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Cubicles: Defining Our Workspace

Love them or hate them, cubicles have played a big role in the life of the white-collar American for 50+ years, with no signs of slowing. In the beginning, cubicles were invented to 1) maximize floor space and, 2) give employees their own little slice of office to call their own.

Basically, the cubicle was an invention born from our innate desire to control our workspace. Lecturer at Leeds University Business School and workspace design specialist, Dr. Matthew Davis points out that, “We have a really innate instinct about space and making things our own.”

The Great Debate: Open Offices vs. Cubicle Farms

Cubicles have been the basis of inter-office debates for years now. Some say they waste space and have the potential to stifle creativity, and prefer an open workplace environment. However, there’s a lot of research out there showing that open office plans can actually be disruptive to individuals’ focus, morale and health, for introverts especially. So how do you decide on the perfect office layout for your company’s needs?

The key to choosing the right type of workspace design, elements and layout depend on a number of factors, but the most important one you’ll want to pay attention to is balance. Keeping the wants and needs of your employees in mind will help you strike that perfect balance between privacy and proficiency.

Steelcase-Susan_Cain-Private Offices

These private offices from the Steelcase and Susan Cain collaboration allow for workers to focus amidst office distractions. (source)

The Evolution of Cubicle Uses over Time

One big difference between old-school cubicles and modern cubicles is that cubicles aren’t just used as traditional workspaces anymore. They’re used as private offices, for collaborative workstations, in call centers, even as quiet spaces. Cubicle uses have evolved just like the definition of the traditional workplace has. First, let’s take a look at your traditional call center cubicle.

Call Center Cubicles

The main purpose of a call center cubicle is to provide a semi-private setting from which an individual can make calls and perform the other administrative tasks required. Your basic call center cubicle will take up a small footprint and includes walls that are short enough for a supervisor to monitor calls and perform on-the-spot training. Call center cubicles typically include enough room for one individual, a chair, a notepad and computer, and a phone. They can also be called center stations or telemarketing cubicles, but the main function remains the same.

Private Offices in Open Floor Plans

Collaboration is great and all, but sometimes distractions pop up and it can be hard to get any serious work done in an office with an open floor plan. To solve these and other frustrations, there’s the private office cubicle. But don’t be fooled — they may be called cubicles, but they’re actually state-of-the-art instant executive offices. Many modular private offices offer glass walls to maximize natural lighting and so the employee doesn’t feel shut off from the rest of the team. The private glass- or wood-paneled cubicles have doors and can be customized to include other features while still providing privacy when needed.

Agile Workstations for Collaboration

Just when you thought you had the whole “open office plan,” thing under control, along came the Agile office layout. The key to successfully utilizing an Agile office layout is by creating collaborative workstations throughout the office. Instead of each developer (Agile methodology, after all, came from the techie world) or worker having their own cubicle, there are collaborative workstations strategically placed throughout. The purpose of a collaborative workstation can vary as much as the look and feel itself.

Some collaborative workstations come equipped with soundproof walls, standing tables, and high-definition videoconferencing features to accommodate those who are working remotely. Other collaborative workstations are set up to serve the function of meeting rooms and can be equipped with comfy couches, built-in interactive screens, hidden storage areas and lots of lighting. One of the most important principles to take from Agile office design is the need for both private spaces as well as collaborative workstations.


An office next to a Connect Hub, a perfect example of an Agile workstation. (source)

Cubicle Relaxation Stations and Quiet Spaces

Melanie Redman, the senior design researcher of office furniture manufacturer Steelcase, said, “We’re wired to be social, but we’re also wired to be individuals.” Designating certain cubicles as shared quiet spaces or relaxation stations can help give workers a place to unwind and recharge, whether between meetings or to take a break during especially taxing projects. Some of the best uses of cubicles as quiet spaces involve mixing an intentional light source (like the natural lighting from floor-to-ceiling windows) with comfy furniture and places to relax, meditate, focus – even power nap.

The bottom line is that when it comes to office design, you should always consult with your employees and aim to strike a balance between privacy and productivity. We hope you’ve gained some inspiration from our write-up and that the next time you’re in charge of ordering new furniture for the office you’re able to think outside the cubicle!

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