How Big Should the Cubicles in Your Office Be?
The nationwide shutdowns that marked the early part of 2020 have slowly lifted, allowing more businesses to resume operations, but “business as usual” simply isn’t an option with the threat of COVID-19 lingering. This has forced companies to rethink how their office settings function.
Before, it was fine to have rows of connected cubicles, or even open office environments devoid of barriers between desks, providing teams with opportunities to collaborate. Now, everything has changed, and in addition to improving ventilation and increasing cleaning and sanitization, many businesses have to create entirely new layouts for seating, in compliance with social distancing guidelines.
The good news is, you can easily add barriers between workers when you include cubicle walls around desks, in addition to placing them six feet apart. However, when modifying your floor plans, you’ll also have to consider the size of your cubicles, because of course, the square footage they claim will impact the number of workers you can fit into any given space. How big should cubicles be?
Economy versus Performance
On the one hand, smaller cubicles allow you to plan a layout that includes more work stations in any given space. Since you’re already losing space to social distancing, you naturally want to make the most of the space you have left.
Unfortunately, squeezing workers into teeny-tiny cubicles may not provide the best environment for productivity, or safety. Consider, for example, a small work station with just enough room for essentials like a computer, a phone, and a small filing cabinet.
While it will get the job done, employees will have to leave their desk to use any other equipment (like a printer, for example). This wastes time over having individual printers at employee desks, but it also creates greater opportunity for virus transmission as employees move through the office and interact with high-touch surfaces (printer buttons/touchscreens).
With larger cubicle and work spaces allotted to each employee, you’ll not only increase productivity and safety, but likely improve employee morale, as opposed to cramming workers into cramped, claustrophobic work stations.
How Big is Big Enough?
The size of cubicle you choose will depend on a couple of factors, including available space, the needs of workers, and whether or not you’re willing to implement measures like A/B scheduling to alleviate the need for your entire staff to be in the building at any given time. Your best bet is to use modular products that allow you to create cubicles in a variety of sizes and configurations. A call center employee, for example, might need less space and equipment than a graphic designer.
In addition to carefully considering sizing to suit the needs of specific employees (or types of activities), you should think about the makeup of your cubicles, including colorful paneling, see-though upper panels to preserve light flow, and ergonomic solutions that promote health and morale. With the right cubicles, you can create an environment conducive to performance and safety when employees return to the office.
Using Cubicles and Dividers to Help Employees Feel Safe and Socially Distance during COVID
There are plenty of reasons why businesses use cubicles in their office spaces, not the least of which is providing employees with private space in which to get their work done, free of chatty co-workers or other distractions. However, cubicles have become a much more important addition to your office space in the wake of challenges presented by COVID-19. They provide a way to help employees maintain socially distancing guidelines and feel safe when returning to work.
Companies are going out of their way to create safe and healthy work environments by increasing cleaning and sanitization, adding hand sanitizer and wipes throughout the office, reducing high-touch surfaces, improving ventilation, instituting mask mandates, and more. However, with new worries about the coronavirus potentially spreading by airborne means, the addition of cubicles and dividers can not only curb the spread of particulates, but also put employees at ease. Why should you include these features as part of your office upgrades?
Add Physical Barriers
Proper ventilation, social distancing, hand-washing/sanitizing, and mask mandates go a long way toward stopping the spread of the coronavirus, but studies have shown that when people linger indoors, every exhalation can add to the amount of virus in the air. Proper air circulation and ventilation can help to draw contaminated air out and infuse fresh air into the environment, but you’ll still want to stop air from drifting between work stations.
This is where cubicles and dividers come in, creating physical barriers that stop and redirect air currents. With the right layout, you can not only maintain social distancing, but direct potentially contaminated air to vents, where it will be removed from the environment, rather than coming into contact with employees.
Many companies work to foster a family feeling in the workplace, encouraging camaraderie among teams and a general atmosphere of collaboration. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has made it downright dangerous for employees to fraternize as they once did. For the foreseeable future, your business will have to work to discourage not only water cooler talk, but employees popping their heads over cubicle walls to chat with the person at the next work station.
