Meta Rediscovers the Cubicle

Back in 2016, I reported on a rumor that was circulating about employee dissatisfaction at Meta (then, Facebook). Developers, it seemed, were unhappy with the company’s trendy, but also unbearably noisy and distracting, 8-acre open office floor plan.

“Developers need to concentrate,” explained an amused Joel Spolsky at a conference that year, before going on to add that Facebook was paying a 40 – 50% premium for talent because people didn’t want to work under those conditions. A commentator on my essay pointed to a podcast episode where Facebook insiders claim that the open office was never more than 30% occupied. “Apparently, the majority of people that work there make sure that they are away from their desk when they need to get work done,” he explained.

As reported by the Wall Street Journal last month, it looks like Meta is finally ready to do something about this self-inflicted problem. After hiring a fancy design firm and working through multiple ideas and prototypes they landed on an innovative solution: cubicles.

(To be fair, the company takes pains to argue that their solution is not cubicles, because, well, the walls are curved, and they are made out of fancier, sound-absorbing materials. Sure. Okay…)

I, for one, am pleased by this news. The open office boom is right up there with the spread of Slack as representing the peak of early 21st century distraction culture — a period in which the knowledge sector completely disregarded any realities about how human brains actually go about the difficult task of creating value through cogitation. The fact that Meta is closing the book on its ill-fated open office experiment is perhaps a glimmer of hope that we’re moving toward a deeper future


In other news…

On Monday, Scott Young and I are re-opening our popular online course, Life of Focus, which combines ideas from Deep Work, Digital Minimalism, and Scott’s excellent book, Ultralearning. For those who are interested, registration will be open Monday until Friday at the course site.

A quick word of warning: I am going to send three short emails about the course throughout the week, so be ready for that. (Each such message will also includes a link at the bottom you can click to opt-out of any future communication about the course. )

12 thoughts on “Meta Rediscovers the Cubicle”

  1. Cubicles tend to be rather depressing and ugly, with poor lighting and ventilation. That probably helped inspire the move away towards better lit open plan offices, though with all the downsides of extra noise and distraction. Certainly going to an 8 acre open plan sounds like a nightmare!

    Some of the best offices I’ve worked in had small rooms (4-5 workers) with good natural lighting and the opportunity to go to a small private area to focus. I do see some benefit to Facebook moving to better designed “cubicles”, especially if they put focus on making sure they have plenty of natural light.

    • Cubicles are 100x better than an open floor plan. I work in NYC and everyone has the open floor plan, often times with hard wood floors and brick walls making it even noisier. The primary reason for open floor plans is money – limited square footage, and also cubicles are more expensive than plain desks or tables. My first job has a nice cubicle with high walls (you could not see out while sitting) – think “Office Space” movie. It was 100x better.

      • My dad’s employer literally paid extra to have their cubicles shortened for the open floor plan aesthetic… then bought everyone $200 headphones cause nobody could do their work.

  2. “After hiring a fancy design firm and working through multiple ideas and prototypes they landed on an innovative solution: cubicles”. HAHAHA that was good.

    Also, i think “deeper” (as in “deeper future”) is a neutral word. Maybe they promote more concentration in their employees to keep kidnapping good habits of mind and excel at generatiting addiction in their “users”. In this case, “deeper” wouldn’t automatically mean “good”. The good life implies a deeper life, but a “deep” life doesn’t contain necessarily the good life. What do you think?

  3. I started my software development career in London, where rents are New York high. The last company I worked for there was exploding with success. We started off packed in Facebook style, albeit in a smaller space. As the company grew, we reached a point where the bench style desks went to those who got to work first in the morning. Others hovered in the break room, waiting for a butt parking space.

    When the UK investors sold the company to US investors our jobs went to California and some of us went with them. When I walked into the CA office and was given my own, actual desk, just for me, not part of a long bench, in a whole cubicle, on my own, with sound-proofs walls, I could not believe the luxury, privacy and square footage. To be able to look up from my monitor without meeting the eyes of one person directly opposite me and another two to either side? I was so happy and so grateful. I knew the press derided ‘cubicle farms’ but they were so much better than the open plan that was still to come for most the the West Coast.

    • Thank you for the input supporting cubicles. I liked a cubicle better than even a small office I shared with a guy I suspected was on cocaine do to his constant erratic behavior. Cubicles seem to be the optimal cost effective solution at this time. Open offices have low up front cost but have high annual cost due to low productivity and low employee retention rates.

  4. This reminds me of the study carrells in my university library. They were highly prized and some were even assigned for the semester to certain grad students. I never got so much work done than when I had my own little carrell in the 80’s. Flash forward to my teen son studying at the table in our dining room with a DIY moving box cardboard 3 panel carrell shielding him from all visual stimuli of parents moving about the house. Paired with a nice set of noise cancelling headphones and he had an efficient workspace.

  5. Thank God somebody has come to their senses. Open offices have low upfront costs but high annual costs due to loss of productivity, and low employee retention rates. In other words, open offices are cheap but not cost effective. Individual offices are expensive upfront cost but may be cost effective from a long term perspective due to the increase in productivity, better employee retention, better IP protection, i.e. easier to protect trade secrets which are 90% of the value of US businesses, and better physical security critical for critical high value employees. Cubicles appear at this time to be the cost optimum balancing upfront cost with productivity. I used to do life cycle cost (LCC) optimization studies for the US government and would love to look at the cost figures. LCC is closely related to operations research but is a little more practical to apply now with low cost computer calculations and simulations. FYI: LCC won us WWII and the cold war yet is no longer taught in engineering school.

  6. My thoughts: Something tells me that Mark Zuckerberg himself was not working in such an open office space, but had his own private office. If a company wants an open office space, it has to apply to everyone, beginning with the C-suite. never make others do something that you yourself are not doing.


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