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How the Cubicle Is Making a Comeback in Office Design

The cubicle used to be a staple of the modern workplace. Inexpensive, portable, and convenient, it was an ideal solution for companies that could not accommodate all of their employees in private offices. But the rise of the open office decades ago, spurred on by Silicon Valley giants and cosmopolitan creative firms, quickly displaced the cubicle from starring role in many offices. The beliefs were that the cubicle’s walls and private workspaces hindered collaboration and that a completely open floor plan was better for productivity.

However, the open office model has declined in popularity in recent years. Designers have begun to return to the old standbys of office furnishings. Among these pieces is the cubicle, which offers a number of benefits that companies took for granted until they went away. In this blog, we talk about the ways that cubicles enhance the modern workplace and why employers are bringing them back into offices.

What Is a Cubicle?

A cubicle is a piece of office furniture that consists of multiple panels that form a small, individual workstation. Cubicles create a more efficient workplace by grouping workers together in a space that allows for more collaboration and privacy. They were introduced in the late 1960s as part of that time period’s modern office design. There are pros and cons to using cubicles to design an office instead of other office layouts and furniture.

The Modern Office (Trends in Office Design)

Beginning in 2020, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic changed how many businesses think about office layouts. We have since seen the shift from working-from-home primarily in 2020 and through half of 2021 to many people returning to the office to work in a hybrid-remote model beginning in the fall of 2021. Through 2022, most businesses seem to have settled into the new normal, and office design thinking has evolved accordingly. Now, the goal for many businesses is to design an office to meet the changing needs of today’s hybrid-remote workforce. There are two primary considerations in that process: 

  • Many employees prefer to have social distancing measures in place to ensure a safe work environment that prevents the spread of airborne viruses.
  • The hybrid remote model means that people are in the office less than full-time and fewer workstations are needed compared to before the pandemic when everyone was in the office.

Social Distancing
Cubicle-heavy office layouts from decades ago were well-built for social distancing. Cubicle walls help isolate workers and can limit the spread of airborne germs. That design style was phased out in favor of the open office layout that grew very popular in the “dot com” era. Open offices do not offer the same protection from the spread of COVID-19, however. Even before the pandemic, though, open offices became less popular as employees began to discover the drawbacks of the open office design, as there were a lot of distractions. It was also harder to concentrate with people right next to you talking. 

This changing preference motivated employers to think about optimizing office layout to have as many pros and as few cons as possible from each of the open office and cubicle-heavy designs. Of course, office designers are now also trying to solve this puzzle with an eye toward social distancing needs and hybrid-remote work schedules. 

In addition to cubicles, there are other options for dividing your office space that designers should consider.

Hybrid Remote
With an in-office workforce that is different each day, the office must be designed more flexibly than in years past. Naturally, workstations will be shared and not dedicated to a single employee, avoiding unnecessarily high office expenses. Flexibility and shared workstations are elements that are commonly associated with an open office layout. How does the cubicle contribute to an open office that meets the needs of the modern workforce? Office designers are bringing the cubicle back to help create a hybrid between the open office and a layout with more privacy and fewer distractions.

Learn more about office design trends that are popular in 2023.

Office Design and Furniture Solutions

Cubicle Types and Office Design Considerations

As businesses and workplaces continue to change, so does cubicle design. Employers are increasingly focused on creating a productive, welcoming, and collaborative workplace for employees. They are also concerned about maintaining a safe environment during the pandemic. 

These changes demonstrate that the cubicle has a time and place in the office. There are many different types of cubicles, each playing different roles in how office furniture and office design create solutions to modern challenges in the office. 

Open Cubicles

Open cubicles

Open cubicles encourage collaboration and communication among employees. They have low walls so that employees can see and talk to each other easily. 

Low-Wall Cubicles

Low wall cubicles

Low-wall cubicles are a compromise between open and high-wall cubicles. They have walls that are tall enough to provide some privacy but not so high that they block sight lines and make it difficult to talk to other employees. 

Circular Cubicles

Circular cubicles

Circular cubicles are a modern, more stylish addition to the workplace. They are designed to encourage collaboration and communication and they can be reconfigured easily. 

L-Shaped Cubicles

L-Shaped cubicles

L-shaped cubicles maximize office space and efficiency. They have two cubicle walls that offer privacy and reduce noise, and they are budget-friendly. 

Call Center Cubicles

Call center cubicles
Call-center cubicles are for employees who spend most of their days on the phone. They are taller than standard cubicles to provide more privacy and noise reduction.

Modular Cubicles

Modular cubicles
Modular cubicles are like standard cubicles, but they have more flexibility for custom configuration and layout changes.

Popular Cubicle Layouts

A combination of cubicle styles and layouts can help meet the needs of the modern office. Here are some of the most common layouts for cubicle groupings.

Private Office / Enclosed

Bullpen cubciles
A bullpen is an open floor setup where employees work at separate cubicles or “workstations;” there are no partitions to offer privacy.