You might not like the idea of placing floor-to-ceiling barriers between cubicles, as this can make employees feel isolated and create a dark, depressing space. The good news is, there are plenty of options to engineer a bright, attractive work environment.
Modern, modular cubicles not only allow for a wide range of configurations, including spacious and ergonomic solutions, but you can choose panels in bright hues that stimulate the brain and boost morale. You can also select transparent panels that allow for unhindered light flow, and even let employees engage in non-verbal communication through panes (waving, smiling, and so on), so they still feel like they’re part of a team. With the right cubicles and dividers in place, you can design an office that still feels social, even as you keep employees safe and socially distanced.
The negative effects of poor office ergonomics
Many workers are in a constant mindset of getting things done as effectively as possible, focusing intently on the job that’s in front of them. Principles of ergonomic, the physical science of working more safely and efficiently, probably aren’t at the forefront of their minds. But they can play a huge role in a worker’s overall quality and productivity—especially if they’re bad.
Physical pain and discomfort are the most noticeable effect of bad work ergonomics, and many of the most serious effects make themselves apparent over time.
Muscle, joint, or back pain can be some of the first symptoms that arise. Some of the more known conditions that can appear after prolonged, bad posture include musculoskeletal disorders like tendonitis, carpal or radial tunnel syndrome, disc diseases, and trigger finger.
The long-term potential effects of inferior ergonomics can be especially surprising and harmful. Corrupted posture can create excessive compression on internal organs like the lungs and digestive tract, which can cause respiratory damage and stomach issues. Decreased circulation can lead to the formation of varicose veins. In worst-case scenarios, bad ergonomics can lead to excessive weight gain, which can contribute to the development of type-2 diabetes or heart disease.
Bad moods, stress, and mental fatigue
Bad ergonomics can also result in diminished moods and mental fatigue. Just as bad posture compresses internal organs, it can do the same to the nerves throughout your spinal column.
Forward Head Posture is a condition that frequently occurs among workers who are bent over a computer screen for excessive amounts of time, and it exerts excessive pressure on the spinal cord. When that happens, the body’s nervous system becomes more restricted, which directly impacts one’s thought patterns and emotional demeanor—which can put a worker in a horrible, stressed-out mood.
Incorrect ergonomics can also restrict one’s oxygen flow, which can significantly reduce the overall capacity of one’s lungs. That can result in excessive tiredness or fatigue.
All the above conditions, naturally, can have a direct and adverse effect on the amount and quality of one’s work productivity. Some may become so uncomfortable or ill that they need to take time off. Others who straggle into the office may be unable to do more than the absolute minimum work required.
Depressed office morale is a direct correlation of low productivity, as well. Those scrambling to meet a certain level of output to make up for absent workers may begin to feel resentful. Some may even quit to find a better opportunity where they can more easily meet expectations.
How coronavirus will reshape the look and feel of your office
Global events with long-lasting implications usually don’t happen more than once in a generation. Most of them are impossible to predict. But when they occur, the shockwaves they produce can have far-reaching effects that affect every aspect of our lives.
Such is the case with the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the measures taken to restrict the spread of the virus have been viewed as temporary. But as the coronavirus continues to spread and proliferate, some of its effects may be more permanent than even some experts used to imagine.
One area that’s been affected more than most is the workplace. The advent of working at home has already changed how teams function. Uncertainty about the future of COVID-19—especially its transmissibility—may even change the course of all office designs in the future.
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted one aspect of work culture that had already been taking hold for some time: the rise of working from home. Since coronavirus shutdowns began in March 2020 around 62% of American workers have worked from home, compared to just 25% before.
So perhaps the most dramatic change in the contemporary office is that its very necessity has become questioned—it’s not the intensely focused hub of activity that drove business in the 20th century. Office designs of the future will be revised to reflect an innovative approach to group collaboration, one that emphasizes the inclusion of more remote workers and improved connectivity. Technology is central to those efforts.
A more distributed floor plan
In theory, with more workers based in remote locations, offices will have more open space. On top of that, there’s every likelihood that social distancing measures may continue into the foreseeable future.
