Goodbye cubicles!
December 1, 2016 7:16 AM   Subscribe

Hit me with your best ideas for an office remodel. What makes employees the happiest?

I’m part of a committee tapped to plan an office renovation. Just under 30 staff, most between the ages of 35-55, doing standard office-worker type stuff. We currently have high cubicle walls which we will definitely replace with low walls/frosted glass panels. Other than that, right now we’re just gathering ideas in the following areas:

Common areas
Other amenities?

We work in a basic pre-fab industrial building which can be rearranged fairly easily. We will be able to take down certain walls and replace others with frosted glass to bring in more light. Management and corporate culture is pretty conservative so anything too out there will be rejected (i.e. there will be no hammocks or climbing wall…and people here REALLY like having their own space so some sort of low dividers will be necessary).

Looking for both general and specific ideas/best practices for increasing productivity and employee morale (both short and long term). What do you love/hate about your corporate workspace?

posted by yawper to Work & Money (74 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Is it possible to have operable windows? It's one of the things my coworkers most often mention they hate about our building, they can't open the windows.
posted by skycrashesdown at 7:22 AM on December 1, 2016 [11 favorites]

Read Peopleware - there is a wealth of wisdom in there.
posted by plinth at 7:23 AM on December 1, 2016 [6 favorites]

I don't know if this is an option for you, but I have to put it out there: My absolute favorite thing about the space I currently work in is that it has a door that closes. I am totally indifferent to almost everything else about it. The carpet is ugly, the walls are ugly, the lighting is ugly, the furniture is nothing special, there's few amenities. But I have a door, and that makes it the best space I've ever worked in.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:24 AM on December 1, 2016 [67 favorites]

It would help if you explained why you went from high walls to low walls. We just did that at my workplace and now everyone works from home because they hate it so much. So if you want my 2c on what makes employees the happiest, I'd say offices with doors.
posted by AFABulous at 7:24 AM on December 1, 2016 [47 favorites]

Honestly, if you put me at a desk with low walls instead of either an office or a real cubicle I would probably quit. People need private space with some sound deadening for quiet work and the ability to separate themselves if they need to be noisy (like teleconferences or whatever else).

The only other things I care about are access to natural light and cleanliness. Make sure people have windows and the trash gets taken out regularly and people won't care about anything else. The rest of it - funky colors and office furniture, foosball tables, whatever - is set dressing.
posted by backseatpilot at 7:26 AM on December 1, 2016 [21 favorites]

This question makes me angry. My company switched us from full-sized cubicles to "low walls/frosted glass panels" about a year ago, and it significantly dinged morale. Nobody was happy with the new situation, we're still not, and it actually caused some employees to actively leave the company.
People like their illusion of privacy.
posted by jozxyqk at 7:27 AM on December 1, 2016 [30 favorites]

Low walls: the room currently has very little natural light and the high walls block what little comes in. It's also a small room and feels crowded and claustrophobic. It's referred to as the maze.
posted by yawper at 7:29 AM on December 1, 2016

Has anyone asked the staff whether they would prefer a) walls or b) sunlight? It's a shitty choice to have to make but I'd pick walls every time. I can always get a full spectrum lamp to put on my desk if I'm missing the sun (which I am because as I type this I am sitting in a high-walled cubicle in a basement).
posted by soren_lorensen at 7:31 AM on December 1, 2016 [35 favorites]

My company pumps a very low level of white noise through the speakers at all times. You don't notice it but it makes it much harder to hear people talking in nearby cubes. Searching for "Office Sound Conditioner" will turn up some products.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 7:32 AM on December 1, 2016 [6 favorites]

Allow the person to control their lighting situation. Buy lamps for each desk.

1. It gives them some control of something.
2. Some people work better in darker or brighter environments.
3. Fluorescent lights suck. They're cold and dead. Warm lamps bring in a warmer, cozier atmosphere.
posted by INFJ at 7:32 AM on December 1, 2016 [20 favorites]

I manage an office and what people complain about most is a lack of privacy. I don't know how low your walls are, but if people can see each other when they're sitting at their desks they aren't going to like it. I would also try to orient the cubicles so people can face the opening - nobody likes it when coworkers come up behind them.
posted by something something at 7:33 AM on December 1, 2016 [12 favorites]

Definitely do a survey with your staff. Low walls are terrible

I wonder if high walls exist with 3/4 height solid and 1/4 glass. That might be a compromise to allowing light in while maintaining sound barriers.
posted by Ftsqg at 7:35 AM on December 1, 2016 [5 favorites]

If it's crowded, you need more space. No amount of lowering walls and paint is going to change that. If you have a lot of extraneous junk around, try to move it in to closets or get rid of it.
posted by backseatpilot at 7:37 AM on December 1, 2016 [7 favorites]

If you insist on having cubicles, then arrange it so that people's backs aren't to the walkways: turning desks to face walkways is best, but at least make it so they don't have folks coming up in back of them.

