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Cashing in on the Anti-Open Workspace Movement

A $350,000 Shark Tank investment underscores the demand for products that restore privacy and quiet to open offices.

By: Barbara Thau, Senior Features Editor
 inside of etsy office
Architectural firm Gensler creates alternative workspaces designed for specific tasks, like the one pictured above in the Brooklyn headquarters of online craft retailer, Etsy. — Garrett Rowland, c/o Gensler

Each work day, she retreats to a stairwell and sits on its dusty steps, laptop in tow, to escape the noise.

“In my office, four people share a large desk,” said a senior strategist from a New York City-based business intelligence firm.

“If you think about it, that’s actually four people sharing a space equivalent to the size of one traditional cubicle — for 40 hours a week,” she said. “Currently, I am trying noise-canceling headphones, but it is a Band-Aid solution. I shouldn’t feel forced to escape the office noise for music, which is another distraction in itself.”

Her office's open-plan layout, where spatial boundaries like cubicles and office walls are eliminated in favor of a communal, partition-free workspace, has taxed her concentration and robbed her of privacy — precisely what she needs to get her work done, she said.

“It feels like Charlie Bucket’s grandparents’ bed,” she said, referencing the Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory character whose four grandparents share a single bed. “Who wants that?”

It turns out many employees don’t. Now companies are swooping in to monetize their malaise with fix-it solutions ranging from “privacy” desk panels to soundproof portable phone booths aimed to slay what can be an assault on worker comfort and productivity resulting from open-plan layouts, which account for an estimated 80% of all offices today.

Sales of Uplift Desk’s new “office distraction” zapping tools, like soundproof privacy desk panels, have literally exploded, said Jon Paulsen, founder and CEO of the office-furniture supplier.

Cubicall has seen sales of its portable phone booths surge 100% since the company’s 2017 launch, Anthony Pucci, CEO, told CO—. Both businesses are filling mounting orders from tech startups to Fortune 500 companies like IBM seeking to relieve workers from the auditory, sensory and psychic distractions of the open work plan.

Meanwhile Gensler, the nation’s biggest architectural firm, is amending clients’ open-plan layouts with buildouts of curated collaboration spaces for group work that are designed to direct noise away from the open-plan desk.

 cubicall on shark tank
After selling an estimated $500,000 worth of in-office phone booths in its first year, Cubicall received an offer of $350,000 from Shark Tank's Barbara Corcoran. — ABC

A design trend fueled by the ‘90s tech boom, the ‘WeWork effect’

The Silicon Valley tech boom of the 1990s accelerated the rise of the open layout. The idea was to galvanize employee collaboration and the flow of ideas by dispensing with the barriers of offices and cubicle walls while monetizing a space by squeezing more workers into it, as these startups grew rapidly.

In more recent years, the rise of co-working spaces amid the growing gig economy have had a kind of “WeWork effect” on office design across industries from tech to finance to media, as the look of these free-form spaces gained aesthetic cachet in the business world, said sources interviewed.

Some Fortune 500 companies are now even contracting WeWork to design their open office spaces, Paulsen said. Indeed, it’s this WeWork-esque tech look, with its open, industrial feel and HVAC-exposing — non-sound absorbing — ceilings that are winning office design magazine awards because they do look great, he said.

But the design concept predates WeWork and the tech boom. It dates back to the open forest-inspired offices built in 1939 by iconic architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who reportedly considered walls and rooms fascist, the Burolandschaft, “office landscape” concept that took root in Germany in the 1960s, and it echoes the long shared desks of a Wall Street trading floor.

The U.S. workspace went from individual offices with four walls, to open spaces with high cubicle walls made of fabric that absorbs sound, to low cubicles to foster community, to the long tables you see now in co-working spaces, with carpet-free, concrete floors where sound bounces off the walls, Uplift Desk’s Paulsen said.

While these open designs were built in the name of collaboration, evidence suggests that they can thwart the very kumbaya objectives they purport to achieve.

According to an oft-cited study by Harvard faculty, face-to-face interaction sank 70% among workers who transitioned from cubicles to an open workspace. Communication via email and instant messaging soared 56% and 67%, respectively, which subsequently decreased productivity, the study found. The exposure and overstimulation from these “transparent,” “boundaryless” offices had a negative psychological effect on workers, triggering a natural response to socially withdraw, like under a pair of headphones, with the basic human desire for privacy impaired by the lack of spatial boundaries, the researchers found.

We tackle the four pillars of privacy — audio, visual, territorial and informational.

Anthony Pucci, CEO, Cubicall

Tackling ‘noise pollution’ with portable phone booths — and $350,000 from Shark Tank’s Barbara Corcoran

Workers’ pain is unlocking a surprising new path to profit for companies like Cubicall, a business born from the challenges of running a family-owned marketing company out of a fishbowl setting where six people, including Pucci’s father and his two brothers, were sardined into a single open-plan office, said Pucci of the in-office phone booth maker.

After enduring a ribbing whenever he’d make a flub on a work call, Pucci found himself conducting sales calls on the street. Seeking privacy and an escape from the “noise pollution,” he discovered on Craigslist, what he calls “phone booth graveyards,” fields of discarded booths, in Texas and California. He considered adding one to the workspace, but they were too big and too pricey, Pucci said.

So he opted to build one himself, and installed it in the office. Clients were intrigued by the portable wood and metal phone booth, asking regularly where he got them. “We had the idea to put it up online for sale and see what happens,” Pucci said. Within two weeks of the site going live, the company sold $15,000 worth of product, mostly to tech firms in open office spaces. “That’s when we had our eureka moment,” he said.

