Office Space: Walls or No Walls?

Many have heard the argument that an open office is a low-cost way to foster collaboration and creativity in the workplace. Cubicle walls have been broken down in the hopes that employees will talk to one another and spark new and innovative ideas more often.

A wall-less office space is not a new notion. In her article Office Space: Defending the Cubicle, Chappell Ellison notes that all the way back in the early 20th century, a man named Frederick W. Taylor was heralding the benefits of an office space without walls between employees. He favored this approach to make management more efficient. It was much less about increased collaboration or fostering creativity. Herman Miller stepped in around the early 1960’s to suggest a different way to work. Their cubicle model was to serve two purposes: to discourage employees from stopping their work to simply say “Hello,” or “Hey, look at this,” every hour or so, and to create a space “where solitary tasks could be accomplished without the pressuring gaze of upper management.”

Yet, the open office concept has never quite lost its popularity. Today, it’s not so much for management to watch their employees, but for employees and management to intermingle without the “constriction” of walls or other blockades that could halt creativity. But as with any social experiment, other side effects are revealed over time, and at this point in the game, many companies are struggling to know how to deal with the noise of an open concept office space. Inevitably, employees sitting near one another with no walls to discourage conversation will talk more frequently. Other office noises, such as taking a phone call, or a neighboring conversation, will become more noticeable and possibly distracting. But as there’s more ongoing buzz, is there a measure of whether or not the buzz is productive?

In a New York Times article by John Tierney, he finds suggestions that the open office concept has actually made conversation more superficial instead of productive, and in fact many are once again heralding the common cubicle and attempting new ways to make the buzz manageable. Ellison makes the point that cubicles were created with the idea of more efficiency and productivity. However, their implementation and design has left something to be desired and today they have the reputation of being cold, corporate boundaries of creative suppression. To combat this, some companies are looking at alternatives to both the cubicles and the open office concept. At the consulting firm What If, the offices have been designed to offer both private and public space. The public space, however, is designed after a concept we all know and love, the restaurant booth. Barrie Berg, chief officer of American operations suggests that, “You can see what’s going on around you, and people can see you, but you can still have a private conversation without disturbing anyone around you. We’re a culture of people who work better with a buzz around us, but that buzz needs to be manageable.”

In the never ending struggle to find the places and postures in which employees are the most productive, new ideas are beginning to surface even while we continue to experiment with the old ways. Be prepared for another office revolution, Ellison says, because since we’ve moved from open office to cubicle and back to open office, there is new buzz that maybe the office isn’t the best place to work efficiently after all.

What’s your poison: walls or no walls? Do you feel you’re more productive working in that environment? Respond in the comments below!

IMAGE: Courtesy of Flickr by peter van der linde