we’re being put back in cubicles even though we’re more productive in private offices

A reader writes:

My role involves lots and lots of meetings — meetings with colleagues in my department and meetings with internal clients, individually and in small groups. I also do a lot of training for groups — sometimes asynchronous but mostly synchronous. I also write complex documents. My department has 14 people with similar roles, and we all have this blend of consultations, training, and writing. We all have cubicles — big cubicles to be fair — in two open offices.

Before the pandemic, we did a mix of Zoom/phone meetings from our cubicles and in-person meetings and training in conference rooms scattered around our building. Since the pandemic began, we’ve done our consultations, training, and writing from home.

I am so much more productive in my home office than I was in my cubicle! When I’m presenting or consulting via Zoom (or even the phone), I don’t have to moderate my voice to reduce the disturbance to colleagues who are trying focus. When I am writing, I don’t have to listen to anyone else’s noise. I never have to spend time booking a conference room (in a separate system than our shared calendar), making sure all the internal clients know how to find it, walking there, kicking out the people there without a reservation, and setting up the in-room tech. When I say I’m more productive outside of the cubicle environment, I’m not just assessing myself — that’s according to quantitative stats and qualitative feedback from our internal clients (not to mention my boss).

I’ve raised this issue with my department leadership, and the response was — offices have been desired for a long time but are not going to happen because we don’t have the budget. (For context, the org has a whole has an annual operative budget of four billion dollars.) It’s really hard for me to interpret this any other way than, “Sure, you can do better ‘deep work’ and better interpersonal work from private offices, but that’s not a high priority for the organization.” Budgets reflect priorities, and the fact that we’ve got shiny new public spaces for internal clients in our department, but unrenovated open offices for my team, shows that my team’s work is not a high priority.

How do I reframe this some way other than “leadership doesn’t value my team’s work”? Because whether that’s true or not, it would make me pretty miserable to believe it, and I’m not planning to leave this job anytime soon.

And any new ideas from commentors about mitigating any of the problems I mentioned (avoiding distracting others, being distracted, having to schedule conference rooms)?

Also, I would like to make a public apology for every time I internally rolled my eyes at someone who was complaining about our cubicles. I though these people wanted offices as status symbols, but I didn’t realize how bad cubicles can be compared with offices. I was wrong and you were all right!

You’re probably right that the message is, “Sure, you can do better ‘deep work’ and better interpersonal work from private offices, but that’s not a high priority for the organization.”

But that’s not necessarily the same thing as “leadership doesn’t value your team’s work.” It could easily be “leadership doesn’t agree that private offices would make enough of a difference to justify the cost.” They might value your work greatly but see the productivity improvements from private offices as incremental enough not to make sense. They might know that if they give your team private offices, there will be 12 other teams that could make the same case for themselves with the same or even stronger reasoning, and that changes the cost/upheaval equation significantly. There’s a point where if you do it for everyone who would benefit from it, you need an entirely different building.

You can look at that and say, “Well, if so many people would benefit from private offices, why not get different buildings? Why not change the whole model and give offices to everyone who’d benefit?” But you’ve got to balance that against costs, real estate realities, and how that particular priority stacks up against other priorities, which might be more pressing or have greater payoffs.

I’m not here to defend cubicles. I think they often suck, for all the reasons you named. I think companies are often sacrificing people’s productivity and quality of life by using them. But I also don’t think “we’re willing to accept this particular decrease in productivity in exchange for not blowing up our entire real estate model and causing a bunch of drama with other teams” is the same as saying they don’t value your work.

It’s a thing that sucks, for sure. I just wouldn’t read any more meaning into it than what’s really there.

{ 167 comments… read them below }

  1. BigTenProfessor*

    Can you make an argument for WFH one or two days/week? I know this doesn’t address the meeting issue, but possibly the “quiet time for writing” issue.

    1. High Score!*

      I would request more WFH time. It costs the company less to have employees WFH. We were so productive during the pandemic that our huge multinational company decided that allowing employees to WFH as often or as little as they wanted me everyone happy. They are also saving money by moving to a smaller but much nicer building and using hoteling. The building will have enclosed offices, open areas, conference rooms and labs. They took several employee surveys to find out what employees wanted. They’re saving a ton of money with the smaller, nicer space (that they put a coffee shop in) and our turnover is almost zero.
      At a time when many are quitting to avoid being in office all the time, it m beer a good time to suggest that allowing employees a voice can mean huge cost savings for employers too!

      1. Snark*

        My entire office desperately wants to WFH. Grudgingly, leadership has agreed. But now, for the past six months, my great-grandboss, who is pulled in a thousand directions anyway, has been slow-walking that transition by insisting that he and he alone must undertake a comprehensive, position-by-position evaluation of WFH suitability, despite the fact that organization-wide guidance and criteria exist and that decision should be delegated to my actual boss. It’s great.

          1. Snark*

            We have, to the extent possible, but there’s only so far that can be pushed with a superior who’s fundamentally hostile to WFH and can always claim that all our positions are mission-critical 100% onsite.

      2. Dianne*

        I disagree. Maybe having 100% remote work is cheaper but if you need some office face time then it can be costly. Providing and maintaining equipment for use at home, paying for office space which is consistently half empty where the solution of hot desking is (understandably) unpopular with employees etc. All add costs.

        We’re really struggling to balance costs against the desire for flexibility from employees. We’re trying to create a schedule so everyone gets some wfh time and people are in the office when others on their team are,but even having that is getting pushback from employees who want 100% flexibility which logistically just isn’t feasible for us.

        1. Chalk Dusted Photocopy*

          There are larger costs to having an organization that isn’t WFH-friendly: If folks need face time at all to work effectively, that means you’re only able to hire from your local labor market unless a candidate is willing to move; or that folks you hire outside that market may have reduced efficacy.

          There are businesses where that’s innately unavoidable, to be sure, but as a remote employee I have a strong preference for companies that are near 100% remote, because I know that remote workers are able to contribute to the decision making process no matter where they’re physically located.

        2. Observer*

          Most of the costs have already been incurred. Yes, there are ongoing costs, but they are not that high, relatively speaking. On top of which, in a case like the OP’s, they have some of those costs anyway because they are already doing collaboration / training with dispersed groups.

          The other thing to keep in mind is the resiliency factor. Sure, there is a cost to resiliency – but what it the cost of NOT having resiliency? Covid hit us hard, and it cost us a pretty penny to get people working remotely. But, it was only possible because we’d already invested in the core infrastructure for remote work and had a number of people working fully or partially remote. That meant that 90% of the work to get up to speed was done remotely (applying licensing, reconfiguration of systems, etc.) because most of the hardware was already in place, and the high touch software / licensing was also already in place. If not, I’m not sure we would have made it through.

        3. Artemesia*

          My daughter’s business is pretty much entirely WFH — they have a central office but not office space for employees — people occasionally come in to meet or meet with the boss and of course meet with clients on site. They are generous with office supply and equipment budgets. It saves them a bundle not having to pay for office space for 35 people and it also meant they were seamless during COVID just doing more virtual client meetings than usual — they already had the skills for distance collaboration when others were struggling to make it work.

    2. 3DogNight*

      This was my thought, also. See if WFH can continue to be a thing for you and your teams. Maybe even rotate days, so that only about half of you are in the office at any given time, which will reduce the noise in the office, as well.

      1. Elsajeni*

        Or, if it’s possible, see if you can make it a norm that Zoom presentations/consultations are done from home — that could go a long way toward solving the noise and distraction issues, while still having people in-office on days when they’re doing in-person training or focused on writing.

    3. Nettie*

      I think this suggestion makes way more sense than lobbying for private offices, which sounds like it’s never going to happen. If a colleague made a big stink about how we needed private offices I think I’d find that really out of touch, but WFH seems more in line with what offices can offer.

    4. Observer*

      Definitely lobby for WFH time – and I’d say for more than one or two days. Given that so many of your meetings are not in person anyway, you could easily go to three or 3 / 4 (3 one week, 4 the other), I think.

  2. The Happy Graduate*

    I also want to stress that them not agreeing to give you all offices is HIGHLY unlikely that they don’t value your work, that’s quite a stretch to link those two together. As well, just because their budget is $4 billion, that doesn’t mean they have oodles of cash just sitting around collecting dust, it’s their operating budget because that is the amount of money that was deemed necessary for the org to function as it currently is. Offices are more of a luxury for most people than actually necessary, as evidenced that you were all working fine (albeit with inconveniences) before the pandemic, so it’s reasonable to not expect them to implement them now.

    All this is not to say that I don’t agree with you that offices would be amazing! I’m on your side in that sense

    1. LadyByTheLake*

      It is difficult to imagine a job that wouldn’t be easier/better done with a private office than from a cubicle — that really could apply to most jobs. But the reality is that companies have determined that the tradeoffs aren’t there for most job descriptions — it is a cost benefit analysis that ends up with most people in cubicles (or the dreaded open office). It isn’t that your work isn’t valued, it is just that the tradeoffs aren’t quite there.

