When the Intel Corporation originally introduce the idea of cubicles as offices, they were trying to create the most egalitarian atmosphere possible. Intel wanted everyone to feel as important as everyone else. There would be no need to scratch and claw your way to the corner office with the big window, because there was no corner office with the big window. Everyone had the same space with the same equipment and they all worked from a level playing field.
Unfortunately, this attempt at equality led to lower productivity and more stagnation. Workers spent their days closed into their impersonal closets with only their computers, files, phones, and photos of home. Cubicles without windows blocked off the natural light and kept the employee blocked from anything going on outside the cubicle. Cubicles also promote a sense of hiding from the management, which can make it tempting to waste time rather than work because no one can see you. Intel has realized the error of the cubicle, and has developed a new floor plan that includes open spaces where employees can collaborate and breathe fresh air again. If other companies follow suit, productivity could be on the rise again.
A traditional cubicle has three walls that are at least four feet tall. Most are even taller so that you can't see over the tops of the walls when you stand up. These closed off spaces separate each employee dramatically. If an employee needs to have a short conversation with the person who sits two cubicles away, the most efficient thing to do is pick up the phone and call their cubicle. This stifling separation kills off any potential creative energy that might exist between colleagues who are working on the same problem. If workers can't communicate face-to-face, great ideas that could have helped increase productivity are lost among the maze of cubicles.
Cubicle arrangements usually cause workers to think twice about visiting another worker's cube for a quick chat, too. In many offices, the cubicles are arranged in long rows. That means that you would have to walk all the way to the end of the row and back up the next row just to talk to someone you need to talk to. Once you get to the other cubicle, you will probably stand in the doorway to have your conversation, which means that you are blocking the only open wall. The person sitting in the cubicle can become claustrophobic quickly with someone shutting off the only open space in the cube.
Cubicles are supposed to be designed so that each individual has a private space in which to conduct business. The trouble is that the walls of the cubicles actually conduct the sound from inside the cubicle up and out into the room. Someone who is having a phone conversation can usually be heard three desks away. This creates a constant buzz of noise throughout the office, which can be distracting and annoying. Another noisy side effect of cubicles is the tendency of workers to raise their voices to communicate with their neighbors because it is much easier than standing up and walking around to the other person's cubicle, especially if the communication is short.
People who are trying to think may have trouble concentrating when they are listening to someone chat with a client a few cubicles over. It can be even worse when someone is having a personal conversation that drifts across the tops of the cubicles. Cubicles actually decrease the amount of privacy that each worker has at his or her own desk. Higher noise levels can create a sense of hostility among workers who are frustrated that they are constantly bombarded with meaningless noise all day long.
When a company constructs cubicles in an office space, there is usually a serious focus on packing as many cubicles as possible into the area. This leads to small cubicles that are barely large enough for a normal desk chair and a computer desk. Employees who are forced to sit in these cramped spaces for 8 hours daily can begin to feel depressed because they do not have any open space to stretch in. Some cubicles are not large enough to allow a desk chair and computer desk to be ergonomically correct for the worker, which could lead to repetitive motion injuries.
You would think that a small space that only allows the worker to interact with the computer directly in front of the chair would lead to higher productivity rates because there are fewer distractions. In reality, the exact opposite happens. The worker begins to search for ways to mentally escape from the tight cubicle space. That could mean surfing the internet and playing with social media rather than working. That could mean reading a book or finding a subtle game to take their mind away from their surroundings. The lack of natural sunlight inside a cubicle can lead to depression as well. Workers who begin to become depressed from sitting in a small cubicle all day will be less productive overall.
Cubicles Dampen an Employee's Sense of Self Worth
Having a space of your own can make you feel like you are an important part of the company. When that space is made from impermanent walls and is just like all the other cubicles, your sense of self worth can plummet. Consciously or not, a worker who spends a great deal of time in a cubicle can begin to feel unimportant. This lack of self worth will be reflected in the energy that the worker can devote to the tasks at hand. It may seem counter-intuitive, but removing the walls and having an open office without any separation could actually be better for the psyche of the workers than providing them with their own tiny cubicle spaces.
Researchers from the Mind Lab in England discovered that people who work in cubicles process information at a slower rate. Their productivity can be almost half of the production from workers who normally work in an open space. Human interactivity is an important element in keeping someone energetic and able to perform at decent speeds. Without interactivity, the workers can become stressed and the creative production centers of the brain are shut down. The visual interaction between workers cannot be replaced by e-mail and telephone communication within the office. Employees need to be able to see one another and talk about their projects so that they can feel more like a team and reach better solutions to problems faster.
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