Cubicles are back! Meet the man who makes those telephone booths

Cubicles are back, baby! But wait, before you start cheering: they’re in the form of modular phone booths and tiny meeting rooms, Fast Company reports.

With 70% of offices using the open office model, employees are at the breaking point, and employers have no choice but to find some private solutions – not necessarily because they care that no one can make a private phone call, but because studies have shown a marked drop in productivity.

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Enter telephone booths, and other “prefabricated rooms” that cost from a few thousand dollars to $10K. Most fit one person; some can host a small meeting. They’re meant for a few hours of work only – when you need concentrated quiet or need to get on a conference call, for example.

Ladders spoke to one of the players in the modular office market – Morten Meisner-Jensen, the co-founder of telephone booth manufacturer ROOM, about how they do it. Launching in May of last year, they now have over 650 clients, from ten-person start-ups to Google, Walmart, Wayfair, Uber, NASA, and Nike.

Meisner-Jensen has a background in tech; coming from the startup world alongside his co-founder, Brian Chen, “We both experienced tremendous problems with open-plan seating, and not having a place to escape to take a phone call or do focused work,” he said.

“We wanted to figure out an affordable way of making a private space for the open-office plan, to give people a better work environment,” said Meisner-Jensen. “And as we started researching this, we found that noise in the open-plan office – or noise in the modern workspace today – is the largest problem in the workspace. More than 60% of all Americans have brought up noise complaints to their bosses.”

They saw a solution in a phone booth that a single person could sit in – make a phone call, work on their computer – or just do some prep work in peace. They tried building a booth on their own out of drywall, but it was a flop – soon dubbed “the sweatbox,” hot and echo-y.

The final design, however, was soundproof, fully ventilated, and made out of recycled materials, with a door that seals shut completely. The cost is $3,450, putting it at the low end of the market.

“The demand has been through the roof,” Meisner-Jensen said.

Most companies buy more than one booth, he says. Companies come back to make another purchase “once they realize how big a problem they need to solve.” Orders range from two or three to “in the hundreds,” depending on company size.

“It’s everything from JP Morgan to a young startup,” said Meisner-Jensen.

There’s another unexpected cause in the popularity of ROOM’s telephone booths and other modular office cubicles: the increase in video-conferencing calls. With video, not only do you need quiet and privacy, “you need visual privacy… you can’t do [a video call] from your regular seat in an open plan because you’ll have people walking behind you, and it’s insanely distracting.”

That said, “I don’t believe phone booths are the solution to everything.”

Zoning out

Instead, he is a proponent for the slowly popularizing “zoned” office, where there are different spaces for different activities. “There needs to be spaces for privacy, such as the phone booth, where you can jump on a video conferencing call so you can do focused work, for shorter periods of time. But there also need to be creative breakout areas for collaboration. There need to be recreational areas where you can talk about something else than work. There needs to be areas for the entire company to come together and get inspired, with town hall meetings and talks.”

Phone booths are only one part of the idealized office Meisner-Jensen imagines. “We’re not just selling phone booths,” he said. “We’re selling a better work environment.”

Ultimately, employers are beginning to create a better work environment by adopting modular cubicles and similar privacy-enhancing design elements, slowly changing a type of office space that has been proven in study after study to make workers unhappy and lower productivity. It’s a shift that’s not just for employees, but for the company’s bottom line, as well.

“Creating a great work environment, and making sure that people are happy at work, is going to be increasingly important,” Meisner-Jensen said. “Because the competitive advantage of that company will be the talent that they’re able to acquire and keep.”

An enhanced physical workspace inspires people and allows them to work, both separately and together, Meisner-Jensen said, which is good for everyone. “That just generally makes people happy. When people are happy at work, they’ll do good.”

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