Telephones – remember those? Not the computer in your pocket; I mean landlines – the things that plugged into the wall and had a dial or a bunch of numbered buttons and allowed us to talk to people in real-time, using our actual voices, over long distances. They were everywhere. Every home had one hanging on the kitchen wall. Every office desk had one. Nearly every public building had at least one coin-operated telephone, and busy city streets had them in phone booths on every corner.
Of course, "landline" phones still exist. However, they have largely disappeared from our homes, and coin-operated phones and phone booths now evoke either nostalgia or curiosity... what are those things still doing there? Wired telephones are now relegated primarily to the work environment.
We now have arguably better ways to communicate most of the time. If not better, we certainly have more communication options. But in the business world, the telephone shows no signs of disappearing. What has all-but-disappeared, though, is the private office space.
The Dream of Open Design
The open office – the stereotype of the modern work world – has taken over nearly every industry. Many were glad to see “cubicle farms” begin to fade away. But has this seemingly newer idea been the improvement we were hoping for?
It turns out, the idea isn’t as new as most of us thought. Its beginnings go back to well before the start of the internet and the tech boom of the 1990’s. In fact, it didn’t even get its start in the 20th century – an open plan with rows of desks was the norm as early as the 1750's. Gradually that changed, though, and by the 1950's, private offices had mostly replaced the early open layout.
In the first half of the 20th century, renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright experimented with a return to open office design. Wright, as he said in a 1958 NBC News interview with Hugh Downs, believed, "The box was a fascist symbol." He wanted to eliminate those box-shaped private offices in favor of his new-and-improved version of open design.
Wright's updated vision for the open office was much closer to the commonly proclaimed goal of modern open-plan offices of today. His 1939 design of the SC Johnson Company's headquarters was considered a masterpiece of the time, with abundant natural lighting and specially-designed desks and chairs.
Unlike the rows of desks common to early, and current, open floor plans, his design provided lots of space between each desk. Management offices were located on a mezzanine above. The environment was often compared to a cathedral by visitors.
What happened to the promise of open space?
The modern open office was inspired by Wright’s dream, and its promise was a noble one. The intention, or at least the one most commonly expressed, was increased collaboration and communication among coworkers. Yet the modern work environment has much less in common with Wright's masterpiece than it does with the overcrowded spaces of the 18th century.
Businesses have done what businesses must do: They focused on the bottom line. Rather than contributing to employee cooperation, eliminating private space became a way to save money and, in the most egregious cases, a tool for micro-management. The modern version of Frank Lloyd Wright's dream has become, as this Chicago Tribune article puts it, "A disaster."
A University of Sydney study from 2013 showed that the ease of communication promised by open space in the office is far outweighed by "noise and lack of privacy."
Can the open plan be salvaged?
So with the problems of our modern workspace, what can we do? Can we still get the intended benefits of an open floor plan without the productivity-killing problems?
There are a few options to consider. Many offices have conference rooms, which can offer momentary privacy as long as they aren’t being used. Some workers might have the option to step away from their desks for a bit to get things done elsewhere – maybe a park or a local coffee shop. And many companies these days even offer remote work arrangements, allowing their employees to work from home or any other convenient location, only rarely needing to visit the office, if ever.
Those options don't work for every employee or every company, though.
It turns out, there may be a solution. Surprisingly, it involves a return to an older technology: the phone booth.
The Modern Office Call Booth
While the old aluminum-and-glass phone booths we used to see on street corners everywhere are all but nonexistent these days, this newer re-imagining of the concept can be seen more as a “privacy pod” where office workers can make private phone calls and get work done without interruptions.
This modern privacy solution makes a great compromise between the chaotic nature of a modern American office and the isolation of a private office. Workers still have their desks alongside everyone else, but with these modern telephone booths, they can get some personal space when they need to make important calls or just need a quiet spot to concentrate.
These modern "privacy booths" have features that make them well suited to their intended use. A few of the commonly available features and options can include:
Portability - Many are designed to be easily moved around the office or even to new locations. Thinktanks customers often slide their privacy booths around the office, and they can be easily disassembled for relocation.
Acoustic walls - Keep outside noises out and your private conversations in.
Easy assembly - Most are designed to be assembled by the user on-site, often in under an hour.
Ventilation systems - Keep cool and quiet.
Phone booths for the open office environment are available in a number of construction options as well. If you're picturing a rickety aluminum-framed box with glass doors and glass walls, like the typical street-corner booth, you'll be pleasantly surprised. More common now are sound-insulated booths constructed of materials like steel, fiberglass, or wood, like this white one-person booth with a maple interior from Thinktanks.
More than just phone booths
While single-person office booths can be a perfect spot to get a little work done or to make a phone call without interruption, sometimes a little more space is needed. There is often a need for groups of people to work together without disturbing others, for example. And there are multiple-person booths, conference rooms, and even "meeting pods" with a similar modular design to those single-person nooks.
In addition to offering respite to privacy-starved office workers, modular rooms and phone booths can mean significant cost savings for businesses, too. If your office needs a couple private rooms, investing in a few pods can be cheaper than moving.
Need a conference room added to your office? That can be a large, very disruptive project, on top of being expensive. Instead, a modular conference room can be set up in about an hour.
What are the benefits?
Aside from the obvious need for quiet and privacy, office phone booths have a number of less obvious benefits.
They give employees a measure of control over their work environment, allowing them to have quiet when they need it while still maintaining their own personal space at their desks. The reduction in noise can improve mental health.They can help prevent illness from spreading when, inevitably, employees show up to work with the sniffles because they have a deadline they can't miss.They give remote workers a temporary place to work for those times they do need to come in to the office.Beyond the office
While privacy booths are ideally suited to an office with an open floor plan, that's not their only use. Phone booths have been showing up in places like restaurants and bars – perfect when you need to make a quick phone call in these often noisy environments.
They work well in university libraries, too, as a perfect spot for small study groups to get together without disturbing others.
Churches use them as a place for parents to take crying children – modern versions of the cry rooms that were once common.
Phone booths, as we once knew them, have evolved. After seemingly going the way of the dodo, they have returned and been repurposed for the modern world. And unlike the graffiti-scrawled boxes of yore that served as offices to drug dealers and criminals, the modern versions are comfortable, quiet havens offering much-needed privacy to stressed-out office employees; at the same time offering employers a way to provide quiet workspace at a much lower cost than new construction.
At the same time, they’ve breathed new life into the open office concept. What was becoming an outdated idea that never quite lived up to its promise is now a plan that offers the benefits we had hoped for while still allowing the needed quiet spaces where work can get done.