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Cubicles | Why & How

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In this post, we’re going to examine why the cubicle has become a ubiquitous workplace fixture and how to buy cubicles like a pro.

Why Buy Cubicles?

Real Estate Efficiency

Of all your options, cubicles are the most cost-effective use of square footage. There’s no doubt that open office plans receive their fair share of complaints. However, to buy cubicles will accommodate more employees and costs less than building private offices. The compressed footprint uses less square footage and provides more efficient furniture configurations. The cost of drywall buildout far surpasses that of buying cubicles, and is less flexible to changes in the future.

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Reconfiguration’s ROI

In addition to upfront costs, it is important to consider the implications of your decision down the road. The lifecycle cost of building drywall offices is much higher because materials cannot be reused. If you have significant churn and still choose drywall, another major capital investment is on the horizon. Cubicles can be easily reconfigured, used again and depreciated more quickly than construction. That means that, when you buy cubicles, a new furniture plan can be achieved with minimal investment by maximizing reuse of components.

It’s A Reach, But…

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In theory, when you buy cubicles, your investment will be amortized by the incremental productivity of its occupants. Lower barriers to collaboration and less intrusive oversight are factors that, ideally, increase productivity. More people in cubicles helps flatten the hierarchy of an organization, creating a more collaborative environment. In practice, we’ve found that experience is totally subjective. Every company has different work processes that make the needs of their workplace uniquely complex.

How Do I Buy Cubicles?

Budgeting Cubicles


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When you’re budgeting the cubicles themselves, it’s hard to know what’s available. We categorize cubicles into new, refurbished and pre-owned. Within each of those categories, there are general differences available in size and manufacturer. Since you can consider configuration and features as “after-market”, we’ll talk about those later.

With new cubicles, expect a high fit and finished appearance that’s standardized throughout your workspace. Depending on the manufacturer, they’re also highly customizable in terms of color, trim and features. However, to buy cubicles new will almost always result in the highest price tag and long lead time.

Refurbished cubicles (“clone cubicles”) will present the same well-finished appearance with a more attractive price, generally with fewer options. However, since these “clone cubicles” are made to integrate with name-brand manufactures, it’s easy (and cheaper than buying new) to piece together custom configurations with available parts.

Used cubicles are the most cost-effective option with shortest lead time, but contend on availability. You’ll want to find a dealer with used inventory that’s also plugged into a network from which they can source inventories, parts and pieces.


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 In addition to the price to buy cubicles themselves, you need to determine how much is allocated for fulfillment. This can include freight, delivery, removal, installation and finish contractors. This also represents an opportunity for you to make decisions that save on the hidden costs of buying cubicles. The fulfillment process often involves coordinating with office furniture manufacturers, office furniture dealers and your own staff.
  • For freight and delivery, compare options for drop ship in addition to the dealer’s delivery quote. If you have the space, freight will often cost less to receive than it will to have delivered.
  • If you have furniture to be removed from the space, you have a few options to exhaust before tearing it down and disposing of it yourself or paying somebody to do it for you. First, explore options with a dealer for reconfiguration, removal, barter or consignment.
  • While many systems are fairly intuitive, we don’t typically see clients attempt to install their own cubicles unless they have a facilities or maintenance department.
  • In addition to any contractors involved during a renovation, powered cubicles must have an electrician. Some electricians will run low voltage, but voice and data providers are often the responsible party if there’s no internal IT department.

Design Your Cubicles

Assess Your Needs

First, take stock of your brand’s culture and determine the tone you want to set for your workplace. We’re pretty sure there aren’t any free guides for this. We’re definitely sure that we want to get away from “ice cube tray planning” – that’s the process of one-size fits all solutions that probably made people not want to buy cubicles in the first place.

Next, figure out how to make the space adapt to your work process – it’s hard to think differently when you only know what you know. Objectively: what do your people do, and what are the physical properties it takes to support that? List your work areas and outline the work process in each one. Conduct a programming exercise to determine how your workplace will facilitate your operation. Our short list of business needs include job functions, adjacency requirements, flow of information (including medium), privacy requirements (acoustic, visual, security) and growth potential. Using this information, determine the size and features of cubicles, cubicle arrangement and designating ancillary spaces. Then, meet with each user group to test potential solutions.

Finally, assess the needs of individual occupants. Individuals’ needs will likely be varied among different groups in your organization. We find it helpful to list these cubicle variations. Then, for each variation, determine the appropriate application for the following: paper flow, work process and communication. Handling lots of physical documents? You need to buy cubicles with lots of storage space and work surface. Working remotely most of the time? You probably don’t need to buy cubicles for that person to have assigned workstation. Meeting with multiple people at your workstation on a daily basis? You need a work surface with room to sit on either side.

