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Buying Cubicles: How to Choose the Right Ones

Chad Brooks
Chad Brooks

While some companies are transitioning back to a more open office floor plan, the cubicle remains a popular option for many businesses.

  • Cubicles are an effective and cost-efficient alternative to providing each employee with their own office.
  • Cubicles are available in many sizes and come with an array of features so businesses can select the best configuration that suits the workspace.
  • Budget and space are just two of the factors you need to consider as you plan your new office layout.
  • This article is for businesses looking for ways to modify their existing workspace to suit their team members' current needs.

First developed by designer Robert Propst for the Herman Miller furniture company in the 1960s, the cubicle, which was dubbed the Action Office then, was the world's first modular system of panels and attaching components. They were created to provide workers with some privacy and autonomy while doing their work each day.

Soon, company management realized that not only did cubicles provide workers with an area of their own, but businesses saved money and office space by accommodating more employees than they could if each employee had a private office. While some companies today have adopted an open floor plan, the cubicle remains a popular option for many businesses.

What are cubicles?

Cubicles are partially enclosed, semiprivate workspaces found in offices around the world. They are made from panels that can be assembled in different configurations to accommodate the needs of each workplace. Some can be built to accommodate one person, while others seat two or more employees.

Types of cubicles

When buying office cubicles, businesses have two main options for the walls: There are monolithic cubicles, where the walls are solid from top to bottom, and segmented or tile frame cubicles, where the walls are comprised of different tiles.

"The monolithic is usually just a fabric wall that could have a glass topper on it," said Mitchell Kirsch, founding principal of Cubicles.com. "With the tile frame system, you can mix tiles, fabric and glass."

While those are the two main style options, businesses have an array of choices in the sizes and features that they want in their cubicles, such as storage space or electrical hookups. Additionally, you can buy new, used, refurbished or remanufactured cubicles. [Read related articles: 14 Reasons Workers Love (and Hate) Their Cubicles]

"There are as many different types of cubicles as there are businesses," said Michelle Swanger, owner of Cube Solutions. "There are many manufacturers and each has different lines of cubicles that offer certain styles and finishes."

Since there is such a wide variety of cubicle sizes and features, Kirsch often compares buying cubicles to buying cars.

"You can drive a Fiat, a Ford or a Ferrari, and it's pretty much the same thing in the cubicle industry," Kirsch told Business News Daily. "[Tile frames] are more of the Ferraris, and the monolithic are more of the Fords."

In addition to these types of cubicles, you'll find several styles, each designed to fit different workspaces. Among the cubicle styles you'll find are:

  • Panel-attached cubicles. The walls of these cubicles are attached directly to the furniture (i.e., the desk) in the cubicle.

  • Freestanding cubicles. This cubicle type is not attached to the desk or other furniture within the cubicle. Freestanding cubicles are the wall panels dividing the cubicle from other cubicles or workspaces, making them easier to move if needed.

  • Acoustic cubicles. This style incorporates soundproofing material for additional privacy.

  • Transparent cubicles. This type of cubicle has either partial or full clear components so team members can easily see and talk to one another.

Key takeaway: Cubicles are available in many different styles and shapes. Some are monolithic, with complete panels from top to bottom; others are tile frame versions that allow you to combine different materials within the frames, such as glass or fabric.

Editor's note: Looking for the right office cubicle system for your business? Fill out the below questionnaire to have our vendor partners contact you about your needs.

 

Cubicle size and features

Cubicle size

Cubicles range in size from 3 feet wide by 3 feet long to as wide as 12 feet long and 12 feet wide.

"Cubicles are actually made up of many different components – panels, work surfaces, filing and storage, connectors, etc., – that can be put together in ways that work for your office," Swanger said. "The same components that make up a small 4-foot-by-2-foot workstation can be put together to make a large 8-foot-by-8-foot workstation."

Tom Loughney, owner of Cubicle Depot, said tile frame walls are slightly larger than the monolithic ones, which needs to be factored in when planning an office.

"The frame tiles are thicker," he said. "So in essence, the frame and tile [look] is going to take up more space."

Determining which size cubicle is needed depends on what the employees working in them are doing, according to Loughney.

"What does each person do," he asked. "Are they paper-heavy or more techy and mostly on a computer?"

Answering these types of questions helps a business determine which size cubicle is right for their space. Swanger said generally speaking, telemarketing employees typically need a smaller footprint, e.g., 3 feet by 3 feet or 4 feet by 2 feet, with no more than one file cabinet. Administrative employees, on the other hand, will typically need more space, such as a 6-foot-by-6-foot or a 5-foot-by-5-foot cubicle with one or two filing cabinets, and maybe a shelf. 

