Will coronavirus bring back the cubicle?

Boxed in.
Boxed in.
Image: REUTERS/Marko Djurica
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

About 70% of US offices are open-plan workspaces, designed to encourage colleagues to bump into each other and share ideas—and, unwittingly, droplets of spit, mucus, and phlegm that can carry pestilential pathogens. Health experts are beginning to suggest that might need to change.

Thomas Inglesby, who heads the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins, told Fox News Sunday’s Chris Wallace that companies should look into “putting up physical barriers in workspaces when possible.” The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration also recommends that “workers use controls to prevent exposure, including physical barriers to control the spread of the virus.”

Even before the pandemic, open offices faced a sustained assault from researchers and op-ed writers who argued the design trend has counterintuitively reduced face-to-face interaction among workers, cranked up distractions, and lowered productivity. If companies heed the call for more physical barriers at work, one of the many lasting impacts of this crisis could be a shift away from open-plan designs and a revival of some incarnation of their dreaded predecessor: the cubicle.

The restless pendulum of office design

Historically speaking, offices are about due for another sweeping series of redesigns.

In the 1800s, during the earliest days of office culture, clerks sat at high-backed desks bursting with drawers and pigeonholes. The imposing pieces of furniture doubled as physical barriers, which offered their occupants some semblance of privacy at work.

That gave way in the early 20th century, when the efficiency-obsessed Taylorism movement sought to reorganize offices according to the logic of factories: Workers began sitting in rigid rows of flat-top desks that allowed managers to monitor them at all times. After World War II, the trend of Burolandshaft, or “office landscaping,” grouped employees together with their teams, creating an arrangement of barrier-free desks similar to today’s open offices.

In the 1960s, furniture design firm Herman Miller began marketing the Action Office, which would ultimately give rise to the cubicle. The original, utopian idea was to create a system of moveable desks, walls, and other furniture that workers could customize into their own semi-private spaces. It didn’t take companies long to figure out that it would be more cost- and space-efficient to organize the walls into square grids, ushering in a new era of (intensely reviled) physical barriers.

Now, in the 21st century, the walls are down once again. Companies have learned they can squeeze more workers into smaller spaces by seating them at communal tables and removing barriers entirely. It’s a cost-saver that also happens to fit with the increasingly collaborative nature of work (hey, let’s whiteboard this problem together), the casual-ization of office culture (ooh, it’s nice to get my work done while stretched out on a comfy couch), and the technology that has unchained us (thank you, wifi). Only this iteration of office design couldn’t be worse-suited for a pandemic.

“The increased density that is the hallmark of the open plan is the problem,” says Jennifer Kaufmann-Buhler, an assistant professor of design history at Purdue University who studies open offices. “In the era of social distancing, people sitting shoulder to shoulder, elbow to elbow…that’s not going to be tenable.”

Designing for the era of social distancing

Kevin Byrne, who runs marketing for the British office design firm K2 Space, and Michelle Ossmann, director of healthcare knowledge at Herman Miller, both say clients are clamoring for answers to coronavirus health concerns. “That’s the number one question we’re hearing right now: how to help manage safety, how to help people want to come back, and how to carry on business when they do come back,” says Ossmann.

Byrne says he’s seen manufacturers begin to market floor-to-ceiling partitions and desk dividers made of polycarbonate plastic that can easily be wiped down and disinfected. Aesthetically, the current offerings leave something to be desired. “No client has requested that from us. It looks hideous,” Byrne says. “I’m sure something will come through in a while,” he adds, but “there is no beautiful solution to this yet.”

A tutor wearing a face mask sits in a cubicle decorated with images of brightly colored monkeys swinging from vines
When faced with drab office decor, bright colors and monkeys can help.
Image: Eloisa Lopez/REUTERS

Kaufmann-Buhler points out that putting barriers between individual workstations only addresses part of the problem with offices. “They’re kind of like cruise ships,” she says. “You have all these people who are in this communal space sharing all these resources. I’m thinking about the conference rooms, the ubiquitous morning donuts that people are picking at all day long, the coffee mugs that are barely washed that we’re all drinking out of.”

