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Which is better: Cubicles and Offices or Open Workspaces?

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The most heated argument about modern offices pits the relative privacy of cubicles and offices versus collaborative nature of open workspaces


When the cubicle hit the furnishings market in 1967, it forever changed the landscape of office culture and the way we work. At the time, it was considered the tool for greater office efficiency.

By the 1990s, the satirical comic strip Dilbert was regularly earning laughter and nods of agreement by poking fun at the impersonal “cubicle farm,” blaming the invention for helping stifle creativity and breed workplace dysfunction.

Today, many people see the cubicle – as well as its upscale older brother, the corner office – as passé as the fax machine. Instead, they tout the Google-inspired collaborative or open workspace as the best thing since PowerPoint.

It’s not surprising that the suppliers of office furniture are trying to stay out of the dispute and offering to help create either type of environment. Linda Kano, president of Interior Showplace, a Kakaako office supplier, says one size does not fit all, as every organization has a different culture that helps shape which office layout is most appropriate.

“The workplace can help shape creative and engaged workers,” says Kano. “(This is done by) considering a variety of places and spaces for groups and individuals to work, creating open space but also private spaces to think and focus.”

Software entrepreneur Henk Rogers’ business empire – Tetris Online, Blue Planet Software, Blue Planet Foundation and Blue Start-ups – is a perfect example of adapting workspaces to the type of work being done. All of the organizations are headquartered on the 17th floor of Harbor Court in downtown Honolulu, yet each has a slightly different layout.

Open office allows for this impromptu meeting to discuss Blue Planet Foundation’s mission

Photo: David Croxford

Danny Han, marketing and PR manager for Blue Planet Software, the licensing agent for the Tetris brand, says BPS employees work in cubicles or offices.

“We’re working with some top secret stuff,” says Han, whose private office overlooks Honolulu Harbor. “In the world of video games and toys, you don’t want information leaking out until it’s ready to be unveiled. So offices with doors become necessities.”

Meanwhile, the nonprofit Blue Planet Foundation, whose mission is to end the use of fossil fuels, has an open workspace. BPF’s seven full-time staff members work at stations situated around a big table for impromptu “pow-wows,” says communications director Catharine Lo, who firmly believes having a space unbounded by walls encourages creative, out-of-the-box thinking.

“We’re always throwing funny quips back and forth, trying to one-up each other, and, once in awhile, the most ridiculous remarks turn into the best ideas ever,” says Lo. “For example, once we were joking about having a crack squad of efficiency geeks who could go around and use a phone app to report places wasting energy. Among other names, we thought we could call the app, ‘Rat ’em Out!’ It didn’t result in an app, but now it has become an easy meme that we all understand whenever we’re referring to missed opportunities to save energy.”

After much thought, Tetris Online also opted for an open workspace, both for easy collaboration and other reasons. “Cubicles are also an added cost and require more space,” explains Casey Pelkey, VP of marketing. “We can put four desks in the same space where only three cubicles would fit. We reinvested the money we saved into ergonomic desks and chairs to make our employees as comfortable as possible.”

Tealet’s open workplace encourages collaboration

Photo: David Croxford

In general, creative industries seem to gravitate toward the open concept and it’s fitting that architectural firms lead the way as advocates of collaborative work environments.

At Architects Hawaii Ltd.’s new digs at Pacific Guardian Center, everyone from production, design, marketing and accounting sits in a modern, wraparound staff room surrounded by stunning ocean views.

Even president and CEO Bill Brizee can be found at a drafting table among his employees. He says he has no qualms about the arrangement, as he hasn’t had an office since 1996, the year the firm got rid of barriers.

Sara Belczak, AHL’s senior interior designer, spearheaded the workspace project and brought the entire staff together to collaborate on the space and design so there would be no surprises and to promote “buy-in” of the change.

“Open spaces are not a new phenomenon and it’s popular on the mainland with Google and Facebook starting it all,” she says. “With a lot of tech firms, it’s either ‘collaborate or die,’ and these kinds of open bays promote communications between people, and that’s so much more productive for projects.”

“Benching” arrangements put Architects Hawaii’s employees across from each other

Photo: Courtesy of Architects Hawaii

The main criticism of open workspaces appears to be the lack of privacy, but AHL seeks to address that concern by including private project rooms along the interior. Even there, the open concept prevails as the rooms’ walls are made of glass.

