Since the advent of mobile phones, one of the most recognizable fixtures that has vanished from the landscape of our cities is the iconic phone booth. But with two-thirds of the world’s population (5 billion) connected by mobile devices in 2017—a figure expected to reach 75 percent by 2020 according to a Business Insider report—who really needs an isolation booth to have a private phone conversation these days?
Just about everyone, it turns out.
Although the standalone public payphone may be virtually extinct, the phone booth as a quiet personal space is emerging as a viable solution for today’s noisy workplaces. As reported in our January-February 2015 issue, the now-ubiquitous open office plan is not without its drawbacks. Privacy and acoustic issues continue to plague many workers who have, in some cases, resorted to rebuilding the proverbial cubicle wall with stacks of books or putting up the modern equivalent of a “do not disturb” sign: headphones.
As a result, design firms have been integrating a greater selection of workspace types and sizes—from the open benching desk systems to informal lounges and café spaces for collaboration, as well as a variety of conference rooms and private phone booths for more focused work—to give employees a greater sense of choice in where and how they spend their work days.
“What we’re seeing now is more of a variety of types of spaces offered and a part of that is to include shared quiet and private spaces for people that work in open plans. This goes hand-in-hand with companies that are adopting a free-address type of work environment,” says Maggie Willis, associate, CallisonRTKL, Washington, D.C. “The variety of spaces allows people to work where it suits the task they’re doing that day better. That’s kind of where things are going.”
Jill Traylor, senior interior designer and associate at Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, New Orleans, agrees: “Clients are still asking for open office spaces even when their employees are pushing back a little bit, but what they are now providing—which they weren’t before—is more choices of where you can get these private moments and where you can go to do your heads-down work. They’re also providing more buffers between collaborative spaces and open workspaces.”
What this shift points to is a needed clarification of the industry’s understanding of the open plan concept as a whole, according to Amanda Carroll, workplace practice area leader and principal at Gensler, New York. “The degree of an open or enclosed plan environment in our research, we found, actually doesn’t matter in terms of high-performance evaluation,” she explains.
“What matters more is the variety of choice the individual is given access to and the ability to self-author the type of data they need to best support effective work and then the type of atmosphere that supports that mode or task they’re trying to complete. If anything, we’ve seen a greater conversation about the intention, distribution and variety of enclosed spaces to complement the open plan.”
In response to the trend, a number of manufacturers have introduced a series of freestanding phone booths or privacy pods to help address the problems with the open plan office (see “Phone Booths for Your Next Project”, page 2). Although these plug-and-play products appear to be the ideal solution for existing buildings and retrofitting scenarios, there are factors facility executives ought to consider for their particular situations.
Beyond the obvious cool throwback factor, these new phone booths offer exactly what they promise: a quiet space for muchneeded visual and acoustic privacy in open environments. Employees can quickly step into a booth to make a personal call or spend a few extra minutes to focus on an important e-mail or presentation without distractions. Anecdotal evidence shows they are utilized frequently, too.
New Orleans’ Contemporary Arts Center features a coworking development known as The Shop. Eskew+Dumez+Ripple installed a bank of built-in phone booths within The Shop that is seeing a lot of traffic, according to Traylor. “Every time I go over to visit this space, at least two out of three booths are being used in any of the different spaces at any given time. I would say they’re definitely successful,” she says. [Read more about The Shop in “Transformation”, page 68.] Traylor adds other clients also are requesting privacy pods for single and double occupants, especially in environments that lack a variety of different workspaces.
As businesses are increasingly required to adapt to change, Carroll says greater flexibility is required in the workplace—and detached privacy booths offer a great temporary solution. “A phone room that’s a product that stands alone is a great option for an office where they’ve exceeded growth expectations and they need to do some things in the interim before they design the right space for the long term.”
Willis characterizes these products as “a great solution for providing short-term privacy, which I think a lot of people are looking for now. They work in these open environments, and they don’t have a place to take a personal phone call or just get away from the open plan. I think they solve that type of issue,” she notes.
Additionally, many of these standalone phone booths can be retrofitted into existing buildings relatively easily. Traylor notes the pods her firm has designed or seen on the market are relatively small, ranging in footprints of just 4 feet by 4 feet or 5 feet by 5 feet. “You can tuck them in just about anywhere you have a little extra square footage, which is a good thing if you don’t require a lot of space,” she says. “Even the freestanding ones are even easier to just drop in where you have some open space, and then they become more of a [design] feature.”