The Death of the Cubicle


In today’s office, walls are coming down, while productivity and collaboration are going up


In today’s world of remote workers, flexible space needs and the need for collaboration, office space no longer resembles a scene from “Mad Men” with private offices, nor is it a sea of cubicles as was the trend in the 1990s and early 2000s. Businesses today need office space to be efficient, multitasking work areas with an eye towards maximizing productivity.

So what does that mean exactly? UBJ asked six Upstate experts to give us an inside look at the latest trends, what’s in (and what’s out) and the story that today’s office tells us.


What are the current trends in office design.


K.J. Jacobs: One of the biggest trends is the shift to smaller individual workspaces. Both private offices and open office cubicles are being reduced in size to make room for a greater variety of collaboration spaces. Phone booths as small as 4 by 6 feet provide space for employees to make calls or quiet space for uninterrupted work. Slightly larger rooms serve as two- to four-person “war rooms” while midsize and larger conference rooms are still in high demand. Even leftover spaces such as the end of a corridor are now being converted to informal gathering spaces.


Scott Powell: Office design today is all about collaboration and connectivity. Businesses today have realized that employees learn from each other. Rather than dictating that employees sit in offices or cubicles, wireless technology allows employees to work wherever they wish. Casual seating areas and break areas have proven to be popular areas for employees to work. Comfortable chairs with tablets or café tables have become common.


Jessica Burgess: The biggest office trend right now is making the office feel more residential and comfortable. Flexibility is a key factor in design. Multiple styles in the workplace support each generation’s preferences in how to work. You will see everything from height-adjustable work surfaces to sofas and coffee bars.

Whitney Swafford: Flexibility with adaptable spaces that can change as needed, such as movable walls and modular furniture. Adjustability for individual comfort, supporting different postures such as ergonomic seating, adjustable-height work surfaces and lighting control are also highly requested. Integrated technology to make it easier for employees to share information and collaboration spaces are also in demand.


Sandy Gibbs: Authentic collaboration is a recent trend. An open concept is often talked about, but rarely achieved – the office is only as good as the culture in which it exists. If you want to see a good open concept, go to any architectural school in the country. You’ll see students laughing together yet diligently working together in achieving great things – at all hours. But there is joy in it. I think that is a good way to put it. We are seeing trends that are trying to implement joy back into the workplace.


Alison Hollstegge: Despite the alternatives, the office is still the home base for productive work and collaboration. Design trends are responding to this research by creating spaces that give employees choices: outdoor spaces, coffee bars, telephone booths, gaming areas, standing height work areas and more. Empowered by choice, individuals are writing their own script on how they want to work.

Shannon Sowers: Companies are faced with the task of finding and retaining the best talent. There has been a shift to where it is an employee’s market. Technology has allowed us to keep flexible work hours; work now happens around the clock. If management wants to attract the best in the industry, they will have to offer a space that supports technology and encourages engagement and communication. We are seeing more collaborative lounge spaces and relaxing “Starbucks” environments in an effort to keep employees inspired and engaged.


What story does today’s office need to tell?


Jacobs: Today’s corporate office environment is all about recruiting and retention. With shifting demographics and an unprecedented war for talent, a company’s physical space needs to be appealing to several generations of workers. A variety of spaces within an office gives employees choices on how and where to work. In addition to individual workspaces and a variety of areas for collaboration, our corporate office clients are introducing as many amenities as possible. Fitness centers, yoga studios and coffee bars help even midsize corporations attract talent and enable those workers to maximize their productivity during the workday. Even companies that are only occupying a few thousand square feet of space can provide showers and changing facilities for employees within a minimal footprint.


Powell: Today’s office needs to reflect that the employees of today are about ideas and not production. Computers can do many of the calculations and processing that were demanded by many office workers in the past. We have learned that people work best where they are most comfortable, so we are designing offices to be more comfortable. The millennials are more concerned about quality of life rather than salary, so there is increased importance on the office environment. Many millennials would prefer to work on their laptop at Starbucks, so we are seeing the “coffee shop” atmosphere repeated in office buildings. Spaces where employees can collaborate and share ideas are critical.


Burgess: Today’s office designs reflect the need for a space that supports diverse work modalities, increased employee mobility and flexible work schedules. Wellness and sustainability are high priorities for today’s workforce, and spaces for brainstorming and collaboration are integrated throughout the office.

