2024 Workplace Update: The Cubicle Comeback

A man and other employees in cubicles at work

Happy 2024. It has been a while since my last newsletter but expect to see me getting back to a monthly cadence on topics important to our clients. WilliamCharles is close to launching a new website – It will be unveiled in our March newsletter. Stay tuned and check us out in March!

We are one more year removed from the pandemic, supply chain chaos and “the great resignation” so we are hoping for a year marked by more stability.  Of course, it is an election year with plenty of potential external disruptors… I’m calling it more stable but not quite predictable.

I wanted to share a couple articles with you.  This fast company article titled “The return-to-office debate may be settling down – in a way that makes everyone unhappy.” The article aptly points out that hybrid is a compromise to an employee base that would prefer remote work and corporations that would strongly prefer an “in office” arrangement. So, does this really make everyone happy? Here is some data to consider.

According to a study conducted by LinkedIn, remote jobs make up 10% of the current listings and they generate 46% of the candidate responses. More than half the work population would prefer to work remotely while 46% say hybrid is their top choice. Only 3 percent of the workforce prefers to work full time in office – I am not surprised this was the least favored, but I expected the number who favor full time in office to be higher than 3 out of 100 – WOW!

In this article Sutton explains, “when it comes to setting flexibility policies, most corporations are feeling like they have been forced, first by the pandemic and then by internal pressure placed by employees, but most are not fully bought in to the concept.” So… 3% of the people want to work in the office and 9 out of 10 employers favor RTO. It is understandable why Sutton feels this is volatile. The impact of this tension between employer and employee preference will undoubtedly create issues.

What can employers do?  Give employees reasons to come to the office those three days. Give them a work environment that suits their needs and leverage the time you have together to deliver management coaching, team development, transparency of information and access to key executives. A failure of employers to fully embrace the hybrid arrangement will diminish employee productivity, engagement and retention.

The second article is very interesting and surprising. Business Insider put an article out this week titled “Bring back cubicles!”. The research stated shows that people are happier and more productive when they have a space to call home at the office… like a cubicle. At the risk of Dilbert rising back up… let’s call them “partitions”.  Many offices have reduced their square footage and organized open office concepts or “benching” using office furniture vernacular.

“I prefer the cubicle, personally. I need to have that, where I can just put my headphones in and ignore everyone else.” Said one survey participant in this article. The shift to open office was a move to encourage creativity and teamwork. In a study published in the Journal of Environment Psychology, researchers observed that workers in an open-concept office performed 14% worse on cognitive tasks than those working from cellular work stations”.

It was stated in the article… “It was assumed that the open office concept would improve communication and collaboration between workers, but studies have found the opposite. A recent widely cited study by Harvard business school researchers found that when companies made the switch to open office, employees were more inclined to avoid each other in person. Face to face conversations plunged by 70% as colleagues took to slack, text and email to reach each other in the office.”

When a strained relationship occurs, cubicles can provide a safe-haven environment where the employees can retreat without forcing interactions they may not be ready for, says Heather Chapman. Heather advises companies on how to design offices to promote worker well-being. Gen Z also appreciates the cubicle and they often document their set-ups and swap tips on décor.

The open office was designed to spur creativity and brainstorming between colleagues. It was also viewed as an economic and efficient way of utilizing space. Not to mention the cool factor of having a “modern” office. While some of these goals were likely accomplished, it makes it harder to focus and perform challenging tasks. Many employers encourage employees to use the two days at home for those tasks requiring focus. Are they getting that at home? This is a good question. Sometimes yes and sometimes no.

These new perspectives will no doubt give the office furniture companies a new dilemma to solve regarding the ideal work environment.  It seems clear that companies will need partitions for focus and privacy while at the same time creating collaborative workspaces. This sounds like it is good news for the commercial office real estate industry which is currently struggling. This is also good news for contract office furniture companies from manufacturers like Steelcase to sellers like Kentwood Office Furniture.

Look for our next newsletter titled:  Evolution of the CFO in Middle Market Companies

Thanks, and see you in March!

Bill Benson, President
WilliamCharles Search Group