Posted on 5/13/2013 9:22 PM by Robert Nieminen

Note: The following is one of our responses to our May issue, which focuses on corporate interiors and examined the popularity of open plan, collaborative spaces. You can read Debbie Designer’s response here. Read our article on The Smarter Workplace here.

I don’t think anyone in their right mind would really argue for bringing back the cubicle. Not the “veal pen” or “prairie dog” variety anyway that became so ubiquitous in the American workforce since its introduction in the late 60s and the object of so much scorn that it spawned pop culture phenomena such as the Dilbert comic strip, the movie Office Space or sitcoms like The Office and The Drew Carey Show (among others).

But there’s something to be said for the criticisms we’ve heard in recent years about the open office plan, too. Not everyone wants to be out in the open and engage in spontaneous collaboration from 9 to 5, moving from a benching system to a small conference room every 20 minutes. 

As some recent articles have pointed out, while the cubicle walls have come down, some employees (particularly introverts) have started to build them back up, barricading themselves behind stacks of books and the like in an attempt to regain some privacy. As I’ve heard it said, “headphones are the new cubicle,” a signal that some employees put out to their colleagues to indicate they don’t want to be disturbed.

Personally, I think the open office plan is a great concept that embraces the mobility that we’re afforded by wireless technology, and addresses to one degree or another people’s innate desire to not be tethered to a desk sitting inside a box for 8 to 10 hours at a stretch. Besides, research has shown that views to the outside, daylight and social interaction have a marked increase in productivity and employee morale.

I think the key to maintaining a happy and productive workforce, particularly as it relates to workplace design, is balance. Not everyone benefits from an open plan scenario, whether due to the nature of the work being performed or because of personality or generational differences. As an editor who works from home and relishes uninterrupted focus work, I would go mad if I had to sit among a corn row of other people at a long bench with not much more than a half-height panel to shield me from co-workers, all too exuberantly collaborating three feet away.

Offices that are designed with an open plan must contain ample space for focus work based either on work function or employee work styles. Forcing everyone outside the cubicle has been a good thing in my estimation, but it’s not without its unintended consequences. Acoustics and privacy are often addressed in open plan offices, but do those design strategies go far enough? Are people using office spaces the way they were intended by the design team that created them, or are they coming up with their own ways to modify the space to better suit their needs and preferences? If the latter, then it’s time to consider new approaches to the open plan that doesn’t necessarily shove people back into a box either.

I’m all for the open plan--but let’s make sure the emerging workplace restores some balance between collaboration and privacy.

Robert Nieminen is editor-in-chief of Interiors & Sources.