      1. ThatGirl*

        My job varies – I do need focused work time, for sure, but there is also truly some benefit to having people nearby I can quickly consult, or overhearing conversations about things that might involve me. So I’ve never minded having a cubicle as long as I can put earbuds in and focus sometimes. But you’re right overall about tradeoffs.

        1. Charlotte Lucas*

          When I was a trainer, a cube worked for me. If I had a class, it was pretty much where I kept my stuff. And when I didn’t have a class, others did, so it was pretty quiet. (We also had different schedules based on what we trained.)

          Now that I do communications work, an office would be great, but you need to be director level or higher for one in my org.

        2. Metadata minion*

          Yeah, I’m the same way, though I also recognize that I’m in a pretty unusual situation — my team’s work is mostly solo without a lot of calling clients or anything like that, and we have a strong culture of wearing headphones and otherwise being respectful of each other’s space. So I actually prefer to be in an open office because there’s kind of ambient friendly people-ness and it’s easier to just lean over and ask a quick question or get a second opinion. It’s also easier to see if another person seems to be head-down in a tricky bit themself so I can know when to lean over and ask them things.

        3. Cooper*

          Yeah, I’m a software developer, so I basically never have any need to make phone calls or consult with clients, but being able to ask a question over the wall is immensely helpful.

      2. Nettie*

        Yeah, I’m sure most office workers would say they’d do better in a private office than a cubicle! And yet I doubt I will ever have one, and most of my friends and peers will also likely retire never having had their own office.

      3. MusicWithRocksIn*

        I’m really hoping that post pandemic the trend of open offices dies a quick death. They were so hot and popping up everywhere for a long time – with all kinds of upper management promises of ‘collaboration’ and ‘teamwork’ and a lot of ignoring the fact that people are much less productive in them. But now that we are all a lot more conscious about how easily a cough can travel in an indoor space, that trend can go die like disco music and slap bracelets and other stuff we never need to come back around again.

        1. JustaTech*

          We had our offices renovated from large traditional cube to open office “adjustable table and two short walls” maybe 6 months before the pandemic. There’s no way they’re going to give us walls back, let alone let us have offices. The only good thing is that between layoffs, attrition, and one group that does WFH in light defiance of the VP’s wishes, I currently have an 8 cube area to myself.

          Honestly, in the brief time I had an office to myself while most other people were in the cubes I found it lonely, but there’s a huge difference between a spacious cube with walls and the basically table I have now.

        2. Marianne*

          I wish. We were transitioning offices right when the pandemic hit. Our new office will open next month and is completely open – not even cubicles, which we had before. We will have un-assigned workstations with second monitors (~25 stations for a 60+ person office) and large open tables. No walls, no assigned spaces, no personal belongings. I can’t believe this is the lesson my otherwise pretty great company has taken from the global pandemic, but here we are anyway.

    2. Snark*

      And, it bears some mention – private offices are *expensive.* They need their own HVAC ducting, their own fire sprinklers (and the more heads you have on your sprinkler system, the more volume it needs to be able to handle), their own framed-out walls, their own electrical outlets, thermostats, you name it. It’s a very significant increase in physical plant costs. That has to, and does, factor into this kind of decision.

      1. Ms. Hagrid Frizzle*

        Some of these things are true, some less true – the thermostat thing is expecially something that may not be an issue if the organization doesn’t deem that necessary. As my org has worked to subdivide existing offices to create more work”space” and even converted storage closets to offices, they have chosen not to include thermostats and ethernet ports. They also have chosen not to reroute existing duct work, so everyone’s office is a weird mishmash of different features depending on when they “built” it.

        1. RussianInTexas*

          Nowhere I ever worked I had an access to a thermostat. In a private office or in a cubicle.
          There is a 2003 article from WSJ that I don’t want to link as not to get pended called “Employees Only Think They Control Thermostat” . Lots and lots of office thermostats are fake.
          But in my old office (mix of cubicles and offices), there was one thermostat per floor, and only building maintenance had an access to it, via maintenance tickets. The most you could do is adjust the ceiling vents.

      2. Llama Llama*

        It really depends…my org doesn’t have sprinklers. Or an HVAC. But we are a small non-profit working out of a converted house so I think we don’t have the occupancy level that would require these things in our state.

        1. Snark*

          There are fire code requirements that come into play with larger commercial buildings with higher occupancy.

      3. Chinook*

        They also run the risk of getting dark and dreary. I remember one place that had a “right to light” policy for all their employees (exception reception – don’t get me started). The only way to ensure that every employee could see natural light was to have the offices all be internal ones with glass walls. The cubicles were on the outer edge and the walls only went half way up so as not to block the flow of natural light. And, since no one had an office with a window, no one could block out the light to the rest of the floor with closed curtains on office walls (though their were blinds available to help cut glare).

        I can not imagine how they could have made that office space work with all offices and access to natural light. It was actually refreshing to be able to see blue sky at times while working, something that is rare to come by when an office worker.

      4. Observer*

        They need their own HVAC ducting, their own fire sprinklers (and the more heads you have on your sprinkler system, the more volume it needs to be able to handle), their own framed-out walls, their own electrical outlets, thermostats, you name it

        That really over-states the case. While separate office may need addition ducts, they don’t necessarily need separate ducting, for instance. And I don’t know of any office space where each office has separate sprinkler heads – it is absolutely not required by code in NYC, that I can say for sure.

  3. AdAgencyChick*

    I’m in an industry that went from offices to cubicles, and then cubicles to open offices, and now post-pandemic we can all look forward to open offices with hotel desking.

    Unless you can document a revenue increase — not a perceived productivity increase, a revenue increase — that more than offsets any cost savings, I don’t think you’ll ever convince powers that be not to save the money. Especially if they can deal with the decreased productivity per hour by simply asking the same amount of work of you as before, and exempt workers just have to work more hours to get it all done.

    I’m really, really cynical about this.

    1. Charlotte Lucas*

      Especially since the people making these decisions… All have offices.

      One thing I miss about academia is having an office.

      1. Snark*

        There are reasons for management to have offices – performance reviews, interviews, business-sensitive information being discussed. Same as academics. I share the general sentiment that private offices are amazing for productivity and quality of work life, but management doesn’t get offices just as a pat on the back or a private perk.

        1. Charlotte Lucas*

          I agree with some of this, but I’ve never worked anywhere that gave offices to middle management, & they often discuss the same things. In fact, I worked somewhere that gave managers & directors cubes made to look like offices (locking door, etc.) But with about 2′ open at the top. There was an illusion of privacy, but you could hear everything unless someone was purposely being quiet.

          One of my coworkers sat right on the other side of one, near where the phone was & started timing lunches & breaks based on feeling deeply uncomfortable about overhearing conversations with staff in other offices that were clearly private.

          1. Snark*

            I agree that not all management are actually given offices, but if management does have offices….that’s why. Some orgs choose not to make it a priority, some do.

        2. NotAnotherManager!*

          I managed out of a cube for several years, and it was miserable. Every time I wanted to have a private conversation with someone, it involved going to a conference room, which upped the ante on what didn’t have to be a serious conversation. (I was the only female manager in my department and all the men had offices, too, so….)

          My current organization just moved offices, and I had to fight to get a couple of my managers an office with a door so they could have appropriate privacy to do coaching and feedback conversations. They’re not large offices, but they’re offices.

          1. JustaTech*

            For a few years my coworker and I shared an office while our boss had a cube (no, we didn’t understand either). So we just agreed that one of us would go get coffee or putter around in the lab while the other had their weekly one-on-one with the boss.

            This didn’t help the rest of the managers in our group, where everyone was in a cube, so we all just got good at selective hearing during the editing sessions that could get surprisingly emotional.

            1. tamarack and fireweed*

              When I worked in an org where everyone except the Managing Director and HR was in an open office, we used small conference rooms for 1-on-1s, performance reviews, and complicated client calls.

              I like having walls around me, too (most of the time I’ve lately been in an office that was shared between two people), but I also think that the early open offices that I saw in Germany in the 80s and 90s were kind of amazing. Very large desks (way more space, and wider spacing, than in cubicles) in an irregular pattern so that no one looked directly onto a neighbor, a rather attractive pattern of walkways separated off by plants, cabinet and stationery storage. And they did something with the acoustics so it was incredibly quiet. Then I recently saw an open office in a software startup and was appalled – everyone had barely 4′ of desk space! Not enough for a high school student, let alone a professional.

          2. TechWorker*

            OOI why does being in a conference room up the ante any more than asking someone to talk to you in your office?

            1. AnonEMoose*

              If your boss is asking you to go to a conference room, it makes it feel like “Crap, I’m about to get yelled at or worse.” It’s not necessarily rational, but that’s how it feels. Or at least, that’s my take on it.