We once had a client that desperately wanted their engineering department to be a collaborative, open office space. After a period of “unsuccessful implementation”, we went back to the drawing board and examined their work processes. It turns out that, in this open, collaborative setting, recognition was dished out to individuals rather than the team. We concluded that this was more of an HR issue than an issue with space or furniture – until they started recognizing teams for achievements, no amount of open plan furniture would nudge the level of collaboration.

Cubicle Components

Next, determine the composition of individual workstations. There may be different sizes or variations within one floor plan, but it’s easier to create a layout having set options for workstations. To better understand how to buy cubicles, it’s important to break them down into their fundamental components – panels, work surfaces and accessories.

Cubicle Panels
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Panels’ width determine the overall footprint of each workstation. Cubicle systems are arranged along a central “spine” of panels, which can be used to run power and data to individual workstations. Panels of differing widths (generally 24″ – 48″) extend from the spine. Panel heights are most often the same within one cubicle system, but not necessarily. Common cubicle panel heights include 47″ (low, open plan cubicles), 53″, 67″ and 85″ (manager cubicles). Selecting powered or non-powered panels has the greatest effect on overall price (powered are more expensive).

Once you’ve determined the size of your cubicle panels, it’s time to select a surface. There are a number of material options for covering panels, including acoustic, tackable and hard-surface. Tackable panels have a dense substrate behind the fabric to bear the weight of pinned objects. Acoustic panels have a fiberglass batting behind the fabric to absorb sound. Hard-surface panel coverings include laminate, whiteboard, utility wall, glass, plexi and more.

Aside from the surface covering, individual panels come in a variety of configurations. Obviously, there are necessary options such as wall-starts and cubicle doors. Another important choice in the configuration of your cubicle panels is between “monolithic” or “segmented”. Monolithic cubicle panels typically come assembled with a single piece of fabric stretched across. Segmented cubicle panels are also referred to as “tile systems”. These panels are comprised of modular sections that can have different surface coverings.

Finally, you’ll pick out the panels’ trim – this includes connectors, top caps, end caps and kickplates. Options for trim are mostly aesthetic – paint finishes to accentuate or blend in with your selected panel finish.

Cubicle Work Surfaces

Cantilvers mount to panel and support work surfaces along with file cabinets. Work surface width is constrained by panel size. Aside from shape, depth is really the only variance. 24″ is standard, and 30″ deep work surfaces are usually reserved for handling large format documents. The most common work surface shapes are straight, curved and chamfered. Straight or “rectilinear” are probably least comfortable, but will typically save money because of less waste. Curved typically is more friendly for usage and clearance of keyboard trays. These three examples are hardly representative – most manufacturers have a wide array of custom shapes.

The edge banding on work surfaces is most often a PVC insert. The “t-mold” construction is inserted into a groove in the edge of the work surface and gives you a softer cushion on the edge. Laminate and veneer are also available. Laminate finishes should be smooth, for ease of writing and cleaning, in a tone that achieves a good middle ground. Not too high contrast that it strains your eyes, but bold enough that it’s easy to visually discern what you’re focusing on. A final important consideration in any cubicle is mounted storage – the more stuff you can get off of the desk, the more work surface you’ll have.

Cubicle Accessories

After you’ve determined the core components of your cubicles, select the accessories that will finish up the workstation. These include access to power, storage components, lighting, ergonomic tools, privacy (visual & acoustic) and wayfinding signage.

  • Power and data are wired through a base- or ceiling-entry at one end of a cubicle system. Access to power is configured through the shared “spine” of panels at kickplate- or work surface-level outlets.
  • Storage components commonly include pedestal or mobile file cabinets of varying sizes, overhead shelving/compartments, wardrobes, mounted organizers, pencil or pelican drawers. Determining what storage implements to select depends on the flow and management of paper materials.
  • Task lighting can help correct an uneven distribution of light from ceiling fixtures. LED fixtures mounted under overhead storage provide better lighting conditions.
  • Ergonomic features often include keyboard trays, monitor arms and adjustable desk options.
  • Wayfinding signage is a bigger project than you think, and very necessary in large open layouts. Minimize your expense by investing in reusable insert signage versus custom fabricated signs you’ll have to replace with each transition.

Cubicle Configuration

The very first thing you need to learn about your space is whether it possesses sufficient electrical and HVAC capabilities to accommodate the proposed density of people and machinery. If you’ve got eleven people with computers and task lights in a repurposed storage room, it’s simply going to get hot.

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Next, determine your necessary square footage. To use our shortcut, multiply headcount by the square footage of desired cubicles, then add 40% for circulation. 40% circulation space is a good rule of thumb for adequate aisleways and paths of egress. If cost-savings is your goal, it’s more efficient to line cubicles up on a common spine. This is known as a cluster (versus a row which has an unshared spine). These groups of cubicles, if power and data are run through them, have to be oriented around electrical access. If they’re near a wall, a “whip” from the outlet would run through a base feed in the cubicle. If they’re in the middle of the floorplan, a power pole would run cabling to the cubicles from the ceiling.

