Living in a cubicle: human-friendly open plan offices

Do you like working in open plan office? Many would say no. Probably, it can be remedied by new ideas introduced by office space designers

Do you like working in open plan office? Many would say no. The frequently cited drawbacks are obvious: noise, inability to focus and higher fatigue due to continuous distractions from co-workers.  Dividing the space into cubicles doesn’t help much as that just creates additional problems.

Meanwhile office ‘fashion’ defines the future: personal offices are becoming extinct. According to the research conducted by International Facility Management Association in 2010, about 70% of American offices stick to the open plan concept, and this numbers only set to grow.

What’s the problem?

Of course, it is not about employers’ conspiracy built with a sole purpose of mistreating their employees. There is one solid reason behind the popularity of open plan design: they are cheaper. The more tightly packed people are, the less the rent, the more the profit. Simple math.


However, this logic is a bit twisted. People are no machines. Such ephemeral factors such as mood and physical state heavily impact productivity, which is, ultimately, transformed into lower profits.



Numerous researches claim the problem is real. Not only do people working in open plan offices feel worse and work less efficiently, they are more prone to illnesses.


For example, frequency of cases of short-term queasiness (not necessitating medical assistance) is higher for those who work in large offices rather than among those who work in separate rooms. Working in windowless spaces leads to depression and sleep disorders.



So how can you make the best of this situation?  Here’s a few ideas that may help you feel a little more human when you’re inside the office.

The introvert’s harbor

Generally, most people are able to manage in normal office conditions, however the more introverted find it more difficult which can lead to increased anxiety.  Susan Cane shows just how important introverted people can be when understood correctly.


So its important for introverted people to have designated, break-away areas where they’re able to better concentrate and focus.  Cane at Steelcase have actually created an introverted friendly workspace for around $15k which you can view here.


One thing remains unclear: what if extraverts start to come to this temple of introvertism? Who would ever say no to a short nap during the workday? And if facilities are available to everyone, how would one combine them with economy principles?


Agile Acoustics, a British company, developed a far more democratic approach: the firm produces noise-absorbing panels made of recycled materials (namely, plastic bottles).



Such panels with attractive images on them can serve for several purposes: from making a wall more sustainable to noise to separating oneself from a talkative colleague. On a next day, you could rearrange the setting to create a boardroom just in the middle of the office.

Here, there, anywhere

Flexibility and reconfigurability is one of the main requirements to the office furniture. Whatever was stable and solid throughout the years, is now to be dynamically adjusted to the changing work environment.


For instance, Herman Miller, an American furniture manufacturer, in their Metaform Portfolio product series uses light plastic elements which serve to assemble a convenient office environment the way one usually assembles Lego. Should you need to brainstorm and exercise some team activities — just push all the tables together. Once you have elaborated an idea and need to spend some time finishing it, break the shared space into cubicles or clusters.



Menéndez and Gamonal Arquitectos, a Spanish company, evangelizes a different approach. To their mind, the very shape of the furniture should encourage team work. For example, when seated at the table which looks more or less like a color palette, one cannot help but start collaborating.


The idea was initially developed for higher education groups to encourage students to start talking to each other rather than sitting on their own. But, generally, this approach is quite feasible even in business environments.

King Arthur’s swings

Hi-tech offices like Google’s or Facebook’s have taught the cold-hearted business community the wonders of lounges, balls, and other non-standard interior elements. Christopher Duffy, a British designer, proposed the next step: he thinks of equipping boardrooms with… swings.



Firstly, when swinging, it is quite hard to speak same old corporate bullcrap which so many corporate meetings are good at. Secondly, this unconventional idea helps to relax and leave you usual comfort zone and start thinking outside the box. However, it would cost you a small fortune. The “King Arthur’s Roundtable with Swings” model for 12 people would cost up to $16K.


Belois Shallane thinks the key to making the office routine more bearable, is applying individuality to each cubicle — for instance, make them look like alphabet. Surely, the essence of this idea is visible only from above, but these peculiarities of each cubicle forming a fascinating maze are quite impressive.



To sum it up, there are two key takeaways. Firstly: open plan offices are here to stay and we have to live with it. Secondly: there is hope that new tech, materials and ideas will help us tolerate this new trend.

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