Bring Back Cubicles

An impassioned plea.

Photo: Sean Harquail/Flickr

By now, we are all well aware that an open office is productivity’s number one enemy. Your coworkers are distractions, with their conversations and chatter and quiet inquiries about your weekend and whether or not you have that thing they asked for yesterday. The office itself — airy, spacious, full of light and windows — is a distraction, each square foot of free space sapping your productivity. The internet is a distraction. Someone else chewing is a distraction. Multi-tasking is bad for you.

Now we have another thing to worry about: “visual noise,” defined by the Wall Street Journal as “the activity or movement around the edges of an employee’s field of vision.” So, if there’s a pile of papers on the desk next to you, with a half-empty mug of coffee on top of it, near a tangle of wires and cables and things, that’s visual noise. If you catch your coworkers talking in a huddled group in your peripheral vision, that’s also visual noise. Basically anything and everything could be visual noise, as long as it’s distracting you as you try to do your job.

Being surrounded by teammates with similar work patterns can be comforting to employees. Unpredictable movements around the edges of a person’s field of vision compete for cognitive resources, however, says Sabine Kastner, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Princeton University who has studied how the brain pays attention for 20 years. People differ in their ability to filter out visual stimuli. For some, a teeming or cluttered office can make it nearly impossible to concentrate, she says.

Some companies are trying to combat this by installing pods and giant rubber trees and hanging plants and three-walled cubicles with privacy screenings to give their employees other places to work that aren’t their desk. Other companies have created “focus rooms,” which are essentially tiny utility closets with a desk and a door that closes, so you can do your work staring at a wall instead of out the window.

The open office experience has failed. Bring back the cubicle.

We have reached a point where people are resorting to extremes to find a tiny space of their own. Rents are expensive and more people are livig with roommates for longer. Millennials either can or cannot buy homes, depending on who you ask and what day of the week it is. People are Kickstarting pods that are essentially one-person tents, popping them up in the office or in their living room, zipping themselves in with headphones on to enjoy some silence and a sense of alone-time.

This Week in Pods

Open offices are supposed to convey “freedom” and “cool” and “fun” and “natural light” but I argue that you can still have all of those things even if you put a bunch of three-walled cubicles in the middle of your cavernous workspace. What about an office with a door? Democratize the workplace by giving every single person an office, even if its a tiny little thing, with a door that they can close for privacy, productivity and eating lunches that might make other people mad because of their odor. It’s not a company’s job to create private space for their employees because they can’t get it at home, but if the open office is creating more distractions for their employees, then they might as well go into the storage unit and drag out those weird carpeted portable cubicles and set them up over the long weekend as a surprise.

Cubicle life wasn’t perfect, but it was better than sitting at a long table elbow-to-elbow with your coworkers day in and day out. The lack of a fourth wall made it so that you had to pay attention to that space. Remember the mirrors people affixed to their monitors to see people coming from behind? Remember the privacy film you’d request from the office manager to black out your desktop? It feels nuts that I’m lobbying for a return to the Office Space office but open offices have run their course. We need cubicles now. More than ever. Bring back the cubicle.

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