Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, affordable housing, labor, and technology.
Now that office walls have come down, workers are ducking into closet-sized “pods” for privacy and quiet. Is this a retreat from the open office or the next phase of it?
After 30 minutes in the anechoic test chamber, you start to hear your heart beating. Then, you can make out the joints crinkling in your arms and legs, the carotid arteries pumping in your head, and maybe, if you listen very closely, the air flowing in and out of your lungs.
“Every sound [people inside] hear is the sound of their own body,” said Steve Orfield, who runs Orfield Laboratories, an acoustic lab in Minneapolis where scientists test the decibel levels of Harley-Davidsons and the way sound reverberates off concert-hall chairs.
Of all the very quiet spaces in his lab, the anechoic chamber is the quietest. It was once the Quietest Place on Earth, holding the Guinness World Record as such until 2015, when another chamber out-quieted it. Spending too long in a tank like this can drive a person crazy. But people visit from all over the world, paying hundreds of dollars for the chance to deprive their senses in small doses. One of the reasons they are seeking quiet and calm, Orfield says, is because all around them is chaos and noise.
For many American workers, one of the most chaotic vessels they occupy—sonically and otherwise—is also where they spend most of their weekday waking hours: the open office.
“They’re way too bright, they’re way too contrast-y, and they’re way too loud,” said Orfield of the model. “Everything about them is designed to be essentially the opposite of what the user would like.”
This is the overwhelming sense, supported by research: That the open floor plan, distracting and disruptive and encouraging of over-shoulder lurking, does more harm than good to American workers. Still, by 2017, a survey estimated that seven in 10 offices had lowered their partitions, driven by rising real estate costs and a desire to smooth out hierarchies and encourage more co-worker-on-co-worker face time.
Now, as open-office backlash mounts, companies are trying to figure out a way to bring back the privacy of the closed-plan office but without the square footage. To do it, they’re buying their own mini-isolation chambers in the form of personal phone booths, or “pods.”
Nicknamed “cubicle nouveau” by Fast Company, the half-dozen-odd pod brands on the market—including Cubicall, Zenbooth, TalkBox, Orange Box and ROOM—are indeed a bit like revamped personal cubicles carved out of a phone-booth shell. They’re often outfitted with svelte glass doors and are filled with some variation of chair, plugs, phone, and maybe an airplane-tray-table-sized desk. Some are built for one; others are designed for meetings and can hold up to four. Prices vary widely: about $3,500 for a solo unit from ROOM, and up to $16,000 for one with higher occupancy from Zenbooth.
For Brian Chen and Morton Meisner, the co-founders of ROOM, inspiration to craft a pod sprung from the relatable pressure point they encountered working in an open-plan startup space. “It’s just really stressful if you’re trying to focus and you’re listening to your neighbor chat with his or her dentist,” Chen said. So they cobbled together a homemade phone booth out of plywood and foam, and slapped a door on it.
“The booth that we built ended up being called the ‘sweatbox,’ because you go inside, there’s no ventilation, and you’re pretty miserable,” Chen said. Slowly, they finessed the model, and launched a company last year. By the end of this year, ROOM projects it will have done $40 million in sales to over 1,500 businesses, ranging from small startups to brands like Nike and financial institutions such as J.P. Morgan.
“The problem … in terms of soundproofing really affects companies of all sizes,” Chen said.
First, offices spurned walls. Now, they’re looking to score furniture that can, in some ways, replace them.
Another day in cubicle paradise
We can blame Frank Lloyd Wright for designing one of the first American open offices in 1939. Driven by the belief that interior walls and rooms were restrictive and hierarchical, Wright slashed them from his plan for the Johnson Wax headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin. He was one of a group of architects who “thought that to break down the social walls that divide people, you had to break down the real walls, too,” as George Musser wrote in Scientific American.
But sprawling, desk-filled rooms punctuated by a few boss’s offices grew to be loathed, too, for flattening individualism into neat rows. By the 1960s and ’70s, office managers had turned to another furniture item to achieve radical change: the cubicle.
“[It] was this movement of bringing people out of private offices, or trying to give them more defined spaces,” said Chris Coldoff, a workplace leader at the international design firm Gensler. “It was almost like you were emulating private offices, but with shorter walls.”
Soon enough, clacking away in a sea of fragmented workspaces became just as repetitive, and even more loathed. Dilbert comics satirized the grey, inescapable landscape: The eponymous over-managed white-collar worker imagined that future archeologists would dig up cubicles and assume they were instruments in a late-20th-century jail.
“Never sit for eight hours a day in a fabric-covered box that someone else paid for,” Dilbert creator Scott Adams wrote in the introduction to a Dilbert anthology, Another Day in Cubicle Paradise. “Because the people who pay for your cubicle don’t have to sit in it, there’s no incentive for cubicles to be all that they can be. It’s no wonder they’re bleak and dingy.” The problem was that cubicles were too “communist,” he wrote—the ideal work wombs would be employee-owned and operated.
