In the 1960s, a new style of office design debuted to accommodate a desire for increased flexibility and social interaction. The new interior design concept, known as burolanschaft, incorporated plants and other decorations into the office landscape, allowing workers to express their humanity as they completed their duties. Burolanschaft served as the foundation for today’s open-plan office, a work area that has no private offices or cubicles.
In open-plan offices, employees typically sit at workstations or desks grouped close together, which reportedly makes it easier to collaborate. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, many designers are rethinking their approach to office design. Cubicle walls are making a comeback, helping workers avoid some of the detrimental effects of working in an open-plan office.
COVID-19 and the Cubicle
Public health officials recommend that people of all ages engage in social distancing, the practice of maintaining physical distance between each other. For social distancing to be effective, people should stay at least 6 feet away from each other at all times. The open-plan office design makes it almost impossible to adhere to these standards, as open offices encourage employees to sit close to each other at workstations or rows of desks.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration also recommends that employers install physical barriers to prevent the virus from spreading. Physical barriers are one of the most cost-effective ways to protect employees against COVID-19, and they don’t require employees to change their behaviour. As a result, many employers are now abandoning the open office to return to the cubicle farm. Cubicle walls make an excellent physical barrier, and they also make it easier for employees to follow social distancing guidelines.
Open-plan offices are touted as a great way to increase collaboration. After all, if employees are close to each other, they’ll interact more frequently, right? Not exactly. In a 2019 article published in Harvard Business Review, Ethan Bernstein and Ben Waber explain that the rise of the open-plan office has not had the effect on collaboration that designers and managers hoped.
Although this design eliminates barriers between employees, it doesn’t make employees more likely to communicate. If workers don’t feel like talking, they’ll go out of their way to avoid their colleagues, even if they can’t hide behind office or cubicle walls. Now that COVID-19 is a threat, employers are reconsidering cubicles, which give employees the added bonus of hunkering down and getting their work done without interruption.
Even when open offices increase collaboration, they can have a detrimental effect on productivity. In his study to determine how office design affects productivity, Dr. Barry Haynes of Sheffield Hallam University found that one of the biggest drawbacks of open offices is the level of distraction they create. For employees writing reports, balancing accounts or doing other work that requires intensive concentration, the increased noise level creates a distraction that makes it difficult to stay productive. Cubicle walls block out some of the noise, making it easier to focus and helping employees maintain high levels of productivity.
Another reason productivity declines in open offices is that employees must constantly multitask. While working on a report, an employee may be distracted by an argument between two colleagues, the ringing telephone at the next desk or the arrival of a client at the reception area. If there aren’t enough employees to handle the workload, an employee may also have to jump up to sign for a package or greet a visitor at the front desk, creating additional disruptions. Cubicle walls eliminate some of these distractions.
Working in an open-plan office also has the potential to increase employee stress levels, reducing productivity and increasing insurance costs for employers. The open-plan office design assumes that all workers operate the same way under the same set of circumstances. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
An extrovert who loves to be surrounded by people and doesn’t mind constant chatter may love an open office, but in introvert who feels drained by social interaction is likely to loathe this type of office design. Jeffrey James of Inc. magazine reports that some employees get so stressed out by working in open offices they have panic attacks or develop stress-related illnesses. Switching to cubicles could help these workers get some stress relief.
Cubicles also help reduce visual clutter. Allowing employees to decorate their work areas makes the work environment more pleasant, but if a workplace design has no walls, there’s nothing to prevent all those decorations from blending together and producing visual clutter that some employees find distracting. With a cubicle-based office environment, photos, plants and other decorative items are mostly hidden from view, making it easier for everyone to concentrate.
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