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Cubicles Versus the Open Plan Office – Which One is Worse?

Office layouts have changed considerably over the last few decades. We’ve seen cubicles canned in favor of open office layouts (and vice versa). But which one is really best for workers and employers alike?

It may surprise you to know, but the open plan office pre-dates cubicles. The open office was originally devised in the early 20th century by designers who thought bringing down physical walls would also break down social divides.

But many organizations failed to embrace this ideology and instead regarded open plan designs as a way to pack as many workers into a space as possible. Unfortunately, little has changed in the intervening years. Research reveals workers now toil in smaller spaces. In 2010, the average worker had 225 square feet of space. In 2013, this went down to 190 square feet.

In the 1950s, cubicles were devised to humanize the workspace and introduce a bit of privacy. However, this design also fell into disfavor. By the turn of the century, cubicles were soon regarded as “the absolute worst” for isolating workers and creating bland, uninspiring workspaces.

Open plans offices became a cost-effective option because they maximize the floor space and minimize furniture overheads. On the other hand, with a cubicle-based design, more floor space is given up per employee and companies often find themselves paying out for some more expensive, personalized furniture.

Then, there are the associated health benefits of an open-plan layout. A recent study found open-plan office workers recorded 20% more physical activity than their cubicle-based colleagues’ offices.

Open plan offices often provide more sunlight to your staff. More natural light reportedly means less fatigue, increased wellness, and reduced eye strain for your workforce. However, cubicle layouts can be optimized to let more natural light in. For example, you could use half-partitions instead of floor-to-ceiling divides.

There’s also some evidence that open-plan offices may have an adverse effect on your health. Research reveals those who work in open plan offices have higher rates of sick leave because you are not in control of your personal environment and infections can more easily spread.

Productivity matters

We often assume open plan offices are more productive environments for work. After all, if you remove the physical barriers between your employees then you’d assume this would boost cross-departmental collaboration.

However, picking open plan may not bring such benefits to your organization. The open plan office is regularly criticized for producing a noisy and distracting environment, heightening the stress of staff, lowering motivation, and causing long-term health risks.

There’s further evidence that open-plan layouts could encourage workers to put on their headphones and rely on messaging apps like Slack, instead of fostering face-to-face connections.

What’s more, a recent survey from CommercialCafe found 43% of the 2,000+ respondents chose the private office as their ideal work environment and only 10% chose open-plan layouts. Further research reveals 74% of workers are now more concerned about retaining their privacy compared to a decade ago.

With this said, cubicles could help workers achieve the privacy they now demand. Furthermore, the modular nature of cubicles allows you to group teams with ease.

Cubicles Versus the Open Plan Office

Designing an effective workspace is hard. Despite decades of effort from some of the world’s best designers, architects and businesses, we still seem to be no closer to the perfect office design.

In 1997, 60% of workers sat in a cubicle and a whopping 93% wanted an alternative to the cubicle. In 2017, 70% of office spaces had “no or low partitions,” and yet we’re starting to grumble about open-plan offices again. One study claims the pitfalls of open-plan offices often outweigh the benefits, so it’s probably only a matter of time before the wide shifts again.


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