Phone booths were created over 100 years ago to democratize access to phone calls. Ironically, during the past decade, they’ve made their way into offices to spare us from the noise created by our colleagues’ calls.
With the downfall of the cubicle leading to more open offices and less private space for workers, companies needed a solution that didn’t require building walls or expanding their space. Enter closet-sized booths that can be constructed on-site for a few thousand dollars.
“Everything that’s old is new again, and the phone booth is another instance of that,” says Jonathan Wasserstrum, co-founder and CEO of commercial real estate startup SquareFoot. “No one had to recreate the wheel to solve the issue of privacy in open offices.”
The problem -- Cubicles, after shrinking down considerably from their modern iteration in the 1960s, became a bane of office life. Office workers wanted to be free from the confinements of the three-walled space. Companies got that kick in the pants from Google, which built its headquarters in 2005 with an open office layout, setting off a new trend for American offices that eschewed cubicles for large rooms with a sea of desks.
Open offices were supposed to boost collaboration inside offices, but they ended up doing the opposite. A survey conducted by commercial flooring company Interface showed that out of more than 2,000 office workers in the US, UK, and Australia, 69 percent said their concentration levels, productivity, and creativity were negatively impacted by noise. Forty-four percent said their company did nothing to address noise. These companies likely have not installed phone booths.
The solution -- In 2010, Samu Hällfors worked in an office with 100 other people and had gotten fed up with listening to his boss constantly talk on the phone, according to the Finland-based company Framery. After asking his boss to go somewhere else for phone calls, he apparently responded, “Well, buy me a phone booth.” Since there weren’t any office phone booths on the market, Hällfors and a co-founder decided to make one. At the end of the year, Framery installed two booths in the offices of Finnish software company Vincit (a process that once took eight hours but is now only eight minutes, according to the company).
“In the beginning, the booths weren’t soundproof. There was basically no air left after three minutes and the echo inside the booth was a problem,” Lasse Karvinen, head of products at Framery, tells Inverse in an email.
The company kept at it, introducing its sixth-generation phone booth in 2013, the Framery O, featuring soundproofing and ventilation. (It’s up to version 10 now.)
“Initially, as with anything new, it was a struggle to sell them, but when people began to use them and their office culture quickly transformed, news began to travel and soon companies such as Microsoft, SAP, and Deloitte bought them and loved them,” he says. “We sold them in the thousands, and today the Framery O is the world’s best-selling pod.”
Brian Chen, co-founder and CEO of Room, a 2-year-old startup that designs and sells phone booths, says they really caught on because they replace the need for expensive construction and came in a moment of changing technology.
“A lot of it was driven from the migration to laptops from desktops,” he says. “Laptops got affordable and powerful enough so that when you started a company you could only use laptops,” giving people the flexibility to work in booths.
Outside of large companies and startups, many people may have encountered phone booths in co-working spaces. Global giant WeWork introduced its own booths to its spaces (a WeWork spokesperson wasn’t sure when) to offer its members more variety in work settings.
The evolution -- The office phone booth category now has multiple players, with companies competing to provide a little peace and quiet for office workers. Booths have also gotten bigger, with companies selling pods that can accommodate up to six people. And as they’ve gotten more sleek, offices have encountered a new issue.
“Phone booths are a welcome respite from the office din, and in some cases are absolutely necessary for legal or personal privacy reasons,” says Colin Haentjens, a designer at The Knobs Company. “However, some clients I've worked with have found a new problem: employees hunkering down in phone booths for hours at a time.”
WeWork suggests booths only be used in 30-minute increments, while some companies require people to book the booths in advance. Other solutions lie in the booth’s actual design, whether it’s not having a place to sit or a stool that isn’t very comfortable, or not providing power for laptops and phones. The fact that this “problem” exists shows there’s high demand for privacy spaces in our open offices.
“It’s not meant to be an office replacement,” Chen says. “But people do that and it shows the mismatch between supply and demand for office privacy.”
The future -- Health and hygiene will be big concerns going forward, and co-working spaces WeWork will try to mitigate those concerns with extra cleanings including providing sanitizer and wipes at each phone booth. Both Room and Framery will also look into incorporating antimicrobial surfaces and HEPA filters into their products.
But as working from home becomes more popular, will phone booths still maintain their popularity if there’s less people working in an office? Both Room and Framery are bullish on demand for phone booths.
“Even if offices are less dense, it will actually increase the need for phone booths,” Chen says. “With colleagues both in offices and at home, the need to be on the phone or video conferences increases dramatically, so the ratio of phone booths to employees will need to change.” He added that since real estate is expensive and fixed, “flexibility becomes more important than ever and modularity and the ability to adapt to spaces becomes more important than ever.”