              1. tamarack and fireweed*

                The way this worked out in my past workplace was that we made generally a lot of use of conference room. Daily check-in with your new junior team member? Quick planning session with your project peer? Troubleshooting session with a customer? Weekly 1-1 with your manager? Need some deep thinking / writing time alone without interruptions? Use the reservation system and grab a room. If you’re used to using conference rooms as normal, almost daily, work locations it’s no more of a deal to spend time in it with your boss than spending time in the boss’s office.

                1. Nerfmobile*

                  This approach is great, but does depend on having a sufficient number of conference rooms. The last office I worked in had created a number of “phone booths” just for 1:1 meetings or calls where you needed privacy. Usually full rooms but just 5 or 6 feet square – bigger than an actual phone booth, but to small to be an actual office. This was great but often they were all full.

            2. NotAnotherManager!*

              It turns a two minute “next time, I need you to do X instead, can you do that?” into a walk down the hall, past everyone, into the conference room, have the conversation, and then walk back down the hall to the work area. In my experience, people get nervous and amp it up to more than a less formal step-into-my-office would be. We don’t have the room space to reserve them for every little thing.

              It’s also inconvenient in what I do in that it’s often most helpful to look at work on a screen without having to uncable laptops/hook them up to a meeting room screen. We work work in complex online systems, not documents/printable, generally.

          3. allathian*

            I actually prefer to go to a conference room rather than sit in my manager’s office for important discussions. It’s neutral territory rather than the manager’s turf. It doesn’t up the ante on a discussion when that’s the standard.

            In my current org, my closest coworker and I share an office, and my manager shares an office with another manager on the same level. Even in the C-suite only our President has his own office. Everyone else sits in meetings all day, so the office would be mostly empty anyway. Or else they might be WFH.

            I’m sorry you faced discrimination as the only female manager and only manager without an office.

        3. Workerbee*

          With that interpretation, I’d say that upper management still doesn’t need offices; every time I’ve been in an open office situation, conference rooms were pointed to as the solution for people to have private conversations when necessary. For the people below a certain pay grade, of course; never mind that the conversations could be equally confidential, including performance reviews and interviews. So to me an office is just a perk of a level at that point.

          But then I hate cubical farms, open offices, etc. Especially as there never are enough conference rooms and people who didn’t need to use them because they had their own office often were the people squatting in them.

      2. TechWorker*

        No-one on my site, including the senior director who was CEO before we were acquired has ever had their own office. When you want a confidential chat, you go to a meeting room. You also go to a meeting room for most 1-1 chats and have a weekly meeting with your manager anyway so it’s totally not a big deal to see someone in a meeting room or for a manager to ask someone to come to a meeting room with them.

        1. allathian*

          Yeah, and there are advantages to this, provided there are enough meeting rooms to book on fairly short notice. As long as everyone does this often enough that going to a meeting room doesn’t instantly attract attention from other employees as something big about to go down, it really shouldn’t be a big deal. I like the fact that a meeting room is neutral territory. Going to the manager’s office can feel like being sent to the principal’s office at school (only happened to me once in all my years at school but I still remember the shame I felt), and when I started my current job, I had a personal office, and having the manager come to my office felt even worse, because I was scared of my then-manager, (zero empathy and very sarcastic at times) and I felt like a cornered animal when she came to my office.

    2. Ann O'Nemity*

      I saw an interesting experiment that attempted to analyze the difference in sales between private office versus cubical employees. The private office employees had slightly better sales numbers, but not nearly enough to offset the increased cost of the extra square footage required for private offices. Not even close, actually. Without a revenue justification, I think a lot of businesses will choose to save money.

      One other angle, though, is labor supply. If potential employees are in short supply, they have more bargaining power to demand private offices, work from home, hybrid schedules, etc.

    3. Momma Bear*

      Yikes. I have worked in all those situations, though not in an open office or hotdesk FT. It would be a nightmare scenario for me. I guess it’s like the person who found out there was no office like they’d been promised – you either learn to deal with it or you look for a new job.

      1. Rainy*

        My department hotdesked shared offices for a month about two years ago after being moved to a smaller suite–leadership thought it would be fun and urged us to really lean into the hotdesking concept. The plan was to do it for three months and then reassess and they ended it early because everyone except the two people who’d proposed it were absolutely miserable. Those two people wanted to keep doing it. I suggested that they just switch offices with each other daily and leave the rest of us out of it.

        1. Clemsonuee*

          Thought it would be fun? That sounds like one of the lower levels of hell to me.

          1. Rainy*

            It was HORRIBLE. We had to put all our personal possessions in little carts to lug around, except no one lugged because have you ever lugged a little filing cart around? So then every wide spot in the hall had five or six little carts parked in it permanently. People who had special accommodation chairs had to recover them from people who discovered they were better for their backs all the time. Even if someone in the office you’d been in last didn’t actually sit on it, you had to barge in to grab it, or else push it to a wide spot in the hall at the end of the day and hope no one took it the next morning… Just terrible.

        2. JustaTech*

          I have a friend who worked at an org where all the coders hot desked, and everyone pair-coded (meaning two people would sit next to each other and share a screen but have their own keyboards to type).

          In theory this meant that you could sit next to whoever you were working with that day. In practice it meant having to reshuffle the room for people who started later, and that people would try to “claim” a desk they liked by leaving it covered in trash.

          My friend has since moved to a fully remote job at a different company.

      2. TardyTardis*

        Try discussing people’s taxes with hot desking. Granted, it was easier to wave down The Expert with a Panicked Look on your face that way, but once we got better at Slack those were less as the season wore on.

    4. Generic Name*

      But is it cynical to acknowledge that in a for-profit business, decisions are made based on what is most profitable for the company? I mean, there was this really cool emerging technology that many people wanted my company to buy so we could use it on projects, but my company didn’t pull the trigger until someone (me) made a business case for it showing how we could make money from using the new technology. I think it’s the same with offices. Unless you can show, in dollars, how much more profitable your team can be with private offices, and how that more than off-sets the cost of building/maintaining those offices, I don’t see that most companies would give people private offices just because they like working in them better.

    5. Worldwalker*

      The less money they spend on you, the more money they can spend on themselves.

      Freeze salaries but give the C-suite multi-million-dollar bonuses, that kind of thing.

      I’m cynical too.

      1. TardyTardis*

        Hence the shareholder revolt at AT&T. Cut dividends *and* give the management giant increases? Um, nope.

  4. Two Chairs, One to Go*

    OP, have you tried to negotiate some WFH days? It won’t solve all the problems but if you have 1-2 days where you can WFH you can focus on work without distraction during that time – without an additional cost to your employer.

    I once worked for a company that created small pop-in rooms. They had the open office, conference rooms, and then 4 or 5 essentially tiny offices. It was great if you needed to make a private call or lead a remote meeting. Maybe you could suggest something like that?

    1. Susan Calvin*

      ha! timing.

      But also yes to the tiny flex offices (we call them skype rooms). Those are great, as long as everyone can agree not to hog them for quiet work, which defeats the purpose of using them to shunt away the people who have to be loud, and making the open floor quieter for everyone…

      1. Uranus Wars*

        We moved from offices to a cube environment model and have these rooms. I actually like it better than when I was isolated in my office – we can use them for presentations, zoom calls or private conversations but have easy access to others on the team if you have questions.

    2. The Rural Juror*

      A friend of mine works mostly from home because her clients are across the nation and international, so she doesn’t always need to be in the office (in normal times). Her company has rooms like this for what you’ve described, but also as a place for people like her to come and drop in when they do need to be in the office for whatever reason. As long as you’re mobile enough to be able to work well from a spot different from your typical workspace, this sounds like a great idea! Hopefully they have enough space to make a sufficient amount of pop-in offices…or even just more substantial cubicles with better sound-dampening. And people don’t find them occupied when they need one!

  5. Susan Calvin*

    The obvious way to work around this would be to pitch a part-time home office model – if the rhythms of your work allow it, you could for instance have two dedicated “deep work” days per week, and bundle your group meetings on the other three. If the rest of your team would go for that too, it’d make sense to coordinate, to ensure capacity balancing on the meeting rooms, but otherwise it doesn’t seem like your job requires anything like phone or front desk coverage, so why not?

    1. The Happy Graduate*

      Ouuu I really like that idea, especially if your org didn’t have any fundamental issues/concerns with having a remote team but just had to suck it up cause *pandemic*!

  6. AnonEMoose*

    I’m so with you on the “cubicles suck,” OP! I’m fortunate enough to be working from home since March 2020, and it’s so nice not dealing with people walking by (which, if they hit the wrong spot on the floor, made my monitors shake), people randomly dropping by with “just a quick question” (it was never a quick question), and just random noise.

    When I was working in a cubicle, I found headphones really helpful when I needed to concentrate. They at least helped mitigate some of the noise and helped me concentrate. I don’t know if it’s an option for you, and I know it doesn’t help some people, but it was helpful to me. Then I specifically told my coworkers that if they needed my attention, either say my name, wave in my peripheral vision, or knock on the end of the desk.

