The Cubicle, Deconstructed

I&S takes a look back at how the open plan office came to be, and how it can function more efficiently with the help of products designed to make work easier.

12/21/2011 By AnnMarie Martin

While the once ubiquitous cubicle may not be dead, it’s safe to say that it has become an endangered species. As more complex tasks and a rapidly accelerating pace of business have made collaboration and teamwork more and more important, the walls that separate us have fallen in favor of the “open plan” office.

Capable of accommodating a 2:1 ratio of workers versus workstations, as well as facilitating faster communication between employees, the open plan—typically consisting of low-partitioned workspaces or even completely open benching—has become a mainstay of businesses of all sizes.

But even the open plan wasn’t always so open.

“When I first heard of it in the 1970s, they called it landscaping, which involved very high panel heights,” says Pam Light, FIIDA, LEED AP, senior vice president at HOK. “Then we went through the ‘80s and people started to say ‘maybe we should not have to reconfigure things so much anymore.’”

That led to the rise of what was called universal planning, where employees were placed in either an 8-foot by 8-foot or 8-foot by 12-foot space. That resulted in cost savings and a better use of real estate, but soon the mindset began to change again. Instead of simply housing individual workers in an ice cube tray-like environment, the open plan’s focus shifted to shared spaces and how they are utilized.

“We used to look at the workplace as a place for paper to be processed, much like a factory was a place to move things down an assembly line,” says Jan Johnson, vice president of design and workplace resources for Allsteel. “But that has really changed a lot and the type of work people do is very different.”

A significant driver of that change in thinking came from managers who realized they—nor their workers, for that matter—could never see or find each other.

Lisa Bottom, workplace design leader at Gensler, recalls seeing this issue evolve in the 1990s in Silicon Valley. “The fact that no one could ever find anyone else was hindering teams from getting their product out the door in a quick and nimble fashion. Since being the first one to introduce anything is the key to success in Silicon Valley, the need for people to find each other easily and collaborate quickly was a direct response to the need to get the product out the door. This coincided with a flattening of organizational hierarchy, which was driven by exactly the same thing.” With more emphasis on “the team” rather than “the boss,” more open group spaces began to emerge.

Another driver of the open office paradigm was the emergence of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, which actually dictates that if cubicle panels are used at all, they need to be 42 inches high or lower because of daylighting requirements.

Today, the challenge designers face when it comes to the open office footprint is how to offer a variety of spaces for collaboration while still accommodating quiet focus work, both acoustically and spatially.

Light says many clients are now requesting “activity-based planning” for their offices, which is a floor plan set up “more like your house.”

“When you come in you can choose to sit at the kitchen table and chat with mom, or you can go to the study for quiet work, or if you want to have a real quiet discussion, you go to your bedroom,” she explains.

Johnson is seeing the same need for not only a variety of spaces, but for interiors that can truly adapt to whatever is required of them—“whether it’s quick interaction or a creative exercise or problem solving, it has developed a new vocabulary of enclosed spaces that all need to support a range of activities, rather than just one type.”

Of course, that level of flexibility and adaptability is easier said than done for some offices, and the open plan in general doesn’t come without its share of issues that must be addressed.

“While almost all clients are encouraging idea sharing and want employees to build relationships through increased interaction, many companies still do a lot of heads down work and have genuine visual or acoustic privacy requirements, which can be harder to accommodate in very open environments,” says Johnathan Sandler, a Gensler senior workplace strategist.

“The biggest negative to the open plan is noise and lack of visual privacy,” he adds. “The noise concern can be addressed through the addition of places to go for conference calls and longer conversations, by adding white noise systems and by proper zoning of louder spaces. The lack of visual privacy may be something that just takes some time for employees to get used to. Most people are very comfortable with what we call ‘seated height privacy,’ so when you are seated at a workstation there is a barrier between you and the person across from you. When you stand or lean up, you can easily see your colleague.”

For their part, manufacturers have risen to the challenge of developing products that address the issues that the open floor plan presents. Here are four of the most common issues that arise from open plan settings, and a select group of products that can help make it work.

How to Handle…
lack of visual privacy
Dauphin considers itself a provider of adaptive furniture solutions for dynamic spaces rather than just collaborative spaces, as spaces within the open office are constantly changing. Valo, a division of Dauphin, offers the Konstrux table and storage system, which allows the user to create

whatever type of workstation they require, including one that offers more visual privacy. Konstrux features an innovative KAP (Konstrux application plate) which allows for, among other things, added privacy screens, accessory rails, overhead storage, shelving, modesty panels and more.

Another solution is the Answer panel system from Steelcase. Answer’s patented frame design delivers built-in flexibility, enabling it to provide an unparalleled range of applications, aesthetics, tech support and ownership adaptability. It also does a strong job of supporting both resident workers and mobile workers, creating a wide range of “I” spaces and small “we” spaces. A range of panel heights and widths creates the level of privacy needed or promotes collaboration.

noise or acoustical problems
Acoustics are the lowest performing factor in green building design, according to ongoing research at the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for the Built Environment. Poor acoustics can greatly affect worker productivity, but Armstrong Ceilings offers a variety of high-performance continuous ceilings, clouds, canopies, baffles and deck-mounted ceilings designed to quiet things down.

Armstrong Formations™, Acoustical Clouds, SoundScapes®, Shapes Acoustical Clouds, Soundscapes Acoustical Canopies and SoundSoak® Baffles all provide more sound absorption than a continuous ceiling of the same surface area because sound is absorbed on both the front and back surfaces. “As a result, these ‘free-floating’ designs are ideal for exposed structure spaces because they add sound absorption while maintaining the exposed look,” says Joann Davis Brayman, vice president of marketing for commercial ceilings at Armstrong.

Another solution for open environments is the Armstrong Optima® Capz ceiling system, she says. Installation of this ceiling over 20 percent of an area can reduce undesirable reverberation by 50 percent while maintaining the open plan design. The non-wall-to-wall system can be deck-mounted or suspended, depending on the desired aesthetic.

lack of a visual hierarchy
Some workers in open office plans can be affected by the fact that there is no clear delineation between employee levels. Managers or executives might be right out in the trenches with the rest of their employees, rather than enjoying a private office suite. There are products out there that can alleviate those feelings somewhat, such as First Office’s STAKS line, which brings the look and feel of wood typically found in a larger private office, out into the open. Herman Miller’s Canvas Office Landscape line is also a nice way of merging the looks of a more formal, enclosed office and an open area together.

need for space flexibility
Allsteel made a big push toward the open plan environment this year with two product lines that address the variety of interactions that can happen within the open plan (both in enclosed spaces and out in the open).

The Involve collection builds soft seating into the workstation, which fosters impromptu meetings that don’t need a café space or conference room. When that’s not in use, it offers a quiet, comfortable workstation for the individual.

Gather supports not just the variety of interactions that take place in an open plan environment but also the variety of postures that people grow into. With such a large offering of materials and depths, the line can support a small group of two to four, which can then be transformed into a more formal conference space.


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