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The Return of Cellular Office Space

Sep 28, 2020 by Lena Katz

The colloquial term for cellular space in offices is "cubicle," as in, "Working in that office destroys my soul -- it's a cubicle farm." Rarely does the word cubicle have positive connotations.

In recent decades, classic cellular office design was replaced by all kinds of semi-open layouts. The thinking was that eliminating walls would foster community and collaboration. At the extreme end of the open-plan spectrum, there's the "hot desk" setup: desks at a communal table and in private, enclosed booths, but nobody owns any one space day to day.

But now, thanks to COVID-19, everyone suddenly wants walls between themselves and their neighbors. The closer to hermetically sealed, the better. According to experts, we're seeing a resurgence of cellular design, with pandemic-driven innovations such as portable partitions and hand sanitizing stations.

The question some ask: Was this really entirely caused by COVID-19, or like so many societal changes, just accelerated by it?

What is a cellular office?

A cellular office is one designed so each employee has their own private little space enclosed by walls -- not necessarily permanent or floor-to-ceiling, but tall enough to give each space some privacy.

When were cellular spaces popular?

Cellular office spaces can be traced back to medieval times, according to some design history scholars. The modern cubicle layout was created in the 1960s and hit its peak in the '80s. The first big dot-com wave brought open-plan offices back into fashion, with a focus on disrupting corporate structure and encouraging collaboration. But almost from the start, open-plan office spaces have annoyed people; thus, there's almost always been backlash against them and some push toward a mix of open-plan and cellular spaces.

Innovations in cellular space

In the process of finding a compromise between open-plan and fully cellular, all sorts of innovative hybrid spaces have been designed. There are flexible cube clusters that can be reconfigured as needed. There are the colorful work-play multi-environments favored by startups and hipster co-working spaces. And there are open-plan offices with breakout rooms all around the perimeter.

Even prior to COVID-19, the rule of thumb for office design was leaning toward a combination of open-plan and cellular design. And it's telling that getting one's own private space continues to be a perk of promotion to a higher-level role. For all the complaints people have about cubicles, very few people would choose an open desk over a corner office -- and that was before the pandemic.

How COVID-19 has changed demand

Almost immediately after COVID-19 hit, there was a spike in demand for every type of easy-installation safety measure. These included:

  • Temporary partition walls
  • Hand sanitizer stations
  • Spatial awareness graphics, i.e., stickers set six feet apart from each other
  • Sneeze guards made of plexiglass

Almost immediately after began the arduous process of determining whether these quick-fix solutions actually had any real impact on reducing virus transmission.

If, for example, it's determined that installing portable partition walls doesn't keep an office space safe when people are still breathing the same air, it will likely mean leadership focuses on improving indoor air quality, filtration, and ventilation. But these partitions might not necessarily come down if they make people feel safer.

Is the cellular office layout back for good?

Because social distancing has become synonymous with safety, it's safe to assume cellular office design will be the norm for the foreseeable future. The need for physical distancing plays well into the fact that many people truly hate the chaotic, zero-privacy environment of open offices.

But don't expect to see a return to the hushed, physically and psychologically blocked cube farms of 30 years ago. While people might be wary of being physically close to colleagues, most want to resume interacting in person with other humans again. They simply want to be reassured it's safe to do so.

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