    I empathize, though; I’m currently having my own struggles with feeling valued for different reasons. It truly sucks.

    1. A Genuine Scientician*

      In a previous organization I was part of, upper administration was really, really gung ho on having a cube farm “bullpen” as they phrased it, so that people with different skill sets would be more collaborative, spontaneously. We also had a designated space for collaborative work, which was explicitly not to be used for solo work.

      Another organization sharing our space stuck people in that collaborative space as their permanent spots, since they didn’t have enough desks.

      Every single person working in the cube farm did so with headphones, because the vast majority of our daily work involved a lot of reading and writing of very long, technical things, and that is exceptionally hard to do with other people speaking nearby. I honestly don’t know how people in news rooms can handle that. The effect of the headphones? Fairly low collaboration unless specifically scheduled.

      A lot of the desks even went unused most of the time, because the environment was so much harder to work in than something quieter that a lot of people chose to do their work elsewhere.

      Upper admin noted the relatively low volume of people working in the space, and concluded that therefore there was no need for offices, since people weren’t using the space provided. There was no way to get them to see that the reason people weren’t using the space provided was that it didn’t work.

      I would so much rather have a postage stamp sized office than a large and spacious cube. I can go without a window if it means I have some quiet. Actual walls with soundproofing make such a difference in my ability to focus on my work.

      In my current organization, my unit is moving to a new building this summer, though I won’t be there until January as my role is entirely WFH for the rest of 2021, and there aren’t enough offices for everyone so I volunteered to not have one for the next few months. Thankfully, my boss fully agrees that for my role I absolutely do need a private office when I’m back to face to face. As such, he is working to try to get us an additional office or two in the new building so that all of us who actually need one will have one.

      1. Richard Hershberger*

        I can engage in spontaneous collaboration or I can get my work done. Take your pick. On the plus side, if we go with spontaneous collaboration I guarantee I and my collaborators will contrive foolproof strategies for the various local sports teams to win their respective championships.

        1. A Genuine Scientician*

          I forgot to mention that the cube farm “walls” were somewhere around 4’6 or so, so they really did absolutely nothing to block out the sound. As far as I could tell, they mostly meant that your monitor was only easily viewable by you and your cube mate — two desks in each of these cubes — so I guess that was something.

          1. Amaranth*

            Every time I worked in a cubicle environment we had walls that were high enough to cut us off visually but did nothing to mitigate sound — I never figured out what was supposed to increase collaboration in that layout. Is it just a lack of doors supposedly making it easier to wander into other cubes? When I had an office I felt much more visible and accessible with the door open.

      2. Overeducated*

        Yup. Due to a building move, my work moved from small cubicle zones (like 3-5 members of one team in a shared large office) to a full staff cubicle layout. It actually hurt our levels of collaboration because we were always being told that people talking in the “halls” (aka at or next to our cubicles) was very distracting and we had to avoid noise, if we had to talk we needed to go to a meeting room. There weren’t really enough to absorb all the quick coworker conversations people need to have, though. And people disliked the environment so much they found a lot more “situational” reasons to work from home, which made it even harder pre-pandemic before we were all using chat and video calls as daily tools.

        Spontaneous collaboration is very romanticized, but putting the people who need to collaborate in the same space as the people who need to concentrate all day long is not the way to make it happen!

        1. AnonEMoose*

          “Spontaneous collaboration is very romanticized…” OMG, THIS. Honestly, someone says “spontaneous collaboration,” and I hear “You will be interrupted any time someone can’t be arsed to take 30 seconds to look something up in the notes/on the internal website, and if you complain, you will be told you need to be ‘more of a team player.'” With a side of “extroversion is fetishized, introversion is stigmatized.”

          But…I may be a bit cynical on that subject.

          1. Overeducated*

            I’m a collaborative introvert! I think setting up an environment that supports collaboration AND gives people space and time to do good individual work is really important. But it’s also not the cheapest, space-wise.

  7. Mr. Cajun2core*

    I was wrong and you were all right!

    I admire any person who is willing to say that. Not everyone is.

    1. AnonEMoose*

      Definitely this! That said, I will say, cubicles are at least better than fully open offices…just the thought of that makes my whole introverted self want to hide under a desk! (Or, since I’m currently working from home, maybe build a blanket fort?)

  8. Bilateralrope*

    Sure, offices probably cost the organization more. Likely enough to convince management that it’s not worth the increased productivity.

    But the letter writer didn’t compare office to cubicle performance. The letter writer compared cubicle performance to WFH. Doesn’t WFH cost the organization less than cubicle space ?

    So I’d suggest forgetting about offices and try to argue for WFH to continue for those staff with suitable homes. That might be achievable.

  9. twocents*

    $4 billion is a lot, but it’s not like they’re sitting in unused piles of cash, just counting dollar bills (from an office).

    That money is allocated to other expenses, and it can be entirely factual that the money isn’t there to renovate the building from cubes to offices. Just refreshing paint is costly; I can’t even imagine how much it would take to design from an open floor to offices, ensuring safety and LEED requirements are met, etc.

    1. Uranus Wars*

      We are currently remodeling where I work to the tune of $1 million dollars per floor. And each floor is about 80% cube, 20% office/conference room.

      Low cost of living area.

    2. Generic Name*

      Oh, good point about LEED requirements. I know one of the credits is use of natural light in interior spaces, and a super easy way to get a lot of natural light to a whole floor is to simply not have any walls/glass walls for conference rooms. I think that’s why fishbowl conference room set-ups in the center of a cubicle farm is so ubiquitous. It’s cheap to build and you get brownie points for being energy efficient and improving worker “quality of life”. (I’m not saying that I agree that no walls= better quality of life at work, but the LEED folks seem to think so)

      1. Hillary*

        I moved twice in one year a while ago – changed jobs then new company moved. I went from private interior office to 6′ tall dark color cubes to 4′ tall white cubes in a more open floorplan. In our new building all the cubes have exterior windows and most rooms are built on interior walls, only the c-level offices and a couple conference rooms have exterior windows. They managed to tune the white noise so we get energy from people around us but don’t overhear every conversation.

        I’ll take the natural light cube hands down over the dark private office I used to have (although the default dual monitors, standing desks, and nice new chairs also help). I’m not tired after lunch in that space. I’m looking forward to going back.

  10. Irish girl*

    Offices with doors and full walls at my company only go to VPs or higher. Even AVPs have an “office” with door but the walls dont go to the ceiling. Everyone else is in some type of cubicle of different size depending on title. There would be no way my company would give out private offices to people even with a benefit that you are describing. I am not a quiet person so i have been talked to about moderating my voice when talking but so have others cause my cubicle was actually a pod of 4 people with no walls between us. Gives you no semblance of privacy at all. I would wear headphones as much as i could.

    1. The Rural Juror*

      I’m lucky to work in a company where everyone has an individual office (we’re very small). I have the largest office in our suite, but the other half of it contains the pop-in space for people who are mostly in the field. At times when someone is using that desk, it’s so hard to get work done! I’ve had to ask a couple of them at times to have their phone conversations in the conference room. I don’t mean to be rude, but if I keep having to re-read the same sentence…or start messing up on my math… I listen to a lot of instrumental music on headphones, but there are some tasks I need to do where it’s better to have (somewhat) quiet so I can focus.

      Last year, just before the pandemic, we added a T-shaped cubicle which helped so much. Adding a divider with fabric and padding in its “wall” helps dampen the sound from the person using the other half. They may still need to take some calls in another area, but it’s much easier to work in the same room without me losing that focus I need at times. The only downside is that my back is now to the door :(

    2. mreasy*

      This used to be our policy but our company kept growing…now as a dept head (above VP) I’m going to go back to an open desk where VPs who got offices under the old system will still have them.

    3. Guacamole Bob*

      This can only work with readily available conference rooms and small meeting rooms. We were all in shared offices pre-pandemic, and I’ve nudged my manager to push for a private office post-pandemic. We don’t have enough conference rooms in our building, so when we needed to have a private conversation we’d have to go to coffee shops and out for walks, try to find a time when the one person on our floor with a private office was in a meeting elsewhere, etc. We’d strategize about whose office to meet in based on whether colleagues were on the phone, and sometimes whether one of the officemates was likely to jump into our conversation, too. It was a huge pain in the neck.

      Managers don’t all need private offices, necessarily, but they need easy access to space for private conversations.

    4. Grim*

      Same at my last company. But what I noticed was that the VPs were hardly ever in their offices. This was at a big, 3000 employee company and I was working in ‘Mahogany row’ part of the building and walked by their offices many times a day.

      Where were they?

      1. Irish girl*

        probably working from home or traveling. I know at least 3 of the big VPs who only come in 1-2 day a week pre-pandemic. Plus they travel to field offices pre-pandemic at leas 1-2 a month. So yeah their offices are typically empty more than occupied. Interestingly enough, they are the ones being “requested” to come back to the office now to show their departments that we can reopen.