Kirsch said since most offices comprise employees doing different jobs, the cubicles a business buys don't all have to be the same size or shape.

"You can mix and match depending on what your square footage allows and the type of work that will be done," he said.

Cubicle features

Another consideration when choosing cubicles are what features you would like them to have. The main options to consider are:

  • Wall height. There are several heights available, from short walls that allow team members to speak to one another easily, to taller options that provide additional privacy. "If they work together most of the time, short panel walls may be preferable," Swanger said. "If privacy is an issue, taller panels may be the best answer."

  • Storage space. When choosing a cubicle layout, factor in if your team members need shelves, drawers, overhead bins and desk space. Additionally, you may need to consider hooks for hanging coats, backpacks or purses.

  • Data connection. If your business requires hard-wired ethernet connectivity to equipment, consult with your IT department to ensure that can be accommodated.

  • Soundproofing. Since cubicles are not fully enclosed spaces, they don't provide the type of silence some employees may want. However, there are models made from materials like cork or foam that can help reduce noise. These types are ideal for a call center or other office environments in which talking on the phone is commonplace.

  • Electrical. Electrical connections is another important factor to take into account when choosing cubicles. Consider whether you want employees to connect their own lights in their workspace. Kirsch said if a business is only installing a handful of cubicles that will be placed against a wall and near a power outlet, employees can probably plug any devices they need power for straight into an outlet using a surge protector. However, when more cubicles are involved, they will probably need to have an electrical hookup built in. With this option, power lines are run from the office straight into the cubicles and are hidden either underneath or inside the cubicle. Either choice allows computers and other electrical items to be plugged straight into an outlet that's built into the cubicle.

    "If you are putting in 25 cubicles and they're not near a wall, then you to have to integrate power into the cubicle," Kirsch said.

    Swanger said she always recommends businesses choose cubicles with an electrical hookup.

    "As a general rule of thumb, the cubicles should always be configured with integrated electrical," Swanger said. "This allows for the safest and easiest use of power in each cubicle."

Key takeaway: Cubicle size and your desired features will shape your selection as you plan your office's cubicle layout. Wall heights, storage space and electrical connections all should be factored into your decision.

What are the benefits of cubicles?

For employers, cubicles offer several benefits, including:

  • Cubicles are flexible. Cubicles are available in a variety of styles and configurations, and come with different features. You can explore a wide array of options to find the best fit for your team.
  • Cubicles offer some privacy. Cubicles are a middle ground between building fully enclosed private office spaces and maintaining the open office concept that has become popular in recent years.
  • Cubicles are more efficient. Creating workspaces for your whole team with cubicles is more simple and cost-efficient than remodeling a space to build out individual offices. Cubicles, for example, might accommodate four to six employees within the same square footage as one individual office.
  • Cubicles offer employees a space to call their own. Cubicles provide employees with their own workspace. Your team can be grouped together, but each employee has their own space to keep a coffee mug and add decorations that personalize their working area.

Key takeaway: Cubicles are an accessible and flexible way to provide your team with semiprivate spaces at the office that they can call their own. 

New vs. used cubicles

In addition to configuring the size, shape, and features of a cubicle, businesses can buy new, used or refurbished, or remanufactured cubicles. Each comes with its own pros and cons.

Pros and cons of new cubicles

The upside to buying new cubicles is that they will be built exactly to a business's specifications, which include the sizes, fabric and work surface colors, Kirsch said.

"If you buy new, whatever you want, you can get," Kirsch said.

However, new cubicles cost significantly more than the other options.

"New cubicles are three times the price of refurbished," Loughney said.

For example, a new 8-foot-by-8-foot cubicle could cost $3,500, compared with $1,200 to $1,500 for a refurbished one, according to Loughney.

Pros and cons of used and refurbished cubicles

Used cubicles have been used by another business and are sold to a new company as is. Refurbished cubicles have also been used by another company, but are cleaned up before being resold.

"We steam clean it and then touch up the paint," Loughney said of their refurbished cubicles.

Among the other benefits and drawbacks of used and refurbished cubicles are:

  • Cost. Used and refurbished cubicles are the cheapest options.

  • Sustainability-minded. Loughney believes businesses that buy used cubicles are sending a positive message to its employees.