New office design trends have placed an emphasis on incorporating natural lighting

Gibbs: Every company has a story, a history. It’s this story that is the foundation of the culture and DNA of that company. Whatever that culture is, the space needs to reflect it. This goes beyond mission statements on the wall and pictures in the lobby. The office space needs to reflect the whole approach to what the organization does and who is making it happen. This usually boils down to process and people (and ultimately a product). I think that the story of the individuals that work there might be one of the greatest stories that an office needs to grasp. The employees need to be able to be themselves and do what they are called to do. If the environment can assist in that and not feel imposing or overly demanding, then that’s a success and will ultimately lead to a better working environment.

Hollstegge: Change is inevitable. The biggest factors effecting this change are warp-speed technology, innovations, competitive economy and a diverse workforce. It is critical for today’s office to respond to these changes, while also maintaining their DNA – their culture. The current trends may not work for everyone. You should be able to walk in the door of any office, and get a sense for a company’s brand and their message they are trying to communicate.

Sowers: Today’s offie needs to reflect a company’s brand, culture and identity. If a company is presenting themselves to the public in a certain manner, but behind the scenes the everyday work environment is not in line with those same standards, it will create a disconnect. Employees and customers alike can spot this, so it is important for a company to design a workplace that supports their external image.


What materials are in and why?


Jacobs: We are using more interior glass than ever before. Whether as a clerestory window or the walls of a conference room, glazing allows natural light to make its way deep into a building’s footprint. Films applied to the glass allow us to achieve both privacy and transparency. With acoustical privacy as important as ever, we are using sophisticated modular wall systems with glass panels that still achieve high STC [sound transmission class] ratings. These modular wall systems can be removed or reconfigured with minimal operational disruption when an office user’s needs change.

Interior glass allows for privacy and transparency.
Interior glass allows for privacy and transparency.

Powell: Glass has become more common in office design – both exterior and interior. Businesses realize that natural light and transparency creates a healthier work environment. Natural light improves mental clarity, reduces headaches, improves vision and allows for more productive employees. In addition to the health benefits, people are drawn to spaces where they can see activity. If we are driving down the road and we can see a bright display and people in a shopping center, we are more likely to stop. The same is true in offices. Interior glass can allow for verbal privacy while promoting collaboration. We are also seeing more plastic and foam. These materials add needed color to the office environment and provide unique, cost-effective seating options. Most recently, we have seen a surge in plants and even green walls in offices. In existing buildings, the trend is to expose brick or wood framing to create a rustic feel. Wooden barn doors on metal tracks are popular.


Burgess: Materials are durable, with touches of home. For example, luxury vinyl tile or cork will often be used throughout a common space. These materials are durable, but have a warm wood feel. We add area rugs under soft seating to give people a reason to stop and collaborate during a busy day. We call these areas “collision spaces.” These are less like break rooms and more like “working cafes” where people can interact and have informal conversations.


Gibbs: One of the biggest materials that is in right now is the outside air, to be honest. We have found that one of the most common elements that people request when it comes to working environments is the ability to be outside. Raw authentic materials are becoming more and more prominent in new office design — letting brick, wood and steel be what they were meant to be, and not covered up with drywall. The office materials really create the mood for a space, so creating spaces with natural light is huge as well. Simple materials that are well-used are in, instead of ornate over-the-top interiors.


Hollstegge: With hospitality and residential influences entering the workplace, user comfort and wellness are emphasized. We are seeing throw pillows, rocking chairs, and lighting fixtures in the workplace. Also, the modern/industrial aesthetic is very on-trend right now. Materials such as reclaimed woods and distressed metals are extremely popular.

Sowers: The workplace today is representing more of a residential feel. Materials such as wool and felt help with acoustics, especially when com- panies are working in an open plan and casual meeting lounges are introduced.


What are some office design features that are on their way out? Why?


Jacobs: Rows of enclosed, private offices on outside windows. While the private office may never totally go away, their sheetrock walls and solid wood doors are being replaced by floor-to-ceiling glazing that lets in natural light and increases transparency across layers of an organization. The private office is also moving off of the exterior wall and toward the building core, shifting the office areas toward the exterior walls where more employees can take advantage of the natural light.


Powell: Gone are dark cherry desks in private offices. In the past, a dark wood desk was a symbol of power. Today we see more metal and laminate in office furnishings with bright fabrics on seating and panels designed for privacy when it is needed. The woods that we do see are light such as maple or bamboo.


Gibbs: The office is a direct reflection of the culture. With that in mind, the items that we see on the way out are hard-walled offices in exchange for themed-out collaboration spaces that take on different functions. Our office is a mix of standing desks and collaboration spaces, as we feel these approaches encourage activity and integration. One thing that is definitely on the way out is stuffy environments.