If you need to keep a lot of extraneous stuff around, maybe don't pile it all up in one end of the room: use in to help break up the solid mass of cubicles.
posted by easily confused at 7:38 AM on December 1, 2016 [5 favorites]

What makes employees the happiest?
We currently have high cubicle walls which we will definitely replace with low walls

What makes me the happiest is that I have walls so I can shut out the rest of my office and get my work done.

The day they take away my walls is the day I walk out. Seriously. Let people have their damn walls. The amazing thing is people can still collaborate when they need to.

It's bad enough when I can hear someone when they're on the phone. If I had to look at them as well I'd go mad.

And get people good chairs and let them choose one from several types.
posted by bondcliff at 7:38 AM on December 1, 2016 [22 favorites]

What do you love/hate about your corporate workspace?

I absolutely hate my low wall cubicle and would give anything to go back to a high wall (or even a mid wall) cubicle. My problem with low walls is all of the visual and auditory distraction that comes with it. I am actually more productive sitting at home on my couch, sick, watching TV and working at the same time than I sometimes am in my cubicle. I may be on the extreme end of things though.
posted by noneuclidean at 7:39 AM on December 1, 2016 [10 favorites]

The lower walls in our renovated office definitely let more natural light in, which is great. But it also significantly increased the noise issue, so I'd make sure to address that. The configuration is 4 cubes per "pod" with higher walls between pods, though they are still lower than the old cube walls. Within a pod there isn't much of a divider at all. I'm working with headphones on right now because of coworkers outside of my pod (so, in theory with medium-high cube walls between us - we can't see each other if we're sitting down but we can if we stand up) having conversations that make it nearly impossible to concentrate. I don't know if the answer is white noise generators, or headphones for all, or what, but noise is the number 1 complaint about our otherwise nice office reno.

This we do like:

Light, clean color scheme (greys and light blues mostly).
A really nice break room/kitchen - we went from a tiny space that fit 2 small tables to one with three low tables and one bar-height table, plus a few TVs and just lots of space for hanging out, preparing food/drink, etc. The kitchen has sliding glass doors that help block noise from the work area, which the old space did not.
La Croix in the vending machine (this might just be me).
We got to have some input on the layout of our cubes - we could choose two or three sided desks, whether we had dividers between cubes within the 4-cube "pod" or had more of an open space with a communal table, etc.
Our cubes all have a little cubby/locker unit that is great for putting coats, purses, etc.
Sit/stand desks available for those who want them.
Task lighting on each desk.
posted by misskaz at 7:42 AM on December 1, 2016 [4 favorites]

My office has roughly 5 foot tall cubicle walls with frosted glass top panels and I think it's a great compromise. Plenty of light but I feel like I'm in a private space. They also use the white noise thing and I rarely feel annoyed with coworkers talking in the next cube over.
posted by brilliantine at 7:42 AM on December 1, 2016 [5 favorites]

Where I work, the workstations on the inside of the building have frosted glass outer walls with glass doors. The inner walls (the walls shared by the inner offices) are solid. Lots of light gets in, but still lots of privacy.

Personally, I would give up light to have an office with a door.
posted by jraz at 7:43 AM on December 1, 2016 [7 favorites]

As an office worker in an open plan office for the love of what ever deity you believe in don't make the cubicles walls lower or go open plan. The only people that like this idea are management. If you need spaces for people to work together have them be a separate space they can go to & then return to their desks.

Talk to the employees, they may well prefer a maze to a lack of privacy & the increased noise levels. If the place feels too dark invest in better lighting, get everyone a daylight lamp and maybe look at the colors of the cubicles themselves. Look at rearranging the current cubicles to be less maze like. In groups of 4 instead of long rows, then you can possibly have part of the cubicle walls be lower to allow light in but not lose all privacy. If the place feels crowded & getting more space isn't an option, look at minimizing visual clutter, get good storage & keep all other visual clutter well stored away.

To make them really happy get good chairs.
posted by wwax at 7:44 AM on December 1, 2016 [17 favorites]

One thing I usually find lacking is power outlets. Above the desk (important), and adequate number. Multiple monitor mounts and standing desk option would also be nice.
posted by kris.reiss at 7:44 AM on December 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

Seconding the book Peopleware. It's 50% about what sorts of offices make people the happiest and most productive.
posted by so fucking future at 7:48 AM on December 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Your committee will be surveying the employees who'll be working in the renovated space, right? If not: do survey them. I've witnessed/been affected by multiple renos at work and everyone was enraged when they happened with zero input from those of us affected. It went far better when our input was sought.

Even if people don't love all the changes, it will make a difference to them that someone *asked* and took some of it into consideration.

You won't be able to do everything people want, so be upfront about that, but let them know you'll take what they say seriously and consider it if it's realistic or possible.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 7:48 AM on December 1, 2016 [11 favorites]

If you can't give people doors, give them the option to get more privacy when needed. Add a couple enclosed offices that can be used if someone is working on something that requires a lot of concentration, if someone has to be on a long conference call or something so they can use speakerphone without annoying everyone else, etc.
posted by metasarah at 7:48 AM on December 1, 2016 [14 favorites]

Low walls suck, but it looks like people have that covered. How about a microwave, a real sink to wash dishes and utensils and a big fridge? There are maybe 750 people in the building I work in and we have a constant barrage of emails reminding people about not wshing dishes in bathroom sinks or water fountains. People are gonna want to eat at their desks, accomodate them.
posted by fixedgear at 7:49 AM on December 1, 2016 [10 favorites]

We currently have high cubicle walls which we will definitely replace with low walls/frosted glass panels.

