What’s the Difference Between Cubicles and Benching Systems?
If you’re designing a brand-new office or choosing new office furniture for your company, you’ll see two primary options: cubicles and benching systems. We’re going to explain the difference between these two types of workspaces. We’ll also discuss benching and cubicles’ benefits and how they compare to each other, so you can make the best choice for your company.
What Is a Cubicle?
Cubicles are individual workstations that provide workers with a measure of privacy, even when they are sitting near their colleagues. Cubicles come in a variety of types to suit different office layouts and needs. Some have low walls and are completely open on one side, so employees have personal space but still feel part of a collaborative atmosphere. Other cubicles have taller walls to create privacy, more akin to an actual office room.
Most cubicle systems include high enough partitions to block employees from seeing what their neighbor is doing while they’re at their desks. Robert Propst, the designer who created the earliest form of office cubicles in the 1960s, did so as a response to the open offices that were the norm at the time. Propst believed workers could be more productive without so many distractions impeding them, but that these semi-private workstations could still be open enough to foster a sense of community and collaboration.
In addition to work surfaces and walls, some cubicles also include built-in features such as overhead storage containers, shelving and filing cabinets. A cubicle is an individual employee’s hub where they can work in a personalized environment, access all their files and supplies and feel a sense of privacy.
What Is a Benching System?
Whereas cubicles consist of individual desks divided by partitions, benching systems are large, shared desks with optional partitions. Benching systems are a hallmark of open office plans, which were the norm before cubicles took over corporate America, and have recently made a significant comeback in office design. Because of this design trend, benching systems have a modern appeal to some employers and employees.
Some offices may use alternative work setups where employees do not have assigned workstations. However, in most offices with benching systems, employees have designated places at the bench with their computer and possibly a storage cubby. They may even have low partitions dividing their workstation from adjacent stations. These partitions do not afford the same level of privacy as cubicles, so even in these setups, the goal of benching systems is to provide a more communal atmosphere.
Benching systems come in various sizes and types, so you can reconfigure them to fit any space. Some benching systems can run the length of a whole office space, while others may be small enough to fit into a corner or individual room. Some offices may include a combination of collaborative and private workspaces, with benching stations down the middle of the room and cubicles along the edges, for example.
Why Use Cubicles Over Benching Systems?
The debate of office cubicles vs. benching systems relates closely to the conversation around whether privacy or open office layouts are more conducive to employees’ productivity. Proponents of open offices and benching systems may point out that cubicles seem outdated or cut employees off from one another, making them feel isolated and claustrophobic. They may also criticize cubicles for being bulky and challenging to assemble.
Those criticisms are not the case for all modern cubicles, however, such as Sunline cubicles. Today’s most cutting-edge cubicles can come in spacious sizes and feature clear windows for a more semi-private, rather than isolated, feel. This quality more closely aligns with Propst’s original vision for the cubicle.
Cubicles offer some valuable benefits to workers, including fewer visual and auditory distractions, more storage space and surfaces for personalization and better protection against germs from co-workers.
1. Fewer Visual Distractions
Everything from lighting to what they had for breakfast can affect a person’s ability to focus, but many employees have an easier time maintaining concentration in a cubicle because the walls eliminate several visual distractions. Especially for employees whose attention wanders easily, all the visual stimuli of an open office can make it difficult to focus.
In a cubicle, it doesn’t matter whether you look straight ahead or to the left or right – you’re going to see your work environment and not other employees. Keep in mind that some cubicles can include windows, but even these cubicles block out more distractions than a benching system. Employees working in a cubicle may also be able to focus better because they aren’t worried or self-conscious about all their colleagues being able to see them. You can go ahead and furrow your brow in concentration. No one will notice!
2. Quieter Environment
Cubicles don’t only cut down on visual distractions – they also reduce noise distractions. Since cubicle partitions typically don’t reach the ceiling and include an opening on one side, they don’t provide a completely enclosed, soundproof environment.
However, cubicle partitions, especially fabric ones, can help absorb sound waves, rather than letting them reverberate throughout the room. The result is a space that is less noisy overall, so employees can enjoy a quieter work environment. This quality is crucial in industries where employees may need to make regular phone calls with clients.
3. More Storage and Display Space
Another advantage of cubicles is that they include walls and built-in storage in the form of overhead bins, shelves, drawers or filing cabinets. Benching systems can also include built-in storage, but because they do not include walls, they typically don’t offer as much space to store documents, electronics, snacks and personal items.
Cubicle walls also give employees a place to hang calendars, put up sticky notes with essential reminders or even proudly showcase a child’s artwork. In short, cubicles make it easier for employees to personalize their space by giving them a place to store and display their things.
4. Less Exposure to Germs
Studies have found that employees in open-plan offices take more short-term sick leave than their peers in other office layouts. It’s easy to see why germs spread so much more readily in an open office than they do in workplaces with cubicles. This advantage may have been an afterthought a few years ago, but in our current health climate, it is a highlight of office cubicles’ virtues. The Centers for Disease Control recommend using physical barriers wherever possible to separate employees, especially if they cannot remain six feet apart.
