They sprawl across the typical office space like a labyrinth of cluttered walls and shelves, dotted by heads in every corner. Cube farms, a term for workspaces littered with cubicles, may come in various shapes and sizes, but a partition is a partition, and offices around the globe have kept employees working inside a box for decades.
“Cubicles are the ‘roach motel’ of the professional world. We’re not trusted enough for an office of our own with a door, so they farm us into a maze of walls to be watched over,” says Andrea Strom, who works as an accountant for a manufacturing company. “We’re given enough in the way of walls to give the illusion of privacy, but there really is none. But they won’t take the walls away, because that would open up the door for too much chatting.”
Stemming from the Latin word cubiculum (for bedchamber), the word cubicle represents small rooms or study spaces with partitions that do not reach the ceiling. Colorado designer Robert Propst concocted the first cubicle, called an “action office,” in 1968 to provide some semiprivate, individual space to white-collar workers who had been working in desks sprawled across wide-open areas.
“One thing that this furniture did was add a lot of flexibility,” says Caren Martin, who works as an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota College of Design. “Because of ‘churn’ in the workplace, where a lot of people come and go, you’re not going to design this workspace just for ‘Susan,’ so you try to create a more generic layout.”
Today, Propst’s efforts have become the norm for most offices. An estimated forty million–plus Americans spend their working lives in cubicles; many of them pass more waking hours in their work environment than in any other—even their own living rooms.
“If [wall] panel systems are used and kept really low, it can really provide good circulation and daylight for people, which increases productivity for workers,” says Martin, who’s also the director and cocreator of InformeDesign, a group based out of the University of Minnesota that translates research data for interior designers, architects, and planners. However, she adds, “I think we still struggle as designers. And not everyone belongs in an open office.”
Most cubicles offer low walls, ideally to allow coworkers to better commingle and have more access to the scant amount of light that might flood in from nearby windows. Unfortunately, cubes also create visual and verbal distractions, and all that time confined to those (usually gray) fabric walls can take its toll. Bad lighting and acoustics, a lack of privacy, and overcrowding present problems for many employees—just ask Strom.
“I sit next to someone who hates my guts (the feeling’s mutual), and I can feel vibes of nastiness emanating from her because of our proximity,” she says. “If I have a conversation that’s not work-related in any way, I feel her listening in; then, after a few minutes, I hear her keyboard clacking away as she types nasty things about me to her coworker friends.”
So where’s the happy medium? InformeDesign offers a few tips to office planners in regard to the open-office setup:
- Reduce panel heights and use lighter-colored surfaces to increase daylight penetration and to increase lighting uniformity from electric lights.
- Reduce glare. Use cubicle lighting that has low brightness when viewed directly and doesn’t create re?ections on a computer screen. Re?ected glare is less obvious on a computer screen with a light background and on an LCD screen; antiglare ?lters can also be helpful.
- Use electronic ballasts with ?uorescent lights to eliminate ?ickering. Electronic
- ballasts are also more energy efficient than magnetic ballasts.
- Provide individual dimming control over lights so that workers can choose their own preferred light level. In the open-plan office, this requires aligning luminaries and assigning them to workstations.
As for employees, why not pimp your workspace? Tons of Web sites are dedicated to doing just that. A few examples include:
- Add Color: Unique wallpaper choices can instantly distinguish your workspace from your neighbor’s. Or how about a cool vintage movie poster or a fun calendar? Anything that separates you from that drab fabric wall lining is a good thing.
- Accessorize: Sites like StyleMyCube.com and TheJobBored.com offer suggestions on what cool new trinkets can spruce up your cubicle. Surefire suggestions include plants, cool desk lamps, and mini–Zen gardens to add the right pizzazz.
- Pick a Theme: Take a page out of Kelley L. Moore’s book, Cube Chic: Take Your Office Space from Drab to Fab!. This fun paperback gives you myriad ideas to choose from and highlights elaborate cubicle makeovers, such as creating a Zen-themed space complete with faux-bamboo wallpaper and hanging lanterns.
- A Clean Cube Is a Productive Cube: Take the basic steps to keep up your space. Clear out the clutter, throw out the lunch trash, and organize. These simple steps can help you maintain your sanity when dealing with hectic work scenarios that inevitably arise.
Several studies have shown that there’s a direct link between environmental satisfaction and general job satisfaction. Unsurprisingly, workers who are happier with their environment are happier with their jobs. Research indicates that organizations with maximum job satisfaction tend to have lower rates of employee turnover, greater customer contentment, more corporate commitment, better safety records, and increased earnings. The key is working with what you’ve got, and that goes for employers as well as for employees.