Straight Run

Straight run cubilces
A straight run, with rows and columns of identical cubicles organized in a grid, is the most traditional cubicle layout.

Bullpen

private office cubicle
A private or enclosed office cubicle is a station with four walls and a door. This layout offers the most privacy and helps minimize sound and distractions.

3-Person Workstation

3 person cubicle
A 3-person workstation allows 3 people to work at the same desking unit. Each person has a separate space for working, similar to a traditional cubicle. These workstations typically have panels or screens that separate employees.

The Drawbacks of the Open Office Plan

Developed in Germany during the 1950s and 60s, the open office was fully embraced in the United States in the early 2000s. It’s estimated that 70% of American offices today use an open floor plan. The idea was that fewer barriers meant more collaboration and better supervision. But as the open office experiment continued, employers found that the layout can actually decrease productivity by causing distractions and lowering employee morale. Here are some of the ways the open office has backfired.

Open Settings Make for Noise Distractions
It can be difficult to focus when there is a meeting going on just a few feet away, when a colleague approaches to ask about your weekend, or even when you can hear the person beside you clacking on the keyboard. Combine these distractions with how a lack of barriers allows noise to travel and amplify, and you have workplace noise that can make concentration impossible.

Open Offices Make for Visual Distractions
It is not just audible noise that makes it hard for employees to focus; visual noise can also be a problem. Seeing someone struggle with a task, noticing a conversation by the water cooler, and picking up on what is on a colleague’s computer monitor can be distracting. Movement and action around an employee can break concentration.

Open Offices Make Employees Feel Exposed
Studies have shown that employees in an open setting are often reluctant to have work-oriented conversations, nervous about their work habits, and even insecure about their appearance, because they feel exposed to scrutiny within the workplace. This is what researchers call the “fishbowl effect,” the feeling that you are being watched all of the time. As a result, more employees opt to work from home when possible and get less done when they are in the office.

 

How Cubicles Can Fix the Open Office

Though the popularity of cubicles, once seen as an emblem of workday office culture, waned, employers are now rediscovering the benefits that made cubicles so popular in the first place. Here are a few.

Cubicles Provide Privacy
They may not have a locking door, but cubicles provide private workspace, where employees do not feel exposed to colleagues and supervisors. This sense of privacy can greatly increase productivity and workplace satisfaction.

Cubicles Reduce Distractions
The cubicle provides a semi-enclosed workspace that allows an employee to focus on the task at hand without being distracted by errant conversations and visual noise.

Cubicles Can Be Easily Personalized
Because employees’ cubicles are their own private workspace, they can arrange them the way that they like—and the way that lets them work most efficiently. This is not just a boon to productivity, but a huge boost to morale, helping companies retain the talent they have worked hard to attract.

Cubicles Reduce Noise
Cubicle walls are generally designed with sound-absorbent materials. They do not just provide a quiet space for the employees who use them, but they also make the entire office a more work-friendly atmosphere.

 

Are Cubicles Appropriate for Every Office Design?

The cubicle offers a range of advantages to an office, benefits that can boost productivity and keep employees happy. But they are not a one-size-fits-all solution. There is a reason that the cubicle-heavy floor plan has fallen by the wayside. Cubicles have advantages, but they don’t fulfill every workplace need.

Cubicles are great for offering employees the ability to focus, but what about tasks that require collaboration and open communication? Cubicles provide a sense of privacy, but their task-oriented design can prevent employees from feeling that they can stop and take a well-deserved break for a few minutes.

Recent studies have shown that a well-functioning office requires balance, supporting the idea of flexible office design. Cubicles play an important role in a flexible plan but are not the sole solution. Collaborative team members, those who work in marketing or creative, for example, may sometimes benefit from working in a cube, but they often need to engage teammates in collaborative settings, such as open benches or huddle areas.

Similarly, while employees often benefit from the cubicle’s focused environment, when work becomes stressful or frustrating, they may prefer to change location and take work to a cafe, nook, or breakout area. These varied workspaces go a long way toward letting employees complete their jobs without undue pressure.

The key is to have a variety of workspaces that meet employees’ specific needs and allow flexibility, balance, and movement throughout the office.

 

How Your Furniture Dealer Can Help

Installing cubicles can make your office a happier, quieter, and more productive workplace. However, it is important to ensure that they are used strategically. This is where your furniture dealer can help.

An experienced furniture dealer not only helps you find the furnishings that best fit your needs and suit your branding and aesthetics, but they assess your office space to determine the most efficient way to arrange furnishings, integrate new cubicles with existing IT infrastructure, and even handle delivery and installation.

Moreover, a good furniture dealer can help you discover the combination of private and collaborative workspaces that will suit the diverse needs of your staff, delivering a balanced and flexible office that will keep employees happy and maximize productivity. To ensure that you get the most out of your office cubicles, it is crucial to work with a dedicated furniture dealer who understands your needs.