COVID-19 Day 49: Cubicles May Make a Coronavirus Comeback


As people go back to work in offices, companies are going to have to modify their workplaces to comply with social-distancing laws. One of the biggest challenges stems from a remodeling decision many companies made in the early ‘aughts to follow the fashionable trend of creating “Open Offices.” They removed dividers and cubicles and fit tables closely together in large common spaces. 

The theory was that private offices and cubicle dividers discouraged collaboration and that big open work areas, with long rows of connected desks, would be more productive. This interior design trend in the US can trace its start to the 1990s, to advertising agency TBWA/Chiat/Day and their custom-built office in Venice, CA. The company’s creative leaders and their architect were enamored with the idea that people would work more creatively and freely, if they abandoned assigned personal offices and cubicles. Instead staff were all given laptops and cell phones to work together in common bench and meeting spaces. 

TBWA/Chiat/Day created the iconic ad campaigns for Apple. Steve Jobs was visually smitten by the new office layout and this inspired him to change Apple’s corporate offices to follow this style. Other tech companies and ad agencies also bought into the concept, created a trend that later Fortune 500 companies followed. 

It soon became a symbol of corporate hipness to have Open Offices. Private offices and especially cubicles became a sign that your company was ‘behind the times’ or ’so last century’. But the architectural philosophy behind Open Offices, like other unfriendly architectural styles such as Brutalism, was based on aesthetics not on any studies on efficiency, productivity, or even practicality. Experience would show they made workplaces worse and less enjoyable.

artist-rendering-of-the-open-space-work-areaThe open spaces looked very clean and modern in architectural renderings but when actual people occupied the workspace, it quickly became cluttered. People were used to customizing their cubicles with photos and knick-knacks, without these artificial walls, they were forced to leave their personal artifacts out in the open. Along with reference books, phones, sticky notes, and other work flotsam. 


Without offices and sound deadening fabric in cubicle walls, the noise of fellow workers in neighboring desks, forced people to wear headphones or find other ways to isolate themselves from distractions. Client calls and conference calls were often a problem annoying callers and neighboring workers alike. Conference rooms and phone-call booths were often fought over. 

Ironically, it became such a problem that even TBWA/Chiat/Day went back to a modified office and cubicle layout. But a bad fashion trend takes time to correct and office remodels are expensive and not done regularly. Today’s pandemic may force a change back to office spaces and enclosed workstations.

I wouldn’t be surprised if companies started to announce, “Innovative companies are now offering COVID-friendly desk dividers called CUBEcles designed to socially “iclate” workers for their safety”

Welcome to your hip new work environment. Looks a lot like the old one. 



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