The Once-Extinct Phone Booth is Re-emerging as a Solution to Today’s Open Offices

Adding prefabricated booths can have drawbacks, ranging from costs, code compliance, acoustics and ergonomics.
Adding prefabricated booths can have drawbacks, ranging from costs, code compliance, acoustics and ergonomics. Photo: Neil Alexander

The Drawbacks

While prefabricated booths appear to be a very simple plug-and-play remedy for existing interiors, there are disadvantages to them, as well. These drawbacks can range from costs, code compliance, acoustics and
ergonomics, depending on the make and model unit.

  • COST. Price is perhaps the biggest barrier to entry at the moment. A cursory search of freestanding privacy pods reveals prices ranging from approximately $4,000 for single-occupant models to $12,000 for multiple-occupant versions. Given that multiple units are most often required, the initial investment can be a considerable one, especially for smaller companies.
  • CODE COMPLIANCE. Carroll and Willis note most standalone booths require a step up to enter them, which presents a challenge in terms of accessibility. Carroll says the booths “are generally so small they don’t really accommodate any clearances for typical ADA criteria.” In cases where ADA-equivalent spaces are mandatory, built-in solutions that address these requirements may be the best option.
    Additionally, Carroll points out some freestanding booths have integrated ventilation and sprinkler coverage, which makes for an easy installation and ensures a safe environment. However, “not all products out there call for that,” she says. “There is a pretty broad deviation between vendors and different manufacturers relative to how integrated those solutions are and how fast they come online when they move into your space and at what expense.
  • ACOUSTICS. Although various furniture solutions and privacy pods can play a role in mitigating unwanted noise in the workplace, “they’re not going to solve all of the acoustic issues people might be having,” Willis explains. In fact, Carroll emphasizes the need to conduct testing to determine their efficacy for acoustic privacy. “You’re going to have perhaps even greater dissatisfaction if it’s not delivering on the one key criterion that matters to the user, which is acoustic privacy, generally,” Carroll says.
  • ERGONOMICS. Generally speaking, freestanding or built-in phone booths are not designed for use over extended periods. Willis explains, “It’s not something I would recommend to someone to go work in all day, unless you’re going to be providing a sizable table and some sort of ergonomic chair.” However, she points out most employers don’t want people to overuse them, so ergonomics isn’t necessarily a required characteristic but a factor to consider. Educating people about the proper use of the booths is key, she adds.
Gensler created coworking space for Cherryduck Studios, London, and weaved the history of the building into the design elements, including the phone booths.
Gensler created coworking space for Cherryduck Studios, London, and weaved the history of the building into the design elements, including the phone booths. Photo: Mark Cocksedge, Courtesy of Gensler

Other Considerations

Ultimately, when a client requests privacy pods within a space, it’s typically an indication there’s a need within the environment that requires a solution—and phone booths may or may not be the answer. In Gensler’s research, Carroll notes there is a strong distinction between a sense of perceived privacy and actual privacy. In other words, facility executives may want to consider other design and furniture solutions that would work as well as booths in certain cases and may come in at a lower price point.

“I’d say look at some of the products not necessarily providing complete privacy in an enclosed setting; look at other products where perceived privacy can be achieved and locate those items in a way that they have a really strong correlation to good daylight or views or a naturally quiet audible tone and experiment because space is at a premium and people’s preferences change daily,” she recommends. “The more you can find ways to create manipulatable, flexible solutions and respond to your users, you’ll find there’s even greater satisfaction because people feel like they’re valued and they’re being offered choice and variety and ways to really control their work experience—and that empowerment is key to a high-performance workspace.”

That being said, if phone booths or similar privacy pods are the preferred solution, Carroll says co-locating them in clusters is a key factor in their effectiveness. The reason being is there’s a higher probability of availability of an open booth when grouped together, which leads to greater utilization, assuming they are not set up on a reservation policy and are located within a reasonable proximity of users.

Additionally, from a design perspective, Willis suggests paying attention to ceiling heights; lower ceilings may give the appearance the booths are out of place or scale. “In a double-height space where you have high ceilings, they look really neat and almost like an architectural element, whereas somewhere you have lower ceilings, they may not have the same impact.”

Design consultancy Arcadis utilizes standalone privacy booths in its Washington, D.C., office.
Design consultancy Arcadis utilizes standalone privacy booths in its Washington, D.C., office. Photo: CallisonRTKL Inc.

The Verdict

There’s no question standalone phone booths offer an innovative and elegant solution to the challenges in many open plan workplaces—and it’s a trend that likely isn’t going away anytime soon. However, a one-size-fits-all or quick-fix approach to privacy and acoustics isn’t the answer in the long run. Rather, it’s about understanding the needs of end users and providing a variety of spaces that support them. “If you have a ton of workstation and you just add two or three of these focus pods, I don’t think that’s necessarily going to solve the problem,” Willis says. “It’s about providing other types of spaces, providing huddle rooms or the adequate amount of meeting rooms so people aren’t meeting at their desks and disturbing their neighbors.”

Phone Booths for Your Next Project

About the Author

Robert Nieminen
Robert Nieminen is a freelance writer; the former editor of Interiors & Sources magazine; and retrofit’s editor at large, specializing in interiors. Under his direction, Interiors & Sources was the recipient of several publishing awards, as well as a pioneer of sustainability reporting.

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