What everyone else said - I don't think I know anyone who's ever preferred low/nonexistent walls, and many people do consider this a dealbreaker. I get seasonal depression and love sunlight, but I would rather work in a real cubicle in a basement than at a low-walled desk in a sunny office. Some of the offices I've worked in have had highish cubicle walls with the top third being glass; that's a compromise that works for me.

Also, if you don't have a room (with a door that closes) where anyone can make phone calls, please consider putting at least one in. People can and do need to have private phone conversations while at the office; I found out my dad died when I was at work, and I was grateful not to have to have that conversation within earshot of my coworkers.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:49 AM on December 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

IME -- Low walls suck.

I also think they don't encourage interaction. They actually prevent it as conversations are whispered and more private. So what would be a normal work conversation that someone else interested might choose to participate in becomes a private one so no one else feels like interrupting.

Just no. I've gotten used to my work environment a bit after a year, but it still grates.
posted by jclarkin at 7:49 AM on December 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

I don't mind our open plan (no walls) because I know there isn't room to give everyone an office with a door, which would be ideal. However, people in my office hardly ever need to talk on the phone for work reasons, so it's mostly pretty quiet, and I don't think the cubicles we used to have would make that better. But I do get a lot more done when most of my co-workers are out for one reason or another or when I come in on a weekend and nobody's here.

What I would really kill for is a designated place for employees without offices to make private phone calls. Sometimes you have to call the doctor or make some other similar call during the day, and there's absolutely no place for privacy. When the weather's nice, you see people walking around the parking lot making calls.
posted by FencingGal at 7:50 AM on December 1, 2016 [7 favorites]

Echoing the walls thing - we recently moved buildings and got lower walls. I used to be able to block out most talking, now I have to have headphones on at all times to even attempt to focus.

Lighten the wall color (soft blues are nice), and think about if you can arrange the aisles to allow some uninterrupted light through versus lowering walls.

Otherwise, ditch the florescent bulbs and move to warmer lights. Swap blinds for soft gauze curtains if reasonable.

People like their privacy and ability to block out the world to get stuff done.
posted by skittlekicks at 7:50 AM on December 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you absolutely must do low cubicle walls, make sure there are enough meeting rooms to accommodate small meetings and individual phone calls, then encourage people to make calls from those rooms instead of their desks.
posted by elvissa at 7:51 AM on December 1, 2016 [9 favorites]

Nthing elvissa - I had to listen to a co-worker getting a hotel room for his anniversary. "Does it have a hot tub?" A private place to make phone calls would be a big help.
posted by getawaysticks at 7:56 AM on December 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

There are floor plans that make people go to a location of the office they would only go to because they have to go to the bathroom. So it's obvious when someone is going to or coming from the bathroom. Don't make this your floor plan.

Likewise there are natural points in an office where people will congregate away from their work areas--outside meeting rooms, for instance. Keep those informal meeting points away from bathrooms.

Dittoing everyone about cubicles: I think job satisfaction and productivity correlate with cubicle doors.
posted by Luminiferous Ether at 7:57 AM on December 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

Yeah, we have 2 "telephone rooms", two small conference rooms (one of which has soft chairs and a couch, no windows, and a solid locking door; that one is used for pumping for nursing mothers or other needs that require privacy), and three medium-large conference rooms. This is for a staff of about 65 people so scale accordingly. I have to say, people don't use the telephone rooms as much as I'd like, but maybe your company has the kind of culture that people would use them.

Other things I just thought of:
Water filter or water cooler delivery.
An ice machine that can handle making enough ice for the whole office in the heat of the summer months has been *clutch* - the ice makers built in to fridges and ice cube trays were never enough.
Our flooring is carpet tiles which is nice for dealing with stains/spills that won't come out; just replace the tile. But they're not very cushiony, so I really wish I had a mat to stand on when I use my standing desk.
Having some localized control over the HVAC would be nice. There doesn't seem to be any correlation between what the thermostats on the wall near me are set to and what the air temp actually is.
A set of dishes that staff can use for lunch etc so we're not burning through tons of paper plates and utensils.
We have CO2 monitors in the larger conference rooms that will bring in fresh air if the CO2 levels get too high from having lots of people in there and the doors closed for too long. Great if you tend to have large meetings that last for a long time.
posted by misskaz at 8:09 AM on December 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Just say no to low cube walls.

I actively left a company I had been with for 6 years because they were going to pull me out of an actual office with a door and put me in a low wall cube set up. My next company was supposed to have an office with a door for me but was overcrowded by the time I started and I ended up in a space with 3 walls and a cube divider.

