One UK writer offers cash-strapped employers a way to make cubicles for less. The trouble is, the quality of these cubicles (as well as their fire safety) is pretty questionable. Basically, you glue several layers of cardboard together to make each cubicle panel of your desired height and thickness. Then, you find a way to prop the whole thing up to make a workspace. Sounds like a lot of work for a cube that might not last a week. If you’re really looking to save money, it makes more sense to purchase used cubicles. Even if they aren’t the height you want, you can easily make them taller with inexpensive but attractive and highly durable panel extenders.
When employees can’t get what they need out of their workstation, they have 3 options:
- Try to live with an unlivable situation
- Request or requisition the tools they need to be more productive
- Come up with their own solutions that seem better than nothing
This actually happens with inadequate cubicle walls more often than you think. Workers who have to sit in noisy areas will go to extraordinary lengths to create panel accessories that cut down on distractions. Here’s one example of an employee who discovered she could no longer concentrate when she was moved to a new cubicle:
“It is very loud where I sit because employees for whatever reason like to stand in this area and chit-chat. Oh, did I mention the “message center” is directly across from me? This is the area where emergency phone calls come in, so it’s pretty busy. Anyhow, I’ve noticed on different floors that some employees have made their own cubicle wall extensions – I’m not sure of the exact name, but basically it’s an additional panel you add to your cubicle wall. I’m thinking I could get some thick cardboard and then wrap it in pretty fabric then figure out a way to attach it to my existing cubicle wall.”
As you can imagine, having a workspace full of cubicles that are each outfitted with different pieces of fabric-covered cardboard isn’t going to appear very professional. It would look like a shanty town where workers have to scrounge for scraps to build cubicles that actually help them be productive. Not exactly the kind of image you want for your office environment! In contrast, OBEX panel extenders allow workers to cut the level of noise they contend with while maintaining a uniform appearance from one workstation to the next. There’s no reason for any employee to be “stuck” in the cubicle no one wants. Instead, you can make every cubicle fully functional with panel extensions.
There are two basic types of cubicle wall stack on tile. The first is the kind you get from the manufacturer of tile based systems. These are common in some of the high-end, ultra-thick panel designs. You can add or take off tiles to increase or decrease the height of cubicle walls as needed. The other kind is a universal tile or panel extender that works on most cubicles regardless of brand and up to 3” thick. Which one makes the most sense for your company?
Stackable tile systems that you get from a major manufacturer like Maxon certainly look good. Plus, they can be reconfigured throughout the lifespan of the cubicles. What you might not take into consideration is how much work goes into specifying what components you need. You don’t necessarily know for sure up front which workstations need higher walls and which ones are OK with lower walls. So, you’re basically guessing when you place an order. Plus, reconfiguring may sound easy, but it can entail a lot of disruption to actually accomplish with a traditional stacking tile system. Finally, those extra tiles can be pretty pricey!
In contrast, panel extenders can easily be added or removed at any time in just a few minutes. There’s no need for disassembly of existing walls or rerouting of cables and wiring. They are much more cost effective than traditional stack on tiles and easier to specify. You can even have yours customized with fabrics that match or complement your existing cubicle panels. There’s no downside!
In our research into what employees need to thrive in a busy office environment, there’s one group in particular that stands out. Many soldiers re-entering the civilian workforce from active duty struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Even though they have the skills and work ethic to be valuable additions to any company, the modern office environment can pose special challenges for these individuals. Some of the symptoms of PTSD that impact office workers include:
- A heightened startle response – these employees may jump or cry out if someone suddenly pops their head up over a cubicle panel to ask a question or just say hello
- Feeling unsafe – this is a particular problem if desks are facing away from doorways or cubicle openings allowing others to “sneak up” from behind
- Inability to cope with high noise levels – constant audible stimulation breaks concentration and makes focusing on assigned tasks very difficult since individuals with PTSD tend to be hyper-alert
Both coworkers and management may have a hard time understanding these responses at first. But employers have a responsibility (ethically and under the law) to accommodate employees with this disability. Sometimes, this may mean adjusting an employee’s work schedule to less crowded hours or allowing telecommuting. Or, it might mean assigning an employee a private office – or even just an empty conference room to work in. In other situations, simply making changes to existing cubicles might work just as well.
