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Employees Yearn For Return To Cubicles Amid Open Office Woes


Office jobs used to come with an office - like, with walls and a door. Then came the era of the cubicle, and soon even those flimsy walls came down. Now 70 percent of workers spend their day in an open office. Stacey Vanek Smith from our Planet Money podcast takes a look at what is coming next.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Josh Hammond's (ph) workplace switched from a cubicle set-up to an open office layout a few months ago, and he liked it. There was more natural light.

JOSH HAMMOND: But, yeah, recently we had a new person come into the office.

STACEY VANEK SMITH: The new co-worker seemed OK - little eccentric.

HAMMOND: And then the aromatherapy started.

STACEY VANEK SMITH: And then the aromatherapy started.

HAMMOND: Some kind of humidifier thing that puts out all of these smells, and they smell very kind of clinical. If you can - do you know what a toilet duck is?

STACEY VANEK SMITH: Oh, that turns the water blue.

HAMMOND: Yeah, yeah. That thing (laughter).

STACEY VANEK SMITH: (Laughter). Anyone who has worked in an open office can sympathize with this kind of thing.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh, I'm good. I had a brownie.


STACEY VANEK SMITH: I recorded this from my desk. I love my co-workers, but when I need to get real work done, or if I just want to look at sweaters online or something, I just want walls and a door.

Gale Moutrey is with Steelcase, a big office furniture company. She says the open office went mainstream largely because of Silicon Valley. Lots of tech startups were using open rooms with long communal work tables. It was what they could afford. But other companies started to think, if we want to be innovative and creative like a tech startup, we should look like a tech startup.

GALE MOUTREY: The Facebooks and the Googles, and collaboration and innovation, and then they go, collaboration, innovation - open.

STACEY VANEK SMITH: It didn't hurt that companies could get more workers into smaller spaces, but recently, several big studies have come out showing that open offices are stressful for a lot of people and make workers less productive. So office furniture makers like Steelcase are getting new requests.

Do you have companies coming to you saying, we went too far, it's too open, can you help us close things up - or?

MOUTREY: Yup. I'd say all the time right now. We hear that constantly.

STACEY VANEK SMITH: Companies don't want to go back to cubicles. So Steelcase has been selling a lot of these.

MOUTREY: So this is called Brody.


MOUTREY: Looks like a first-class airplane set up, a little desk, is probably the easiest way to describe it.

STACEY VANEK SMITH: The Brody looks like a tangerine-colored Barcalounger with a little curved wall around it made of frosted glass. It has an adjustable laptop stand and a little light. Moutrey says the office of the future won't be rows of Brodys, it will be what she calls an ecosystem, maybe some Brodys, some communal tables, some little glass booths where you can make a call. Walls and doors are not coming back, and companies are even moving away from letting people have their own desks.

Can't you talk them out of it? You guys are in a powerful position.

MOUTREY: Talk them out of a variety of spaces?

STACEY VANEK SMITH: Well, talk them into, like, personal desks and walls and things like that.

MOUTREY: But I don't know that personal walls and personal desks would always be the right answer.

STACEY VANEK SMITH: Moutrey says Steelcase has researched this for years, and workers are happiest when they have a selection of places to work, depending on what they're doing. She says when you take the walls down, workers communicate more, collaborate more and it's more fun. That is, until your co-worker discovers aromatherapy. Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.