I now work from home full time. This stuff matters.
posted by tryniti at 8:11 AM on December 1, 2016 [5 favorites]

Stark overhead lighting gives me migraines, especially in winter when it's so much brighter compared to what's happening outside. My office's solution to this problem for me was to take out the bulbs in the fluorescent light above my desk, which is a great solution for most of the year (though it's so dark out now at just past 4pm in England that the glare from the other lights around me is starting to be an issue).

But other people I work with hate working in the dark. So definitely seconding the suggestion of lighting that employees have some degree of control over.
posted by terretu at 8:12 AM on December 1, 2016 [5 favorites]

Yes on rethinking the walls if at all possible - I'd give up light to have actual walls, any day of the week. But assuming that's adequately covered and/or a non-starter:

- As much lighting control as possible. At the very least, one or two conference rooms with decent control (dimmer switches?) My office switched out my lights with special dimmer-switch ones because I'm migraine-prone, and it both filled me with loyalty and happiness, and gets more productivity out of me because I can lower the lights and work through a low-grade migraine rather than have to give up and go home. Win-win all around. (I mean, except for people who look into my office and want to know why I work like a mole in the dark, but I'm happy and productive this way, so shut it, people.)

- Decent kitchen facilities; going from a full-size fridge to a mini-fridge on our last office move made people really unhappy. On the upside, we got a toaster oven and people really like that. (Apparently. I don't use it, but other people are always using it to make delicious smells and cause me to have grilled cheese cravings.)

- Standing desks for those would like them; some newer folks here have them and I'm very jealous, I'll ask for one next time we have budget to get new furniture.

- Last time we moved, they brought in three different kinds of office chair and everyone got to try them out and pick the one they wanted. I didn't actually care about it much, but some people seemed to be disproportionately pleased by having a choice, even if a very limited one.

- Circulating fans in conference rooms that get stuffy.

- Really, just ask your people what THEY want. I have been on both the management side and the employee side of "big attempt to make a special break room to improve morale / encourage social interaction" at two different workplaces, and in both cases it was a bust because the things provided weren't actually what the employees at that office wanted.
posted by Stacey at 8:12 AM on December 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

posted by vitabellosi at 8:13 AM on December 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Since the wall thing's been pretty well covered:

It would be really really nice to have adjustable-height desks. I'm not talking about standing desks, just desks where the leg height can be adjusted for people of different heights.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:13 AM on December 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

When I first started working at my current employer I had an office with a door but after about 4 years in, management switched the product development team to an area surrounded by high walls but with low walls within.

I hated the change - especially the fact that my back was to the central aisle. After about 3 months, I discovered that it wasn't bothering me as much as I had feared. A year after that, I was offered an office and passed on it because I actually enjoyed working in the cubicle area more.

That being said, my job means I spend 1/3 to 1/2 my time talking to my coworkers about various projects so there was always a great deal of collaboration that the particular environment made easier. The downside was that it could be difficult to focus on particularly complex situations because I tended to be interrupted. As others have suggested, if you do this you need to have private rooms where people can have conference calls or close the door to focus on something urgent [which we had]

The other thing I think is critical is having some high walls. My cluster was a group of 9 people all working on the same things. If we were in the middle of a giant group of low cubes the level of noise and distraction would have been far too much.
posted by nolnacs at 8:15 AM on December 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

My absolute favorite thing about the space I currently work in is that it has a door that closes.

Related, I cannot make out conversations my coworkers are having on the phone, nor can they with me. Somehow the noise of muffled and low voices is far less distracting than one that's recognizable words. We're all on the phone a fair bit and this is really important to us.
posted by bonehead at 8:19 AM on December 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

Just to pile on, but with a different reasoning: private offices make breastpumping for nursing moms a total non-issue. I would never have lasted as long as I did nursing if I had even had to go to a specific room. Being able to stay at my desk, shut the door, and continue typing one-handed was great.
posted by Liesl at 8:19 AM on December 1, 2016 [5 favorites]

Control over the window blinds/shades. No one wants glare on the screens and the biggest complaints that I've heard over the years is having too much sunlight coming in and overwhelming the monitors. The current space I'm in has no blinds and we've had to resort to taping big sheets of paper over the glass to get any protection from sunlight.
posted by octothorpe at 8:28 AM on December 1, 2016

One thing that is not well-done about our open plan office is that the collaboration areas are located on the most efficient path between many desks and the door. I love my window, but I will fucking WALK THROUGH a standup meeting blocking the door. So consider flow.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 8:29 AM on December 1, 2016

If you do have a "private place" to make phone calls, make sure that it gets cell reception. In our open concept office (low-wall separating the walk way, but no side division from person to person), they put in a closet with a window'ed door that was specifically to be used as a calling room. However, no one wants to use the phone provided, they want to use their cellphone. And that closet was a deadzone for cell reception with no window in the room itself, at it being placed right by a lot of the supporting beams/struction. After two years of the privacy room not getting used at all, it was converted to storage.