One 2016 study found that employees at an 80-person office in Tucson, Arizona, unwittingly spread a virus from a single push plate on a door to roughly half the surfaces in a 30,000-square-foot building within four hours. The researchers found a similar level of spread when they placed the harmless virus on the hand of a volunteer.

Despite the potential for transmission hotspots, most employers are unlikely to tear up their floor plans and start building fundamentally new workspaces, according to Harvard Business School associate professor Ethan Bernstein, who teaches organizational behavior. “I don’t know that they’re going to have the funds, or the interest in spending the funds, in a time of economic uncertainty,” he says.

Instead, Bernstein predicts that businesses will opt for “software changes more than hardware changes”—in other words, low-cost tweaks to the ways they use existing space, like limiting the number of employees in the office or setting rules about the number of people who can be in the bathroom at once.

Byrne says K2 Space is looking into implementing these kinds of changes for clients. Some offices are marking off designated walking paths in hallways, or turning some halls into one-way lanes, to keep workers from passing too close to each other. Other clients are considering incorporating more privacy booths into office layouts (which was already a growing trend) and holding more meetings virtually even if everyone is in the same building.

Ultimately, any solution will likely have to involve reducing the density of employees per square foot. In the short term, that may mean staggering shifts or asking employees to alternate between working remotely and coming into the office. In the long term, it could mean companies embrace bigger floor plans that make it easier to keep a healthy distance.

The new normal

The last time they were popularized, cubicles became one of the most hated symbols of working life. Their accidental inventor, Robert Propst, described them as “barren, rathole places,” and workers came to associate them with feelings of futility, isolation, and existential dread.

But partitions might take on new meaning in light of coronavirus, says Mary Jo Hatch, a professor emerita at the University of Virginia who studied the symbolic associations employees make with the physical spaces where they work. If workers see the cubicles as a protective measure, she says, “it might have a positive effect on people’s feelings about their management and their work lives.”

There’s a risk, though, that partitions could create a false sense of security, Herman Miller’s Ossmann warns. “We want to make sure that if you have a screen and it makes you feel better—great,” she says. “But please don’t forget that you still need to stay six feet away and you still need to wash your hands and clean your surfaces.”

Ossmann, who started her career as a nurse and later designed healthcare spaces, points out that physical barriers aren’t the most important measure for keeping pathogens at bay. “The ultimate open office is a nursing floor. We’ve never had private offices,” she says—and yet, through basic hygiene, hospital workers keep infection rates low. “If you wash your hands, an open office can work.”

It’s unclear what impact the rise of physical barriers might have on collaboration and productivity. Bernstein, the Harvard Business School professor, authored a 2018 study that surprisingly found workers had 70% fewer face-to-face interactions when their offices ditched cubicles and embraced open plans. He says it’s impossible to predict whether in-person interaction would make a triumphant return if the cubicle walls go back up, especially in the context of a global pandemic that forces people to maintain social distance.

Not every office worker has the option to work from home.
Not every office worker has the option to work from home.
Image: Thomas Peter/REUTERS

One certainty is that any return to office life—especially if it involves rotating shifts of workers sharing a smaller number of desks—will require more cleaning to keep workspaces from becoming petri dishes. Kaufmann-Buhler, the Purdue design history researcher, worries these efforts won’t be distributed evenly among executives, rank-and-file white-collar workers, and the contract cleaners who travel between offices to disinfect them.

“Workers who are seen as important are going to be given the greatest flexibility and the best amenities to protect them from getting sick, and the people who are in those lower positions, whose jobs and whose bodies ultimately are not seen as important, are not going to get the same kinds of care,” Kaufmann-Buhler says. “I worry a lot about the wellbeing of the workers whose job it is to keep the lights on and keep things going.”