Nearly 40 years after its birth and proliferation into workplaces across the United States and the world, the cubicle has seen many applications. It has earned perhaps even more nicknames throughout its life cycle, including everything from “systems furniture” to what its creator, the late Robert Probst, called “monolithic insanity.”

In 1968 the “Action Office” was launched, based on Probst’s designs as head of research for Michigan-based home furnishings company Herman Miller. Featuring privacy partitions and varying desk levels to encourage stand-up as well as sit-down movement, it represented a bold new way for employees to work and collaborate. According to a recent FORTUNE magazine article, the designer theorized that “productivity would rise if people could see more of their work spread out in front of them, not just stacked in an in-box.”

The rising cost of real estate and reconfiguring office buildings, as well as new U.S. Treasury rules for depreciating assets, netted record sales of Herman Miller’s – and, later, other manufacturers’ – cubicle units. Today, office furniture is a $3 billion-a-year industry, half of which is still claimed by Herman Miller. However, there are now many more players on the block, including Steelcase, Knoll and Haworth, all of which are focusing their R&D budgets to marry design with the functions of today’s workforce.

Trends in Workplace Design

An increasing body of research finds that open spaces are favored over both cubicle-style environments and closed offices. According to Franklin Becker, director of Cornell University’s workplace studies program, a misnomer that supports this research is that cubicles can increase the amount of employee interruptions because they give the illusion of privacy and sound blocking. Such interruptions versus those in an open environment, where employees may lower their voices if they can see that they may be bothering coworkers, are costly. A recent University of California study found that over 40 percent of the time, employees don’t resume a task following an interruption.

Mark Hirons, principal of OWP/P, an architectural and engineering firm based in Chicago that has helped large and small organizations design their work environments to foster greater productivity and customer engagement, says that his clients have been moving from cubicle-style environments to open spaces and closed offices. Yet, even with closed offices there has been a trend toward making them more open and employees within them more visible, such as through the use of glass walls. Cubicles themselves have become more open with lower panels. According to Hirons, the high-walled panels are “not healthy for people, and they also block the light.”

Large companies, with significant office furniture budgets, are leading the trend away from the traditional, square cubicle. For instance, as Business 2.0magazine recently reported, Cisco Systems structured its working environment so that workers can set up areas wherever they are needed in the building, after discovering that their heavy use of mobile technology resulted in cubicles that were vacant 35 percent of the time. The company claims this has increased employee satisfaction while boosting density. Hewlett-Packard has introduced a similar scheme, while Google has developed one of its own that’s intended to give its software engineers privacy while keeping them connected to a “central artery” of employee traffic.

Helping Employees Adapt to Workplace Changes

Sometimes firms must transition from an older, more traditional closed-office environment to a modern one – and, if it is a move into a cubicle-style environment, the firm may risk alienating its employees. The Lake Forest Graduate School of Management, a nonprofit business education enterprise in Lake Forest, IL, recently weathered this challenge. “There were many problems with our old building, where 80 percent of staff had private offices,” says Director of HR Suzanne Coonan. “Our employees were looking forward to moving to a new location. However, there were mixed feelings because in the new building, more than 80 percent of staff were going to be in cubicles.”

In reacting to employees’ questions about their new space, which ranged from issues of status to privacy and productivity concerns, Coonan says the school took a proactive, multifaceted approach. Specific steps included:

  • The school’s president communicated the rationale behind the move as well as its pros and cons, and answered employees’ questions.
  • The architect showed staff the plans for the new building and explained how the new space was designed to maximize collaboration.
  • Individuals from each department were invited to join a team responsible for coordinating the move. The team served as a conduit for staff to communicate their concerns to management and receive feedback.

Coonan says that one of the beneficial measures that emerged from the moving team’s efforts was a list of good-neighbor practices related to the new cubicle environment. Using research and tips from other organizations, the team created guidelines which were distributed to all employees and are now given to new hires. The guidelines include the following, widely applicable suggestions:

Noise/Volume:

  • Cultivate a quiet manner of speaking by using a “library voice.”
  • For meetings of two or more people, use breakout and conference rooms or common areas.
  • Set the phone ringer at a low volume and try to pick it up after one or two rings.

Privacy:

  • Treat workspaces as if they have doors – get permission before entering.
  • Be mindful of phone or in-person conversations taking place when arriving at a coworker’s workstation.
  • Post a sign at your workstation signaling that you would not like to be interrupted.

Coonan advises leaders and HR directors going through a similar move, or those setting up an initial office environment with cubicles, to talk to other organizations about what they’ve done and get employees involved in the move or initial setup as much as possible. After all, as Hirons says, workers at all levels “feel the most comfortable when they have control or the opportunity for control.”