The Death of the Cubicle: The Rise of the Community Work Space

by: Steven J. Boyington


Dilbert, the beloved white collar anti-hero, has bumbled through the American workday for over two decades. Dilbert depicted cubicle life as a three-walled purgatory from which there was no escape. Although great material for a Sunday funny, the cliché office cubicle is anything but for the modern office environment.


Fortunately, modern designers learned from Dilbert. More and more offices are favoring fluid, open floorplans to offer employees the freedom to choose their working conditions. Frank Lloyd Wright, for example, designed the Johnson Wax Administration Building in Racine, Wisconsin to increase traffic flow and freedom of movement by implementing a vast, open layout. Bathed in natural light and supported by an indoor “pine forest” of columns, Wright’s revolutionary design boosted employee productivity by 25%.

Knocking down the barriers between employees does more than just open up the room. Here are some ways that businesses are creating conductive space by “thinking outside the box.”

All Together Now: Steve Jobs’ famous redesign of Pixar Studios came into being after he realized that animators, computer scientists, and executives were holed away into separate buildings. Jobs understood that sequestering these groups, each with their own unique approach to problem-solving, discouraged the growth that comes from sharing ideas. He immediately rectified this situation by creating a new workplace in which all the moving parts of the studio were under the same roof. Employees shared vast, open common space that allowed for small teams to work together on the fly. This change created the collaborative environment needed to foster the innovative ideas that Pixar is known for.

Design With Respect: Even the most focused employees struggle to be productive in an environment that is noisy and intrusive. After all, introverts comprise at least half of society, and not everyone thrives in an open environment the same way. How can two opposing concepts—the simultaneous need for both collaboration and privacy—be realized in a single design solution?
One word: choice. For instance, WMB designed an open office for Voce Communication using modular elements to managing noise and distraction. The open office can be sequestered off by simply sliding a wall, inviting employees to choose the amount of privacy needed on the fly. The modular conference room provides plenty of opportunities for “situational introverts” to slide a wall and retreat from workplace din.

Create Collisions: Psychologist Leon Festinger theorized that physical space was the key to friendship formation; that “friendships are likely to develop on the basis of brief and passive contacts made going to and from home or walking about the neighborhood.” Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, created a culture of “collisions”- there is only one entrance and one exit into the massive Zappos headquarters. He wanted employees to “collide” and have daily social interactions that transcended the water cooler.

Work Hard and Play Hard: While at first glance, a hammock or ping pong table may seem wildly out of place in an office environment; these small additions allow employees the opportunity to step away from their work without actually leaving the office. Google famously employed a “150 feet from food” rule. This rule ensured that at any given time, workers were within rolling-chair distance of either a restaurant, a large cafeteria, or a micro-kitchen. While grabbing a snack or enjoying a relaxing game of ping pong, employees bump into coworkers from different teams, creating a series of “casual collisions” that offer a social element without forcing people to leave the office.

In Space, no one can hear you scream: In an open office, noise can be a serious concern. One way to limit the din is to provide quiet areas for phone calls and small meetings. At Voce Communications, for instance, sound-proof phone booths were scattered throughout the workplace to help keep sensitive phone calls private and spare the rest of the office from unnecessary extra noise.

Another tactic to reduce overall noise is to choose panels, ceilings, floors and walls that absorb excess noise. Hard surfaces do a poor job at absorbing sound, so bringing in softer materials such as carpets can help minimize noise. Walls can be decorated with pieces that double as both high-quality soundproofing materials and unique pieces of art. Thinking more natural? Plants boost sound absorption—consider implementing a “living wall” to suck up excess noise AND carbon dioxide.

The less satisfied you are with the physical setting of your work environment, the more likely you are to be dissatisfied with your job. Employees working in a comfortable space are much more likely to be engaged and to make a positive contribution to the organization’s financial success. Fine-tuning an open office layout to fit the processes, culture and behaviors is no easy task, but the payoff is the difference between happy, productive employees and…