  11. PolarVortex*

    The two best way I can recommend to work around this are:

    -To have specific days you reserve a room for these tasks. Or half days. “Every Tues/Thurs afternoon I’ll be doing trainings and when I’m not I’m working quietly in the conference room”. That way you have advanced time blocking off that room, know that you’re going to book time to set up equipment, etc. I used to reserve a room every Thursday Afternoon so I could do a task that was better done not in the middle of noisy chaos.

    -Don’t go into it as an office thing when talking to the powers that be. Go into it as a task thing. “Can we have a office room set aside purely for training?” My company does have a few of these types of room, reserveable only by the people who have the roles that would need to utilize it for their role. Still a shared space with a few others, but at least then you’re not having to set up equipment every time and you know who to coordinate with.


    Personally, I long for cubicle days over Open Concept (I’m sorry, neighborhood concept). At least there’s cubicle walls. I miss cubicle walls. Instead it’s “We’re a collaborative group and this allows us to work our best way by collaborating (by never escaping each other. Ever.).”

    1. AnonEMoose*

      I comfort myself with the idea that there is a special circle of Hell reserved for whoever came up with this idea.

      More seriously, I’m sure it works for some teams and some people, but I don’t think that’s true of the majority. Then again, I freely admit that I am very much an introvert, and the idea of never, ever having any privacy would have me climbing the walls in short order.

    2. Anonymous Hippo*

      I worked one week in an office with an open concept (I was helping out another branch of my company). It is now a hill I’d die on.

    3. Anon for this*

      In the year or so before the pandemic, we had half the building set up as two-person offices and cubicles with tall walls, and the other half (that previously used to be a call center) as cubicles with such low walls between them (and the top of even those low walls being glass), it was the same as open office. When we moved into the building, several of the teams had their managers call dibs on the open area and move their entire teams out there “to promote collaboration”. Then, at the very beginning of 2020, a really bad cold ripped through the office (some even suspect it was an early arrival of Covid, it was so bad apparently). I was in the half of the building that had more privacy, and didn’t catch it. Everyone in the open area got it. Everyone that got it, was out sick and unable to work even from home for a week on average. Cannot imagine the lost productivity. This to me is just a typical example of what happens in an open area if one person comes to work sick (knowingly or unknowingly). Now we’ve had a whole pandemic, and companies are still going with the idea that cramming everyone into one crowded open space = collaboration? Haven’t they learned anything? And who the hell decided to call it neighborhood concept, the beauty of being in a neighborhood is that, at any given moment, you can go into your house or apartment and shut your door. You and your neighbors don’t have to be in each other’s face all the time.

  12. Brett*

    Have you raised this issue since the pandemic?
    Many businesses are greatly rethinking how they use space. If your company could potentially shift more people permanently to work from home that could:
    a) allow you to work from your home office whenever you have work that is better suited to an office and doesn’t need in person client interaction
    b) free up office space or free up space that can be converted to offices by having more workers in general work from home on a day to day basis
    (And a and b feed each other, so these are not exclusive options.)

  13. Midwest Manager*

    It seems that your company has determined your team (and others in similar spaces) can do the work “well enough” without the private spaces. They likely have factored the reduced productivity into the staffing model, opting to budget for increased staff to offset the loss of production. This doesn’t mean they don’t value the work and what you are producing! As Alison said, they have simply accepted that they won’t get 100% from everyone and have adapted to 75% by adjusting the size of the team. Chances are, the costs of having the additional team members is less than what it would cost to renovate for private offices or move to a new building.

  14. Beancounter Eric*

    Will your team having private offices create more wealth for your investors than cubicles?
    Will your team being granted private offices impact wealth creation by other elements of the company?
    Are you able to quantify the increase in shareowner value? Does such a move fit in with the overall strategic plan for the company?

    If so, you might be able to make your case to leadership.

  15. Bernice Clifton*

    Regarding the conference rooms, I have been in Admin/Office Manager roles all my professional career where scheduling and coordinating meetings have always been under my purview. I’ve never had an issue being the “brat” who kicks people out of a conference room because it was reserved by someone else.

    1. Anonymous Hippo*

      People seem to have great difficulty kicking people out of conference rooms. I’m like you, I have no issue, but it is universally me that has to be the one to kick people out when their time is up or they didn’t actually book the room. Everyone else just goes with possession=right. So unless you want to be the enforcer for everyone else, it can be a bit of an issue. Obviously in your role you have that natural position, but no place I’ve ever worked for had that role, it was all organized through outlook by the individuals.

      1. Charlotte Lucas*

        Ugh. My cube is right outside a conference room. I sometimes have to ask people to be quiet. Yes, the walls are thin, but if I can hear your exact words through them, you’re too loud. Also, I do not know how to fix the equipment or where the remote for the AV went. Call building services/IT if there’s a problem with the room. Proximity does not equal ownership. (One thing I am not looking forward to when we all return to the office.)

      2. ProducerNYC*

        I also had become the default person on my team to do this– and I started to enjoy it!

      3. JustaTech*

        I’ve never worked anywhere with a designated kicker-outer, but I have been deeply, deeply grateful to a person for kicking out the meeting I was in.
        It was perfectly normal cross-functional science meeting, to start. Then the two senior leaders (men) got into an argument that halted the presenter in her tracks and become progressively more unpleasant for the 20+ of us crammed in the room. The doctors with pagers managed to flee, but everyone else was trapped while these two very senior people just went at each other.
        The meeting had run over by at least 10 minutes (and the next group had attempted to enter twice) when an *even more* senior leader shoved the door open and announced “This is my room now.”

        I don’t miss academia.

    2. Off the clock*

      I usually don’t have an issue politely knocking once the prior meeting has run a few minutes over and has started bleeding into my group’s meeting time. But some people from my organization have rather unpleasant conference room etiquette (examples are all pre-pandemic):

      – there are some people who will walk into a conference room 5-10 minutes before their scheduled reservation begins and loudly interrupt the ongoing, properly reserved meeting saying they need to set up for their own meeting
      – similarly, there are some people who will walk into a conference room while a different group’s meeting is still in progress, sit down, whip out their lunch bag, and start eating (some conference rooms in my org are reserved as free lunch spaces during lunch hours, but they are doing this before lunch hours begin)
      – I’ve encountered a few oddly combative people who don’t want to cede the conference rooms they’re occupying without reservations to the groups who’ve actually reserved them (with the reservations clearly posted outside the door for specific times on a small screen with a light that turns red whenever a reservation is in progress and green when the room is available). The vast majority of people are polite and immediately gather up their materials and leave, but occasionally I’ve been the target of irrational ire and complaining (usually by men) when I politely interrupt and ask if we (who properly reserved the room) can enter and begin our meeting on schedule

      I feel for the OP, though — I’ve spent many years of my working life in that situation as well.

    3. Bernice Clifton*

      Sorry, I just realized my comment wasn’t complete – I meant for the LW to approach someone like an admin or Operations person who can be the bouncer in this situation if possible, not that the LW needs to just get over kicking her coworkers out of the conference room she reserved.

  16. AnonInCanada*

    TBH, I’m surprised that management wouldn’t leap at the opportunity for their employees to WFH if the situation warrants it. The employee benefits from quiet time and not having to worry about disturbing other employees in the cubicle barn. The employer benefits from not having to lease office space to accommodate them! Win-win!

    You’d think after all this time working from home during the pandemic, they wouldn’t look at this opportunity!

    1. Wine Not Whine*

      Many employers still operate on the principle that butts-not-visibly-in-seats equal heads-not-producing. It seems particularly to be the case among family-owned companies (which are also a bit more likely, I suspect, to own their buildings instead of leasing them. And so the cost-per-head _seems_ lower when the place is full).
      My current company is considering allowing partial WFH when we return in September. The change in upper-ownership attitude that this requires is roughly comparable to turning an aircraft carrier 180° in a swimming pool. I’m placing no bets on the end result.

      1. AnonInCanada*

        Unfortunately, that is the stigma associated with some of these companies who believe “if we can’t see them, we can’t prove they’re working!” I thought that maybe one good thing that would come out of the pandemic would be the benefit of WFH, but as you said, it’s tantamount to turning an aircraft carrier around in a bathtub. Or herding cats.

  17. Generic Name*

    Instead of private offices, could you make a case for offices shared by 2 or 3 people? My office has this setup, and it’s ideal. Upper management has private offices, but everyone else has 1 or 2 office-mates. Of course, sometimes our virtual meetings/conference calls overlap, but it’s pretty simple to coordinate with just 1 or 2 other people. We’ve also had a very robust work-from-home culture for years now, so many of my coworkers have full office set ups at home. Between being off site for meetings or fieldwork and working from home, I’m often in my shared office by myself.

