The Great Shrinking Workplace, or Good News if You Love Life in a Cube

I was first exposed to the joys of the cubicle culture when I was working at a San Francisco dotcom during the tech boom of the late 1990s.

This was when workplaces were becoming more egalitarian — yes, even the CEO works in a cubicle! — and the benefits of being just a cube wall away from your peers was viewed as a good thing and a bonding experience. Who cares if you could hear everything everyone else was doing, and that it was never, ever possible to have a private phone call without having to get up and go find a conference room?

Yes, that was the essence of the cubicle culture, and as much as I recognized the upside culturally (especially in entrepreneurial enterprises) of everybody working in little cubes tightly packed together, I was bothered by the lack of privacy and the inability to just close the door and engage in a sensitive conversation.

In other words, I learned to hate the cubicle culture, and I couldn’t imagine that anyone could do anything to make it any worse — until now.

According to the Los Angeles Times:

The walls are closing in on white-collar workers — their office environments are shrinking, propelled by new technology, a changing corporate culture and the age-old imperative to save a buck.

Although personal workstations won’t disappear, the sprawling warrens of cubicles and private offices that have defined the workplace for the last few decades are heading the way of Rolodexes and typewriters. The shift is of tectonic proportions, experts on the workplace say.

In the 1970s, American corporations typically thought they needed 500 to 700 square feet per employee to build an effective office. Today’s average is a little more than 200 square feet per person, and the space allocation could hit a mere 50 square feet by 2015, said Peter Miscovich, who studies workplace trends as a managing director at brokerage Jones Lang LaSalle.”

A generational issue at work

But there are other reasons behind the change to a smaller cubicle office lifestyle, and it sounds like a replay of an old record:

There are other factors at play in the push to make work spaces smaller and more communal. Many companies are emphasizing teamwork, and younger employees accustomed to working anywhere but at a desk are turning up their noses at the hierarchical formality of traditional offices. In addition, familiar technologies such as laptop computers, cellphones and videoconferencing are finally beginning to affect the way offices are laid out…

Age makes a difference, workplace experts say. Baby boomers longed for a corner office and expected to separate their work lives from their home lives.

“Younger workers’ lives are all integrated, not segregated,” says Larry Rivard, an area sales director for office furniture manufacturer Steelcase Inc. “They have learned to work anywhere — at a kitchen table or wherever.” Many don’t feel a need to spend time in company quarters.”

I’m not sure when this office cubicle thing became an issue of office segregation vs. integration, but the problem I have is that like all too many trends in the workplace, it’s one-size-fits-all with little to no flexibility built in.

Private office vs public cube

I know a little about this, because I straddle the “private office” and “public cube” generations and have spent considerable time working in both.

When I worked at that San Francisco dotcom, I learned to appreciate the benefits of the cubicle lifestyle. In fact, when we moved to larger quarters and suddenly had a lot more room to spread out, the entire office vibe changed. What once had been a close-knit group of people working shoulder-to-shoulder (or more accurately, cube wall-to cube wall) together, became a place where suddenly everyone seemed to be distant and somewhat out of reach.

That experience made me appreciate the benefits of the cubicle lifestyle on corporate culture.

But I’ve also seen the downside to cubes, and that was working for a company that had a silly policy that only publishers (and corporate titles) got private, closed-wall offices. Never mind that this policy was never really enforced very well — creating situations where a few lucky people who didn’t meet the criteria for a private space got one anyway — or that it failed to recognize that there weren’t enough private conference rooms available for when you really needed to make that private call.

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No, the policy was the policy, common sense and logic be damned. It made it just about impossible for me to ever have a spur of the moment private phone call, or employee conversation, because I always had to be worried about what someone might hear something over the cube wall. And I can’t tell you how many times I got up to go find a private space to make that important call only to find all of them taken with other workers ALSO doing private things.

Are private office about “power and control?”

This never bothered my boss, because, well, he had a private office. Plus, he didn’t understand the dynamic of needing a spur of the moment private space because he never had ever managed a diverse group of people where public-private conversations turned on and off like a light switch. He never understood that always having to hunt down a private space to talk was not only terribly inefficient, but wasted a lot of my time as a manager, too.

“A lot of people who grew up in workstations find it effective to manage out on the floor and have less need to be isolated in an office in order to show power and control,” Judy Caruthers of Jones Lang LaSalle, a company who helps companies plan their space needs, told the Times.

Maybe space planners simply think that private offices are about “power and control,” but that is a terrible oversimplification of a much more complex issue.

Cubes make sense depending on the work people are doing. That should be the real issue that comes into play when space planning for an office, but in too many companies — like my former employer — the drive to go to cubicles has become a one-size-fits-all solution, whether that makes sense or not.

So as someone who has worked in both cultures, and seen the costs and benefits of both, take it from me when I say that the push to ever smaller office cubicles is only a good thing if that’s what best fits your business needs.

Doing it for any other reason simply doesn’t make any sense, even if everybody else is doing it.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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3 Comments on “The Great Shrinking Workplace, or Good News if You Love Life in a Cube

  1. Good column, John. Like you, I’ve had frustrations with open-plan workspaces in the past. But now that I work for Edmunds.com, a company that is open-plan for virtually all employees, I can see how one organization deals with the privacy issues. There are tons of easy-to-schedule conference rooms of varying sizes in our building, and some private pods dedicated to HR and the upper management team. We also have a “Great Room,” with tables for lunching and chatting and a quiet room where you can go and lock the door if you need a nap or a few minutes of private decompress time. People are forever congregating in meeting rooms, so there’s no sense that a closed-door chat must be something bad. Clearly, not every company can do these things, particularly if the reason for open-plan seating is economic. But I think it does point out that a little thought goes a long way in these kinds of decisions. You can’t drop a pod farm on people and expect it to instantly make you the Cool Company. It’s a decision that does, as you say, take some thought.

  2. John, it does make a difference to the type of work the organization does and the kind of work the employees perform. Like Carol describes below, there is also a flexible coworking movement that’s not new but growing for startups, virtually dispersed employees, consultants, freelancers entrepreneurs and the like that offers open spaces and private space. I belong to one in Santa Cruz called NextSpace – http://bit.ly/f5qQLY. I just read this stat that “IDC predicts that by 2013, more than 1/3 of the world’s workforce, 1.2 billion users, will be mobile workers” most of which will be in the U.S. The “cubes” at home may be more comfy, but not everyone can work in that.

  3. John, thanks for your post. It’s a compelling argument for private offices, but I would counter and say the world is opening up to a lot more flexibility than solely cube vs private office. Take the coworking space I run, NextSpace.us. We offer private offices, shared private offices (oxymoron you say? No, it’s when individuals band together to share a private), dedicated workstations, and shared “café” space. But we also have corners to duck into, and a phone booth so you can get away and take the private call, regardless of how you choose to work. It makes having a lovely office right in the heart of downtown, something everyone can afford – a huge boon for the gazillion 1 and 2 person businesses currently taking over the world. But you are definitely onto something. I think the winner will be private space in a shared environment as the epitome of workplaces.

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