As office workers return, so does the humble cubicle


Cubicles are rarely mentioned among office designers and architects. The once-ubiquitous accessory, so popular in the 1980s and 1990s, has been vilified as a sign of the dehumanization of the workforce. Design experts today say that cubicles are a “hard no.”

And yet cubicles, like scrunchies, are back, driven by demand from employers and employees alike.

“Frankly, I thought the cube market was dying,” said Brian Silverberg, who sells refurbished and used office furniture with his brother, Mark, at their store, Furniture X-Change in North Brunswick, New Jersey. “We've sold more cubes in the last three years than in the previous five years,” he said, adding that 2024 would be “bigger than this year.”

Covid-19 was an amplifier of a trend that preceded the pandemic. But as workers returned to the office after months of working at home, quiet spaces became more important, said Gensler's Janet Pogue McLaurin. “We had seen a drop in effectiveness due to noise interruptions, disturbances and a general lack of privacy,” she said.

Global demand has pushed cubicles and partitions into a $6.3 billion market, which is expected to grow to $8.3 billion over the next five years, according to a 2022 report from Business Research Insights, a market analysis firm.

Furniture makers had already recognized that workers wanted some privacy despite employers' tendency to value collaborative areas more than individual workspaces.

Anyone who has ever worked in an office with benches “hates the open layout,” said Michael Held, vice president of global design at furniture maker Steelcase.

Working from home during the pandemic offered some relief from noisy coworkers, but it also brought new distractions, including constant interruptions from family members and roommates and the persistent temptation to do chores. Employees cite a lack of focus as the biggest problem with remote work, said Ryan Anderson, vice president of global research and insights at MillerKnoll, the furniture maker, which tracks worker trends with Boston Consulting Group and messaging platform Slack. .

As a result, just as companies try to juggle remote work and in-office mandates, they are also deliberating on the right mix of collaboration areas, conference rooms, and individual spaces.

For example, at Grassi, a New York accounting and auditing firm with 500 employees, offices have been reconfigured into hybrid spaces, emphasizing cubicles or semi-private areas along with open collaboration spaces.

Some of the company's seven offices were “too open and didn't have dedicated private space,” said Jeff Agranoff, the company's chief human resources officer. Now the firm has a combination of open and private spaces. (The company also eliminated reservation scheduling for desks, an arrangement known as hoteling. “Everyone has a dedicated space,” Agranoff said, “because we were concerned that significant hoteling would discourage people from returning to the office.”)

Many employers now offer a variety of work spaces, including shared offices, conference rooms, phone booths and libraries, Gensler's Ms. McLaurin said. And yes, cubicles.

Just don't expect to see six-foot-tall panels: They're still out of fashion. Instead, the new cubes offer what Held called “seating privacy” with 54-inch-high panels.

And unlike the cubicles in movies like “Office Space,” which lampooned their commercialized, sanitized appearance, today's versions are ergonomic and flexible and can include lighting. They can be rectangular or rounded, with fixed or adjustable walls, and can house multiple electronic devices.

Equipment can be adapted to different needs and some include sound masking functions. Steelcase, for example, has incorporated panels that absorb some sound waves, creating “less echo in the space,” Held said, while also reflecting less noise.

MillerKnoll has a workstation that is “not so much a cube or really a private office,” but rather a “small enclosed environment that is physically comfortable,” Anderson said.

Standing desks are often incorporated into new or renovated workstations. Some of Grassi's renovated cubicles include glass walls. Arms can be connected to raise or lower monitors to adapt to different heights, as well as video calls.

Demand for refurbished workstations has slowed from its pandemic peak, but still eclipses pre-pandemic levels. With this rise came a concomitant decline in office benches, said Trevor Langdon, chief executive of Green Standards, a Toronto company that refurbishes and resells office furniture. Smaller configurations that incorporate cubicles are more popular now, he said, adding that his inventory “suggests our customers are sticking with their low-panel workstations.”

In a sense, cubicles have come full circle in terms of flexibility. In the 1950s and 1960s, private offices surrounded open areas with secretaries clattering away at their typewriters; think “The Apartment” or “Mad Men.” But Robert Propst, an inventor, came up with a novel idea: creating flexible, partially enclosed spaces to promote work.

He developed his original design, “the action office,” in the 1960s while working at MillerKnoll, then known as Herman Miller. Propst, who disliked cubicles, was an early proponent of invoking urban planning concepts, such as neighborhoods, in office designs.

Because flexibility made construction more expensive and cheaper, fixed versions became the norm, and the result was divided, isolated and unpleasant work areas. Before long, critics began mocking the tall cubicles, usually covered in fabric. Over time, the six-foot-high walls gave way to lower dividers until the office once again contained large open work spaces, replete with benches and sofas.

The increased focus on collaboration in the 1990s and early 2000s led office designers to move away from cubicles, but there was a secondary push for the open floor plan: cost. In high-rent cities like New York or London, “placing everyone in a cubicle or office was too much, so the open floor plan became very popular,” Held said.

After long periods of working from home during the pandemic, manufacturers are recognizing the influence of residential design on office furniture. Some employees are taking it a step further by importing home decor into their workspaces. Cubicle dwellers often post photos on sites like Pinterest and Instagram.

Lucas Mundt, a logistics analyst at Simple Modern in Oklahoma City, had already helped his coworkers hang photos, but he wanted to transform his cubicle into a faux log cabin. After obtaining permission, he went to work during a weekend, when the office was empty. “I wanted to do it big and over the top,” he said.

He added laminate wood flooring and covered the walls with a wood-like contact paper. He attached a picture of a window and, although he doesn't hunt, added two stuffed animals meant to replicate those often found in hunting lodges. The chandelier and heater, which looks like a wood stove, are voice-activated.

The transformation was a success in the office. The company's CEO, Mike Beckham, was such a fan that he posted photos on social media and gave everyone in the office an allowance of $250 (about the amount Mundt estimated he spent) to redecorate their cubicles.

Mundt acknowledged that his renovation went beyond the norm. “If I'm going to spend 40 to 50 hours a week there, I wanted it to be comfortable and relaxing,” he said. “And I feel at home in the mountains.”

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