Both these factors suggest that employees’ workstations will be more physically separated from each other in a reshaped office and may employ more permanent physical barriers like partitions between them.
In addition to spreading out desks and cubicles, employees themselves may be more sparsely distributed. Certain employee groups may come into the office on just a few designated hours a week, alternating with other groups. Offices may also establish different options to control employee concentration, either 100% work-at-home or a “hybrid” of off- and on-site workers.
The contact-free office
COVID-19’s nature as a contact-spreading virus impacts our contact with physical surfaces. This reality may be reflected in future office design with technology that works to reduce touching to complete even basic functions.
For example, voice activation could be used to operate everything from a computer terminal to the audio-visual equipment in conference rooms. Optical technology could be employed to make everything from coffee makers to toilet flushers responsive to hand waves.
Smartphones can play major parts in the contact-free offices. Mobile phone controls may replace manual controls in everyday operations like printing documents or handling phone banks—even something as mundane as pushing elevator buttons.
Focus on more sanitary materials
With the increased attention on virus transmissibility through touched surfaces, even the basic materials used to build and maintain the office could evolve quickly in the coming years.
One criterion is a given material’s ability to stand up to heavy and more corrosive cleaning agents—stone and laminates can withstand such deep cleaning, whereas oiled wood may not. On the other hand, certain non-porous surfaces proven to keep the virus around longer, like steel, may be avoided.
Offices may use more methods and advanced technology to make conditions safer—such as installing ultra-violet light filters in air ducts, providing more sinks for hand-washing in various locations, or sneeze guards at every desk.
Revised Office Seating Design During COVID-19
The COVID-19 crisis, complete with temporary business shutdowns, has helped many businesses to realize how much can be accomplished with a completely remote workforce. However, you may want to bring employees back into the office environment for a number of reasons, from oversight capabilities, to productivity, to the camaraderie formed through in-person interactions, to employee mental health, just for example
Of course, it can’t be business as usual – you’ll have to conduct operations in an entirely new way if you want to ensure the health and safety of workers. Perhaps the most important change to your current setup is adding the element of social distancing. How can you revise the seating arrangements in your office spaces to reflect safe social distancing guidelines?
Adding Safe Space
The first thing you’ll need to do is separate employees, and this means dividing their work stations. While shared work spaces, including team seating arrangements, have become a popular tool for collaboration over the last several years, a return to private seating is in order post COVID-19.
Social distancing guidelines mandate a minimum of 6 feet of distance between people, but considering testing showing how far airborne droplets can spread from an uncovered cough, you might want to increase this distance or implement additional measures, like barriers. In terms of planning your layout, you’ll either have to space out employees at current seating or create an entirely new layout with individual desks spaced farther apart.
This process can be made easier with the right layout software. If you’re not keen to spend money on software for this purpose, you can find free tools and even templates online. However, it might not be a bad investment, considering you can gain future use value when you scale staffing up or down.
As you push desks apart to create a safe layout, you’ll find that you naturally have to reduce capacity in your work spaces. This could mean allowing some employees to continue working remotely indefinitely. Or you could create a shift schedule, whereby half of workers come to the office in the morning and the other half arrive in the afternoon, or with A/B scheduling for groups coming in every other day. This will increase the need for thorough cleaning and sanitization, but chances are you’re planning to increase the frequency of these activities anyway.
In addition to socially distancing your office layout, it’s wise to consider supplemental health and safety features, including the addition of walled cubicles, panel dividers, or other barriers meant to impede the spread of germs in an open-air environment. You want to create the safest possible environment for workers to return to, and physical barriers can certainly help to stop airborne particles from spreading should workers cough or sneeze.
Cubicles Make a Serious Comeback During the Coronavirus Crisis
In recent years, there’s been a marked shift in the way office environments operate, most notably in the seating arrangements. Where rows of cubicles once allowed companies to provide a large staff with relatively private space to work, without the cost of building out individual offices, more recent layouts have included a more open and collaborative workspace, devoid of dividers, or with only minimal division.
