Offices moving from cubicles to wide, open spaces

Stacey Vanek Smith Mar 4, 2011
Offices of the social marketing firm, Mr. Youth. Stacey Vanek Smith/Marketplace

Offices moving from cubicles to wide, open spaces

Stacey Vanek Smith Mar 4, 2011
Offices of the social marketing firm, Mr. Youth. Stacey Vanek Smith/Marketplace


Tess Vigeland: And finally, a peek behind the curtains here at Marketplace. If you had any illusions that we spend our workdays in posh surroundings, let me disabuse you. Our workspace is a classic fishbowl. Senior staff have offices with windows. Everybody else sits in cubicles, complete with gray fabric walls, gray checkered carpet and truly unfortunate fluorescent lighting. It’s a setup familiar to many an American worker bee. But that style of workplace is going the way of the… Oh, let’s say, fax machine. These days, it’s all about open spaces, natural light, communication and standing.

We sent Marketplace cubicle veteran Stacey Vanek Smith to explore the workplace of the future.

Stacey Vanek Smith: I am a creature of the cubicle farm. I have spent my entire working life staring at a gray, fabric wall, covered with family photos and New Yorker cartoons. And I like my cubicle. I like having my own space and I like that I can read celebrity gossip on or sneak a Snickers bar without anybody knowing.

Matt Britton is the CEO of social marketing firm, Mr Youth. It was ranked one of the best places to work by New York Magazine. He says it’s time to kill my beloved cubicle.

Matt Britton: So we have different pods, glass-curved walls. They create a kind of funky vibe.

Mr Youth’s offices are open, loud and lively. People work at long tables and in clusters of desks. Britton says this layout promotes creativity and collaboration.

Britton: Where somebody works and the way it’s laid out has a huge impact on the culture. It impacts how they interact with one another. I think a cubicle farm creates a propensity for employees to go off in their own world, you know, playing around on games or on social networks.

OK, for the record, I’m not “playing around” on TMZ. It’s a serious news organization!

Anyway, all over the country, cubicle walls are coming down. The open office layouts that began at tech start-ups is spreading to the mainstream. AT&T is building flexible spaces where employees don’t have assigned desks. Intel has redone a million square-feet of office space to include more collaborative areas. And the cubicle has been shrinking; it’s about half the size it was in the 80s.

Jim Keane is president of office furniture giant Steelcase Group.

Jim Keane: Work is moving from individual work to collaborative work. So a lot more emphasis on places where people gather to make decisions, to share ideas, to innovate.

Keane says as technology becomes more mobile, workers are no longer chained to their desks. And companies are happy to save money by cutting back on individual space. At the same time, employers are trying to create environments that attract young talent and inspire their workers.

Melissa Honohan: It absolutely changes the way we’ve worked.

The New Jersey Organ and Tissue Sharing Network deals with organ donors and transplant patients. It’s an emotional job and the company recently turned to Steelcase for a new office design, says vice president Melissa Honohan.

Honohan: The glass allows light to come in. It’s very bright and we used very calming, soothing colors, so that when families come to visit us, they can feel that as well as our staff, who can rejuvenate here.

Employee Maria DiLauro says it creates a sense of community.

Maria DiLauro: There are some people here that I regularly interact with, that in the old building, I hardly ever saw. But now because we have so much glass, I can just wave and I still feel connected. It feels more like a team.

Even the executive offices have glass walls and they don’t have doors.

Vanek Smith: What is your name?

Barry Newman: Barry Newman.

Vanek Smith: And you are the CFO?

Newman: Yes I am.

Vanek Smith: And you don’t have a door.

Newman: No, I don’t.

Vanek Smith: Do people walk by and bug you like we just did, a lot?

Newman: Of course. CFO sometimes can be a little intimidating to other employees, but I think this gives them the feeling that they can come in and see me.

Steelcase’s Jim Keane says the traditional hierarchy of the office doesn’t make sense for many of today’s jobs. And workspaces are reflecting that, as well as a new focus on health.

Honohan: As well-being becomes a bigger deal in the office, a whole variety of new solutions are about getting people up and out of their chairs and moving around.

At the Transplant Center, a lot of people stand up at their workstations. Instead of a chair, the CEO walks on a treadmill at his desk. Keane says the modern office also promotes socializing and relaxation — with nooks and loungey spaces and flat screen TVs.

Melissa Honohan shows me one at the Transplant Center.

Honohan: This is actually one of the quieter places in the organization.

Vanek Smith: There’s also a wine refrigerator.

Honohan: Yes, there is a wine refrigerator. We use it at happy hour.

CEO Matt Britton says social marketing firm Mr. Youth also devotes space to recreation.

Britton: The basketball hoop, the Xbox, those things are almost expected right now.

Vanek Smith: You have an Xbox?

Britton: Plenty of them.

The office of the future has its perks — and its drawbacks. Mr. Youth executive Dan LaFontaine says every once in a while he longs for the good old-fashioned office door.

Dan LaFontaine: There are those days when you just want to walk in and have peace and quiet. But what we get out of it is really collaboration. Because you see all of your coworkers, you see all of your friends and rather than have some kind of formal meeting, it’s very easy to grab a couple people and get done what you need to get done.

Or, you know, take a break and play Halo.

In New York, I’m Stacey Vanek Smith for Marketplace Money.

Vigeland: We’ve got photos of Stacey’s cubby and others at the Marketplace Money page.

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