How to promote community with cubicles

The cubicle-centric office offers far more personal and group potential than some contemporary culture watchers will have you believe. Far from the rigid, formalist constructions depicted in movies and television, cubicles can provide the sense of unity and collaboration necessary to make for a healthy business community (in fact, as you’ll soon read, that’s why they were invented).

While the rise of the open office comes from the drive to make professionals more cooperative and productive, that potential exists with cubicles as well. By concentrating on certain design and functional elements, fostering the spirit of community within blocks of cubicles is entirely possible.

Why cubicles became popular

One facet of appeal for cubicle work arrangements is that they relax an office’s power structure. Although executives still have their private offices, cubicles strip a lot of the “top-down,” impersonal feeling of business that’s proliferated practically since the Industrial Revolution. That promotes a better sense of comfort, which in turn contributes to a better work environment and more real productivity.

Nevertheless, cubicles are criticized for their conforming nature and appearance: All of them look the same. That’s certainly true with cubicles that have just come from the factory—but making a cubicle more personal (and personable) can improve one’s surroundings and boost at least a little morale.

Communities thrive when each member feels part of a greater movement but still retains their individuality. Encouraging personalization of each unique workstation can help those positive self-feelings and make the community better as a whole.

The origins of cubicle design may surprise you

The argument that cubicle culture promotes disenfranchisement is at least a little ironic. The cubicle was originally invented to promote positive workplace environments by reinforcing personal privacy. Old business spaces contained little separation between employees at all, and the innovation of the cubicle was designed to improve morale by reinforcing private space.

Sometime between the eras of cubicle innovation and the explosion of technology, that meaning changed. Cubicles began to represent isolation rather than acceptable privacy. The recently popular open-office structure was intended to break down those walls and foster collaboration but also compromised those moments when privacy is necessary. Furthermore, for offices already designed for cubicles, renovating for open offices may not be financially or structurally practical.

Solutions for enhancing your cubicle community

The solution for bringing commonality into the cubicle environment, then, considers advantages of both the cubicle and open-office structures, instituting the best elements of both and adapting them to foster a sense of community. Some ideas in this direction include:

  • Arranging “third places.” Interaction and socializing are cornerstones of all communities. Inspiring one-on-one or group contact through office design can be as simple as making comfortable meeting spaces, making smaller conference rooms more welcoming and hospitable, or even just upgrading the seating arrangements in the company kitchen.
  • Organizing in clusters. Aligning workspaces according to function, projects, or team responsibilities help develop a spirit of collaboration and a common sense of contribution. Keeping such groups together can redouble that shared mission and improve collaboration both within and outside the team. It also helps avoid random, isolated seating arrangements that often occur after reorgs.
  • Encouraging personalized cubicles. Community isn’t the same as conformity. A community is a group that bonds together while keeping everyone’s individuality intact. For that reason, employees should feel free to personalize their own office space with items and decor that means something to them, whether it’s family photos, individual items, or a sense of personal style. This approach helps promote both the diversity and integration of the larger group.
  • Adding sightlines. Whether it’s turning the top part of a partition into a clear window, clearing pathways to improve access, removing office clutter, or simply maintaining the open spaces, keeping visibility in an office environment helps remind employees of each other’s presence.
  • Making the office atmosphere more comfortable. The office is not a home, and it’s important to maintain separation between the two. But that doesn’t mean the office should be an unpleasant place to spend time. Comfortable furnishings, casual-feeling places for discussions, reasonable amenities like food, or even homey houseplants can help bring work groups together in an uplifting, communal spirit.


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