Low walls suck; some people trail their hands along it as they walk by, distracting from work. People feel compelled to say hi as they walk by, distracting from work. If two groups are talking at a time they each get progressively louder to hear each other over the other group's noise. I've heard a number of my co-workers giving out their credit card / debit card numbers as they buy stuff online, or talk with their bank about issues. If I need to make a call, I only feel comfortable by going out to the parking lot in my car. My co-worker has a SAD light that he leaves on all winter. Whenever he's not at his desk (and he's in meetings at least 2+ hours a day), I've got that shining into the corner of my eyes.

I'll N'th that you try to give employee's as much input on light as possible. In our section, it's just the bar florescent bulbs. All except two of us in the section don't turn on the lights in the morning, implicitly saying that we'd prefer to have less light. However as there's two people who "need more light" and a desk lamp is insufficient they need to glare up the entire area.

To stop getting headaches, I had to stand on my desk on my tiptoes to unplug the bulbs to disable the lights directly above my desk (and immediately had 3 co-workers ask if I'd do the same for them). I keep needing to remind the office admins that the bulbs aren't burned out so don't send anyone to replace them. With high-walled cubicles, lights that hang off of the upper walls are convenient and allow one to choose the temperature/brightness of lighting.

I'll N'th that you need something to cover the windows that can be easily raised/lowered. Initially we had nothing; some people by the windows found it distracting. We finally got these cheap paper covers that can't be easily raised/lowered, so if someone needs the blind down for 5 minutes, it's always down. And those who prefer natural light to artificial lose out.

Two outlets are insufficient for most people, even if it supplies monitor and desktop. Assume each employee needs one personal outlet (ignoring multiple monitor / computer setups), and then you end up needing to put a powerbar in ever work area. Instead put in the 6-outlet modules - that will cover some people; others with lots of large transformers will need a power bar/squid of some sort regardless - depending upon your current setup, you might need to be prepared to buy more.

Make sure that there are enough congregation spots in multiple parts of the building. One section of ours is distinctly lacking, so there's often people clogging the hallways in front the of the stairs talking because they don't want to go too far out of the way.

Low wall open concept work spaces look really pretty, and are fun to talk about but they suck to work in. Perhaps reconsider why the office redesign is being done. Additionally, my desk is cluttered with disks, cables, usb drives, ram, containers filled with screws, and a few pulled apart machines that donated parts, boxes for things still undergoing testings... not to mention the various personal bits I have (some crafted things from my wife and kids. The two co-workers on either side of me have similar messes. This is front and center each time they bring some big muckety muck through, rather than hidden behind a cube wall. Sales/HR will send periodic requests to keep work spaces clean. But I'm not staying late to do house keeping. And we're busy enough that my manager, and CTO both agree that there's not time to dedicate to cleaning/organizing. So that nicely envisioned clean open environment where dev/ops can openly communicate is instead a bit of secret shame for the sales people.
posted by nobeagle at 8:32 AM on December 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

I actually prefer low walls. My office did a remodel a few years ago and because I work so closely with my staff, the low walls allow us to just pop our heads up and discuss a certain situation. Not everyone enjoys that kind of atmosphere, though.

Controlled lighting is nice. Neutral hues of grey/blue/tan/green seem to appeal to both men AND women without going to outside of the box with obnoxious colors that would make ME feel awesome and make the 55 year old man next to me feel like he's in a teeangers bedroom.
posted by Sara_NOT_Sarah at 8:32 AM on December 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Nthing hatred of low walls, especially glass ones which are extra reflective of sound and that the solution to crowding is more space, not making everyone be able to see everyone around them.

Having good tasting cool water is good.

Depending on your local weather, a perk that I really like is an outdoor break area with a picnic table and an enforced no smoking policy.

Not having a TV in the break room is a plus to me. Even on mute, they can be distracting and avoiding arguments over what to watch (especially political news) is good.

If you don't have a guest wifi network for personal devices, they are nice things to have.
posted by Candleman at 8:38 AM on December 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

My company went to no walls/open floor plan in order to foster more collaborative work, and it totally backfired. Everyone who is allowed to now works from home 90% of the time.
posted by brand-gnu at 8:49 AM on December 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

If you decide to control the room's lights with a motion sensor, set the timeframe to at least an hour. It is incredibly distracting to have to get up every 15 minutes and walk across the room to wave my arms in front of the sensor.
posted by belladonna at 8:49 AM on December 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Low cube walls suck. If lighting is an issue with high walls, go with in-cube lighting instead of relying on ceiling lights. Don't delude yourself that low walls are remotely okay. I don't want to be BFFs with all my coworkers.

Decent desk chairs with nice L shaped desks. Aeron rip-offs can be had pretty cheap.

Multiple, good microwaves with multiple refrigerators in the kitchen.

Some sort of carpet on the floor for noise control.

NICE and CLEAN restrooms.
posted by LoveHam at 8:50 AM on December 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

I work in a ginormous office space with no offices, tons of desks out in the open, and many conference rooms (although somehow, no matter what, there are never enough) - this is super popular in tech. I am not wild about it, I feel constantly randomized by people wandering by my desk who want to chat, and sometimes the dull roar of tons of people existing in a large, cavernous space makes me want to run screaming from the building.