Instead, neoliberal forces brought back the open office. As real-estate costs rose near the turn of the century, open offices were attractive for packing in more workers for less. But they were also meant to usher in a new age of teamwork. Shoulder to shoulder, the thinking went, workers would be able to collaborate! Innovate! Inhale the same air, and swap ideas by osmosis.
“What ended up happening, though, is that a lot of companies said, ‘Now we’re going to swing to the total open office, but we’re still going to take this one-size-fits-all attitude,’” said Coldoff. “And everyone’s in open plan, and that’s where you have to do everything.”
Pods now promise to bring back what open offices took away, without turning offices back into “oppressed cubicle masses.” (Another Dilbert-ism.)
But they’re also responding to a broader shift in office culture. As the inner geography of the workplace changed—from open to closed to open again—so too did the inherent value of each square foot of office space. The most coveted real estate in a company floor plan may have once been the corner office, the one with the big glass windows. But the office workers of today don’t want space to spread out as much as flexibility, says Brian McCourt, sales director of architectural products at the office furniture company Steelcase.
“The status symbol, especially for Millennials and younger, is giving people choice and control over where and how they want to work,” McCourt said. They want informal meeting spaces to connect with people, create relationships, and collaborate—and they also want permission to work from home.
Gensler’s research, too, puts “choice” as the top worker priority. “The idea of these small, enclosed private spaces has become a big piece of the puzzle,” said Coldoff. Even Adams predicted the cubicles of the future would be modular, and customizable—Barbie-themed, clothing-optional, or disco-lit.
Today, that choice can be achieved in any number of ways: incorporating more partitions, hot desks, couches, outdoor spaces, and bookable conference rooms. Some more seasonal workplaces are using sensors to reconfigure their office plans based on patterns in how people use them. But pods are attractive because of their potential for workers craving privacy—a fast-evaporating privilege. It can come in four distinct forms, says McCourt: acoustical, visual, territorial, and informational.
At their best, cubicles (however depressing) were fairly adept at preserving all four, Orfield notes. Computer screens and sad desk lunches were shielded by acoustic panels on two or three sides, which also served to absorb sound with a “noise reduction coefficient” that could block voices more than 12 feet away. “Now, [in an open plan] the average distance you can hear people on center is about 70 feet,” he said.
Coldoff says that cubicles really only delivered a false sense of privacy, which made people talk louder and startle more easily, because they were less aware of their surroundings. “Whether the panels between you were three feet or six feet high, the sound was still going over the top,” he said.
Benched desks offer no such illusions, and neither, really, do pods. “I don’t think that the phone booth is a cubicle replacement,” said Chen. “We’re not trying to put people into these phone booths for 8 hours a day.”
Here are the things workers do under the cloak of relative privacy that office pods provide, according to people I interviewed: Call their doctor, mother, boyfriend. Check in on their 401(k). Speak to journalists like me. One young adult in the financial services field (who requested anonymity to preserve her job, for reasons that will soon become clear) said that she used pods to interview for another job during company time, though not before moving a whole office building away from her supervisor. Chris Traver, who works at the Ikea-but-easier-to-build furniture company Wayfair in Boston, says he sometimes sees people watching movies and YouTube videos in the ROOM pods. (“I don’t look into them that often,” he says.)
Admittedly, everyone also uses them to concentrate on work. “I only use them if I have a one-to-one video or voice call with somebody,” said Siobhan Gibson, a technical writer from Brighton, U.K. “I think that’s their expected use around the office, to be honest, although I’ve often joked about sitting in one for the whole day.”
“I really like that I don’t need to take up an entire conference room if I need to call a remote salesperson,” said Claire Friedman, a senior creative strategist who works in The Atlantic’s chalk-white, cubicle-free New York City office, which features a dozen-odd phone booths. “That was a constant point of consternation, pre-pods.”
Chen highlighted this spatial-mismatch problem, too. “In the studies that we’ve done, it’s those one-person phone calls—those small group meetings—that are most frequent and also the most under-served by floor plans and the solutions that space designers and architects [create],” he said. If the only respite from benching is a conference room, employees may choose to camp out there all day with their phone on speaker.
But unlike the anechoic chamber, or a closed-door office, or even workers’ own living rooms, pods aren’t isolated enough to encourage a free-for-all. Prompted by a tweet asking people to share experiences about this bespoke furniture setup, one journalist helpfully clarified that pods are more like “crying rooms.” When pressed, though, no one said they’d actually turned to pods if they (like almost half of Americans in a recent survey) were on the verge of crying at work. Mothers’ nursing rooms, stairwells, bathrooms, and the good old-fashioned outside stoop were cited as better options.
That’s because ultimately, pods—like many things in 2019—offer the illusion of privacy without delivering much of it at all. Most of them are entirely see-through, and few are completely sound-proof, in the noise-cancelling sense of the word.
