Are Office Cubicles Dead in Collaborative Environments?

6 min read • Sep 18, 2013 • Guest Post

It’s no secret that recently, in the last 5 years, office environments have trended to more open layouts.  The classic Office Space version of the workplace, with rows and rows of office cubicles as far as the eye can see, is a dying concept.

Is the Office Cubicle on the Extinct Species List?

Office-CubiclePerhaps because they have such a depressing reputation or, more likely, because companies are strapped more than ever for cash, the typical office cubicle layout is on the decline.

While it’s true that companies wish to increase collaborative efforts and team building between employees, perhaps another reason for putting the cubicle on the chopping block is the constant need to lower costs.

According to the International Facility Management Association, the workspace allotted to the average worker has decreased from 90 square feet to 75 over the past couple of decades.  Personal space for employees is diminishing as business owners are realizing less square footage equals lower costs.

Collaboration:  An Important Goal or Just an Excuse?

CollaborationIt’s true – businesses can knock down cubicle walls, diminish employee privacy and personal space and squeeze more employees per square foot, all in the name of collaboration.  And some companies out there are probably doing just that.

But before you run away with the idea that all collaboration efforts are simply a cover up for cost-saving, hear me out.

There is absolutely a need for collaboration in the workplace, and this need has been proven again and again.  According to a study by Business Week’s Inside Innovation, “82% of white-collar workers feel they need to partner with others throughout their workday to get work done.”

96% of decision makers believe that collaboration has a big part to play in the overall success in their company, according to Halo Business Technology.  This research also shows that businesses who failed to implement collaboration tools and technology reduced workplace productivity by 15-20%.

So we know collaboration is an important tool for business success.  But how do organizations implement it into their workspace design?  And how does the office cubicle fit in?

What A Successful Collaborative Space Actually Looks Like

Organizations that promote collaboration need a space in which employees can easily interact with one another, share concepts and ideas and think out loud.

Contrary to what some people believe, collaboration isn’t just about holding prescheduled meetings.  The culture of collaboration should be woven into every aspect of the workplace, including individual employee spaces, common areas and meeting spaces.

Which brings us back to the office cubicle.  Can a collaborative office environment include cubicles?

My opinion is yes – yes it can.

Privacy – the Other Side of the Coin

Although open environments are essential for encouraging employees to share ideas and work together, recent studies have found that people still require privacy and quiet places in order to really focus on the work at hand.

This quote by Susan Cain, author of “QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” sums up well the sacrifice businesses make when they take away all privacy in the name of collaboration:  “There is a hidden cost, in productivity and in morale.”

The US Workplace Survey (2013) revealed a 6% decline in workplace effectiveness in the U.S. since 2008.  The study found that efforts to increase collaboration in the workplace were unsuccessful if employees were not also given space to individually focus on tasks.

Another survey by Gensler, a global architecture firm, determined a balanced workplace that offered different spaces equipped for different tasks was the most successful, rather than just an entirely open or closed environment.

The Need for Balance

What it comes down to is balance – providing a variety of spaces for the different and complex needs of individuals in the workplace.

To encourage opportunities for sharing ideas and brainstorming, organizations should provide:

  1. Formal meeting rooms with collaboration technology, like Workware
  2. Smaller “breakout areas” dispersed throughout the building for concept meetings and brainstorming sessions
  3. Social areas for employees to build relationships and boost morale (like a coffee bar or lounge room)

In addition to these “group” spaces, companies should also consider the privacy needs of their employees.

Relaxed-At-The-OfficeIf the culture is one where employees are constantly working together, workstations with open desking or desks facing one another can work well.

However, these open workstations should be offset by private spaces (like phone booths or other quiet places) where employees can grab alone time if needed.

In organizations where employees still need extended time to focus on an individual project or assignment, cubicles with low or glass panels provide much needed privacy for them to concentrate without distractions.

Again, balance is key.  Cubicles should be integrated with plenty of collaboration spaces like the ones mentioned above so that employees can come together when a project needs a meeting of the minds.

Determining Organizational Culture and Why it’s so Important

For optimum productivity and employee satisfaction, a company’s organizational culture should determine its office design.  Every company has a culture that describes its personalities, values and employee behavior.  Designing your workspace to enhance and support this culture is key to a thriving workplace.

Do you Have a Collaborative Culture?

So how do you know if you have a culture in which collaboration is central to productivity?  Use the checklist below to find out.

  • Team members frequently work together, share ideas and value active participation
  • There is an emphasis on teamwork and group involvement
  • The organization has a friendly and open environment where employees frequently have social interactions
  • Spontaneous meetings, idea sessions and brainstorming conversations are common
  • Employees must be flexible and adapt to frequent changes
  • Employees are loyal to one another and value the ideas of others

The ultimate goal for every organization should be designing an environment where employees feel valued, supported and equipped to be as productive as possible.  Rather than adopting the most recent trend in office design, companies should determine their corporate culture and design an environment that supports it best.

Lendio_Natalie_McCattyNatalie McCatty is a professional blogger for Facilitec, providing workspace solutions to clients in Arizona, Washington and across the U.S.  Her passion is writing about topics that encourage individuals to reach their potential, at work and at home.  Follow her on Twitter at @nmccatty8


Guest Post