But maybe that's just me...

The best working environment I've ever had has been when I worked in a room with windows, a door, and with about 5 other people with desks in there with me. We worked loosely together on things, and we were approachable to one another (and anybody who came to join us), but it didn't feel like we were cattle in a giant pen.

If I were designing an office, I would do it that way, trying to put multiple people in large, bright offices together.
posted by pazazygeek at 8:52 AM on December 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

When my office got cubicles last year, I had but one request. The walls needed to be either magnetic or push pin-able. The company ended up purchasing cubicles that were neither. It's just a personal preference, but there are things I need in the course of my work that I need to be able to just glance up at. I'm not one to decorate my workspace, but I know the parents in my office would have loved space to hang photos and kids' drawings.
posted by MuChao at 8:54 AM on December 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

I also happily give up windows for walls and a door I can close. There's a common area with windows, a cafe with windows and a patio on the ground floor if I need air. If people REALLY like having their own space, I would suggest not disrupting that, but looking at what you can do to improve the common spaces (better kitchen facilities, maybe) and improve the private spaces (more outlets, floor/desk lamps instead of overheads, hiring one of those corporate plant services)

No walls and no door means no privacy, no silence and almost no ability for me to filter things out and get work done. I have repeatedly actively argued against moving office space because I consider walls and a door a significant perk.
posted by crush-onastick at 9:03 AM on December 1, 2016

To clarify:
a) there is no possible way people who aren't already in an office are getting an office with a closing door. There is no space and it would not gel with the corporate culture and the type of work being done.
b) I am not in management; am very much a cube dweller myself. The committee is comprised solely of workers, not management.
c) yes, we have surveyed the staff and most are open to lower walls with frosted glass for the top panel
d) we don't deal with customers and make very few phone calls. It's generally quite quiet.
e) there are existing common areas and meeting rooms with doors that close.

While I hear all of you on the low walls/high walls, please try to keep the focus on other design elements. Thanks!
posted by yawper at 9:13 AM on December 1, 2016

Glad to hear that you're considering the option of having glass at the top to allow light in. In most offices, the private offices around the perimeter either have glass at the top of the interior wall, or window panels next to the door. That helps light come in but keeps the privacy factor.

Agree about having phone rooms (with cell reception) and just various rooms of different sizes. If you don't have your own space, it's nice to be able to go to a private room for a while to eat, stretch, meditate, etc.

And count me in the "nobody likes open plans except management" camp.

Also agree to not have a TV in the break room. At my last job they watched soaps in there which made it impossible for me to enjoy my lunch.
posted by radioamy at 9:18 AM on December 1, 2016

Just to be clear-- people urging you to reconsider low walls aren't just doing so out of personal preference or grumpiness. Studies have shown that they actually reduce productivity. Even if all the employees are open to them, actual implementation is a whole different thing. Organizations that want productive employees are damaging their own goals when they put them up.

That said, other things:

-the ability to use desks as standing or sitting desks, and to switch between both modes
-access to outlets! One of the most infuriating things about my office space is lack of outlets-- one of the only ones I can use requires crawling on the floor, and extension cords won't work because of the way the desk is built
-lots of shelving options, actual storage. The trend for paperless desks without any drawers is ridiculous for a lot of different forms of work.
-places to store coats/shoes/umbrellas at every person's workspace
posted by a fiendish thingy at 9:44 AM on December 1, 2016 [5 favorites]

(I am also pro-full walls but since that is already decided...)

... I do want to emphacize that in leaving the high cubicle walls behind, you are losing a) corkboard/wall space for storing information and b) overhead shelf space. Perhaps your current setup doesn't make much use of these anyway, but I know mine does.

(I went from open office to cubicles when we moved a few years ago and was SO HAPPY. Some of it was, yes, the privacy, but I really like having a full cork board both for information and personalization.)
posted by maryr at 9:49 AM on December 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Invest in good window treatments. A sunny office at certain times of the day make it very difficult to work on a screen, or may become too hot in summer.

A good break room and/or lunch room where people can chill.

Option for a private room to make phone calls.

Free refreshments and snacks.
posted by exquisite_deluxe at 9:49 AM on December 1, 2016

Low walls require smart setups where no one is facing anyone else, even in their peripheral vision. The larger the space, the harder it will be to make this happen. I really don't want to make eye contact with the same person 50 times a day when either they or I am coming or going from our desks. So, some higher walls need to be in place to prevent that and create what people have called pods. Especially if the real walls in your office don't naturally break the space up into smaller areas. If you will have a line of more than four cubes in any direction, there should be a higher wall to break it up. Those walls need to be sound absorbing and not hard glass. Also, people don't want their backs to the opening of their cube, either. Solve these problems and your low walls may not be so bad.

A private room for calls is essential to making people feel like they are adults.

If only a few people are on the phone for their jobs most of the day, higher walls should separate them from people who are not.

Flooring should be easy to clean but not just carpet over concrete. Something a bit easier to walk on all day every day.