    1. Guacamole Bob*

      We had shared offices pre-pandemic, and I didn’t like it. Someone in the next cube over on the phone or having a conversation with someone who’s dropped by is easier to tune out than someone in your space, in my opinion.

      My office was short on meeting space, though, so we’d end up with situations where a third person would come into our office so that he and my officemate could take a conference call on speakerphone for a project unrelated to me. I never held it against them because it’s not like there was an alternative, but it was super distracting.

  18. jake peralta*

    I just want to sympathize with OP, we went to ~open offices~ literally in December 2019, and now we’re kinda stranded because there’s no real safe way to get all of us back to the office. (Ironically, the biggest complaint about the open offices besides noise was the fear of disease transmission since we’re all just basically coughing on each other all day long. By January, one person came in with the flu and got half the department sick. And then there was a pandemic!)

    1. AnonEMoose*

      Back when I was in college, I worked a security job on campus. We were all on different shifts and only really saw a limited set of coworkers when checking in or out, or if we ran into each other for some reason. And yet, every winter, someone would catch a cold, and it would go through everyone, sooner or later. But I think that was at least partly because we all worked really odd hours and juggled it on top of class schedules, and it was very much a “sleep when you can” sort of deal. And when you’re 20 and otherwise healthy, you can write those IOUs to your body to a certain extent…but I think it did leave us more vulnerable to catching stuff, even though we weren’t working right next to each other all the time.

  19. ProducerNYC*

    My company, which makes billions, is reducing their real estate footprint, as are many organizations. However they’re reducing it so much that my 3 colleagues and I (along with hundreds of others) will lose our shared office space for ‘hot-desking.’ We will now have to sign up daily for workspace in the building and use assigned lockers. They went from 0-100 with this and I’m beyond annoyed. They are saving SO MUCH money (and offered us no WFH stipend over the last 18 months, nor would they let us enter building to get any work accessories, AND refused to carry over unused vaca days). I’m definitely feeling taken for granted after working nonstop, not missing a day of work even as we went to WFH over a weekend. It has fueled my job search greatly, and I will be working from home as much as possible to avoid chasing down workspace every day.

  20. Lucious*

    It’s not about feeling valued, but the revenue impact. Paying for office space = a quantifiable hit to profit. What direct financial benefit is gained by assigning offices to the LWs team? If that’s not a bigger number than the cost, it’s not going to happen.

    That’s Revenue Problem #1. Revenue Problem #2 is justifying the expense vs other teams. Teams which may have a greater productivity need than the LWs but are themselves told the organization cannot afford it. I can easily picture the organization deciding a blanket policy of no functional areas getting offices to avoid internal turf wars during the resource triage process.

  21. Sparkelle*

    I’m very skeptical that companies like yours (and mine) have actually “done the math” and determined that cube farms or open offices save them more than decreased productivity. The problem is that the real estate saving is a hard number that the real estate department can point to that they “saved” the company (because they need to justify their bonuses), but the effect on productivity, while very real, is usually substantially more squishy to pin down. So the real estate department will say, “I can save you $200,000 per year on just this office alone. Here’s the math.” The department housed there will say, “But we’ll be less productive!” Management: “How much less productive?” Department: “There are ebbs and flows in the business and much of what we do is to provide advice and support to other departments, so we don’t have the resources to perform that kind of analysis precisely. But it’s big, trust us!” Management: “Ok then…we’ll take the guaranteed $200k improvement to cash flow.”

    1. One of the Spreadsheet Horde*

      Or some consulting group gave the company a high level productivity impact number across roles/industries that was probably influenced by some company cherry picking the least impacted groups to shift to cube/open office first. “2-3% impact? Eh they can work an extra hour anyway since they’re management employees.”

      We have open offices. It’s really horrible for individual contributor roles that need to focus while it works for the heavy collaborator roles.

  22. Cheesesteak in Paradise*

    Think of it like buying a house. Your house may work better for you with 5 bedrooms, 5 bathrooms, a 3 car garage, and a large yard. Also near public transit and great schools. You can’t afford all those things since you don’t have $2 million for a house. You may sacrifice the yard or the location or the size. It doesn’t mean they don’t matter, just that your (and your company’s) resources are limited so you have to prioritize.

  23. Anonymooose*

    It’s not, “leadership doesn’t value your team’s work” it is “leadership doesn’t value you”

    Take it from someone who has say in office planning sessions for a multi-billion dollar Fortune 500, a successful start-up that went from a 5 man office space to a 250 man multi-floor set-up, and a 5 man construction company start up.

    The decision is never about productivity and function, it is about positioning, politics, prestige and every department head lobbying to get the most space and perks for their team (and some win while others lose).

    The Fortune 500 did their very best to keep offices for only the highest level positions, even keeping a few empty because heaven forbid they give peasants a nice space and upend their company culture.

    The successful, large start up threw as many people into offices as they could and simply figured that if they hired more positions that warranted offices, they would just get more offices in their expansion space or remodel. If a department failed to forecast the need for an office for a future, high position hire, too bad for them but the people here now get to use what’s available.

    The small construction company just built more offices for people needing offices or made massive cubicle “rooms” for individuals if they couldn’t build more offices. They had almost no budget but carved out the best space the could for everyone.

    It is all about who is important and who isn’t and if you are not important, it’s communicated quite clearly.

    1. Anonymooose*

      Oh, also….

      The two startups placed some offices INSIDE the office space and gave cubicles spots by windows. There were corner offices for execs but there were many, many cubicles with incredible views due to having a windowed spot.

      The Forture 500…large executive offices taking ALL window areas and cubicles were interior. Except for 1 windowed wall for cubicles. That once faced an alley.

      1. JustaTech*

        I will say this for my company’s “open office” remodel: the desks are all by the windows (and we have a lot of windows) and the offices are on the interior side. But because the desks/monitors are so short, and the offices have glass walls, everyone gets natural light.

    2. The Starsong Princess*

      Years ago, I worked at a place that offices and they were lovely. But they were only for management. Us peons had cubicles. Since the lovely offices were on the outside of the floor, they all had big windows. The cube area had no natural light. When I moved to my current job, everyone had cubes except the head of the company. I love my cube by the window with a view!

    3. ronda*

      so much this.

      We also had executives that claimed conference rooms as their personal conference room :)

      Its all really about status

  24. AndersonDarling*

    Can you petition for better cubicles? Taller walls with better soundproofing? It may be something your leaders are willing to compromise.

    1. Aerin*

      This was my thinking, too. In my office we have the low cube walls, but some people who need to do focused work have the higher walls, and it can really make a difference. (Not as much as a closed door, obviously, but certainly an improvement.)

  25. spek*

    Cubicles are one part of the work environment that Senior Management does not prioritize because they are not exposed to the problem. Same with parking – they park right up front so they don’t consider you having to walk 1/4 mile from a remote lot as a problem.

  26. TWW*

    As much as I dislike working in a cube farm, I’m not sure I would prefer working in a building that’s been divided into dozens of little tiny offices.

    OP described a number of problems that *could* be solved by a major building renovation, but does that make sense when the other option is a better conference room booking policy and noise-canceling headphones?

  27. Tau*

    Wow, this post and comments section has been a bit of a culture shock. I have literally never worked anywhere other than in an open plan office in my entire career. Private offices… *squints*… I think the owner of my very first company had one? But mostly C-Level is sharing space too. HR and Finance are sharing space (although they’re generally off in a separate office because confidentiality.) There are small meeting rooms for phone calls or confidential meetings or the like, but nobody gets a dedicated room of their own. It just doesn’t happen.

    OP, I bring this up because it sounds like you’ve got a lot of emotions and implications tangled up in this – like you think having cubicles instead of offices (me: cubicles? walls of your own?? what is this witchcraft) means you’re not valued, means your leadership doesn’t care about your work, etc. etc. etc. I think this makes the topic upset you more than is called for, and it will not be a helpful to you when it comes to negotiating better working conditions. It’s really a financial decision: open plan spaces are significantly cheaper in a way that can be hard to impossible for a company to turn down. Sometimes there just plain isn’t an office building even available of the size you’d need to get people bigger offices.

    So try to leave the question of whether your work is valued aside and really look at it pragmatically: how can you gain the productivity benefits you had at home without asking the company to take on huge extra costs? People have suggested lobbying for more WFH time. If you have some space for flexible desks you can sometimes fence off an area as the Quiet Zone, would that help? Would more dedicated meeting space help? There are options out there which are cheaper than giving everyone private offices!

    (oh yeah, last point: I don’t know if you’ve spoken to your whole team and they all agree. If not… don’t make the mistake of assuming that because private offices would be better for you they’d be better for everyone. I actually work better surrounded by people – WFH has been absolutely miserable and I cannot wait to get back to my open-plan desk. It’s true that the statistics seem to bear out that the majority of people work better in a private space, but don’t be so eager to up your own productivity that you end up throwing the minority under the bus.)

