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Today’s Facility Manager | The Demise of the Cubicle

The Demise of the Cubicle

John Campbell, LEED AP, AIA, RIBA, October 2011 Download PDF

Employers these days are taking a deep look around their office environments and realizing that they do not reflect today’s work styles.

The original idea behind the cubicle’s design, which came out in 1967, was to allow employees to privately concentrate on their tasks at hand. The designer, Robert Propst, wanted to give people a personalized space, which they could make their own. In time, the cubicle became slightly more flexible with overhead shelves, moveable drawers and versatile walls to reconfigure desks. Despite this design evolution, the cubed layout currently does not fit the way people work for several reasons.

The workplace model has changed from one of hierarchical command and control to one driven by network relationships in order to meet today’s business demands and the pressure to add value. These requirements drive the demand for companies to work quickly, harvest vast amounts of data, and produce innovative solutions and products. Collaboration is a prime method to rapidly harvest multiple sources of knowledge and drive complex solutions forward.

At the same time companies are under pressure to reduce operating costs. With the ubiquitous use of laptops and tablet computers with ‘cloud’ storage technology, employees no longer need to be tied to a particular space. Work is possible anywhere, anytime. These changes have called into question the validity of the traditional office layout that has perimeter offices and workstations.

The ability to work anywhere has changed the traditional 9 to 5 workday. It is becoming obsolete as people remain connected even if they don’t physically come into their offices. Virtual meetings, replying to emails from their Blackberries and “heads down” concentrated work in off-site locations have become the norm.

As designers, we employ time utilization studies to observe how our clients’ office areas are used. Our studies show that most offices are only occupied 45% of the time. We have shared this information with our clients who, after seeing it, have started to question traditional workplace models as they drive to create both effective workplaces for employees and maximize their real estate efficiency. As a result, we are working with clients on office designs where an assigned space is not provided for every employee. In some cases, there is no assigned space at all.

The result is that companies require less space, which has yielded huge real estate cost savings. For example, at the recently completed U.S. Maintenance Headquarters, we reduced the American standard of 225 square feet per employee to 135 square feet and increased group areas for informal meetings – all without diminishing employee attraction and retention.

The growth of distributed work, sharing spaces and collaboration has resulted in employees placing less priority on having their own individual spaces and more of a priority on communal spaces. In employee surveys that we have completed for our clients, employees consistently state they need more space for group work. In a recent one for W. L. Gore, a company listed consistently on Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For”, 20% of employees reported they don’t require any individual space at all.

Typically, we have found that people do 70% of their work in a group setting. In addition, the generation entering the workforce today is the first one to grow up fully immersed with technology and a desire for constant connectivity to everything at all times. Their education has focused on blending individual and group project work, while moving between different environments to complete assignments. As they start their first jobs, they arrive at the office, highly tech-savvy, ready to engage and collaborate with fellow employees on a variety of projects. These young employees find the traditional ‘cubicle’ stifling and inadaptable to their way of working. While there is still a need to provide space for individual focused work, the balance has shifted towards a variety of collaborative work settings.

Employers are now taking into account the different ways employees work throughout the day. For example, employees can have a quiet space in the morning and an informal group table in the afternoon. Providing environments with access to technologies also suits employee workstyles and tasks. An employee can seamlessly remain connected as they move across different work settings to complete different activities: catch up on emails, join a web meeting, grab a cup of coffee with colleagues, or huddle down in an enclave for some “heads down” focused work before presenting to a team globally. Companies are also recognizing that providing access to natural light and changes in scenery or environments can help boost employee satisfaction. Providing a space to take a quick break and walk away from issues often gives employees a chance to look at their work with a new perspective.

While companies have focused on creating new environments to foster an office culture and their employees’ productivity, upper management is enjoying these changes as well. In feedback from clients, supervisors report that while there was an adjustment period, the advantages are overwhelming. With an open workspace, senior staff are able to stay in touch more with their teams, hear what is going on, quickly huddle to brainstorm ideas and move innovative solutions forward. Equally the space savings are significant. From a facility manger’s perspective, upper management can address issues in an expeditious manner without reconfiguring physical space.

Workspaces will continue to change to suit business needs. The growing use of technology and the emphasis on collaboration has changed the design of workspaces drastically and will continue to do so. In our own experience with clients, we have seen that the move to an ‘Activity Based Workplace’ has enabled them to quickly adapt to changing business needs without losing productivity to undertake costly physical workplace changes.

What is the future of office design? There is no one universal solution, but we know for certain that it will be collaborative. Every company has its own particular business drivers and company culture. We anticipate a mixture of office types that include a variety of collaborative work settings that respond to different business needs; some house core business functions, while others will provide an infrastructure where individuals and specialist teams will congregate on an as-needed basis for specific project assignments. It is equally important that offices provide the right technology infrastructure to adapt to continuously evolving platforms. In any case, it’s clear that companies are finding that cubicles impede their business needs and they may soon be a relic of the past.

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