The Death of the Cubicle, and Other Workplace Trends

Twitter’s San Francisco HQ, designed by Interior Architects

As tenants transition from hard-lined telephones to VOIP, abandon private offices for open areas and clamor for “brick and timber” creative spaces versus “view space”, demand for less traditional office space is on the rise.

Sure, it didn’t take a futurist to figure out that fax machines would soon be nothing more than an ancient office relic, but the cubicle?  Along with the coffee maker and printing room, cubes are the last bastion of the traditional office, and according to workplace strategist Mary Lee Duff of Interior Architects, who recently completed the design of Twitter’s new San Francisco headquarters, demand for them is waning.

The traditional concept of the high panel Dilbert cubicle has definitely been diminishing.  The drive today is for workplace settings to be more open and collaborative with a strong emphasis on flexibility.  For some clients that means going into benching systems, for others it is simply lowering the panel walls and being able to offer greater control over how to reconfigure one’s own space.

Configurability of the office space is paramount to tenants’ desires; something cubicles do not intrinsically lend themselves to.  Tenants are increasingly demanding fluidity and flexibility in almost a minimalist fashion.  Big clunky cubes that cannot be reconfigured or moved without contracting a furniture installer are more frequently being replaced with workbenches (sometimes on wheels) and demountable partitions so as to encourage collaboration.  Ms. Duff continues:

With the rise of open collaborative planning there is a need to evaluate the right balance of both focused, contemplative spaces alongside the energetic buzz of open teaming areas.  This is one of many challenges faced by design firms today in planning appropriate space that aligns workspace with the business, culture, and aspirations of each client.

But foregoing cubicles for more flexible furniture options do not come without their challenges.  Furniture on wheels can easily accommodate a quick reconfiguration due to a change in headcount or department consolidation, but where is the power and data going to come from?  Interior Architects overcame this hurdle during a recent assignment by utilizing a raised floor that could accommodate multiple power and data plan configurations in a myriad of locations.

Twitter Headquarters
San Francisco

External influences to workplace design such as globalization, increased demand for sustainability and a changing demographic are also altering the face of the modern office.  With employees regularly engaging customers and colleagues around the globe in different timezones, video conferencing and work/life slicing is gaining popularity.

Age, gender and ethnic diversity is also affecting the way offices are being built out and configured.  I know of at least one tenant that has a prayer room for their muslim employees, and a “wellness” or “mothers’ room” for new mothers is fast becoming the norm in newly-built offices.

Several other trends that appear to have sticking power are the “work anywhere” mentality, increased importance of having face-to-face meeting areas, highly configurable or “hackable” walls and partitions, small and agile workgroups, and increased transparency whereby an employee can do a 360° spin in their chair and literally see the entire office.

For further insight into workplace trends and to reach Ms. Duff:

Mary Lee Duff, Assoc. IIDA, LEED® AP | Principal

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I represent commercial office tenants in the Bay Area and strive to leave behind a path of healthier, more energy-efficient offices in my wake. Benjamin on Google+

13 thoughts on “The Death of the Cubicle, and Other Workplace Trends”

  1. Hi Benjamin, thanks for a very interesting article. I totally support the trend and the idea -work anywhere. However, are there any surveys on the opinions of employees of the companies which have done such a transformation of their premises? One of the wide spread opinions is that employees do not like open space, and rather sit in separate rooms and have their privacy. I made a mock up for Siemens in Moscow and the right away feedback from the employees, who were supposed to test new office solutions (benches sit and stand, think tanks, break out corner, central storage versus the use of pedestals, coffee point in the middle of the office), was quite negative. The question begs – What are the attractions/wins for the actual users? The article explains the benefits for the companies/tenants but what about the consumers of such corporate solutions?

    1. Hi Dmitry,

      Thanks for reading, and sorry for the tardy reply… oh, the holidays.

      I am not aware of a survey conducted at Twitter regarding their satisfaction of the “open plan” layout but would will ask and let you know if that was done.

      I do not believe that this model is a panacea for all companies, but is sector-specific, therefore the response from an attorney or CPA would be negative but perhaps positive from a technology company that thrives and whose employees benefit from collaboration and a creative aesthetic.