    1. An American(ish) Werewolf in London*

      Oh, so this – I work (in normal times) in a similar setup and have done for years – we hotdesk with totally open desks – no walls, no barriers of any sort between you and your neighbour (well, if you have a monitor I suppose that’s a barrier?). Even the President sits open plan – the only difference being is he has a small meeting room dedicated to him and, I think, to the HR partner…or similar.

      Post COVID, once we eventually get back into the office we will absolutely be hybrid as our holding company (I work for an op-co within a large group) have consolidated office and property across the whole group to save money – so 330ish of us will now be in a space that will seat 130 at best – and only around 1/4, maybe, have monitors (though they are VERY cool curved monitors, it must be said).

      I went in for the first time last week – although we’re still at 50% (of the 130) capacity, it WAS loud (especially as some people seem to have forgotten office etiquette – I’m looking at YOU group of 3 who did a Teams call at an open plan desk without headphones, huddled around one monitor). But we’ll be hybrid, so even once the final restrictions are eventually lifted, we won’t be going in daily.

      There is no way, no way at ALL, in the floor we’re on and the space we’ve been given that we could all have cubicles, let alone offices (cubicles are not common in the UK). I think you come across (in print, anyway) as a wee bit….entitled. I’m sure you don’t mean to! It’s frustrating to move from a situation that suited you down to the ground to one that is less amenable. But my advice would be to decide what you want to ask for that is reasonable (and I’m with others here – WFH is way more reasonable than tons of individual offices) and consider how best to ask for it.

      Good luck!

      1. Tau*

        I’m in Germany, which might also explain why cubicles are a totally alien concept *g*. I’m now wondering if this might be partially cultural? Europe tends to build smaller, and for a lot of people office location is going to be extremely important too – nobody wants to have a super long commute. If the choice is:
        – open-plan office in the city centre (five minutes walk from eight different restaurants or takeaways, right across from the subway station), or
        – larger building with private offices in the middle of nowhere (bus runs every half an hour, bring your own lunch or starve)
        …I’m pretty confident that 95% of my colleagues would go for door number one.

        1. An American(ish) Werewolf in London*

          Yes! And typically, at least in London, people do NOT drive to work – it’s public transport for pretty much everyone (usually including C-Suite, except for those super powerful enough to have a driver).

          I think you hit the nail right on the head there, Tau. Even if I were a Partner, I would get VERY short shrift if I demanded, or even asked for an office. Heck, I’d be considered presumptuous or at least weird if I asked for a cubical. Frankly, I’m lucky we have a spare bedroom that I can use as an office with a desk and monitor. Many of my colleagues don’t.

          But I get the frustrations of those who are used to having an office and no longer do. I just suspect, though, that even in the US, an attempt to insist on an office might be met unfavourably (in the OP’s circumstances).

      2. Tau*

        Also, sympathies on the hotdesking, which I find a lot more frustrating than plain open offices especially if there’s not enough space or desks are badly equipped. We’re probably going to hotdesking once we’re back in the office, crossing my fingers but at least C-Level have promised each desk will have a charger and two monitors!

  28. jen*

    One thing that may be worth pointing out is that if you return to work in the cubicles your company shouldn’t expect the same level of work that your team was able to produce when they were WFH and in a quieter environment, not having to deal with all of the logistics, etc. That may be a trade off your company is willing to make but I would make it explicit that is the choice they are making.

  29. NW Mossy*

    This is a particularly thorny question right now because a lot of companies simply have no idea what their actual physical presence needs will be post-pandemic. We just don’t know what kind of equilibrium between physically present, hybrid, and fully remote work we’ll end up in.

    Any decision about what kind of workspaces are available ties to the corporate real estate market. Does your org rent space or own it? How long are they locked into paying their current rent/mortgage? What would it cost to break the current arrangement? What other spaces are currently available? What commitments would a new space entail?

    Many organizations are defaulting back to what they did pre-pandemic as the inertia response until the current state of massive uncertainty settles out into something that’s more stable.

  30. Quickbeam*

    OP, you have my complete sympathy. I started my professional career in 1979 with a private office with a door. Now 42 years later I am a 2 career professional sitting in a cube farm. I hate it from a lot of viewpoints…noise, disease transmission, lighting, interruptions, visiting babies crying, dogs roaming. My company reserves doors for managers. Period. Money isn’t at play.

    I suggest all the things which have made me stick it out to retirement…..headphones, white noise, “On a call” signs, being a low noise role model. Also, when any WFH was an option I jumped on and now will return to the office post pandemic 3 x a week.

    I’ve gone pretty far up the food chain with this issue since I deal with sensitive personal information in my job. The response is “we love you and your work but this is the only work environment we can offer”. Companies that love the cube farm really love it …from afar. We can just hope that the Next Big Office Planning Idea will eliminate them.

    1. Aspen*

      What suggestion would you offer to someone who is (a), trying to be unobtrusive with their earbuds, white noise, etc.; but has discovered that (b), wearing the earbuds at a discreet volume results in people cringing, backing up, and throwing up their hands in horror “Oh, I’m so sorry! I didn’t know you were listening to music!” You would believe they’d never heard of anyone doing such a thing before, and they weren’t all 80.

      1. AnonEMoose*

        I think I would suggest not taking the bait, and maybe say something like “They help me focus, but when you need me, just [say my name/ knock on the desk/ wave in my peripheral vision/ whatever option works for you].” Basically, just be matter-of-fact about it and let them be drama llamas if they want. (I get so, so tired of people who have to make a Big Deal about someone else’s work environment preference that either doesn’t affect them or at most requires a very minimal effort on their part.)

      2. biobotb*

        Huh, I’m surprised that you seem so offended that people apologize for having interrupted you. Their phrasing sounds more like they just didn’t realize you were using earbuds *at that moment* than that they’d never encountered the concept of earbuds at all. Perhaps your offense at being interrupted is showing more than you realize, if they really are acting so over-the-top apologetic?

        1. Aspen*

          It’s not “getting offended” when everyone apologizes if everyone has the same reaction, IMO.

          Also, this was an office where I once got a scolding phone call from the office manager, parked in an office on the literal other side of the floor, about putting a hoodie up over my head to block everyone from my peripheral vision after literally 3 minutes. “Why is your hood up?!? Are you cold?!? You’ll take it down if some client comes in, won’t you?” (Note: we rarely saw any clients on a day-to-day basis.) Frankly, I didn’t trust people in a situation like this not to report to the office manager that I was wearing earbuds and it made them uncomfortable, so force me to take them out.

  31. Roscoe*

    I agree with Alison. Fact is, just about any department, team, or individual can make the case why they’d be more productive in a private office. But that just isn’t the reality most of the time. Its not a personal thing against you or your team

    1. Aspen*

      Yes, but phrasing it that way makes it sound, well, as insane as it is.

      “Yes, we know you’d be more productive; which means getting more work done and then, you will have completed workloads and/or made extra money for the company saving on not paying overtime to do these things instead, etc., etc.” One can understand why a boiler room or stockbroker would set things up this way. One is hard pressed to understand why, say, a law office or accounting firm would work this way; and yet, as a survivor of 5 so far, I can safely attest, they all think it works great too. (Note: It doesn’t.) When and where are the accountants supposed to actually crunch their numbers?

      1. Roscoe*

        Its not insane though. To have an office with all private offices is signifcantly more expensive. And even if you bring in marginally more to the company, chances of it paying for itself aren’t necessarily there. And what bout the non revenue generating people?

        I just think it does become really hard to argue why the marketing staff deserves offices, but not sales, or accounting.

        1. Aspen*

          I was a legal secretary, and might very well be “non-revenue-generating”, but I would argue if I make a mistake that results in the company being sued for millions of dollars because I can’t hear myself think in the open-office zoo, I would say this is in fact costing the company money. Even to defend it and then win costs $$.

  32. Boiling Anon*

    At the office, I work in a large room with five desks in it and a full west facing wall of windows in a European country that hates air conditioning. No sound proofing or other divisions, nothing. Phones ringing, constant talk. Door ordered to stay open, so the hallway noise comes in.
    The automatic outside window blinds roll up if there is more than a slight breeze, letting the blazing afternoon sun in…
    … temperatures last summer in the office hit a hundred degrees, and I once had to go home after getting heat stroke.
    (And we freeze in the winter because thin walls and drafty old windows. This in a high technology company.)

    Now in Covid lockdown, I am working from the comfort of my home, cool in the summer, warm in the winter. My days are structured, I save 10 hours a week by not commuting, and our remote meetings are well organized. Company productivity is at an all time high!
    A poll was taken with a jaw dropping result – over 50% of the employees want work full or part time from home!!! And we will be getting it!
    The company is currently planning to move, and is saving untold amounts by going smaller and better quality. I’ll take the occasional hot desk for 80% WFH. :-) :-)

    1. Windchime*

      My office environment was much more comfortable than the one you describe, but it was still a slog to get back and forth to work every day. We were allowed to WFH 1 day per week, then later (grudgingly!) 2 days per week. Then the pandemic hit and we got a new, younger CIO around the same time. And guess what? Our 5-600 member IT team was able to work efficiently and productively at home. He saw that we were doing fine and now we are a mostly WFH department–permanently. They have dropped several expensive leases and are remodeling a new space with lots of hoteling and conference rooms. Those teams who wish to meet in person can reserve space and do so; the rest of us will continue to blissfully work from the comfort of home.

