Do You Need to Break Down the Cubicle Walls to Improve Performance?

Extraordinary performance only comes from an extraordinary experience, so how you feel at work determines how productive you are — or not.

Getting siloed into a cubicle is great if you don’t like people (and great for others if you’re “that guy”), but studies have shown that cubicles do little to improve employee morale. In fact, the cubicle effect can actually lead to lower levels of trust and communication for the simple fact that human interaction is limited.

Social-exchange theory states that the more often people interact with each other, the more potential for trust to build between them. Duh. So, why is it that office cubicles continue being the go-to choice for the majority of offices?

Related: Designing a Better Office Space

An office design should resemble the personalities and values of the people who work there. If you believe in openness and transparency, then an open-floor plan is the ticket, but if employees need privacy for security matters, then one large, single space is not the way to go.

Below are some of the latest office layouts that help (or hinder) productivity:

The open floor. When retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal was head of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), he created a collaborative, open work environment that fused together disparate civilian and governmental agencies.

This shared space actually forced communication amongst groups that would have otherwise kept a close hold on information. As a result, a constant exchange of knowledge took JSOC’s average of 18 missions per month in 2004 to over 300 in 2008. No big deal.

While numerous studies aim to highlight open office spaces as detrimental to employee performance and health, what the research doesn’t show is how mentally and emotionally engaged people are in their jobs.

If, for instance, I find my job boring or unchallenging, then sure, my focus would probably be elsewhere, too. However, if you catch yourself being subverted from the task at hand then it may not be everyone else that’s the problem.

The unassigned space. Instead of returning to the same seat every day, non-designated spaces can actually encourage cross-pollination because people don’t feel obligated to return to the same location. Of course, humans are creatures of habit, so it requires a concerted effort to avoid repetition and seek out something new.

Related: Does the Company With the Best Break Room Win?

The dreaded cubicle. There’s a reason why thinking of cubicles conjures up images of the movie Office Space with the climate of “boring” that pervaded the entire culture. Nothing screams “awful” like the typical cubicle layout.

The benefits of cubicle spaces are greater privacy and — theoretically — more productivity since you’re less prone to distractions. However, the flip side of these benefits is a restriction to idea flow, which is the spreading of information through networks. Sure, you can personalize your space, but at the end of the day, it’s still a cubicle.

The individual office. Ahh, the defining characteristic of social net worth. Chances are that if you have your own office it’s because the powers that be (i.e. your boss) wanted to dedicate a quiet location for you to work because he or she expects more out of you. Or, maybe it’s because you’ve simply put in your time and a personal office is part of the advancement package.

I compare having an individual office with the delineation between officers and enlisted in the SEAL Teams. Up to a certain point both officers and enlisted work, train, eat, travel and fight together until, one day, the officer hits about the 12-year mark in his career. At that point one of two things happens: he stays in the military and makes a career for himself, or he gets out because he doesn’t want to play politics.

The individual office is akin to playing politics because it (likely) took politicking to get there. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, just the nature of the game. However, a personal office shouldn’t be the defining element of power — fundamentals of leadership such as character and competence should.

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