The rooms are also equipped to be converted into private offices, if needed. Each is furnished with a big-screen TV that can become a computer desktop, and a telephone that can quickly be programmed to the user’s individual line. Interior walls serve as whiteboards.

Belczak says most downsides to having everyone working in a single room without walls can be remedied by tweaks in design, adding accessories and technology, or simply communicating with one another.

“For instance, we’ve discovered it’s difficult to find a space to just have a private cell-phone conversation. Now, we have to go down to the lobby to do that. But there are furnishing solutions – these stylish phone booths that you can hang on the wall,” says Belczak. “Also, we find that sometimes people talk loudly on their phones with the speaker on, so we have to gently educate folks about things like that.”

Modern open offices like AHL’s utilize “benching” arrangements where employees sit in rows or across from each other. There is usually a centralized common area, such as AHL’s project-storage islands in the center of the workspace to reduce personal desktop clutter. AHL’s LEED-certified office utilizes furniture meeting the LEED height requirement of 42 inches or less to maintain the view. Belczak says it’s also the perfect height for team members to gather around to discuss projects, enhancing communication.

With its own textbook example of a collaborative workspace, AHL has created a business niche for itself by helping clients design their own open workspaces. Belczak believes most industries – including law, insurance and accounting – can benefit from some sort of open space, if not for team building, then for recruiting and retention.

“A lot of it is generational. Our younger, more tech-savvy workers will go where they feel more comfortable and, for the most part, it is this type of congenial, open concept and access to senior staff where they feel they can get the mentorship they need early in their careers,” says Belczak.

That’s not to say the older generation won’t embrace the concept.

“There are four generations here. It may be a little more difficult for the older employees to accept this idea, as change is always difficult,” Belczak explains. “But we’ve found that once everyone sees everyone in the same type of workstation, there’s an improved camaraderie of the whole firm.”

Semi-open offices provide space for meetings, private conversations and other uses

Photos: Courtesy of Steelcase

Multipurpose rooms allow for meetings, presentations, parties and more

Architectural and construction project management firm Bowers + Kubota Consulting, headquartered in Waipahu, also put considerable thought and effort into its workspace design and came up with a hybrid solution combining private cubicles and offices with an open workspace.

“It depends on the duties of the individual whether a collaborative or private environment makes the most sense,” says B+K president Brian Bowers. “I personally prefer an office because much of the work I do is private in nature, including confidential discussions with both team members and clients.”

B+K’s project team works in a semi-open office. Cubicle desks are on wheels to enable quick mobilization into a “roundtable” environment. The cubicles are open on two sides to maintain the “open office” feel, but each cubicle has a translucent sliding panel to provide privacy when needed.

Bowers says these cubicles provide less storage than regular cubicles, requiring staff to be more organized or suffer a cluttered desk. However, storage lockers along the perimeter walls can help workers reduce that problem.

A hybrid workspace is also the choice of PKF Pacific Hawaii, an accounting firm.

“We’ve found that giving each employee their own workspace, allowing for an area to collaborate in the middle and providing them with the best views in the office, offers a setup where they can be efficient and productive,” explains partner Trisha Nomura. “When employees are happy with their physical space, it definitely impacts the way they work.”

Nomura says the company put a lot of effort into planning the office layout and considered many factors, including cost, impact on employees and the ability to serve clients.

Other financial firms have rejected the open-space model and remain staunchly traditional. “We have offices and cubicles,” says Alton Miyashiro, managing principal N&K CPAs, explaining that its more private environment works just fine and the company has no plans to change it.

“But we do have one section in our audit area that has lower-walled cubes,” Miyashiro says. “We did this because our auditors work in teams, so the lower walls seemed to be better for communication.”


Hawaii Business magazine invites you to comment on our articles and the issues they raise. Comments are moderated for offensive language, commercial messages and off-topic posts and may be deleted. Some comments may be chosen for inclusion in the magazine on the Feedback page.

Old to new | New to old
Oct 24, 2013 03:46 pm
 Posted by  captj

We currently recommend providing both as an optimum, if space and budget allows. A private office or semi private cubicle space, and a designated space in an open forum concept.
Very few people do not need both, and productivity numbers support the concept. These are both permanent installations, where a person can move from space to space with their devices in hand.
We find it fascinating to hear of reluctant ones that open up and join in after years of hiding in an office.

Mar 19, 2014 04:27 am
 Posted by  bridgetteJ

Sometimes cubicles are necessary, though most times they are not. A cubicle like this; might be a little too much, but imagine it without the walls? Or maybe only one side? I'm game.

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