Philip Guo (Phil Guo, Philip J. Guo, Philip Jia Guo, pgbovine)

Open-plan vs. cubicles vs. closed offices

I've worked in three types of office setups, mostly doing programming and computer-oriented research:

  • open plan

  • cubicles with medium to high walls

  • traditional closed office with a door (usually shared with 2 to 3 co-workers)

Here are some thoughts on each kind of setup.

Open plan


  • Most beneficial for new employees, since there's a greater chance of serendipitous social encounters to make you feel welcome and less isolated.

  • The benefits aren't just social, though. If you're chatting with a co-worker about some technical issue and someone happens to walk by and overhear, then they might jump in with a useful suggestion or refer you to someone else for help. (This just happened to me today!!!) In contrast, this sort of spontaneous interjection occurs less frequently in cubicles and offices.

  • You also overhear a lot of conversations, which can give you more of an “inside scoop” on how things are going in your organization and even lead to new insights.


  • Gets really, really, really noisy at times, which can obviously impede concentration and increase stress levels. Noise levels usually ebb and flow throughout the day, hitting a peak in mid-afternoon. Earplugs and noise-cancelling headphones are pretty much the only solution.

  • Obvious lack of privacy; can't pick your nose in peace.

  • Lots of potential for (often fun) distractions, so you need to be proactive about intensely focusing.

Bottom Line: great for interns, new employees, and people looking to optimize for socializing and learning.



  • None


  • Cubicles combine all of the worst aspects of open plan offices (high noise levels) and traditional offices (isolation). The higher the cubicle walls, the worse the setup. There's no real privacy; only an illusion.

  • The absolute worst idea in the world is a shared cubicle. One summer, I was stuffed into a cubicle with six interns. It was so cramped in there that I couldn't roll back my chair without hitting the person behind me.

  • Cubicle walls can get moldy and smelly

  • You feel like you're a drone in a massive cubicle farm.

Bottom Line: meh.

Traditional closed office


  • Privacy and ability to shut your door. Of course, the best is if you have your own office, but even if you share an office with a few other people, it's still much more private than open plan or cubicles.

  • Less noise, which helps concentration and decreases stress levels.

  • You feel more like you have a real “home base” in your office, which can improve productivity, self-esteem, and well-being.


  • Less chances for fun, interesting, and insightful serendipitous encounters.

  • More danger of feeling isolated. To combat isolation, it's important to proactively wander around outside of your office to bug other people.

Bottom Line: my preferred option for a sustainable, long-term work environment.

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Created: 2013-07-11
Last modified: 2013-07-11
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