  33. Seven If You Count Bad John*

    I work for a multibilliondollar conglomerate that moved operations into a *purpose-built* brand-new office complex a few years ago. They actually paid designers and architects and engineers to come up with this building *just for them*. And nobody below director level gets a private office. Not only that, but even supervisor and manager level people don’t even get taller cubicles for a nod to privacy. Managers out here on the call center floor trying to be discreet about people’s PIPs and FMLA. (They can break out into little workspace rooms, but that’s not nearly as effective as just letting the managers have a regular office. ) Why would you build it like this *on purpose*?? Why????

  34. Kyrielle*

    Can they investigate better cubicles? I have seen some, once or twice – at client sites, not in my office alas – where the walls went up as high as they could by fire code (so a couple feet below ceiling height), and the cubicle had a closing plexiglass ‘door’. They were still not as quiet as offices, but they reduced the noise considerably – these people were on the phone *very* frequently – and had the same footprint as a cubicle. Cost might still be prohibitive, but you wouldn’t have to blow up the entire real estate model and it might help.

    It wouldn’t surprise me if there were “enclosed” cubicle options with their own ceiling that might do even better. Maybe a bit of googling and see if that’s something your company might be willing to consider?

  35. Abogado Avocado*

    We all agree: cubicles suck. And notwithstanding our recent experience with COVID, not all bosses are good with WFH, even though so many are as, if not more, productive.

    So, if you’re stuck working in a cubicle, you might want to explore whether there’s money in the budget for add-ons to for privacy enhancements to your cubicle. This includes panels to make your cubicle taller, as well as sound-absorption panels. (If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, do an interwebs search and the add ons will just pop up. Some are really creative.)

    Now, should your boss or bosses say there’s no money for new such items in the budget, establish an account and do a search at PublicSurplus.com. This is where many local governments and government entities (like school and hospital districts) sell used equipment — and often for cheap. That includes cubicle equipment. I realize it’s a PITA to have to do this research when all you want is a clean, well-lighted private space, but I suspect that if you show your boss the options, you may be able to configure your cubicle in such a way that it’s easier to take working from it when you have to be in the office.

  36. Bookworm*

    I am sympathetic, OP. I most recently left an org that went from open office to cubicle to WFH for the pandemic. Now management wants to bring people back for the cubicle set up despite the unease staff expressed.

    The WFH is mostly my preference because of the privacy (interruptions aside from the many meetings, sigh).

    It could be really not a matter of not valuing your work, but rather they believe this outdated set up is best for everyone, top to bottom. Also echo what many others have said: try to negotiate for WFH and get a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones (pricey but they are worth it).

    Good luck!

  37. Mumbling mimsi*

    My office went from private offices to cubicles – during the middle of the pandemic! It’s hard to take that as anything other than we don’t value our employees. And it’s not a matter of competing teams – there are a total of 8 people in the whole office. Everyone except the boss would have been happy to WFH forever, which would have saved a TON of money, but no, we have to come back to some poorly designed cubicles with zero noise absorption. As a result, one person just quit after being there for 11 years and I’m going to start looking after 13 years there.

  38. Erik*

    Having worked with a team setting up a new facility for us, I can tell you that offices are surprisingly cheap to build. Cubes are actually more expensive due to the cost of the custom modular steel walls and desks – wood is much cheaper, and walls are cheap to build. However, walls are not cheap to move, and some companies value future flexibility over current productivity. (Yes, they’re likely to be the big ones, over 4 billon $.) It’s all MBA fashion by people who’ve never done the jobs they’re managing.

    Also, the larger the company the more guaranteed it is that someone will get their knickers in a twist over “you got an office and I didn’t” regardless of whether or not they actually need one, and the politics get dreary. In the last large company I was in, as the lead architect I got a quasi-office – it was a 2-person room where one side was half-size due to the elevator, and the short side was just set up with a table so I could have tech discussions without taking over a conference room. Within a month, my team had received formal complaints via HR that I had a private office despite not being a senior manager, and they had to put someone in the other half. (The software manager got the other runt room, but he was a manager so they let it slide.) It went to the on-site desk of our chip-layout contractor, so they didn’t suffer too badly, but petty office politics ALWAYS trumps logical need unless large sums of money are involved, and sometimes even then.

    1. OyHiOh*

      In case you haven’t been paying attention to stock market and economic trends: Currently plastics are cheap, steel somewhat more expensive, and lumber shockingly expensive. It’ll probably settle back into its usual orbit by this this time next year, but at the moment, no, building offices is not the cheapest choice.

    2. yep*


      Especially this line: “It’s all MBA fashion by people who’ve never done the jobs they’re managing.”

      This this this this. Thank you!

  39. llamaswithouthats*

    My personal issue with cubicles and open offices – they are super ADHD unfriendly. But if I had to choose between private offices or flexible WFH, I would choose WFH so there’s that.

  40. moneypenny*

    We’re in the same boat. Huge operating budget that moved us from partially walled-off cubes to fully open standing desk communal rooms. ZERO privacy or noise modulation, not to mention noise from the open lobby downstairs. It’s deeply distracting and frustrating to try to hold phone calls and have to keep running to the (if any are) open meeting rooms or phone booths. Working at home has been HUGE for productivity, but the office is now talking about a hybrid return. Some days in, some days out. Based on my daily calls with clients and coworkers who are in other cities, working at home is the only way to get those done in peace. I could go in after my calls are done (which is rare), but why would I when my home office has been perfect this whole time?

  41. Former Employee*

    I didn’t see this in the comments, but for anyone whose management is thinking of open concept, try reminding them that we are just coming out of a pandemic. And there are a lot of other things to think about, notably the annual flu season. While it was minimal this year, probably due to the combination of lockdowns and mask wearing, it will come back. When people are crowded together, it enables the spread of disease.

    It’s all well and good to talk about sharing ideas, but it’s another thing when what you’re sharing are germs and viruses.

  42. Nozenfordadd*

    My office has occurs, cubicles and a hybrid that we call officicles basically the walls are cubicle walls but higher – almost to the ceiling but leaving enough of an air gap that the HVAC still works. They have doors, and provide a modicum of privacy. With a headset and some voice modulation it’s almost but not quite as good as an office. It’s also way cheaper to implement. Maybe see if something like that is an option in your office? It’s not quite the same as the privacy of home or an office, the walls are after all only two inches thick but it might help as a stop gap if your employer is willing to try it out.

  43. yep*

    I’d argue to remain working from home. It’s certainly worked for my team and I recently, although the brain damage required to have to jump through the hoops with management has left a sour taste in all our mouths. They’ve already lost two pretty essential team members because of it, and are about to lose a third.

    I’m pretty sure management are not valuing your team’s work adequately because they never seem to know they have a good thing until it’s gone, and they are probably also thinking they can get WFH productivity levels in a noisy open office. If management has any brains, they will figure this out themselves.

    But just…ugh. Typical of short-sighted people in management: penny-pinching, pounds foolish. If they are anything like some of the management I’ve had to deal with before on this exact issue, they’ll soon be belly-aching that productivity has dropped, but will never accept it’s their own fault for not listening to literally everyone.

  44. WritingIsHard*

    This isn’t super helpful to the LW, but I just wanted to note that renovations or complete relocation of the offices would probably come out of a capital budget instead of an operating budget. It’s a completely different pot of money and capital budgets are often planned out over a longer period of time as well.

    1. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

      I think it is very helpful to the LW. LW is hoping to reframe this issue in her mind, and knowing that it may be more complicated as a budgeting issue to make the type of change in question can definitely help with that goal!

  45. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

    I appreciate that the OP here realizes that wanting an office instead of a cubicle is not a status thing (or not just a status thing). They really do make it easier to work a lot of the time. In my current job, we have cubicles, but it is not an issue most of the time because we do solitary work and the area we are in is really very quiet most of the time. However, in my old job, everyone had a cubicle, even senior management, and offices were only used for client meetings. It was NOT a good setup! It was not quiet, there were constant interruptions, and it was very hard to focus a lot of the time. I would have greatly preferred to have an office, and I think the whole group would have been more effective if we had them. But since senior management did not even use offices, it definitely was not a status issue.

  46. RebelwithMouseyHair*

    If the org lets those who want to WFH to do so, there’ll be room for those at the office to have a private office each surely? People could even share an office: Jane on Monday and Thursday, Fergus on Tuesday and Wednesday, and Lucinda on Friday, with first refusal on days that Jane and Fergus don’t come in even though it’s their day.

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