Cubicle Extenders Might Help Workers Cope
One of the most cost-effective ways to lower stress levels for employees with PTSD and increase their sense of personal security is to increase the height of their cubicle walls. There’s a big difference in privacy between a 60” high cubicle panel and one that is 72” high. That extra foot means that no one (except perhaps a pro basketball player) will be able to poke their head over the wall to chat. Cubicle panel extensions have the added benefit of reducing noise and visual distractions that may startle a worker with PTSD.
Do you have additional ideas for how to make the average workplace cubicle safer for returning warriors? Please let us know in the comments.
One of the objections some people have to tall cubicle panels is that they block natural light. With the trend toward “greener” and more energy efficient workspaces, this concern is understandable. You may very well want to take advantage of sunlight whenever it’s available. At the same time, glass cubicle dividers don’t really provide much protection from visual distraction. So, at OBEX we’ve come up with a solution that works for everyone.
Our plastic polycarbonate cubicle wall add on is semi-transparent. It lets in the light so your employees can enjoy a brighter workplace on sunny days. The polycarbonate also diffuses the light so you don’t have to deal with glare. At the same time, these panel extenders still offer privacy to cubicle occupants. Best of all, these sturdy cubicle add-ons come in an array of attractive colors to match your branding or to add a welcome pop of color to drab, grey cubes.
There’s mounting evidence that open plan office layouts can create significant problems for workers. But you need to read between the lines in some of these studies. Originally, the term “open plan” was used for all office designs that used cubicles instead of private offices with “real” walls. Today, many people are using the term open plan to mean benching or other workstation setups that have low dividers or no panels at all. They use the term “closed plan” both for actual cubicles and for architectural walls that create separate workspaces for individuals. The difference becomes plain in this Australian study about the health effects of “open plan” offices.
The research compiled globally points to higher stress levels, elevated blood pressure, and more conflict in office environments where walls are lacking. The doctor interviewed regarding the study put the blame on the lack of proper physical barriers/boundaries: “The high level of noise causes employees to lose concentration, leading to low productivity, there are privacy issues because everyone can see what you are doing on the computer or hear what you are saying on the phone, and there is a feeling of insecurity.”
What’s a Business to Do?
Of course, with the significant cost-savings of workstations over private offices, most companies are not going back to the old way of doing things. There’s just too much to be gained by reducing the average office’s real estate footprint. This means employers need a way forward that addresses the problems of:
- High noise level causing distraction and lowering productivity
- Lack of visual and audible privacy making workers feel stressed
Obviously, these problems are going to be much more significant in offices that have little or no panel privacy. Fortunately, it’s now simple to make cubicle walls taller and increase their noise blocking ability. Our panel extenders can be attached in minutes using just an allen wrench (which is included in your order). This means there’s little or no disruption or downtime for your employees.
Have you ever seen someone working in a cubicle without sufficient privacy? Do you feel sorry for them? One tender-hearted Twitterer posted a picture showing a Jackson Hewitt tax advisor stuck in a cube at the local Wal-Mart. His caption reads “Talk about a crappy cubicle location!”
The poor worker has far too little protection from the rush of shoppers and the bustle of the store. It’s hard to imagine someone doing something as complicated as taxes in this kind of setting. It must be tough to concentrate! The location of the cubicle is only half the problem. She could use at least one more cubicle wall and cubicle wall extenders on the existing panels to limit distraction.
Besides not providing enough acoustic protection for the worker, this setup doesn’t offer any privacy for customers. I’d feel more comfortable discussing my personal finances in a setting where passersby didn’t get to listen in or peek over my shoulder. What do you think? Would you get your taxes done right out in the open like this?
A 2011 infographic published on the fastcompany.com website makes the argument that lowering the height of cubicle walls is good for the environment. The reasoning behind this viewpoint is that low dividers allow more natural light into the workplace. If you rely more on natural light from outside, you can potentially cut down on artificial lighting – and therefore on energy costs. As an alternative to high cubicle walls, the author of the infographic suggests installing overhead screens like the Resolve canopies created by Herman Miller. Here’s a quote about the supposed benefit: “They’re instrumental in blocking sunlight which causes glare on computer screens.”
