The days of cubicles may be numbered, if businesses follow the lead of the company that popularized them in the first place.
Intel Corp., which was lampooned last spring for its endless grid of gray cubicles by comedian Conan O'Brien in a video tour, is admitting that cubes don't work for everyone. It plans to test new work spaces in three U.S. locations. On the drawing board are comfy armchairs, small conference rooms for private discussions, large desks for several workers, and open tables for people to use laptops.
"It will be like walking into an airport lounge," Neil Tunmore, an Intel human resources director in charge of the redesign, told BusinessWeek.
The idea is to eliminate the isolating feel of tall cubicles and promote the creativity that can blossom when employees interact more easily. The trick is to create an environment that encourages collaboration, yet also allows workers to focus.
Some businesses are keeping cubicles, but altering them. CPA firm Moody, Famiglietti & Andronico of Tewksbury, MA, moved into a new facility last summer, positioning its cubicles along the exterior windows to eliminate the confining, maze-like layout of other office spaces. The space also includes a lounge, a wine closet, and "room wizards," which are wall-mounted, touch-pad screens that record and track each room's occupancy.
"We've always been unified," said Carl Famiglietti, the firm's managing partner. "But the new layout allows us all to work together more efficiently," the Eagle-Tribune of North Andover, MA, reported.
The Wichita advertising and public relations firm, Sullivan, Higdon and Sink arranges its birchwood cubicles in pods with low partitions. The team meets every morning in an informal "living room." The Wichita Eagle described the atmosphere as "loose but intense."
Intel, which originally developed cubicles in part because they are egalitarian, is just one of many Silicon Valley companies re-thinking its office spaces. Hewlett-Packard Co. and Cisco Systems are also experimenting with alternative work environments.
In an internal survey at Intel, half of employees said cubicles did not promote collaboration, Tunmore said. He told The Wall Street Journal that employees said they want more common spaces, but also less noise. Apparently, cubicles leave the misimpression that conversations are more private than they actually are.
The feelings of Intel workers are backed up by a recent experiment into the effects of poor office design. Researchers at England's The Mind Lab set up two offices: a "battery" office in a cubicle with a slower computer and a "free range" office with open spaces and laptops.
"On every measure, from memory to IQ to the speed with which new information was processed, the 'battery office' produced a marked decrease in intellectual performance combined with a sharp increase in stress levels," said Dr. David Lewis, a neuro-psychologist and research director at The Mind Lab. "The study clearly shows that restrictive working conditions are not just bad for employees, they are bad for business."