Do cubicles qualify as ‘open plan’?

Do cubicles qualify as ‘open plan’?

Publishing was an industry long immune to the rise of the cubicle, but that time is now over. Having said that, where I work we’re definitely ahead of the curve because in our London office there are no cubicles to be found. Instead we enjoy a very ‘open plan’ setup. The question becomes whether cubicles and sprawling tables are both considered ‘open plan’. To some degree I would say yes but I insist there is a substantial difference between the two.

First, open plan to me suggests the edgy, positive, start-up feel you get from an office with just rows of long tables. Fostering collaboration. Secondly, a cubicle to me is synonymous (rightfully or not) to the ultimate depressing work environment. This is obviously a personal thing, but growing up I always felt like cubicles were displayed as the place where people would be stuck in a dead-end job. I must have picked up that impression from movies and maybe Dilbert cartoons, although right this minute I cannot remember any particular movie. What stuck with me however was that feeling of dread associated with the cubicle.

I’ve never worked in a cubicle. Instead, I’ve been long haunted by the windowless-office-syndrome. I spent a good eight years of my life in the basement of the University of Toronto. Our graduate student office, where I spent part of those eight years, was also perpetually freezing cold. Even when we ‘upgraded’ offices a few times, it stayed cold and we never went up a floor. Even if we had, the construction of the building was such that nobody got a window, regardless of being on the upper floors. It was built like a bunker and offered equal (lack of) opportunity for natural light to everyone there. There were windows but hallways were on the window side with all labs and offices in the center of the building. Except some administrative and professor’s offices, those did have windows.

South Building at the University of Toronto Mississauga. Photo from University of Toronto Flickr page

Eventually I started doing some part-time work for Ryerson University, working with the associate dean, at the Ted Rogers School of Management. It is a beautiful building right in downtown Toronto. As is expected with any building in a major metropolitan area; window space is at a premium and the majority of the offices are not in the perimeter of the building. My office there was warmer, but still – no window. The work was interesting, challenging and I loved being there. I couldn’t help but laugh at how the lack of natural light seemed to haunt me. Especially in winter, when you leave home and return home in the dark, this can affect your mood a little bit.

I broke the pattern when I moved to London in 2013. Now, I work in a open-plan office and I sit right next to a window. In fact, this is my view from my office this morning!

View from my current work space

View from my current work space

I still don’t like cubicles, but thankfully they are not part of our environment at work. I like how easily I can talk to colleagues across teams, whether they sit next to me or a few tables down. It’s a lovely place to work, and when it actually does not rain in London we even get some nice sunshine. It is interesting to see cubicles becoming more common in the publishing industry. Even so, I would say it makes sense to take down the walls and let people stare at each other. You never know, it may lead to some productive conversation!



Christine Buske is a former academic who left science at the bench, and now considers herself a woman in tech. She is a frequently invited speaker, and enjoys talking about career transformation (particularly leaving academia for the business world), tech, issues around women in tech, product management, agile, and outreach. She is a proud Canadian resident, and qualifies as a "serial expat".


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