Inside Meta’s Push to Solve the Noisy Office
The Future of Everything
The Facebook and Instagram parent needed a new setup for the loud hybrid workplace. Here’s a first look at the quieter cubicle.
By Chip Cutter and Meghan Bobrowsky | Photographs by Carolyn Fong for The Wall Street Journal
Menlo Park, Calif.
Coming to the campuses of Facebook parent Meta Platforms Inc. is a contraption that can block sound, shield workers from their peers and allow for heads-down, uninterrupted work.
It’s a cubicle.
That is, a noise-canceling cubicle designed using some of the same principles found in soundproof, echo-free anechoic chambers. “The Cube,” which the company is beginning to roll out to offices worldwide after months of development, absorbs sound from multiple directions, says John Tenanes, vice president of global real estate and facilities at Meta. “It’s like a self-cocoon.”
Meta’s experiment comes as workplaces are in the midst of a shake-up. Like many other employers, Meta realized early in the pandemic that its open-plan arrangements would need to shift to accommodate a new hybrid era of work. In 2021, it asked 10 groups of architects, design firms and furniture manufacturers—including Miller Knoll Inc.’s Herman Miller, KI and others—to build a new office set-up. They were given guiding principles to follow and eight weeks to do it. One of the major goals: Solve for noisiness that comes from increased video calls and other office interactions.
“What we realized is that, as a result of the pandemic and people working from home, that folks needed an environment to Zoom, to video conference, and it’s very hard to do in an open office without interrupting other folks,” Mr. Tenanes says.
Seven of the groups completed the task. The resulting prototypes, some rudimentary and made out of foam board, were displayed in a lab of sorts for six months, so employees could try them out. Meta and its partners experimented with a variety of desk configurations, with the priority being to create an environment that would allow for more focus in the open office. “The idea wasn’t to come up with a perfect cube,” says Gabor Nagy, a global workplace design researcher at Meta.
They tested alternating-height partitions between desks and movable workspaces that could allow workers to wheel their desks away from peers. They tried 6-foot-long desks, which employees later described as too big. One prototype incorporated curved, semi-enclosed video conferencing booths. The company found some designs lacked functionality as a workplace or failed to isolate conversations. Meta thought about adding more soundproof phone booths across its offices, but building codes in some locations would have required sprinklers in each one, which the company considered impractical.
The company also considered traditional cubicles, similar to those designed in the 1960s and 1970s, but ruled them out, too. Those provide visual privacy, but little in the way of blocking noise, Mr. Tenanes said. “The cube from the ’60s was this rigid panel system,” he added, “like a cage almost, with a door.”
The Cube began to take shape, in part, after one of Meta’s furniture vendors brought in an early prototype of a movable screen. Engineers quickly gravitated to it, grabbing one or two at a time to essentially barricade themselves at their desks, Dr. Nagy says. Meta and its vendors refined the Cube, and its popularity became even more apparent during testing when workers began personalizing the spaces to effectively reserve them. “People would bring in their stuff from home, like a humidifier or whatnot, just to claim the space,” Dr.Nagy says.
Meta’s cube is designed to work with existing desks at the company. Three of its sides curve alongside a desktop. Unlike a traditional cubicle, it doesn’t have fixed dimensions; a massive fourth wall the size of a classroom whiteboard is unattached and can be moved closer or further away from the desk to block noise and provide privacy.
Taking some cues from heavily padded anechoic chambers, rooms designed to be silent that are often used for product testing or experiments, the Cube is made of felt-like recycled PET plastic designed to soak up reverberations. The soft material “absorbs the sound rather than pushes it back,” Dr. Nagy says. From a visual standpoint, the Cube’s panels block distractions in a user’s periphery, he says, while a visor near the top of a panel lessens glare on a computer monitor.
Meta hired an acoustician to test the noise reduction inside the Cube, placing a device across the office to mimic human voices, and found that it reduced sound levels by about 20 decibels—enough to make a noticeable difference, Dr. Nagy says.
For employers, getting the acoustics of an office right can be tricky. A space that’s too loud will turn people off, but so, too, will a space that is eerily quiet, says Kelly Dubisar, a design director and principal at the architecture and design firm Gensler. “That’s when you hear a pin drop and people start to get disturbed,” she says.
Gensler’s research has shown that the average corporate workplace before the pandemic had a decibel reading of between 60 to 65; an average vacuum cleaner, by comparison, is about 70 decibels. “Workplaces have historically been very loud,” says Todd Heiser, a managing director and principal at the firm. “The number of people on conference calls, Zoom meetings, technology in the office—even before the pandemic—was starting to kind of cause this issue where people sitting next to each other in an open plan, their workplace was not functional.”
Piping in white noise or sounds of nature to help mask conversations is an increasingly common technique in the U.S., says Michael Held, vice president of global design at the furniture manufacturer Steelcase. Companies using such systems often want to reduce human-speech intelligibility, or the ability for employees to overhear specific discussions across an office. “As soon as you can make out the words that your neighbor is saying…then you get distracted,” he says.
Meta’s Cube helps in masking conversations, executives say, but the company is also experimenting with an audio moodscape system that could further obscure and suppress noise. Though it hasn’t rolled it out broadly, Meta is testing a system that plays sounds in the background that range from footsteps on pebbles to waves crashing, Dr. Nagy says. It has also installed more carpet and acoustic ceiling tiles to help quiet spaces. Employees can also use company-provided noise-canceling headphones for greater isolation.
Meta is already at work on future iterations of the Cube, testing new colors and patterns—such as a wood-grain look—and working with multiple manufacturers to roll out the Cube globally. Meta has already ordered 7,000 of them and begun distributing them to 22 locations worldwide. Ultimately, about 10% of its spaces will feature the Cube, Mr. Tenanes says, and employees can reserve them when needed.
One early benefit of the Cube, Dr. Nagy says, is that it has reduced the strain on the company’s existing meeting rooms. “The last thing we want is for people to camp out in meeting rooms alone,” he says. “The Cube is solid for that need to do meaningful, focused work.”