Zen and the Art of Cubicle Living
I worked out of what might be the best-designed office space in America. Here's what it taught me about productivity, concentration, and happiness at work.
One day recently I worked out of, quite possibly, the best office I have ever been in. Granted, this is not a high bar for a cubicle drone like me. Still, the design touches were lovely: It was a glass cube with an ergonomic green chair and mahogany desk. There was a frosted-glass door, so theoretically, I could have worked pants-less. (I was fully clothed.)
The lighting was straight out of an ABC primetime family drama: a bright reading lamp to my left, a copper light above me, and another, softer light that glowed behind my laptop screen. Behind that was a magnetic board, where, if this were my actual office, I would have affixed a photo of my friends and me jumping simultaneously into the air.
My little slice of Work Heaven was just for show, for indeed, it was situated in a showroom—in the New York offices of the Steelcase furniture company. The men’s shoes in the cubbies below my desk belonged to no man in particular. The little bronze tchotchkes on the shelves were suited to the tastes of your typical high-end office-solutions buyer.
This office was so slick it even had a name: “Flow.” It was part of a larger group of office spaces designed with the help of Susan Cain, the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. The entire collection is geared toward the muted personalities of introverts, though the awesomeness of its amenities is apparent even to loudmouths like me.
Introverts, as my colleague Julie Beck has written, are more sensitive to the clicking, chatting, coffee-sipping soundtrack of the modern open-plan office. Steelcase and Cain wanted their workplaces to provide privacy—in the form of soundproof, partly translucent walls—without making the worker feel like she’s in a sensory-deprivation chamber. There are “quiet spaces” with couches and reclining chairs for solo work; there are white-boarded conference rooms for collaboration. There’s a yoga studio. For yoga at work.
I’m not exactly an introvert, but the project intrigued me because of the growing prevalence—and seemingly unanimous hatred of—both open plans and cubicle farms. Research has shown that people who work in open-plan offices get sick more often and are more stressed by the sights and sounds that surround them.
Obviously, we can’t all have window offices—the number of those primo suites is limited by the amount of window space in a given building. But Flow is just a big glass box; theoretically, all of our nation’s cubicles could be converted to Flows tomorrow, pending some sort of odd and wide-scale labor strike. (Hell, no! We want Flow!) But would that really be for the best?
My own office, which is fairly typical, could maybe be described as "open office light": We sit in low cubicles that are open on two sides and connected to each other. It's true that the background noise and lack of privacy can be irksome. At the same time, I thrive on the constant information overload, chatting with my coworkers and wandering around the Watergate whenever I need a brain boost.
Seeing Steelcase’s offerings made me wonder: If I worked in an office space fine-tuned for solitude, would my productivity skyrocket? Or do the collectivist arrangements—cubicles and communal workspaces—offer more advantages that we think?
“Man is born free, but everywhere he is in cubicles,” noted n + 1 editor Nikil Saval in his recent rumination on the white-collar home away from home, Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace. American adults who are employed full-time log about 47 hours per week at work, most of them in the office, and at least some of them complaining on Facebook about the guy who brings leftover fish to re-heat, like, every day.
That’s actually a startling number of hours to lack control over our surroundings, once you stop to consider it. We’d never let some stranger pick out our apartment layout, but the place where we spend the better part of our waking hours feels, for many of us, like it was laid out by an extraterrestrial middle-manager who had never before met a human or tried to finish a report on deadline.
In its quest to create the optimal office, Steelcase sent senior design researcher Melanie Redman and her team out to survey and observe workers in the U.S., China, India, and Europe. Nearly everywhere they went, people groused that their desks had been configured with anything but privacy in mind.
“We heard from some people who worked in an HR department—their office was redesigned and they were moved into an open plan,” she told me as we sat in a Steelcase "media:scape lounge," a hexagonal beige couch with orange cushions.
The obvious rub? HR representatives have to place dozens of confidential phone calls each week. The workers, Redman says, found themselves bolting to the parking lot in the middle of the day in order to hash out salary and benefits information with prospective employees from the privacy of their cars.
“Companies adopt open-plan because they've been told it's beneficial, but without paying attention to the tasks employees need to do,” Redman says. (The HR workers’ employer eventually heard their complaints and installed private enclaves.)