While such seating arrangements have allowed for the implementation of team work stations and easier collaboration, an argument could be made that this strategy makes it more difficult for individual employees to focus, and creates an environment where employees may feel like they’re under constant scrutiny. That said, it looks like a new shift is underway, due to COVID-19. What can companies and workers expect?
First and foremost, companies wishing to bring employees back from forced remote operations will have to comply with guidelines for social distancing, which means creating a minimum six feet of distance between each employee. This will definitely eliminate shared workspaces like groups of desks facing each other that have gained popularity over the last few years.
It will also likely limit the number of employees that can be housed in any given space at one time. For businesses that don’t want to spend the money to expand square footage in order to accommodate their work force, this could mean allowing some employees to remain in the remote workforce, or alternately, create an A/B schedule for different groups of employees to come to the office on alternating days, for example.
Even with socially distanced desks, it’s worrisome to have a large group of employees working in an open space. For this reason, cubicle dividers or safety screens of some sort are likely to be implemented.
According to a study conducted by Florida Atlantic University, when a person coughs without covering the mouth, the airborne droplets can travel more than 8 feet, well beyond the 6-foot social distancing recommendations. This distance was reduced to just over 3.5 feet with a bandana and only 2.5 inches with a quilted cotton mask.
For companies that don’t intend to enforce mask-wearing in the office environment, this obviously poses a serious risk of disease spread. One obvious way to minimize risks is to place cubicle walls or other suitable barriers around individual work spaces.
In addition to creating new layouts, businesses will also have to implement new health and safety policies and procedures, such as mandatory masks and increased office cleaning and sanitization. You may have to improve ventilation, add sanitizing stations, and provide employees with individual use items to cut down on high-touch surfaces.
With proper social distancing, isolated work spaces, and proper sanitization and other considerations, you have the best opportunity to create a safe and healthy office environment for employees and clients.
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.
Factors to consider when designing your office workstation and cubicle layout
The best office workstations are models of efficiency. But more than that, they’re environments where people spend major portions of their lives. When it comes to designing your workstation or cubicle, part of the job involves balancing productivity with comfort.
Several factors play a part in building a functional office unit. Here are some of the most important ones to take into consideration when designing your workspace.
Ergonomics is a real issue. It encompasses both your physical posture and the overall efficiency of your desk setup; the two go hand in hand. But most importantly, maintaining ergonomic balance at your workstation can help stave off physical discomforts than can develop into lingering health issues: chronic back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, or overall strain on muscles and tissues.
Study all the factors that contribute to ergonomic health: proper height and positioning of your desk and chair, organization of desk space to facilitate movement, specially designed keyboards and computer equipment, even special eyeglasses for viewing your monitor.
One of the knocks against cubicles is that they all look the same: exactly similar dimensions, blank-looking, perfectly conforming. Feeling at home at your workstation may not be easy, but you can make your cubicle more uniquely your own space by decorating it with objects that mean something personal to you. Artwork, photographs, plants, color schemes, even furniture like throw pillows or comfortable chairs can keep your sense of self intact.
A computer monitor doesn’t offer a sufficient amount of working light by itself. Overhead fluorescent office lights are a source of irritation for many and can even affect the health of those especially sensitive to its rays. A small table lamp can improve the ambiance at your workstation and feel more welcoming. Certain light bulbs can even compensate for the lack of natural sunlight.
Desktops are blank canvasses. True, they can be springboards for creative thinking and productive work. But they can also be agents of chaos with stray papers and post-its stacking up for months. Think about how the rest of your workstation and cubicle can help you be better organized and work more cleanly: file cabinets, designated space in office drawers, containers for stray items, or any items that make it more convenient for you to retrieve (and replace) what you need.
Contemporary desk arrangements—especially if they involve cubicles—are criticized for being dehumanizing. That’s partially true: poorly designed work areas can be that way. But it’s not difficult to make your space friendlier to your office community without sacrificing the privacy you sometimes need. Additional seating and a warm ambiance can help temporary visitors feel more at home (as would many of the suggestions in the “personalization” section).