      1. Hi Benjamin, thanks for comnig back, as I spoke about employees I touched upon the issue that such an idea of a big change within a company needs to be sold to people working in this company in order to rely on their support. From this point of you it was interesting for me to learn your opinion on that as you have been dealing with such issues. Best regards from snowy Moscow! Dmitry

        1. I definitely agree that it’s often a wise strategy to confer with your employees before making big decisions like this. I think the value in employee surveys is not to be understated.

          I remember a transaction I was working on years ago where the CEO wanted to relocate from one submarket to another, believing that his employees would be thrilled about their new location.

          After conducting an employee survey, which also calculated the move’s impact on employees’ daily commute drive times, we discovered that the employees had quite the opposite enthusiasm for the relocation.

    2. Since I don’t enjoy other people’s ideas of hygiene, and do have a sense of possession, having worked in both environments I do like ‘my’ desk. I don’t like hearing everything short of the heart pumping of my colleagues.

  2. Hello Benjamin. I think you should know that a link to this article was posted in the Corporate Real Estate Group in Linkedin. Several people asked permission of the he person who posted the link to post in their blogs/ezines, not reading the fine print as to where the article originated. I posted a comment correcting that so you may get some other comments.

    Twenty years ago when I was an architect in LA our interior design group had an ongoing relationship with ARCO Petroleum, a company now limited to gas stations I think. It was for ongoing services for office designs in the 15 floors they occupied in the ARCO Tower in downtown LA.

    They called us in for a discussion of the office of the future. To show they were serious they asked for our senior mechanical engineer from our Chicago headquarters to attend. It never went very far, but the session with the ARCO in-house “futurist” left me very excited with the concept.

    Please take the following comment that I posted in Linkedin with my best wishes.
    “For my many years in the profession I have always disliked the architectural renderings that show a few people in a large space. I call it the Sunday morning view. Twitter’s office photo shows seven people in a space that clearly is designed for denser occupancy but would that ruin the calm atmosphere? I’m more interested in what goes on in the floor to ceiling space visible through the opening on the right.”

    1. Hi Ira, thanks for letting me know about the reposts. I was unable to find them but appreciate you commenting to correct. I have since been contacted by a few people who wished to re-post so perhaps that’s where they came from.

      It’s funny that you mention the pictures depicted in the Twitter photos… the only place I was not allowed to take photos was in the employee work areas. I had to actually be escorted in behind a big door with a key card, and photos, even from employees, are strictly prohibited. The density of this space is much higher, and I would guess perhaps somewhere between 100-150SF/employee. There is long, bench style seating where everyone sits side by side in front of their monitors. I have to admit, though… everyone seemed to be happy, productive, and busy. People were bouncing back and forth from station to station, and it just seemed to “work”.

      One thing I thought was pretty cool was that even the top executives did not have their own private office, per se. It was almost like they applied the “hotel” style of bench seating for temp or part-time employees to the private office space. When an executive from NYC is in town, they have access to a nice shared private office with sofas and video conferencing. Definitely a lot different than what we’ve grown accustomed to but it came off as refreshing and the culture really appeared to have embraced it.

  3. Having spent over 25 years working for high tech companies who did product design and wrote code, open plan “cube farm” environments were pretty much universally hated because of noise, a lack of privacy and that employees felt constantly surveilled and not trusted. The open spaces contributed to increased staff turnover and harmed productivity. Movable partitions were used because it was cheaper than building personal spaces and it facilitates observation. The places programmers, designers and other envied – and attracted lots of talent – were the firms that gave them their own enclosed space to work in. In facilitating collaboration an open physical environment runs a distant second behind management building a collaborative culture.

    1. David, my recent experience has been that this type of platform is generally well received and desired. Perhaps there’s been a paradigm shift in what employees find desirable? I think a big factor may have to do with the age of the workforce. I’ve found older employees much more resistant to change, and younger much more accepting… maybe because they have nothing else to compare to, being new to the workforce.

      1. Snowflakes like to be seen & heard. I just want what I produce seen & heard – I could collaborate remotely, thanks. Disease, odors, sounds, … a distraction to me. I’m one of those “I like to study in the library” types versus the “I love going to the movies where everyone talks over the film.”

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