That said, open-plan offices—those without barriers between workers—aren’t all bad. When Matthew Davis, a lecturer in socio-technical systems at Leeds University in the UK, reviewed the literature on open-plan arrangements in 2011, he found that the wall-free environment did help workers forge stronger relationships with each other and with their managers. “If you’re working on projects, or if you have tasks that are interdependent, it’s easier to talk to the people you need to,” he says.
But most of the benefits, he acknowledges, “flow more to the employer than the employees.” The biggest gripe among the open-plan workers, he found, was noise. People were distracted by phones ringing and printers jamming, and also by people constantly walking past their desks. The second most common grievance was privacy. “Open-plan is a form of managerial control,” Davis says. “It’s easier for managers to see exactly where everyone is.”
What’s more, some individuals’ personalities aren’t adapted to the constant potential for random interaction. “Some people are less comfortable having personal conversations in front of their co-workers,” he adds. You may itch to gab loudly about your weekend with someone, but your company’s resident introvert does not—and when everyone sits elbow to elbow, there’s no way for him to escape.
Say what you will about open offices; at least they’re not as bad as cubicles. In a 2001 survey of office environments, Franklin Becker, director of the Cornell University International Workplace Studies Program, found that cubicles were the worst performers across every measure, including privacy, productivity, and concentration
With cubicles, Davis says, “you have most of the problems of the open plan, without the benefits of being able to interact easily with other people.”
It’s hard to say which of these setups are best for productivity, however. Some studies have found that workers who are exposed to open-office-style background noise are more stressed and frazzled. Workers who sat in a noisy room gave up on difficult puzzles faster than those who were in quiet environments, for example. Meanwhile, another study found that about 70 decibels of background noise—about as loud as a car passing by outside—can actually enhance creativity. Any higher than that, though, and the brain’s ability to process information plummets.
Nilli Lavie, a professor of psychology at the University College London, says that the likelihood of being distracted during work depends on the type of task at hand. Counterintuitively, it’s when we’re absorbed in something that involves “high perceptual load”—wrangling a lot of information at once—that we’re least likely to be distracted. For tasks that require low perceptual load, meanwhile, like writing a cursory email or filing some paperwork, there is a greater likelihood of our concentration being broken.
As an example, Lavie says, consider stockbrokers who watch multiple screens at once while barking out complicated figures on the phone. “How are they able to concentrate on their market analyses?” she says. “My explanation would be that the high rate of information flow on those screens is what allows those brokers to be focused on what they’re doing without being distracted by the others next to them.”
Lavie says that while open offices have a tendency to distract through auditory and visual interruptions, even if we all had our own offices, some of us would still lose focus—as anyone who has had trouble working from home might attest.
“If you are putting yourself in a quiet place, if you are a distractible personality, you will create your own source of distraction via mind-wandering,” Lavie says.
And enclosed offices aren’t a perfect solution for everyone, either—some find them isolating. When my colleague Becca Rosen first told me she preferred cubicles to offices, I thought she was being sarcastic. But her reasoning makes sense:
When I came to The Atlantic, I found that much-derided cubicles meant more communication, collaboration, and interaction with my colleagues. I enjoyed the spontaneous chatter that would emerge around a breaking news story or the arrival of snacks. Overall, even though cubicles tend to have a bad rap, I've been a happier and more productive employee here than I was when I had my own sealed-off space.
They key to pleasing workers of varying levels of misanthropy, researchers seem to agree, is to offer different types of workspaces that are tailored for different functions, and then to allow employees to move among them throughout the day.
Redman says that workers in open-plan offices almost always long for more privacy, but only in certain situations, and for different reasons. The Americans in her study largely sought refuge from their coworkers—their chatter and phones, even their peering eyes. One woman was heavyset, and she told researchers she no longer felt comfortable eating dessert at her desk because she felt judged.
The Chinese workers, meanwhile, felt closely watched by their managers, and they yearned for a place to escape their boss' gaze for even a few minutes.
“Open plan only works if employees have ways to move and a place to move to,” Redman says. “If they're tethered, they suffer from constant exposure.”
