Social workplaces: The Death of the Cubicle

By Vivian Wagner, special to Workplace Tribes.

Increasingly, offices are becoming open. We get rid of cubicles and walls in order to create more collaborative and social spaces for employees. 

Open offices have meant a revolution in office furniture: quarter tables that can be scattered throughout an office and brought together to make one big round table; nooks with living room-like setups to encourage spontaneous meetings; and even power hookups that hang down from the ceiling so roving employees can plug in.

open office space

This office is even more open that the typical open office space. Flickr/Juhan Sonin

Not all employees welcome the changes in their environment at first. Red Hat employee Rebecca Fernandez, for instance, admits that when her office announced it was opening up, she was initially reluctant: “As the lone quiet, left-brained web developer among a host of creatives, I was certain this sudden push for collaboration meant I’d never get any work done,” she writes.

Gradually, though, Fernandez says her fears subsided, and in fact she found the new office design helped her to become more productive, not less. Simple things like interruptions from colleagues were actually less intrusive once the cubicles were removed.

She reports: “Surprisingly, increased visual contact actually contributes to fewer unwanted interactions. When you can glance at a coworker and see that they look engaged in a problem or irritated by a phone call, you’re more likely to ask your question later than if you had walked down the hall and already poked your head into their office.”

Many other employees and businesses attest to the fact that open office designs spur collaboration and communication between employees. Facebook, Apple, Twitter, Google, General Electric, TribeHR, and Microsoft all have open (and potentially zombie-proof) office spaces. Increasingly, smaller businesses do as well.

open and social office space

This open office still allows employees to retain “ownership” of their space. Flickr/Sektorfuenf

Open office spaces often cost less to build. Without all the walls and cubicles, companies can save on building expenses and put more thought into creative designs, furniture, lighting, and other features that enhance the productivity of employees.

Whatever you do with your office space, however, you need to make sure that it accurately reflects and supports the kind of work your employees do. The kind of space that works in your office is unique. Even once you’ve chosen a design, you’ll need to re-evaluate periodically to ensure it’s working. 

As Judy Voss says in “Revisiting Office Space Standards,” “People can work in a cramped space for a while, especially during the exciting start-up phase of a company or project. But over time, the best way to support productivity and encourage retention is to offer appropriate space that supports the work being done. That doesn’t just happen—it takes a plan.”


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