    "You are repurposing something," he said. "You are showing your employees that you are responsible financially and environmentally."
  • Fewer options. Kirsch said with used cubicles, businesses must take what's available in size and color. Because they are saving on the costs of office furniture, they can't be as picky about details as they can be when buying new.

    Swanger said businesses must be careful when buying used cubicles to ensure they are getting what they want.

    "They will rarely be available in the exact configuration you need for a particular office," she said. "Often this means additional costs because extra components must be purchased." 
  • Difficulty accommodating future growth. Swanger said another downside of purchasing used cubicles is that after buying some, growing companies often have a hard time finding the exact same ones when they need more.

    "It is often difficult or impossible to match the manufacturer, fabric and paint colors as your company grows," Swanger said. "Businesses that purchase used cubicles often end up with a hodgepodge of used furniture."

Pros and cons of remanufactured cubicles

The other option is remanufactured cubicles. These are used cubicles that are stripped down to the metal core and rebuilt. After being stripped down, new fabric, work surfaces and paint are added.

The benefit of remanufactured cubicles is that they are priced less than new ones. Kirsch said there is a big cost savings because the metal core doesn't have to be rebuilt. He believes remanufactured cubicles are just as good as new ones.

"Remanufactured has the same flexibility and customization [options] as new," Kirsch said. "An uneducated eye could not tell the difference."

Key takeaway: Your decision to buy new, used, or remanufactured cubicles will be determined by your needs, budget, the chance for future expansion, and points you may need to compromise on, such as color choice.

Considerations for buying cubicles

When deciding on a cubicle provider, there are several factors businesses should consider.

Work with a reliable and knowledgeable company.

Kirsch said since there is such a wide range of cubicles and options, the most important factor is to find a seller who knows what they are doing, has a variety of cubicles to offer, and can give a business what they need.

"You want to find someone who has a track record and has proven their abilities in the marketplace," Kirsch said.

Loughney said a business in the market for cubicles should find a seller who can help map out their offices to ensure the cubicles they want will fit. He said many cubicle providers offer space planning services that include office renderings.

"You don't just want a 2D rendering, but a 3D rendering, so you can get an idea of what the space will look like," Loughney said.

Set your budget, and be clear on what you're getting for the money.

Swanger recommended that businesses ensure they are being quoted prices based on the total number they are buying and not just on a per-cubicle basis.

"A 'per-cubicle' price can be misleading and will change based on the configuration," Swanger said. "A pod of cubicles will cost less than the same cubicles in a line because the pod shares common panels."

Swanger also said businesses should base their decision on the installed price, since that too can vary.

"Installation pricing will vary depending upon your location, timing and building conditions," Swanger said. "Some companies will charge a competitive price for the product but charge an excessive amount for installation."

In the end, a new cubicle, including delivery, starts at approximately $350 and goes up from there.

"The cost depends on the dealer, size, configuration and accessories you choose," Swanger said.

Estimate the timeline for the purchase and delivery of the cubicles.

When shopping for cubicles, it is also important to factor in how long it will take to build and ship the cubicles. Swanger said it typically takes three to four weeks to build and ship a cubicle order and another few days to ship them.

"Even if you use a local dealer, the cubicles are seldom manufactured or assembled locally," she said. "If you don't start out looking for cubicles two or three months before you need them, you may find yourself pressed for time."

Carefully choose which materials make sense for your business.

Cubicles are available in many materials, including cloth and smooth surfaces like plastic or stainless steel. The material you choose will depend on several factors, including soundproofing needs, the ability to clean them, and your preferred aesthetic for the office. The material type may also have an impact on price and availability.

Key takeaway: An experienced salesperson can help you navigate your options and properly plan a cubicle system for the space you need. Additionally, consider your budget, when you need the cubicles, and what materials make the most sense for your business.

Stella Morrison contributed to the reporting and writing in this article. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

Image Credit: XiXinXing / Getty Images
Chad Brooks
Chad Brooks
Business News Daily Staff
Chad Brooks is a writer and editor with more than 20 years of media of experience. He has been with Business News Daily and business.com for the past decade, having written and edited content focused specifically on small businesses and entrepreneurship. Chad spearheads coverage of small business communication services, including business phone systems, video conferencing services and conference call solutions. His work has appeared on The Huffington Post, CNBC.com, FoxBusiness.com, Live Science, IT Tech News Daily, Tech News Daily, Security News Daily and Laptop Mag. Chad's first book, How to Start a Home-Based App Development Business, was published in 2014.