While the bulk of its business is tech firms, it now counts companies including IBM, Cisco and Lyft among its clients, as well as investment banking firms, universities and even hospitals.

The phone booths serve as a correction, of sorts, for businesses that have gutted cubicles in favor of the open floor plan, but are now paying a price for the change. “People were leaving the office and going into unprofessional spots to take a call,” like a stairway, hallway and even the bathroom, he said.

Larger corporations that have moved to the open floor plan are tapping Cubicall’s phone booths to mitigate the chronic pain point of conference rooms habitually taken over by a single worker seeking privacy.

“We tackle the four pillars of privacy — audio, visual, territorial and informational,” Pucci said. “We’re allowing people to have a private place to take a private conversation and a mini oasis to get something done, where nobody bothers them if they’re on deadline for a project, so that they can accomplish what they need to accomplish, finish what they want to get done and go back to their general office space.”

To ramp up capital for Cubicall’s growth — it sold an estimated $500,000, about 100 Cubicall booths, in its first full year of business — Pucci appeared with company co-founder and brother Nick Pucci on Shark Tank, which aired in May. They received an offer from “the best Shark for Cubicall,’” Nick Pucci said, real-estate guru Barbara Corcoran, who offered $350,000 for a 25% stake in the company.

 uplift desk's acoustic 3d wave wall panel behind computer desk
Uplift Desk's 3D wave wall panel, pictured above, is one offering in the company's collection of tools primed to reduce office distractions to employees while working. — UPLIFT Desk

Building ‘curated collaborative spaces’ away from focus areas

Gensler has been heeding the call for open workspace adjustments with design solutions customized to the needs of its employees and the work at hand, Amanda Carroll, workplace leader and principal of the firm, told CO—.

“A lack of attention to the variety of worker profiles and how they need and want to work is often why the open plan can be regarded as ineffective ... leading to misuse and overlap of work modes in the same space. This results in lowering effectiveness for all users," Carroll said.

For workers who spend most of their day on individual focus work, Gensler designs work “neighborhoods” with less density in open-plan layouts, such as placing 30 people instead of 50 people in a given work setting, just as the firm clusters fewer desks, like four desks versus 10 desks, in a single area. It also offers phone rooms and “focus rooms.”

But it’s the customized collaborative spaces that are the centerpiece of the firm’s open-plan design solutions.

Gensler is reimagining open workplan environments for companies with an eye toward providing a curated program of open and closed spaces each intentionally designed to support the intended work mode, such as focus, collaboration, learning or socialization, Carroll said.

That design strategy banks on the premise that as workers are spending 45% of their work week collaborating in person or virtually, according to Gensler research, reducing the density and population in the open work plan with collaborative spaces is key.

Open workplaces fail their workers when collaborative and team-building activities bustle near desks meant for solo and quiet work, she said: If you don’t give workers dedicated hubs for group work, they’ll corral near desks in areas that should be reserved for individual focus, bringing disruptive noise and movement to the space.

To correct open-plan missteps, Gensler is adding alternative workspaces designed for the specific task at hand. These include build-outs for clients such as an innovation lab at Campari’s new headquarters in New York City, where the spirit brand’s mixologists can craft their cocktail experiments.

Gensler also designed maker spaces at Etsy’s Brooklyn headquarters, where staff at the online craft retailer work in a dedicated creative space for silk screen printing, sewing, knitting, 3D digital printing and more.

All told, a critical strategy for all open work plan environments is providing “alternative workspaces that will incite movement away from the open-plan desk, reducing noise and distraction, allowing it to primarily support individual focus work,” Carroll said.

But would that solve for the senior strategist’s focus-work needs as she conducts phone interviews, synthesizes quantitative and qualitative research, and churns out written documents that range from 2,500 to 13,500 words?

Uplift Desk’s Paulsen, who is also a certified professional ergonomist, would argue it doesn’t.

Paulsen, whose company also provides office design consulting and space planning for businesses, said the solution to provide alternative workspaces to direct movement away from the open-plan desk is an example of a common architectural strategy built on an “administrative control,” versus an “engineering control.” With the former, you’re making someone go somewhere else to work, he said.

In this context, an administrative control relies on workers to behave in a prescribed way to solve a problem, while an engineering control eliminates the problem instead, “which is ground into us as engineers,” Paulsen said. (Gensler declined to comment on this characterization.)

Cubicall closes a deal on Shark Tank with Barbara Corcoran in May 2019. — YouTube/ABC

‘The next big thing after the standing desk:’ ‘Distraction-free’ office tools

Uplift desk is building a robust business based on the engineering-control model, with privacy and noise-reduction solutions designed so that employees don’t have to leave their primary workspace.

At South by Southwest, the company wrote tens of thousands of dollars in sales for orders of its new Acoustics line, which includes items like acoustic room dividers that offer the promise of a sheltered, distraction-free workspace and acoustic ceiling clouds that provide sound absorption and eliminate echo in noisy open-space environments.

It’s filling orders from small business owners to the facilities managers at large and midsized companies from Google to NASA and NBC, who tell Paulsen that the open plan is imperiling worker comfort, productivity and the quality of their work. “About 70% of workers get annoyed by office noise, and annoyed employees don’t do good work,” Paulsen said.

It’s a product niche that would have been inconceivable without the rise of the open workspace and is now poised to become the next big thing in office furniture after the standing desk, Paulsen said.

The open office trend is not going away, Paulsen said — which is good news for Uplift Desk. “The acoustic line is a still a small business for us, but it won’t stay that way,” he said. “We’re going to triple the number of products coming in 2020 — it’s going to be a big line for us.”

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

Published June 11, 2019

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