Many offices jumped on board when the open office trend started to catch fire, demolishing walls, trashing their cubicles, and stripping all personality from their new shared workspace.
Yet, while a lot of companies did switch away from the closed-in concept of offices and/or cubicles, lured by the promise of improved collaboration and accountability, not everyone bought in.
And that was probably the right move.
In fact, some research has shown the popular open-space concept actually reduced productivity and increased overall workplace stress.
The Washington Post did a great job covering a study by Harvard Business School professor Ethan Bernstein which showed that open offices actually reduce collaboration between coworkers.
Two separate studies conducted by Bernstein of employees in Fortune 500 companies showed that unbounded offices can reduce interactions between coworkers by 70%, with employees putting up their own impromptu barriers (read: headphones) to try to achieve the personal space and privacy they had lost.
Cubicles won’t ever be sexy, but there’s a reason so many offices have them.
A Return to Cubicles to Increase Office Productivity?
Here are three reasons why cubicles still work for today’s workforce and why you might want to pump the brakes on eliminating them from your workplace.
1 - Cubicles Give Us Personal Space
Everyone knows that ONE person who doesn’t give us enough space. Every office has one. They find a way to encroach on our 3-foot invisible wall and no matter what we do, they find a way to interrupt, make us uncomfortable, and stress us out.
Sure, you can’t close the door to a cubicle, but you will have your own space that offers a level of privacy. You can also personalize that space, which has been shown to improve worker productivity by providing employees a sense of ownership and improved relationship with their company.
And those cubicle walls can help employees to stay focused. Even if you can’t eavesdrop well in a busy open office space, watching facial expressions and gestures can serve as a big distraction to workers in large open offices.
2 - Cubicles Allow Us to Be Unique
Even though employees don’t have an office, they do have walls when they’re in a cubicle. These walls can give them a sense of individuality, even if they’re that awful shade of beige (you know the one).
Workers can place pictures of their family and/or friends on the walls of their cubicle. They can post motivational quotes to help them stay focused and inspired. They can even use a small speaker to give them energy and/or keep them focused without interrupting the work of others in their cubicle cluster.
Ultimately, a closed-in concept gives them the ability to be unique without infringing on anyone else, and productivity research shows that the more personal your workspace, the more productive you are.
3 - Cubicles Reduce Noise Levels
And finally, open-space concepts aren’t exactly quiet. Which can be VERY stressful when you can’t hear that important client on the phone (or all they can hear is background noise when you’re trying to assure them you’re 100% focused on them).
In a cubicle, instead of hearing coworker Tim gripe about his wife over the weekend, you’ll be able to focus on prioritizing your tasks.
Instead of making that trip to HR after listening to Susie’s 3-hour alt-right podcast leaking from her headphones, you can enjoy your coffee and finish your report on time.
According to Noise in the Office Workplace by Lorraine E. Maxwell, noise happens to be one of the most annoying and stressful things that can affect workplace environments, especially open-space concepts. Cubicles were invented because they can solve this problem, or at the very least minimize its impact on workplace communication and productivity.
Cubicles Might Be the Best Bad Solution We’ve Got
While no one really seems to like the idea of cubicles, there are some real benefits to having them; both for the employee and the employer.
While a lot of companies have moved away from cubicles, it’s not something I would truly recommend. Instead, if you really need an open-spaced concept, make the break room a little more inviting and allow the employees to take more frequent breaks (which has been proven to make them more productive).
Joe Hessert is the founder of 10Desks.com, a website offering office product reviews, design tips, and business management advice to office workers and work-from-home professionals. He has written for Business.com, LifeHack, MapQuest, The Los Angeles Review, and The New Haven Review, and he maintains a business and marketing blog at joehessert.com.