As office workers make their return, so does the lowly cubicle

Among office designers and architects, cubicles are rarely mentioned. The once-ubiquitous fixture, so popular in the 1980s and ’90s, has become vilified as a sign of the dehumanisation of the workforce. Design experts today say cubicles are a “hard no”.

And yet cubicles, like scrunchies, are back, spurred by demand from employers and employees alike.

“I frankly thought the cube market was dying,” said Mr Brian Silverberg, who sells refurbished and used office furniture with his brother, Mark, in their store, the Furniture X-Change in North Brunswick, New Jersey. “We have sold more cubes in the last three years than in the five years before,” he said, adding that 2024 would be “bigger than this year”.

Covid-19 was an amplifier of a trend that preceded the pandemic. But as workers returned to the office after months of working at home, quiet spaces became more important, said Ms Janet Pogue McLaurin of Gensler. “We had seen a drop in effectiveness because of noise interruptions, disruptions and a general lack of privacy,” she said.

Global demand has pushed cubicles and partitions to a US$6.3 billion (S$8.37 billion) market, which is expected to grow over the next five years to US$8.3 billion, according to a 2022 report from Business Research Insights, a market analysis firm.

Furniture manufacturers had already recognised that workers wanted some privacy despite the tendency of employers to value collaborative areas more highly than individual workspaces.

Anyone who has ever worked in an office with benches “hates the open plan”, said Mr Michael Held, vice-president of global design at the furniture-maker Steelcase.

Working from home during the pandemic offered some relief from noisy co-workers, but it also brought new distractions, including constant interruptions by family members and roommates and the nagging temptation to do household chores. Employees cite a lack of focus as the biggest problem with remote work, said Mr Ryan Anderson, vice-president of global research and insights at MillerKnoll, the furniture-maker, which tracks worker trends with the Boston Consulting Group and the messaging platform Slack.

As a result, just as companies are trying to juggle remote work and in-office mandates, they are also deliberating the right mix of collaborative areas, conference rooms and individual spaces.

For example, at Grassi, a New York accounting and auditing firm with 500 employees, the offices have been reconfigured to hybrid spaces, emphasising cubicles or semi-private areas along with open collaborative spaces.

Some of the company’s seven offices were “too open with no dedicated private space”, said Mr Jeff Agranoff, the company’s chief human resources officer. Now the firm has a combination of open and private spaces. (The company also eliminated reservation scheduling for desks, an arrangement known as hotelling. “Everyone has a dedicated space,” Mr Agranoff said, “because we were concerned that significant hotelling would deter people from coming back to the office”.)

Many employers now offer a variety of workspaces, including shared offices, conference rooms, phone booths and libraries, Ms McLaurin said. And, yes, cubicles.

Just don’t expect to see 6-foot-high panels – those remain out of fashion. Instead, the new cubes offer what Mr Held called “sitting privacy” with 54-inch-high panels.

And unlike the cubicles in films like “Office Space”, which satirised their commodified and sanitised look, the current iterations are ergonomic and flexible and may include lighting. They can be rectangular or rounded, with fixed or adjustable walls, and can accommodate multiple electronic devices.

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