Office Design Debate | Open Space Versus The Cubicle

Open office space versus the cubicle: it’s the office design showdown of the 21st century. Modern offices are becoming expressive, and in some cases, even artistic. The trendsetters in office design are getting experimental with office layouts, with open space emerging as an up-and-rising trend.

Call to mind the prevailing office stereotype, which depicts the office as a maze of cubicles. People sit at their desks, absorbed in their own working worlds. This quintessential image of the office has been the fodder of media satire for years. If you’ve tuned into the “The Office,” or have watched the satirical “Office Space,” you are definitely well aware of office culture humor.

The rise of open space is beginning to shift this office paradigm. Business owners and office designers are recognizing the impact that an office’s configuration has on employee morale and productivity. Many people are beginning to rethink the concept of the cubicle, and devise alternative workstations and layouts. The dawn of office design experimentation is here, with modern offices coming up with some interesting results.

However, not everyone welcomes these changes in office design. The cubicle has some staunch supporters who insist that it shouldn’t ever become a relic of the past. They give some convincing reasons why the cubicle should be a mainstay of office design. After all, they say, there are many good reasons why the cubicle has been such an iconic fixture of the office.

With two sides to every coin, will open space or the cubicle get the cutting edge? To decide, let’s examine the advantages of both.

Open Space Advantages

Increased Collaboration

 Photo Courtesy of Be Interior DecoratorOpen office space does present as a formidable rival to the cubicle. In an open workspace, employees can share, collaborate, and bounce ideas off of one another. It creates more of a team-centered environment where employees can engage their minds with fellow coworkers. If someone has a question or thought, they can easily share with their neighbors. There are no divisions, no physical separation of minds.

For creative businesses, this appearance of togetherness may be ideal, since they are about ideas and innovation. An open floor plan can be just the strategy that invokes creativity in a team of employees.

There is No ‘I’ in Team

Certain businesses thrive most when the office functions as a team, rather than a gathering of individuals. A team-centered environment can create camaraderie, and with this camaraderie, a sense of company pride. Company pride should be a key part of company culture. If employees have a positive emotional attachment towards their company, they’ll feel even more invested in its performance. They’ll be more likely to go above and beyond the call of duty, rather than simply put in the hours. The right dose of office banter can actually be fuel for a business.

The Cubicle Advantages

 Privacy

Photo Courtesy of Stand Up CubicleOn the other side of the coin, there are some key reasons why the cubicle shouldn’t be a ghost of office past. Unlike open space, the cubicle gives you a sense of privacy, cutting out needless distractions. It can help you reach that focused, mindful state that helps you get work done. Some people may prefer a more private and self-contained working environment, which the cubicle provides.

Sense of Ownership

The cubicle not only gives you privacy, but also a sense of ownership over your own space. After all, you can decorate the walls of your cubicle with photos, letters, and other memorabilia. It becomes yours. Just take a look at some of your coworker’s cubicles. Unless they’re a minimalist, their cubicles are most likely adorned with family photos, vacation shots, or gag gifts from coworkers. You can express yourself through your cubicle, turning it into a collage of who you are and your office life. Those same cubicle decorations can also be a visual relief from the rigors of work.

Open Space Versus the Cubicle | Which One Wins?

The truth is that there is no winner. Open space and the cubicle both bring undeniable advantages to the workplace. Rather than viewing it as an either/or debate, perhaps it’s best to consider which layout best serves your particular business and industry. For instance, creative businesses may benefit most from an open layout, which encourages collaboration between employees. Conversely, a business in the financial industry may prefer to have cubicles in order to give employees a more private and streamlined focus.

Some businesses choose to go for a more diverse arrangement by bringing the best of both worlds to their offices. A mix of open space and cubicles/private offices can offer something for everyone. After all, different people have different working styles. While some people may perform best when given privacy, others may prefer a more social environment. When planning out the design of your office layout, it’s best to tune into the needs of your business’ industry and the working styles of your employees. Using a bit of strategy and insight can go a long way for your business and company culture.

