Sound and vision: why the office cubicle is making a comeback

When people talk about design, they have a tendency to assume that it is a visual thing. It is a word that has become most closely associated with our eyes rather than our other senses.

Yet this is not only a misperception, but in the context of workplace design it can lead to situations in which an office that has been designed predominantly with regard to its visual appeal, or to focus on certain business objectives, can become counterproductive. Good design focuses on all of the senses, and in particular those two most closely associated with our ability to work productively – our sight and hearing.

Earlier this year, one of the world’s largest architectural practice commissioned a survey of 90,000 people to find out what made them most effective at work. The results were eye opening. Gensler’s report concluded that ‘the most significant factor in workplace effectiveness is not collaboration, it is individual focus work.’

However, the report also suggests that ‘focus is the workplace environment’s least effectively supported activity.’ This is not surprising given the trend for offices to be designed around an open plan model. There are some very good reasons why open plan offices are almost universal in the UK and growing rapidly in popularity in countries all around the world. They are cheaper, they use less space and they encourage collaboration in many ways.

These are all great objectives for an organisation to pursue but there are certain downsides, not least in the potential sacrifice of the all-important focus that is dependent on visual and acoustic privacy. As the Gensler report concludes, focus at work is essential. A report, from the then Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, found that the ability of employees to carry out their work people increases by an average of 38 percent if they are allowed to focus on what they are doing. Anecdotally, we all know how stressful it can be when we are interrupted by undue noise either from colleagues or other sources!

A decade long survey of 43,000 responses in over 300 office buildings in the US, Australia, Canada and Finland published earlier this year by the University of Sydney and Berkeley University found that the benefits of open plan offices may often be outweighed by their disadvantages.

“In general, open-plan layouts showed considerably higher dissatisfaction rates than enclosed office layouts,” claims the paper. “What the data tells us is that, in terms of occupant satisfaction, the disadvantages brought by noise disruption were bigger than the predicted benefits of increased interaction. Between 20% and 40% of open plan office occupants expressed high levels of dissatisfaction for visual privacy.”

There are signs that employers are increasingly aware of these issues and understand they need to strike a better balance between enjoying the benefits of open plan working and the need to provide better focus for employees to work as productively as they can. We are fortunate that we now have a number of ideas and design options available that allow them to do this. These can range from using screens and other acoustic elements intelligently to optimise the level of sound in open plan environments or creating screened-off quiet zones, for example with our Seven screen systems, that people can move to when they need to work quietly.

They also include an idea that has been with us since at least the 1960s but which is now finding a new lease of life in a modern context. The cubicle, a workstation enclosed by screens, can offer the perfect way of providing people with the acoustic and visual privacy they need while remaining in an open plan office.

The cubicle, like any solution is not always the right choice, but it is an option increasingly favoured by employers and designers when used in the right context and we are finding our System 06 becoming a more popular choice. It is also a sign that we may be approaching a growing understanding of the ways in which design should be about all of our senses, and especially in terms of what we choose to see or hear while we work.

For more information read our latest piece on acoustic landscaping, or give us a call on +44 (0)1977 695 222 to discuss your requirements.