Hollstegge: The traditional hierarchy in the workplace has been gradually changing for years now. There are fewer private offices, especially on the perimeter of a floorplate. This creates a denser floor plan, as well as a greater distribution of daylight and outdoor views. While most offices still provide an employee a “home-base” workspace, the footprint of the primary workspace is decreasing. In most scenarios, there is no longer the need for extensive storage and filing. Since group-based work is the norm, the square footage of team meeting areas and community spaces is increasing.

Sowers: We are seeing high cubicle panels being in less demand than they were previously — tall workstations are on their way out. High panels not only block daylight from reaching employees, but they also create an enclosed environment where employees cannot easily interact with each other. Not to mention, it can make the space feel small and closed-in—not always the best environment to encourage creativity and problem solving! The need for companies to collaborate is more important than ever.

We are also seeing companies who are changing their environment to have private of ces and meeting spaces on the core of the building. Numerous studies have come out on access to daylight views and the benefits of a more open work environment. By planning for workstations on the perimeter of the building, it allows workers to have their desk closer to natural light.


How does the live, work, play mentality affect office design trends in today’s market?


Jacobs: In today’s society, personal and professional lives are often blurred. Just as the traditional 8-5 office hours are being eroded from both ends, the physical office environment is being challenged. Today’s workplace needs to be flexible, comfortable and adaptive to the changing needs of its users. Wireless coverage throughout a building is now a given. Formal conference room furniture is being replaced by smaller, more nimble tables and chairs that can be set up for a training session in the morning, a board meeting in the afternoon and an after-hours meet-and-greet in the evening.


Powell: The live, work, play mentality has forced designers to be more creative. Technology allows people to work anywhere, anytime. By the same token, employees expect more from their work environment. The millennials are more health-conscious. Desks with height adjusters allow employees to sit or stand where they can burn more calories and prevent backaches. Adjustable seating promotes movement, which is so important in today’s office environment. Tilting stools can strengthen an employee’s core while they work.

Gibbs: Business happens at a faster rate than it ever has before. The ability to do work at all hours of the day is both a blessing and a curse, as the line between living and working begins to diminish. With that in mind, we have to design spaces that allow for the families to be integrated into the workplace, not just the other way around. If you bring work into the home life, you should be able to bring home into the work life. At Equip Studio, we designed our new office space where families are welcomed – encouraged, even – to be a part of the culture. We designed a room for them if, for instance, one of the parents needs to drop the kids off for a little while. This space also serves as a way for the employees to unwind, watch TV on the couch and play video games or just have some quiet time in the middle of the day.


Burgess: Live, work, play: all in the same space. This generation has incorporated the Starbucks atmosphere into the office. We work everywhere; we might as well have fun and enjoy every moment.

Sowers: As companies face hiring the next generation of workers, they are faced to create a culture that provides a live, work, play environment. This could mean adding a gym, or designing their office to have a track around the perimeter of their space to incorporate fitness initiatives for their employees, providing a coffee lounge atmosphere where employees can engage with coworkers from different departments they may not normally run into, or even in some cases we are seeing companies who allow employees to bring their dog to work.

Meet the experts


K.J. Jacobs, principal and director-corporate studio, McMillan Pazdan Smith Architecture

As MPS’s corporate studio director, Jacobs oversees the firm’s corporate office, retail, restaurant, adaptive re-use, hospitality and industrial manufacturing design work.


Scott Powell, architect and principal, Craig Gaulden Davis

Powell is a graduate of Clemson University and has lived in Greenville for 29 years and been with CGD for 22 years. In addition to serving on several architectural boards, Powell is CGD’s resident K-12 school design expert.


Jessica Burgess, interior designer-associate IIDA, LS3P

Burgess works in LS3P’s Greenville office specializing in interiors for commercial, healthcare, and higher education projects.


Whitney Swafford, interior designer, DP3 Architects

Swafford received her bachelor of fine arts degree in interior design from Winthrop University. She was born in Greenville and returned to be close to family explore the newly evolved city.


Sandy Gibbes, partner, Equip Studio

Gibbes earned a B.S. degree in architectural design from Clemson University in 2002, with an emphasis on design and business practice. He also attended the University of North Carolina at Charlotte to acquire his professional degree in architecture. He has helped nearly 100 churches through the process of facility design and construction.


Alison Hollstegge, market leader, CBI Greenville

Hollstegge specializes in workplace strategy and furniture solutions for corporate, health care and higher education environments. She received her BA in communications at Furman University and MA in interior design at Savannah College of Art and Design.


Shannon Sowers, director of sales, PMC Commercial Interiors

Sowers graduated from Appalachian State University with a bachelor’s degree in interior design and comes from a family that has strong roots in design and the furniture industry.


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