In open offices, this means installing partitions, but if you have cubicles, you already have barriers in place to protect workers. Your neighbor’s sneeze or cough is less likely to expose you to pathogens when you have tall partitions separating you. Adequate ventilation and thorough cleaning are still essential for keeping the office a safe place to work, but cubicles can help workers avoid illness.
Why Use Benching Systems Over Cubicles?
The open office trend has now been around long enough for people to have a realistic idea of office benching’s pros and cons. As with cubicles, office benching has some distinct advantages, especially when you’re comparing modern office benches with outdated cubicles.
Benching systems have some disadvantages, though. Their openness may lead to increased distractions for employees, especially if other employees are on the phone or carrying on conversations with co-workers. Without partitions, they can also promote the spread of germs. Thankfully, you can choose benching systems with barriers to provide a measure of safety.
Some benefits of benching stations include an open work environment, an emphasis on collaboration and community, more flexibility and lower cost.
1. Open Environment
Workers who feel claustrophobic in a cubicle may prefer the open, airy feel of a benching setup. Rather than your sightlines stopping only a few feet from you in any direction, you can see across the whole room. This quality can help employees feel like they’re working in a roomier environment, even if their workstation is the same or smaller than it would be in a cubicle.
The idea of having more space can be a valuable advantage in small office buildings. You can fit more employees in the room without boxing them into tiny cubicles where they are likely to feel cramped. The room’s openness can make it seem more spacious, regardless of how much workspace you have.
2. Emphasis on Collaboration and Community
Proponents of open offices and benching systems also appreciate that working directly alongside co-workers can foster a sense of collaboration, rather than making employees feel isolated. When you can look over and see the point of contact for a particular project, you can skip the rigmarole of sending a formal email and ask, “Hey, when’s the deadline on that report?” You may also feel more encouraged to share ideas with others or ask for assistance, leading to more innovation.
There’s mixed data on whether open offices promote collaboration, but there is no doubt that benching systems have a more communal feel than cubicles. For companies that want to develop a sense of community, benching systems may be the best choice.
3. More Flexibility
Benching systems’ advantages in the workplace also pertain to their practical adaptability. Benching systems are generally much more flexible than cubicles, which can help you evolve with your company’s changing needs. If you need to add more employees, or if you downsize, you can roll around your benching desks and add or remove seats to make it all work. The same isn’t true of most cubicle systems, since they come in set sizes and configurations.
Sunline cubicles feature a modular design that allows you to reconfigure them as needed. Still, it typically requires less effort to rework your layout when you have benching desks in place. You may also find that benching desks are easier to rearrange if you switch offices or want to move workstations within your facility.
4. Lower Cost
For startups or any company working within a tight budget for their office furniture, another appeal of choosing benching systems is that they tend to be more affordable than cubicles. They feature a more minimal design compared to cubicles and provide shared desk space for multiple employees.
Both benching systems and cubicles come in a range of price points, so you can find a solution that fits within your budget. However, you’re more likely to keep costs low with benching systems than with cubicles, especially since you may need to add cubicles whenever you hire employees.
Which Option Is Better for Your Office?
The question of cubicles vs. benching doesn’t have a clear-cut answer. It all depends on what sort of office environment you want to create for your company. Ask yourself the following questions to help you choose between these options.
Do your employees need a less noisy environment? If employees’ jobs require a quiet space, you may want to choose cubicles. For instance, this is the case for call centers or any office where employees need to make regular phone calls.
Does your corporate culture focus on community and collaboration? If your company emphasizes community and working collaboratively, a benching system may fit better with that culture and may encourage employees to interact more.
Do employees work independently from each other? Collaboration can be a competitive advantage, but some jobs naturally lend themselves better to employees having focused spaces to perform individualized tasks. If that’s the case for your company, you should choose cubicles.
Are you working within a tight space? If you’re working with space restrictions, you may be able to fit more employees at benching desks. It’s a good move if choosing cubicles would mean boxing workers into tiny cubicles that may feel cramped.
Is your company experiencing changes? If your company is growing quickly or if you’re moving to fewer employees working in the office, you need a system that will flex as you do. It’s best to choose a benching system or a modular cubicle system that allows you to reconfigure it as needed.
Have you considered a compromise? If you’re having trouble deciding between these two choices, you may want to pick a solution that marries the strengths of cubicles with those of benching systems. There are two great options: benching systems with partitions, or cubicles with low or transparent dividers. These seating arrangements may be the ideal fit for some companies.
Cubicles and Benching Systems From Arnold’s Office Furniture
Whether you’re interested in cubicles or benching systems, Arnold’s Office Furniture has what you need. As the sole distributor of Sunline sliding cubicles, we can outfit your office with top-of-the-line cubicles. You can choose the precise level of space and privacy you want for your employees. We also offer modern benching systems in a range of configurations.
Whether you want private workstations for every employee, a fully open office or something in between, Arnold’s is your source for superior office furniture. Browse through our products online and contact us if you want to learn more about how Arnold’s Office Furniture can help you create an ideal work environment for your employees.
Rob has more than 25 years of experience in the office furniture business. He has used his extensive knowledge in his role as Senior Vice President to ensure our office furniture meets the needs of the modern corporate office environment and he regularly lends his expertise to various articles posted on the Arnold’s Office Furniture blog. Learn more about Rob!