Commentary: Forget open-plan workspaces, it's time to bring back the office cubicle
Office workers are looking for privacy in open-plan offices and are demanding for separate spaces, Financial Times' Elaine Moore points out.
CALIFORNIA: Playroom-style workspaces must be falling out of favour in Silicon Valley. Three months into my time here, there have been zero invitations to step into a Super Mario-themed meeting room or sit on beanbags in a ball pit. So far, the tech company offices I visit look more like luxe industrial warehouses.
Open-plan seating, however, is still very much in vogue.
From Reddit to Apple, tech headquarters all seem to share the same antipathy towards walls. Facebook boasts that its Menlo Park campus is the largest open-plan office in the world.
Private areas have been set aside but most desks are located in the sort of shared spaces that usually mean overhearing phone calls and hoping that whoever just sneezed has allergies rather than a cold.
Facebook showed off its office in a video posted by Mark Zuckerberg in 2015, after its move to the new building. I found the video most interesting for its tour of Zuckerberg’s own workspace, which is the desk equivalent of one of his plain grey T-shirts.
It features a laptop and some books. Not much chance of gleaning insights from that. The most distinctive quality is its location.
No fussy corner office for the millennial founder: Zuckerberg sits in the middle of the room, surrounded by colleagues.
SITTING NEXT TO THE BOSS
The first time I saw the video, I was struck with sympathy for the person sitting next to him. There may be some benefits to having the boss to hand, but imagine the pressure to look engaged at all times.
What sort of expression would you have needed to find when the Cambridge Analytica scandal emerged? Or on the day Facebook’s shares fell 20 per cent?
Open-plan offices have been around for nearly a century and the idea of putting the boss in the middle of things can be traced back to a 1960s German movement called Burolandschaft – a reaction to traditional hierarchies that promoted a more egalitarian workplace. But in most offices it remains a rarity.
The attraction for Silicon Valley may be the echo of start-up culture, where everyone squashes around a shared table and works towards a common goal. Of course, as a company grows, that idea stops reflecting reality.
Zuckerberg is both chairman and chief executive, with almost 60 per cent of the voting power of Facebook shares. Seating arrangements aside, the company’s pecking order is strictly traditional.
Many bosses have kept their own office even as most US offices adhere to an open-plan design. The obvious incentive to seating workers together is cost. It is far cheaper to run such a space than provide individual offices.
The downside, as bosses would probably agree, is focus. Endless disruptions are par for the course.
OPEN SPACES ARE DISTRACTING
Not everyone is willing to accept this without a murmur. Apple’s HQ in Cupertino – a US$5 billion spaceship of huge glass walls designed by Foster + Partners – is one of the more dramatic open-plan offices I’ve seen. But, reportedly, hardware developers were concerned that engineers would be distracted, and demanded separate spaces.
Unless remote working – via video or hologram – replaces the communal office, open-plan layouts are not going anywhere. Corralled into public spaces, workers are left to carve out privacy any way they can.
In photos of Facebook’s office, the workers are often wearing headphones. Journalists at the Financial Times, which has an open-plan newsroom, often do the same.
This need for quiet runs counter to the craze for communal space that has driven the controversial start-up WeWork to a valuation close to US$50 billion. Employee interaction is all part of the pitch to tenants but, in the WeWork offices I have been to, the shared desks seemed fairly empty, while the private meeting rooms were full.
If workers want peace and companies want open-plan offices, perhaps the answer is cubicles. The start-up Room claims to have sold its US$3,500 portable soundproof pods to more than 200 clients, including Salesforce and Google. Forget free snacks and on-site laundry, the next big Silicon Valley perk could be workplace privacy.
Elaine Moore is deputy editor of the FT’s Lex column.
© 2019 The Financial Times Ltd.