Gibson likes this fluid sense of shielding: “I can still see the rest of the office, but there’s an understanding that people in pods shouldn’t be interrupted, so I know I’ll be left alone in there.”
Others are less interested in blocking outside noise entirely. “It’s not so much that the office space is loud,” said Akshay Verma, a researcher for LinkedIn. “It’s mostly because I’d rather jump into one of these for a call than disturb other people by taking them in a common area or at my desk.”
Besides, with the rise of email and now with Slack—and even cell phones, which allow people to take those personal stoop calls—people just talk less in the office than they used to. But this makes the intermittent interruption of socially-subscribed silence even more maddening than the ambient noise, says Friedman. “Everyone’s trying to work quietly, so any interruption of that is very noticeable,” she said (in a Slack message). “And then sometimes there are super-loud conversations and that’s just regular-loud. It goes up and down a lot throughout the day.”
Friedman also has generalized anxiety disorder, a history of panic attacks, and hearing problems. “Managing stimulation and stress is something I think about really actively, especially when it comes to work,” she said. Even slight padding helps her get through the day.
This is true for many of today’s workers. Susan Cain, the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, estimates that 30 to 50 percent of the population are introverts. That doesn’t just mean they’re shy—it means they have tighter neurological systems, which react more violently to stimulation. “Their sweet spot is where there are fewer inputs coming in at any one time—that’s where they’re going to be their most creative and productive,” she told me. (I took the call from a WeWork booth.) “Match that set of facts with the reality of office plans and it quickly becomes clear why so many introverts are uncomfortable.”
Pod technology will evolve, but it will be hard to achieve full auditory and visual opacity. If glass walls were painted over, pods would seem more like coffins; if sound couldn’t get in, neither could oxygen. “Sound is like water,” McCourt said, “and so wherever you have any kind of opening or weak link, sound is going to find a way.”
Chen learned this the hard way through his “sweatbox” debacle, and tries to balance these trade-offs at ROOM. “What we’ve done is basically we’ve designed the ventilation with sound traps: channels that allow air to escape but not sound,” he said. ROOMs still can get a little warm, though, according to reviews. Speaking from experience, so can WeWork booths—and Atlantic ones.
”Sometimes I use that as motivation,” wrote Friedman of the slow boil. “(I need to finish this before I overheat and die.)”
Controlling the inputs
Another, more personal response to the open office plan has been to plug one’s own ears with another sort of ’pod.
“In open offices, people commonly wander around with their headphones on all day, into bathrooms and kitchens, sometimes listening to nothing at all in order to avoid the constant distraction of compulsory social interaction,” wrote Amanda Mull in The Atlantic of America’s inexorable AirPod obsession.
But it’s “dehumanizing and dystopian” for offices to push their employees to those solutions, said Chen. “It fits into a model where your employees are machines. You treat them like robots: If they’re getting distracted you … plug them in.”
Cain called noise-cancelling headphones the “poor person’s substitute for actual privacy”—though of course they can be quite expensive. “It’s kind of unpleasant to work with these gigantic things on your ears, blocking out natural sounds as well as unnatural ones,” she said.
That’s of course appealing for those who want to fend off street harassment, suspending you “in a state of plausible aloofness” when confronted with catcallers, as Marina Koren writes. Though that insulation could make for impoliteness in a workspace, it’s another way of thinking about what headphones bring back: control, an ingredient Cain says is missing in many loud places. Things are more manageable when you can modulate when and how often you’re interrupted, and by what.
Introducing varied furniture options like pods is meant to give workers more choice, as Steelcase’s McCourt and Gensler’s Coldoff highlighted. But at their worst, those options swing from all to nothing. Either you are close enough to sneeze on your colleague, or you are in a small pressure-cooker talking to your boss who actually works remotely from Vermont—or, you are present physically but absent mentally, ears stuffed with un-recyclable plastic.
And switching between each mode involves friction, especially when the act of moving is coded. “When you go into that phone booth it’s a social cue: You’re announcing that you don’t want people to hear you,” said Orfield. “Like when you go into your boss’s office and close the door, you’re announcing that something’s going on.”
Cain says offices will work best when both social and private spaces became “abundant and readily available.”
“Then the social signal is that this is part of the everyday fabric, it’s the mainstream choice, and it has no particular social implications,” she said. “Whereas if [pods are] in the corner, harder to get to, presented in a less inviting way, or not used by senior staff—all these can send the opposite signal, that doing this is a furtive, anti-team kind of act.”
Despite its limitations, and its pervasive strangeness, #podlife changed everything for Friedman. She lives in a two-bedroom apartment with four people. She takes the subway. Her hearing sensitivity garbles overlapping sounds. “[Pods] made me realize the insane amount of noise pollution that was impacting my life every single day,” she said. “Sitting in them and experiencing quiet almost drove me to tears.”