation for the company as a whole.

Focus Triads at Burke, Inc. (Photo Credit: Ryan Kurtz)
Focus Triads at Burke, Inc. (Photo Credit: Ryan Kurtz)

Interaction Grottos for teams of nine: These spaces are often called team rooms or war rooms. Equipped with materials and technologies that create fluid and immediate idea sharing, they encourage team formation and further enhance company communication.

Interactive Grottos at Miami University Laws Hall (Photo Credit: Chris Phebus)
Interactive Grottos at Miami University Laws Hall (Photo Credit: Chris Phebus)

Council Zones for teams of 30: Similar to a great room in a modern home, council zones incorporate the grottos into a reconfigurable space. They increase the community innovation experience and allow more intensive business/social interaction.

Council Zone at International Financial Services Provider (Photo Credit: Ryan Kurtz)
Council Zone at International Financial Services Provider (Photo Credit: Ryan Kurtz)

Tribal Enclaves for teams of 90: Tribal enclaves include designated spaces for reflection and decompression, such as, refreshment zones, exercise, and socialization and activity areas.

Tribal Enclaves at dunnhumbyUSA (Photo Credit: Ryan Kurtz)
Tribal Enclaves at dunnhumbyUSA (Photo Credit: Ryan Kurtz)

Community Vistas for teams up to 300: For large teams in a cubicle-less area, vistas created by branding establish valuable team identity and dominion to drive results.

Community Vista at Humana (Photo Credit: Ryan Kurtz)
Community Vista at Humana (Photo Credit: Ryan Kurtz)

Successfully implementing future workspaces such as these, however, are ultimately contingent on upon a major shift in human behavior.

Understanding human behavior

For many employees, office identity and personal office space go hand-in-hand, even when workstations are rarely used.

Ownership in itself provides a sense of control and autonomy in an office environment. The person holding a meeting in her or his office is presumed to be in charge of the proceedings. Also, too often workstations are considered irreplaceable, especially for certain types of work that demand isolation and quiet.

But this is flawed reasoning. With low walls and no door, cubicles neither shut out noise nor keep out activity. Additionally, many people successfully work in coffee shops, libraries, and other public places where noise and distractions are commonplace.

How management views personal space also comes into play. If the executive team determines abandoning workstations is the direction of the future, it will fall on deaf ears if managers don’t engage in a dialogue with their employees first. This change can be a difficult pill to swallow, especially if the transition is in conflict with the cultural milieu that has been set over time.

The traditional business environment is at a crossroads. With a trend to more collaborative work environments the cubicle may be facing its demise. Regardless of what the future holds, the time is ripe for change.

Forward-thinking designers and architects are creating office designs that will take business into the future through workplace change. By keeping an open mind, businesses using these creative, innovative, and behaviorally driven workplaces will experience positive results long into the future.

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