The Evolution of the Office: Cubicles, Open Offices, & the Next Generation

Open office design may seem like a new concept that sprang to life in offices across America at the start of the 21st century, however it actually has its roots in the early 20th century where the open office was king until the 1960’s. These early office spaces were filled with large open floor plans with rows and rows of identical desks facing the boss’s office so he could keep an eye on everyone. These “white collar factories” were designed for efficiency and to fit as many people as possible with no regard for privacy and the individual’s needs.

White collar factories - open office design dominated office spaces for much of the 20th century via @officestarprodSwift & Company, Sales Department Office and employees, Chicago, IL, early 1900’s.
Source: FamilyOldPhotos.com

 

The Cubicle Revolution

In line with the generational shifts that took place in the 1960’s as baby boomers became agents for cultural change, the cubicle was introduced to the workplace; bringing freedom and individuality to employees. Giving them a workspace they could call their own and customize for their needs; empowering employees to master their own productivity and efficiency. This revolutionary concept in office design was a backlash to the cold and sterile open office environment that preceded it; evolving in a similar fashion as the open office we know today.

The humble cubicle may be out of fashion, but still offers value in modern office spaces. Featured: Office Star Products SIS paneling.The humble cubicle may be out of fashion, but still offers value in modern office spaces. Featured: Office Star Products SIS paneling.

While the cubicle brought autonomy to the workplace it also offered a way for employees to stay focused on their work by eliminating visual distractions and reducing sound by absorbing office noise. Employees could also personalize their workstation making it an extension of their self, which helped boost employee engagement and satisfaction. All of this was a win-win for employers looking for new ways to motivate and engage a new generation of employees. Over time however, the cubicle lost its luster as it began to create silos in the workplace, limiting information sharing with the lack of meaningful social interactions with coworkers throughout the work day outside of designated meeting and break times.

 

The Return of the Open Office

The cubicle dominated office spaces for nearly 40 years until, it too, became a symbol of oppression in the workplace. As new technology and a new generation entered the workforce, a new set of demands drove office design for the innovative workplace. This new generation, the millennials, grew up working on group projects starting as early as elementary school, studying in common spaces on college campuses, and using the internet and mobile technology to facilitate this work; thus the pendulum swings back to open office spaces designed for communication and teamwork.

Today’s open office is much less dreary than its predecessor was nearly 100 years ago. Now the open office is seen as a place where innovation is driven through collaboration, open lines of communication, creating transparency, and blurring hierarchy lines. A place where all parts of an organization, from CEO to Administrative Assistant, work side by side for the common good of the company, thus improving productivity and efficiency for all.

The CO+LAB office in Richmond, VA has shared desk space and an industrial feel typical of the modern open office.The CO+LAB office in Richmond, VA has shared desk space and an industrial feel typical of the modern open office. Source: Office Snapshots

Open office design also makes sense financially. An open office environment can accommodate many more employees than a traditional office space filled with private offices and cubicles. It is also cheaper to furnish an open office. When you eliminate the need for paneled cubicle systems and individual filing and storage systems you can reduce spending and improve your bottom line, which makes sense from a management and shareholder point of view, but doesn’t necessarily meet the needs of the employees utilizing these spaces.

With an estimated 70% of US based office workers spending their days in an open office environment, as more businesses convert to and start-ups choose open office designs, the reality of the open office is starting to set in. There has been a backlash to the open office as employees come to terms with the lack of privacy, increased noise levels, and visual distractions making it hard to stay productive and focus on their work. While the open office might be beneficial to group collaboration, it is not so friendly for individuals who spend a large portion of their time engaged in focus work. To block out distractions employees are resorting to headphones to cancel out the distractions and stay focused. Which makes you wonder, what’s the point of having spaces designed for collaboration if we are trying to block out everyone around us in order to get our own work done?

Employees at Beats by Dr. Dre wear headphones while working in open office communal spaces allowing them to stay focused on their work.Employees at Beats by Dr. Dre wear headphones while working in open office communal spaces allowing them to stay focused on their work. Source: Officelovin

There are other potential problems with open office design to consider. Research shows that germs spread more easily in open office environments, with some organizations seeing employee absenteeism increase by up to 20% after switching to an open office design. Open spaces can also have a negative impact on memory, especially in offices that use an unassigned “hot desking” approach to open office design. Our brain is hardwired to utilize visual reminders when retaining and recalling information. If we are constantly working at different desks and different parts of the office it can be difficult to remember important information critical to the job.

 

The Next Generation Office

Where do we go from here? With both the open office and the cubicle being less than ideal solutions for total productivity it’s time to think of these work spaces in a new way. Not old school versus new school, but rather a hybrid office design that maximizes the best of both worlds. A workplace that designs spaces to accommodate different types of people and embraces different working styles by incorporating cubicle spaces and private offices for focus work, as well as open office spaces and rooms for collaboration and learning, while still leaving space to socialize and bond with coworkers. This hybrid office design must also consider the needs of a workforce that is always connected, both at the office and at home, by creating spaces for rejuvenation where employees can step away to recharge and replenish their energy levels for maximum productivity. This is the next generation workplace where multi-generational employees can work together to create real innovation in a rapidly changing business landscape.

Low partition walls create an open feel for an open concept and promoting collaboration, while still allowing a semi private workspace. Featured: Office Star Products SIS paneling.Low partition walls create an open feel for an open concept and promoting collaboration, while still allowing a semi private work space. Featured: Office Star Products SIS paneling.

 

What are your thoughts? Are you a fan of the open office, cubicle, or a hybrid approach? Let us know in the comments below.

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