We turn the question over to you: Do you prefer the privacy of the cubicle, or are you partial to the integrative environment of open space? Let us know in the comments below.

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18 comments on “Office Design Debate | Open Space Versus The Cubicle

  1. uldissprogis says:

    It may even be a situation where the employee spends some of his or her time in a cubicle and some of the time in open space depending upon the type of work which has been assigned. It need not be one or the other but a custom fitting for the type of jobs involved.

  2. You make a very valid point. If the work requires privacy, then the cubicle is the best choice. Whereas open space would be best for a project that requires collaboration. It definitely depends on the type of work, like you mentioned.

    Along those lines, offices are also trending toward a modern office design called ‘hot desking.’ In this setup, employees are free to roam about the office, with their workstations changing on a daily basis. It gives employees more freedom and mobility.

  3. Daniel says:

    We do both, depending on the team. Our customer service representatives get their own, private work-spaces, sometimes sharing with up to 1 other customer rep. The development team members all work in one large conference room. Everybody else goes back and forth between offices for impromptu brainstorming or questions. Our culture promotes a very open workspace environment even though much of the team works in private spaces.

    • Daniel, thank you for your feedback. It seems as though your business has a diverse office design layout. Our office has a mixed layout as well. It has cubicles and open space, with the cubicles arranged in a way that everyone can see one another. It encourages information sharing and feels like a team-centered environment.

      Getting experimental with office design can definitely bring many advantages. An office’s design and layout is such a key part of company culture.

  4. designatmos says:

    I am interested in understanding more about privacy in social spaces like office cubicles and open plan environments. As spaces become tighter in many dense city environments, having a sense of personal control should enact a healthier and more productive work lifestyle.

    • I agree – having that sense of privacy and personal space (or control, as you mention) is important. The cubicle is great for that reason – it gives you your own working sphere.

      True, an office’s layout can really influence employee morale and productivity. Those details can certainly make a difference. When it comes to office design, the “devil is in the details.”

  5. Thanks for the follow. 🙂 Your blog is full of great ideas and designs. I admire how professional your blog is, you should be very proud of your work.

  6. Teresa says:

    The reality of most worker’s day is that its a mix of constantly changing tasks and responsibiities that require different settings to achieve maximum results. My experiences of implementing new work spaces is that a flexible work space with a variety of work space types is the most successful. Also, different personalities and departments within an organization require different work settings and should be looked at in how space is planned and designed. Even within organizations of a a creative field, they will still have internal departments that are focused on the business operations which may require some more traditional space for their responsibilities. In the end, when a company wants to look at changing workspace the critical piece is to look at their organization, do the due dilligence to understand how the entire company functions and to not forget a good change management program. I find so many organizations want to jump on the band wagon of open office space without understanding if it is right for thier company and implementing good change management initiatives for thier employees to adjust to new ways of working. We are in an age in business right now that has never happened before where there are 3 – 4 different generations in an organizations workforce. There are many challenges in this enviornment. Changes to more progressive work spaces will happen over time in the form of evolution as the work force progresses. People are staying at their jobs longer and this creates unique challenges for workspace to accomodate works styles and ability to manage changing employee workstyles. The due dilligence and change management are critical steps that are often missed in comapanies wanting to jump on to latest trends and appear modern and progressive. With that, they tend to hurt thier productivity rather than enhance it. The change management needs to begin long before any space is changed in any significant way for the success of any new space design programs a company wants to initiate. The office space design whether it be open or private cubicle is an end product of a bigger program and unfortunately a lot of companies just want to build a furniture solution and expect workers to just adapt. Its more about a culture and giving the employees the tools they need within that culture and then furntiure solutins are the end product to enhance the work space program and space branding the company wants to achieve.

    • Teresa, you nailed the ingredients of a successful workspace, right on the head. As you said, the effective workspace is flexible and incorporates many types of layouts – open space, private space, and everything in between.