In an open plan, you’ll often have to build around “dead zones” These include columns, roof drains, hvac, mechanical. We often see cubicle systems designed around these “dead zones” and used for ancillary purposes such as file storage, printers, touchdown and collaboration stations. Another thing you have to avoid in your quest for efficiency is “dead-end corridors”. Depending upon your local building codes, this means the occupant of a cubicle is 75ft or more away from a path of egress (minimum 44″ wide). This also protects people escaping an emergency situation from getting stuck after going the wrong way.

Dealers will often specify finishes and create a furniture layout when there is no designer involved. During a renovation or large transition, dealers will usually coordinate closely with architects and commercial interior designers.

Planning Your Cubicle Installation

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Creating a Cubicle Installation Plan

Depending on size, we advise planning your cubicle project at least six months in advance. That will allow time for changes, modifications, lead times and fulfillment. The first step is to find out when the product is going to be available. Then, you’ll coordinate with the general contractor on what date the space will be ready for furniture installation. Finally, you’ll outline a plan to transition employees.

Determining the lead time will help structure decisions about scheduling contractors and transitioning employees. From there, it’s a matter of how the space is owned. If you have a lease expiration date with one landlord and an occupancy date with another, you have a very firm window. If you’re only moving one work group within a finished space you own, you have much greater flexibility. You’ll need time to clear the space, receive the product, erect cubicle panels, connect cubicle power to base building, run low-voltage cable, finish assembling workstations and relocate employees.

Now it’s time to create a cubicle installation plan with your furniture installers. The first thing to note is that office furniture should only be installed in  a space that’s “substantially complete” (floor covering, wall covering, wall base, HVAC, sprinklers and ceiling grid installed and closed). Once your space is ready to go and you have an installation plan worked out, furniture installers should survey it. This includes identifying elevators, stairs, loading docks, dumpsters, width and accessibility of doors, how far the push will be and who will be the point of contact. The scope of work includes when the installation will take place (nights/weekends or daytime), how many hands the installation requires and what is physically required of them.

After outlining the physical installation of furniture, you’ll need coordinate with at least additional two contractors. Cubicles with power in the base must be have the electrical and data feed connected to the base building power by an electrician. Some electricians will run low voltage, but voice and data providers are often the responsible party when there’s no internal IT department due to permitting. Renovations increase the number of contractors involved. Expanding on the most important part of working with dealers, outline a time-bound plan to walk through the finished space with all your contractors to make a plan for resolving lingering issues.

Working with Dealers

Check online reviews and ask for referrals. Explore their full service options and determine where they’re able to add value to your process before and after you buy cubicles: design, project management, relocation, removal, disposal, planning resources, etc. Even if you have an architect’s drawing, we advocate double- and triple- checking measurements of your work space. Ensure that you receive and keep record of your furniture’s full specifications, 2-D (floor plan, elevation) and 3-D renderings. See if you’re able to streamline furnishing your other work areas by finding a one-stop shop where you can buy cubicles. Most importantly, work out a time-bound plan for the “punch list”. Schedule a time for recording any lingering issues and planning to resolve them. Walk the space with your point of contact to make sure you share an understanding of your expectations (or, hopefully, delight).

Employee Transition Process

Once you’ve determined a tentative schedule for the project, communicate the date the employee has to be out and the date they have to be back. Before the day they need to be out, employees have to purge personal workspaces and pack materials coming with them. IT departments will perform necessary backups and set a date to disconnect. Employees then receive materials for packing – for instance, we rent an eco-friendly system of reusable plastic crates for transporting clients’ personal belongings. Next, employees will vacate the space.

Employees should be involved in planning, when it’s time to be out & time to be back in. An excellent way to get employee buy-in is to allow them to tour their new workspace.

Decisions about minimizing downtime contend on the nature of your transition. If you’re moving to a new space, you usually won’t need a temporary space. If your existing workspace is being remodeled, you’ll need to make interim arrangements for the occupants of that space. Common examples of those arrangements include remote work, repurposing existing work spaces and obtaining temporary lease space, furniture and IT for the duration of the project. Finally, coordinate the move in. During larger transitions, phased move-ins accommodate the number of employees more efficiently.

Thanks for reading!

Cubicles are more than a commodity – they’re a process.

We hope this resource proves helpful to navigating it. Want the whole thing? You can download it below.

And, remember, we’re here at any point in that process to help make your workspace work as hard as you do. If you’re in the market, we can procure a variety of new, used and refurbished cubicles. If you’ve found what you’re looking for, we offer a slew of cubicle services. Our team has the capacity to deliver, install, reconfigure, remove, clean your cubicles and more. Up against it, or want to get ahead of the curve? Tell us about your project!