Hmm, that’s a little bit of a double standard isn’t it? Are you trying to block natural light in the workplace or let more of it in? Is it beneficial, or is it detrimental? You can’t have it both ways. The author’s suggestion ignores a number of facts:
- As more companies move to a flexible work schedule to make the most of their office real estate, employees aren’t necessarily only coming in during daylight hours. Call centers (which absolutely must have high cubicle walls for good acoustic control) are often open 24/7. It makes sense to design your space around the way it is actually used – not around an imaginary concept of how it might be used.
- Not every office space has windows to the outside (especially smaller companies located in a large building). Plus, not all workers will be near a window space even if one is available. Employers who want to save energy can switch to LED and include passive infrared sensing technology that automatically turns off lights when no one is around. Both of these options are cheaper and more energy efficient than getting rid of your existing cubicles and buying new ones in an attempt to harness more sunlight.*
- It’s true that more natural light can be a good thing. But there are ways to direct it into workspaces with higher cubicle walls while avoiding glare at the same time. For example, light shelves can be installed to redirect more sunlight downward into the room where it adds brightness without blinding anyone. The blinds above and below the light shelves can be adjusted for user comfort throughout the day.
The bottom line is this: workers shouldn’t have to choose between getting enough sunlight and having cubicle walls that are the right height to provide privacy and noise reduction.
*Unlike making cubicle walls shorter, you can easily make them higher without buying new furniture. Simply add OBEX panel extenders to any existing cube panel. That’s always an eco-friendly choice.
It’s a fairly common perception that high cubicle walls restrict workplace socialization. Read enough office furniture blogs and you’ll see the notion tossed around that “cubicle dwelling” employees feel cut off from personal interaction. Walls that come up above head height when users are seated are blamed for this sense of alienation. But what if higher cubicle panels actually improve connection and communication in the workplace?
Quality over Quantity
Cubicle panels don’t prevent friendly and amiable interaction at work. What they do is limit interruptions (a polite term for unwanted socialization). When it takes a little more effort to have a face to face talk with a coworker, people are more likely to consider whether what they want to say is really that important.
Even the simple act of rolling a chair around the corner to talk to another cube worker has the potential to make employees more mindful. It’s kind of like having candy stored on the top shelf in the pantry instead of in a candy dish at your desk. You appreciate it more (and are less likely to overindulge) when the candy is not staring you right in the face all day.
The quality of workplace communication and connection can also increase because higher walls afford introverted workers with more privacy. Not everyone enjoys being stuck in a room full of people all day at work. Having better boundaries helps less social employees cope. This means when they do choose to interact with others, they are likely to be more relaxed and friendly. Good fences really do make good neighbors.
You Can Create the Atmosphere You Want
One nice thing about OBEX panel extenders is that you don’t have to put them on every cubicle if some workers prefer the lower dividers. This flexibility provides employers and employees with an unprecedented level of control over the flow of conversation and socialization in the workplace.
Back in 2002, CubeSmart published a very interesting white paper on how often the average office worker is interrupted per day – and what effect this has on productivity. They arrived at some disturbing conclusions. First, here are some statistics:
- The average office employee is interrupted 50-70 times per workday
- The workload generated by each interruption averages about 5 minutes (more for in-person interruptions)
- It may take another 5-15 minutes to get back “in the zone” mentally after each interruption
If you’re good at math, it didn’t take you long to figure out that many workers are spending most of their time at work dealing with interruptions and the inevitable aftermath. It’s no wonder people have a hard time getting things done or performing their work effectively.
CubeSmart argues that most of these interruptions have little or no value. In other words, they aren’t mission critical in any way. In-person interruptions seem to be the biggest time suck. They generate the most stress and make it hardest to return to your former level of concentration afterward. That’s the main issue that CubeSmart seeks to address with its CubeDoor and CubeBanner products. The concept is simple. You just attach the retractable “door” to the cubicle panel and stretch it across to create a physical and psychological barrier against interruption when you need to concentrate. It’s a polite way of saying “I’m busy. Come back later.”
We’ve Got a Great Solution Too
It’s doubtful that the interruption trend has gotten any better over the ten years since CubeSmart wrote the original white paper. In fact, with the trend toward lower cubicle panels, things have probably just gotten worse. That’s why we’ve created the OBEX panel extenders. They are designed to automatically cut down on visual and audible interruptions in the workspace so employees can reclaim their productivity.
Stay tuned! In the upcoming weeks, we’ll look at other great products that can be combined with our cubicle panel extenders for an even more efficient work environment.