Many of us have spent hours staring at cubical walls, sometime wishing we could relive the iconic scene from Office Space where Peter unscrews the wall and smiles at his new open view. If only we could have an open space that isn’t so restricted and compressed. But before we make the argument for that change, let’s take a look at some of the reasons why cubicles were used in the first place, and why some people still swear by them as an effective method of staff management.
The cubicle was designed by Robert Propst for Herman Miller, Inc. in 1967 and named it the “Action Office 2.” This versatile mobile wall unit was a big change from the large and disorganized bullpen’s most corporate offices used prior. The cubical was a way to shove more employees into a small workspace, and also give them more privacy and structure. Limiting exposure to distractions was a main selling point, and it’s still an argument used by proponents of closed off work environments. Some also give credit to the cubical for advancing women’s roles in the workspace in the 60’s. Bullpens could be very male dominated, and cubicles gave corporations a way to move more women into middle management without them feeling judged or pressured by coworkers. If nothing else, you can say the cubicle is functional, as it has sold 5 billion dollars’ worth of units as of 2005, but just because it is one of the solutions doesn’t mean it is the best solution.
A survey on “The Influence of Workplace Design & Practices on the Ethical Environment” conducted by Ethisphere Institute and Jones Lang LaSalle showed that open workspaces have a positive influence on both corporate culture and on employee behavior. Because these changes have such beneficial outcomes, they are quickly becoming preferred over the typical “cube farms.” Sixty percent of companies surveyed had already switched to an open workspace environment and 38 percent switched in the past 5 years. When working in an open environment, employees are less likely to have ethics violations, the survey found. This is even truer for organizations that hire off site employees, who simply don’t have the opportunity to commit misconduct on a regular basis. You can read the entirety of the survey here.
In the survey linked above one respondent stated, “If you brought the officers of the company to more accessible and observable office space, employees would respond with better company identity and more overall engagement.” Could something so simple really improve the employee’s view of their company and make them work harder? If so, what other benefits do we see for employee morale?
Well most people don’t enjoy being caged up or confined to small places. In a world where we applaud food companies that use free range methods and don’t force their animals to stay in closed spaces, you wonder why we don’t do the same for ourselves. We aren’t beasts in a zoo, we are creative, social creatures that need to communicate and share. That’s hard to do with an 8ft wall in between you and the rest of society. Working in an open environment keeps everyone in the know and helps them keep healthy working relationships by openly communicating with their peers. Morale can easily drop when employees feel that they are left out of the important information, or haven’t heard the latest achievements or direction of the office.
There are certainly arguments for both sides, but the benefits are just too strong to ignore for open workspaces. Improved morale, less employee misconduct, and a more natural environment is simply too much to brush aside. With large percentages of companies switching over, it’s time to look at your cubicles and say “how can I expect my employees to think outside the box when I make them work while crammed inside one.”