Now that office walls have come down, workers are ducking into closet-sized âpodsâ 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.
âEvery sound [people inside] hear is the sound of their own body,â 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 occupyâsonically and otherwiseâis also where they spend most of their weekday waking hours: the open office.
âTheyâre way too bright, theyâre way too contrast-y, and theyâre way too loud,â said Orfield of the model. âEverything about them is designed to be essentially the opposite of what the user would like.â
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, theyâre buying their own mini-isolation chambers in the form of personal phone booths, or âpods.â
Nicknamed âcubicle nouveauâ by Fast Company, the half-dozen-odd pod brands on the marketâincluding Cubicall, Zenbooth, TalkBox, Orange Box and ROOMâare indeed a bit like revamped personal cubicles carved out of a phone-booth shell. Theyâre 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. âItâs just really stressful if youâre trying to focus and youâre listening to your neighbor chat with his or her dentist,â Chen said. So they cobbled together a homemade phone booth out of plywood and foam, and slapped a door on it.
âThe booth that we built ended up being called the âsweatbox,â because you go inside, thereâs no ventilation, and youâre pretty miserable,â 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.
âThe problem âŠ in terms of soundproofing really affects companies of all sizes,â Chen said.
First, offices spurned walls. Now, theyâre 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 âthought that to break down the social walls that divide people, you had to break down the real walls, too,â as George Musser wrote in Scientific American.
But sprawling, desk-filled rooms punctuated by a few bossâs offic