For this reason, Davis says, many companies that use open-plan offices are now moving toward “activity-based working,” which offers several different types of offices, desks, and other stations where workers can temporarily set up camp. For example, there might be one big standing-height table for mindless emailing and a huddle room or two for meetings, plus a soundproof booth for long, sensitive phone calls. Citigroup in New York now has 150 unassigned desks for 200 staffers, as well as an accompanying assortment of locker rooms and private spaces, as Max Nisen recently wrote for our sister site, Quartz.
Davis points out that being in big, open space can be a good thing when workers are blasting through routine tasks: The sight of others’ productivity can be motivating.
“But for people doing demanding, concentrative tasks, being in a distracting environment would be much more damaging,” he says. “That’s a big area where open-plan offices are falling down.”
For the sake of science, I decide to spend an afternoon finding out how much better I’d function if I traded my regular desk at the Watergate for a series of Steelcase-designed workspaces.
I start with the aforementioned Flow. The silence is deafening, both because I’m in a mostly empty showroom and because the doors seal with a special technology that blocks sound.
Instinctively, I start playing music, because at work I listen to soft indie tunes all day to drown out background conversations, and now I can't work without it.
Okay, now to work on a long article—exactly the kind of thing I’d have trouble focusing on in my cube.
Here, though, I find I’m still easily distracted because there’s no guilt associated with watching a YouTube video or taking a break to pay my credit-card bill, since there’s no one around to see me do it. I get halfway through a 3,000-word Medium article before I realize an hour has elapsed and I haven’t accomplished much.
Which raises the question: Office people, do you actually do any work during the day? Is the Foucauldian penal colony of your own mind the only thing keeping you on task?
Eventually, I am interrupted by some German office-furniture shoppers. I find I’m grateful to see people again.
At four o’clock, it’s time to call into the Health team’s daily editorial meeting. Usually if I’m working remotely, I’d call the cell phone of my editor, Julie, who would put me speakerphone in the meeting room. Today, I try the Steelcase “media:scape kiosk,” a “high-definition videoconferencing setting optimized for one or two people.”
The kiosk is like a little phone booth with a small standing table and an iMac that should be able to beam my coworkers’ faces at me. Unfortunately, this being a showroom, the computer is not actually connected to the Internet. iPhone speaker it is.
In an ideal situation, I’d have perfect silence. Instead I overhear a guy conducting an aggressive phone call in the next room. He hasn’t quite closed the soundproof door of his orange-couched meeting chamber.
It’s for this reason that Redman says protocols are necessary when you have workers rotating among rooms throughout the day. In Steelcase's own corporate offices, employees sign up to use the various quiet spaces through a computerized scheduler called RoomWizard, and abusers of the system are punished (I hope by being made to sit in non-ergonomic swivel chairs).
I am kind of too tall for the kiosk’s table, and I don’t love standing, so I move on to my next setting: a window-seat-style bench covered with pillows.
The bench faces the floor-to-ceiling windows of the Steelcase office and looks out onto the rainy Manhattan sky.
So much light! I feel so alive! I'm going to take the story I’m working on and ride to glory with it on a majestic Unicorn of Productivity. Type, type, type! Too bad the WiFi signal is a little weak.
Toward the end of the day, I migrate to another closed-off quiet room, this one containing a modern-looking recliner in place of a desk. It’s spotless and futuristic, like a cult leader's living room. I dim a giant glowing orb sitting on the floor, the room’s primary source of light.
I drop some dehydrated banana chips on the spotless faux-wood floor and, panicking, scoop up the shards and stuff them in my mouth. One of the armrests of the Future Chair is a tray table that swings out over my lap and holds my laptop, encasing me in a cocoon of grey polyester and labor. I feel so safe and loved I almost don’t notice when it’s time to leave.
Redman would say that what I experienced was the nirvana that comes with having total control over my work environment.
“We're wired to be social, but we're also wired to be individuals. We're constantly navigating that boundary,” Redman says. “The stress comes when we don't have control over how we give our time.”
The Steelcase-style customization ain’t cheap, though: The Flow starts at $15,000 per installation. What’s more, Davis says, it can be risky to remodel an office to make every space a “shared” or “temporary” work terminal. With so much invested in our jobs, we get sensitive about even the slightest shift in our work arrangements. People are almost as attached to their desks as they are to their salaries, Davis points out.
He says managers should include employees in the design of an office in order to avoid rebellion or disgruntlement. "It goes all the way back to the caveman thing," he explains. "We have a really innate instinct about space and making things our own."