      I also like how you draw a comparison between office layout and company culture. A healthy company culture typically has a “healthy” environment. It has a layout that accommodates both the solitary and the social working styles. The details are so important when it comes to creating an inspiring company culture.

  7. Great article. As CoFounder of the Miami Innovation Center with a mix of researchers, startup’s and service providers, we have a great mix, find that cubicles are seldom used, the open space is used as a primary workplace, for many and for others, coming out of their offices or labs as a place to collaborate or chill out. Total space 41,000 square feet, comprised of 21 research labs, 66 offices, 4 meeting rooms and 2 coworking areas. Workspace as a service, has opened the way for various forms of work, all under one roof, forming a great creative community of work.

    • Thank you! Miami Innovation Center seems to have an inspiring layout that suits every working style. Also, for businesses that offer an array of services, a diverse layout is ideal. Open space, private offices, research labs, meeting rooms, coworking spaces. . .they all have their advantages and serve specific purposes.

      As you mentioned, workspace is a service in its own right. After all, the workplace is a conjoining of minds; it’s where ideas are born. When offices are creative, employees are more likely to be creative. An inspiring office layout can definitely be fuel for thoughts, ideas, and innovation.

  8. The meeting of the minds is somewhere in the middle, employees need a sense of privacy and space to perform work without distractions. The other side is that having impromptu meeting areas with lounge seating or small conference table, white boards etc located near coffee station, copiers and kitchens encourages collaborative efforts among employees. There is a lot of new furniture designed for lounging and cacooning that is in all the magazines – designs that fit profiles such as Google and Apple but will take a lot of convincing for main stream business modules.

    That being said being able to hear conversations that team members have with vendors and clients speeds up the process of shared intel and does assist juniors with learning how to do, how to speak with clients and vendors and helps them to mature much faster. It depends upon the work being performed and does it require complete silence (number crunching, editing books, scientific research, etc.) or is the work best performed as team approach where perhaps 4 individuals that work together constantly on the same project/s may share a space with their own separate work areas yet part of a community where they can hear what is happening. As long as there are a few private spaces designed within the office where employees can go to have a private conversation with a spouse or Doctor’s office the team approach is very successful for many business modules.

    • Golden Interiors Inc, I could not agree more. As you cleverly stated, the meeting of the minds is definitely in the middle.

      You brought up another key office feature: the lounge area. The lounge can be a motivating space where employees convene to shoot the breeze or to brainstorm. Many creative offices have lounges with flair – colorful beanbags, perhaps a pool table, wall art, and more. Some offices even use whiteboard paint (called IdeaPaint) on their walls. In doing so, the walls themselves become a canvass of ideas.

      Like you mentioned, it really does come down to having a balance. Offices that have a blend of both private and open space are highly effective workspaces.

  9. drangedinaz says:

    I’ve worked mostly in cubicles my entire career and as a computer programmer, I can honestly say that I despise cubicles with every fiber of my being. It’s virtually impossible to maintain concentration on coding when people around you are talking (yes, even wearing headphones). The problem with cubicles is that they simply applied it to every type of job without analyzing if a job requires collaboration at all and if it does, what kind of collaboration, in what patterns….etc, etc. My dream is to have an office of my own….I’ll probably drop dead before that happens.

    • While more private than wide open space, cubicles still encourage conversation and office banter. It can definitely be difficult to get into the zone when surrounded by chatter. Private offices can be the “zone of silence” that’s needed for certain tasks.

      Like you aptly said, cubicles should not be a “one size fits all” arrangement. A diverse layout (with cubicles, open space, and private offices) accommodates all working styles and assignments.

  10. Robert Medak says:

    I’ve worked in both. I do have a preference for open space when working with a fellow employee. When working alone it makes no difference.

    It’s what you make of the situation.

  11. As an introvert, I feel safe and cozy in a cubicle, I don’t like the way schools and offices are creating these open work areas latley, although in this age of virtual communication the face to face time with other humans is probably great for us.

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