Office Layout: Tearing Down the Walls

Published May 14, 2019

At Walgreens, I worked in a cubicle. My next job, editing an eighty-four-page monthly magazine for the Hospital Financial Management Association, I just had a desk out in the open, although I spent most of my time in an enclosed work room. My third job I had a corner office on the top floor of Chicago’s Prudential Building.

In 1980, the Prudential Building, at forty stories, was one of the tallest buildings in Chicago. My office faced north, with Lake Michigan on my right. I could see all the way to Milwaukee. Today the Prudential Building is surrounded by much taller buildings. But back then, at twenty-four years old and just two years out of college, I had one of the most prestigious office spaces in the Windy City.

The only reason I did was because the company I worked for—the accounting firm Alexander Grant—was based in the Prudential Building and took over the top floor when it merged with a London firm called Thornton Baker to form Grant Thornton International. I was hired to run communications for the new international firm, landing me on the top floor. At the time there weren’t many other people on the top floor. Most of the partners and principals of the firm were crammed into offices on more crowded lower floors.

I was at Alexander Grant/Grant Thornton for two years. My next job, as an editor-at-large for the American Bar Association Press, I was back in a cube. The point is that whether you work in a wall office, a cube, or somewhere else is based on many factors besides experience, salary, or job title. In fact, it’s based mostly on available real estate. There are only so many windows and so much square footage for so many bodies, and only so much budget companies are willing to invest in this stuff. While the effects of office layout on creativity, productivity, and employee satisfaction have been studied extensively, most recommendations are not realistic for most companies, so they make do with their available space.

For years, rows of desks surrounded by a perimeter of wall offices had been the norm in corporate America until the cubicle came along in the 1960s. Cubes were supposed to provide more privacy and individualization for more employees along with more flexibility for employers in configuring their floor space. But as cubes proliferated and became the new normal in corporate offices, it was difficult for the pros of cubes to outweigh the cons. Even the inventor of the office cubicle regrets his handiwork, describing the typical cube setup as “monolithic insanity.”

While conventional wisdom says cubes offer more privacy than open office space, this is not always the case. Passersby tend to feel more comfortable congregating outside a row of cubes to talk than they would next to someone’s desk. This is because the people in the cubes being forced to listen to their conversation are invisible to them.

Cubes also are more inviting for people to “pop in” and visit a coworker because there is some degree of privacy once you’re inside. Cube walls even embolden some people to hold meetings in their cube, which is extremely distracting to people in neighboring cubes whose guest chairs will be confiscated to accommodate as many as half a dozen participants in a six-by-six-foot space.

Companies are actually making cubicles smaller, making it harder to hold such meetings, although that is not the intent. It is simply part of a trend toward reducing office space for economic reasons. Data shows the average cube size has shrunk from eight-by-ten feet when it was born to six-by-six today.

In some companies, the cubicle creates a dehumanizing caste system in which people with wall offices feel superior to people in cubes, and the cube people resent the wall-office people. For these and other reasons, more companies are tearing down office and cubicle walls in favor of open-office layouts.

Proponents of the open environment say it enhances teamwork. When GlaxoSmithKline switched from cubicles to an open-office layout “email traffic dropped by more than 50 percent while decision-making accelerated by 25 percent,” reported the Wall Street Journal. This was attributed to employees’ ability “to meet informally instead of volleying emails from offices and cubes.”

Most research, however, has found the opposite effect: that open-office arrangements discourage face-to-face interaction and increase electronic communication. In a recent study, Harvard University’s Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban examined two Fortune 500 companies that removed office and cubicle walls in favor of open office setups. In one, the average time employees spent interacting face-to face dropped from 5.8 hours a day to 1.7 hours, while emails and instant messages increased more than 50 percent. The other company had similar results, with face-to-face interactions decreasing 67 percent and increased email traffic. The authors concluded that open office environments may be “overstimulating … reducing rather than increasing productive interaction.”

Other studies have yielded similar findings. Employees experience more uncontrolled interactions in open environments, leading to higher stress and reduced concentration. A survey of nearly 40,000 employees found that noise and interruptions by colleagues were the worst detriments to productivity.

As a writer, I have always found any sound, even soft music, to be distracting when I’m working. My kids, on the other hand, always insisted that listening to music through headphones while they did their homework helped them concentrate. I thought maybe it was a generational thing, and I may have been right. Open office layouts seem to be the preferred setup of younger workers.

Some people work better with noise in the room than they do in silence, according to a study published in the Harvard Business Review. EEG readings of study participants showed “a certain level of white noise proved the ideal background sound for creative tasks.” Results also showed, however, that other types of distractions—pop-ins, loud conversations, etc.—have a negative effect.

The biggest problem I would have in an open office environment is just being out in the open. I don’t like people observing me doing my job. I had a glass office once that, while better than a cube, made me feel like I was in a fishbowl.

Older employees like me, as well as women, particularly don’t like open office environments. The effect on women may seem surprising given that women are usually viewed as more social than men. But a recent study found that women are less at ease in open environments because they are more self-conscious about people staring and scrutinizing their appearance.

Whether you work in a wall office, a cube or out in the open, experts say lighting, especially natural light, is critical to productivity. “If you’re in a space that has no windows, people tend to be less productive than when they’re in a space where they have access to natural light,” says one interior architect. Unfortunately, it is hard to give everyone a window.

New innovations in desks are said to improve productivity. “Standing desks” are popular. These are raised desks that you stand at rather than sit. They are said to boost productivity and health. Recent studies have cast doubt on this, however. In fact, they’ve shown that standing too long can cause back and circulation problems. A twelve-year study—published in the American Journal of Epidemiology—of more than 7,000 office workers found that people who stood a lot at work were almost twice as likely to develop heart disease as colleagues who sat more often.

Physiotherapy experts advise that if health is your thing, take more walks instead. The “treadmill desk” can aid in this pursuit, enabling you to walk while you work. Other high-tech desks include desks with lights indicating when you are too busy to be disturbed, and “smart desks” that capture data on when you’re sitting, standing, or away. They can even measure how you’re sitting, if you’re slouching, and send all this information to your boss!

Perhaps most telling of all the research on office environments and productivity is that productivity seems greatest when people work at home. This goes against the grain in most corporate circles, where supervisors don’t trust employees to work on their own without abusing the privilege. There must be a physical presence to maintain control.

In 2013, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer made headlines when she banned employees from working at home. She had heard some employees complain that several projects were being slowed by coworkers not being there. She also didn’t like the look of so many empty spaces in the parking lots.

“I have nothing against working at home per se,” she said. “I don’t know that (not working from home) is necessarily the right stance for industry or the world at large. It was just the right thing for us at that moment.” She added that “people are more collaborative and more inventive when they come together.”

The research says otherwise, but this is the mantra of most corporations—how to get people to work more effectively together. This is really what is behind most efforts to tear down the walls and move to more open office layouts.

“The corporate world pushes extroversion on people, most often through a relentless meetings culture,” says Leonid Bershidsky, a Bloomberg business writer. “Some find that so uncomfortable they unconsciously try to minimize human contact.”

As an introvert, I can attest to this—and will have much more to say about it in a later chapter.