Colours should vary on different walls and not be limited to neutrals. Higher walls can be blue while lower walls are tan. Structural walls can be a third color. My office includes some muted greens and blues and they help it feel less drab.
posted by soelo at 9:59 AM on December 1, 2016

Most of the important things have been covered; I wouldn't work somewhere I don't have a door and a window.

I have a knockoff Aeron chair that has made a huge difference in my day-to-day comfort; if we even went back to the crappy Office Depot fake leather chairs I'd buy my own knockoff Aeron.

Since you're doing the cube thing, I'd want as many walls as possible covered with either whiteboards or a surface I can use pushpins on.

As others have said, lighting control is great. I have my overhead lights on a dimmer and task lighting around my desk; I'd hate to be a slave to overhead flourescents.

Twin monitor desktops as standard has also helped me a lot.
posted by craven_morhead at 10:08 AM on December 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

The break space should have tables and chairs where you can sit and eat food with a knife and fork. My office had a bunch of weird low "comfy" chairs so to eat proper food you'd be perched at a shitty side table at knee level. I usually ate at my desk.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 10:32 AM on December 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

My office space has pods of 4 short wall cubes with high walls separating them from the next pod over. The change was made from private high wall cubes for the same reason as you are considering a change, to allow more light. While I miss my large private high-wall window cube, the current set-up is a decent compromise from low-walls-only. We have other areas in our building that were converted to low-walls-only and our set up is definitely preferred by people working here.
posted by fimbulvetr at 10:45 AM on December 1, 2016

Be aware that any exceptions to that "most are open to lower walls with frosted glass for the top panel" may leave the company.

Dual monitors as an option is nice. Plenty of surfaces within the cube that you can put stuff up on with thumbtacks. If the floors are carpeted, the option for plastic mats under rolly chairs for easier rolling.

Adjustable desk heights would be lovely. A drawer at each desk that locks so you have a "secure" spot to store your purse.

The option to add lights to the workspace is key. I like a bright workspace and brought in a lamp from home in addition to the one provided.

Light colors throughout (except for on chairs). I favor a grey color palette to a beige color palette, but everyone has their preference. A few plants by any available windows would be nice.

Nthing accommodating people wanting to store, heat and eat food at work. Make this easy, convenient and hygienic. (Get a dishwasher if at all possible.)

Probably no one will go for it, but the option to get a space heater for under your desk has made my life so much better.
posted by purple_bird at 10:46 AM on December 1, 2016

Rugs and plants in the common spaces make it feel more comfortable. I hate offices without plants, they feel too sterile!
Maybe have a designated wall in a common space for people to put up their personal kid/pet pics so they feel involved in the decor and have something nice to walk by and look at. It would also be a conversation starter and nice way for people to connect.
posted by rmless at 10:55 AM on December 1, 2016

Yes, we have surveyed the staff and most are open to lower walls with frosted glass for the top panel
The way you described the limitations of this remodel, I would not survey the staff any more unless their input will actually affect the final result. (Like purple_bird said, where does that leave people who aren't open to lower walls?) A very small company I used to work for moved into a bland, mostly windowless office space and there were multiple meetings about Planning The New Office. Cubicles were proposed by management, but employees were encouraged to submit feedback and we took that to mean that our input would be considered and weighed in the final decision.

I know the offices vs cubicles question has been asked and answered and is out of your hands, but in our case feedback was unanimously and vociferously against cubicles. Nobody really gave a shit about anything else other than not being subjected to cubicles, and we drones spent a lot of time researching various floor to ceiling divider systems that would give people private space without the expense of building permanent office walls, and sending them to management. (Previous to this we'd been in a funky, large old open space with high ceilings and huge, tall windows... what it lacked in privacy it made up for in personal space and ambiance.)

After a couple of months of these planning/feedback sessions management was pretty much like "So, what color do you want those cubicles to be... beige or gray?" Half of us were gone within a year.

Your question was initially worded quite broadly here, and I think the responses are telling. If you solicit more feedback from the people who will have to work in the remodeled space, make sure it's along the lines of "what color do you want your lower cubicle walls to be?" and not "What to you think about switching to lower walls?" where the change in question is already a fait accompli.
posted by usonian at 10:59 AM on December 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

A friend worked for an engineering firm, and the cubes had personal climate control vents. Like a bit of maybe 6" diameter hose they could open/close and point different directions. They all loved it. I am perpetually cold and covet this. Cheaper: panel heaters for under-desk.
posted by momus_window at 12:56 PM on December 1, 2016

I work in a standard office with ugly walls/floor/ceiling, and ugly beige cubicles; my workstation puts me with my back to multiple other people, and I have a constant sensation that I'm being watched. Here is what I would change, without making radical alterations, and using your categories:

