Cubicles, Open Offices, and Flexible Work: Workplace Form and Function

The cubicle office. Rows of tall walls separate workers with drab eect. The color palette always includes a shade of taupe, the color of moles. Or a bland mix of white, gray and dusty silver, the same used by your local penitentiary. And it provokes the same feelings. Your workstation is stagnant, with little room for customization. You spend your free time searching for landscapes and things to look at, yet spend the work day in confinement. Cubicle offices are morale-killing, disasters.

The open office. Crunched in just a few feet from one, maybe two neighbors. You can hear them type, breathe, and telling you their bad jokes. Their sneezes are your sneezes. Any cross-office disruption might as well be Thor smashing his hammer through your screen. You throw on $200 headphones when you need to do anything besides send emails or chats. Work from home days are scheduled when, “you need to concentrate.” Study after study shows how distracted and unproductive you are simply because of someone else’s decision to save money, save space or just to “be cool.” Open offices are productivity- killing, disasters.

Both of these statements are true. How can both office types be so bad?
The answer requires us to look at history, and the priorities of the past leading up to today.

People replicate behavior and ideas when they’re deemed successful. They oen do this without a deep understanding of the nuance or conditions that contributed to that success. Misapplication of these ideas brings erosion over time.

Here’s how both of these ideas suffered that fate, and the best solutions for today’s workplace.

The OG Open Office

Wright’s creation was the Johnson Wax Headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin. The design featured gorgeous dendriform pillars, bright pyrex ceilings and space, lots of space. A mezzanine level was included for manager oces. The layout provided the perfect blend of natural lighting, ample space and detail- oriented design. The office was a hit. Employees began having tea for an afternoon energy-boost, because they enjoyed working late hours.

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Johnson Wax Headquarters, 1966

The concept was copied again and again, but the derivatives lacked attention to detail. Plus, the cost of real estate and the amount of white-collar jobs continued to rise. Twenty years later, open offices were cramped and loud, as seen in “The Apartment” and “Mad Men”. This erosion of the original continues today with a fresh spin of “cool.” The distractions have proven to outweigh any potential communication and collaboration benefits. A 2018 Harvard Business School study found participants who switched from cubicles to an open office actually spent 73% less time in face-to-face interactions, so the perceived collaboration and communication benefit was nonexistent. They also spent significantly more time on email and chat opposed to work that requires critical thought and focus.

We’ve all experienced the negative effects of an open office. There’s evidence of how much workers dislike them and an ever-growing collection of data.

Are cubicles really the answer?

The Cubicle Renaissance

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Over time, Propst and his counterparts were not able to control installation of their designs. The installations were controlled by managers who saw the modular function as something else — a cost- cutting method.

Managers would implement the most cost-effective walls and material with little thought about workplace morale or productivity. This created the “cubicle farms” we know today, which include several variations of bad. Some cubicles are high-walled and restrictive, so collaboration is discouraged. Some cubicle plans smush people together, eliminating the benefit of privacy and ability to focus.

Propst criticized penny-pinching executives who eroded his invention until he died in 2000, saying, “they make little, bitty cubicles and stu people in them. Barren, rathole places.”

A Lesser of Two Evils? Think Beyond

Business leaders have to look at their situation and ask, why do we have an office? For an increasing amount of companies, the answer is, “we don’t need one.” Elastic, the company behind Elasticsearch, went from launch to IPO with an entirely remote workforce.

However, many businesses cannot operate on a remote basis, either for practical reasons or preference. There has been some research for comparing these office types. A University of Sydney study looked at more than 40,000 workers in 300 office buildings. They compared five types of offices: enclosed private offices, enclosed shared offices, cubicles with high partitions (>five feet high), cubicles with low partitions (<five feet high), and open office without partitions. Private offices were the highest rated for all sixteen factors which included privacy, noise level, cleanliness, air quality, temperature, and amount of light. The results were very close in multiple categories so the conclusion was less than conclusive.

Gensler, a leading global design firm, conducted their own study of 4,000 office workers across 11 industries. They found the most effective voice layout was an open plan with shared desks, but with barriers high enough so workers had to stand to see their neighbor.

This illustrates how there is no indisputable solution. Each office setup, whether it’s for a startup or a new corporate branch, requires custom planning and analysis of variables.

Fortunately, there are a few other tactics for creating positive and productive voices.

Another Tool for Great Offices: Flexible Work

Offices can be the best of both worlds. Workers can have individual spaces without losing important interaction time. Cubicles can be cool. But there’s a reason we don’t see many offices that resemble Frank Lloyd Wright’s open office masterpiece or Robert Propst’s AO-2 treasure — cost. Our history lessons prove that today’s application of open offices are not works of genius, but an effective way to save money. Especially for startups, office design and planning is not on the top of the priority list. Most office designs being used today probably aren’t fully optimized, even for mature businesses.

But there’s another option for decision makers to consider, flexible work policies.

Flexible work prioritizes getting things done over how it gets done. Many consider this a startup ploy to entice millennials with unlimited vacation time and kegerators, but in reality those with families and children benefit the most from flexible work policies. It’s also true that many flexible work policies are shot down by “butts in seats” managers who are incapable of measuring non-attendance based productivity. There are several initiatives in place by companies today, such as:

  • Workations (part-time work during extended vacations)
  • Distributed teams, remote work
  • Agnostic work hours
  • Flexible weeks or years (for hourly employees)
  • Job sharing

Essentially, all of the above are a form of a Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE). This idea was published in the book, “Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It: The Results-Only Revolution.” It takes set office hours, office presence and vacation policy out of the equation. And measures performance, results or output instead. This occurs in quota-based sales organizations, and can boost accountability and fulfillment if applied carefully across an organization.

Flexible work is not a push button solution. It requires critical analysis of business operations and how a workforce interacts. And it should not be confused with contract labor, or even “The Future of Work” we hear so much about. There’s nothing about flexible work ideas that is particularly groundbreaking or technologically advanced (besides that it’s easier to work remotely in today’s age). Flexible work is about thorough communication, cray management and creating fulfillment in the workplace — the policies are simply a result of those ideals.

One powerful success story shared by CEO Ricardo Semler in a past Ted Talk. He took over the Brazilian conglomerate SEMCO in 1980. He replaced managers who were stuck in their ways, then installed a policy of trust for all employees. Many of his Semler’s ideas resemble the “new-age” flexible work ideas listed above. His initiatives were:

  • Ability to trade salary for extra PTO days
  • Flexible work shifts based on commutes and proximity
  • One-week of shadowing before hire
  • Managers were reviewed by employees
  • Transparent salaries
  • Open board meetings and votes

A compelling lesson was the idea that leisure is not the opposite of work. Our leisure time is spent doing things we enjoy. Idleness is the opposite of work, and people don’t enjoy idleness e.g. being confined to a cubicle or being crippled by distraction. Or being bed-ridden from a sickness.

If work becomes a place where we can get things get done, while feeling fulfilled and happy — it has a much more powerful eect than any type of office floor plan.

Inspired by Topple (

Content strategist and writer. SaaS, UX and culture. Very online. Traveler, sports-er.

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