Light: a full-spectrum light at my desk instead of even more fluorescent lights. Even better - a full-spectrum light that I can move around.
Flooring: As long as it's carpet, I don't care. Muffle the footsteps, make it easy to mop up minor spills, and that's all I need.
Colour: Again, I don't really care. I hate beige, but this isn't my living room, so honestly I don't really think about it. Maybe provide some fabric swatches for people to liven up their own cubicles if they want? (I'm assuming you have the cloth/foam cubicles where you can just tack up extra fabric if you want to.)
Layout: I like having an excuse to get up and go for a walk, so for me, keeping the copiers/break room/whatever spaced evenly and allowing each worker to choose where they print/keep their stuff is great (this is one thing my office does right; I am connected to the printer all the way at one side of the building, and use the break room all the way at the other). As a chronic fidgeter, this helps stave off the crazy-making restlessness that sitting at a desk all day inevitably causes.
Workstations/furniture: I would give up a not-insignificant amount of my paycheck to have a cubicle with tall walls all the way around, or a workstation that faces out rather than putting my back to people. I feel like I'm always being watched; it's actually one of the main reasons I'm looking for a new job.
Common areas: I can't really speak to this, because I'm the guy who sneaks into empty conference rooms on other floors during lunch so I can get some peace and quiet.
Other amenities? White noise. White noise. White noise. I can hear every single conversation going on within 30 feet of my desk (which is about 1/3 of the floor), and I loathe making/taking phone calls because I know they can hear me too.
posted by Urban Winter at 1:07 PM on December 1, 2016

Ftsgg nailed it - we have partitions that are glass (ok probably plastic) above head height. Ours are clear, but tinted (in color, not grey?) or frosted would be *awesome*. They absolutely help cut noise.
posted by jrobin276 at 1:35 PM on December 1, 2016

Please definitely have somewhere for people to put stuff that locks. I have no drawers or cabinets, just a desk, so I have to take my phone/keys/wallet with me everywhere, including the bathroom.

Also seconding space heaters. A former workplace banned them so again, I just started working from home because it was intolerably cold.
posted by AFABulous at 1:49 PM on December 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

A fridge with an ice maker!
posted by beandip at 3:02 PM on December 1, 2016

- nthing a phone room or three. If you're buying a home, making a doctor's appointment, talking to your family, you don't want your co-workers to hear and you don't want to disturb them.

- cube walls with thumb-tackable surfaces are fab

- cold water cooler. So much cold water.

- one can never have enough outlets

- adjustable monitor stands. Most places I've worked you have a laptop and a second monitor for two screens of real estate. Let me move my monitor high enough that I can see the whole screen.

- whiteboards for everyone!

- in many environments I've worked in, we developers reject the overhead fluorescents and often work in dim lighting with desk lamps. YMMV.

- don't put a monitor or other warm equipment next to the thermostat. Everyone will freeze.

- make it possible for people to work so that their computers aren't visible to passers-by and no one is walking behind their back.

- a dishwasher. Makes the dirty dish/silverware battles a bit easier.

- coat hooks in each cube. Two if possible.

One place I worked gave everyone an "ergonomics assessment" to make sure that your desk and chair were the most efficient/least uncomfortable.
posted by bendy at 5:37 PM on December 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

The one thing I loved about one of my prior offices (I'm self-employed now) was the attention to ergonomics. That meant specialists coming in to ensure we each had an ergonomic set-up, investment in good chairs, etc.
posted by jeri at 11:36 PM on December 1, 2016

I wonder if high walls exist with 3/4 height solid and 1/4 glass

They do! I have that where I work now and I TOTALLY recommend it - the walls themselves are about 5 feet high, with the top foot and a half being frosted glass and the rest being "wood" (not really, but looks like wood more or less.) It's private, but very stylish and allows light transfer. I can't really help with where to get them, but I can assure you they exist.
posted by gloriouslyincandescent at 1:39 AM on December 2, 2016

Things I've had at work and would combine for a perfect office:

Adjustable standing desk - oh, how I miss this at my current job! I could sit when I felt like it, and stand for a couple hours a day.
Humidifier - current office just added a fleet of small humidifiers, which makes winter so much better
Greenery - fake plants (ours are just pots of fake grass) help perk things up
Windows that open
A place for private conversations - because having to call your doctor to discuss Pap results demands more privacy than wandering the hallway with your cellphone can provide
Walls (sorry, I know it's been decided, but I'm sitting in my wide open office now, and it's true)
Some place to post things - a corkbord, magnetic white board, SOMETHING. With no walls, there's no place to put those references you need throughout the day, or family photos, for that matter
posted by writermcwriterson at 12:52 PM on December 2, 2016

disclaimer: I work for a corporate furniture manufacture in HR. Some of this is probably "drank the coolaid" but I quite enjoy the open office environment we have here. I think most our competition uses basically the same coolaid we do, so i guess it's pretty industry standard.

Humans need different types of support for different types of work. Some people work best in a private room, some work best at a team project room setting, some work best in a starbucks setting.

Give the office a variety of rooms and locations that they can work, and then empower them to get up from their desks and work in those spaces. This removes the reliance on "the perfect cube", one-size-fits-all.

A great way to do this is to have a small "quiet space" desk area, a set of conference rooms useable by everyone (take all leaders out of private offices and put them in desking. They can snag a conference room if they really need privacy, like the rest of us peons. sends a great message, too.), and a open cafe/work space.
posted by rebent at 2:07 PM on February 28, 2017

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