Mar 20

In 1968, inventor Robert Propst revolutionized the American workplace with his “Action Office” design for the Herman Miller furniture company.  Propst intended to create a more dynamic and flexible workspace, but the end result was the much-maligned office cubicle.

Forty years ago, most office workers were jammed together in open rooms.  Propst’s idea was to increase worker productivity by separating people into their own small “rooms,” which could be easily assembled or re-configured as needed.  It’s like offering each worker their own personal bathroom stall, but without the door or any real expectation of privacy.

Corporate bosses, who typically work in offices with walls, cielings and doors, thought cubicles were a terrific idea and have purchased more than $5 billion worth of cubicles from Herman Miller alone.  Today, 70% of U.S. office workers sit in cubicles.

But as usual, a good invention was hijacked for evil.  “The Action Office wasn’t conceived to cram a lot of people into little space,” says Joe Schwartz, Herman Miller’s former marketing chief who helped launch the system in 1968. “It was driven that way by economics.”  In the late 60’s, the number of white-collar office workers exploded along with commercial real estate prices, resulting in a need to maximize office space.  Cubicles offered a much cheaper alternative than building fixed offices.

Propst designed cubicles to be flexible, but in practice companies would seldom move or modify their cubicles.  Lined up in identical rows, cubicles came to represent the “dystopian world of bright satanic offices” as described in the 1998 book, “Workplaces of the Future.”

There is debate on whether cubicles or offices are better for software developers.  The main arguments are:

  • Cubicles – encourage collaboration and can adapt to an ever-changing workforce
  • Offices – provide privacy and silence for developers to get into the “zone”

The “zone” sounds silly but is real.  It’s widely accepted that software developers can take from 5-15 minutes to regain focus and concentration after an interruption.  So if a developer is interrupted every 10 minutes while working in a cubicle, he may not get much work done.

I have spent my entire career in either an office or cubicle, and I prefer an office with a door.  But cubicles can be OK if co-workers stay quiet and limit interruptions, and if there is plenty of ambient noise from air conditioning or white-noise generator.

So what does the future hold for the office cubicle?  Scott Adams, who created the Dilbert cartoon that lampoons cubicles and “pointy-haired bosses,” approached furniture maker IDEO to create Dilbert’s Ultimate Cubicle.  This is an attempt to “address the myriad issues connected with partition-based offices.  The result is a modular cubicle that allows each worker to select the components and create a space based on his or her tastes and lifestyle.”

Along with practical solutions for common work necessities like storage and counter space, Dilbert’s Ultimate Cubicle also includes amenities such as a hammock, aquarium, floor cooler, fold-down visitor’s chair, boss monitor, locker and motorized shoe polisher.

So which type of work area do you prefer: office, cubicle or open space?  Please comment below.

Interesting Cubicle Links

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Article published on March 20, 2008




24 Responses to “40 Years of Cubicles”

  1. Joel Says:

    Hey Timm,

    As usual I enjoyed this. It inspired me to write a post of my own, not so much about Cubicles, but about “The Zone”. You can read it here:
    http://www.developingfor.net/miscellaneous/the-birth-of-the-cubicle.html

    Thanks!

  2. SimonTeW Says:

    I’ve only worked in IT in New Zealand and the UK. Perhaps they are different from the US but I’ve never worked in cubicles. In both the UK and New Zealand I have worked in large open-plan offices (up to 50 people in the office) which have low dividers between desks, just high enough so that you can see the top of a person’s head but not their face. In another, very egalitarian, company, no-one had offices and there were no dividers. The general manager of our division sat at a desk in amongst all his staff, totally indistinguishable from the rest of us.

    I’ve never had a problem with this. Maybe if the developers were mixed up with other IT staff there would have been a lot of interruptions but in every case the developers have had the office to themselves. Everyone just gets on with their work, gets into the zone, and doesn’t bother anyone else. If someone needs to ask a question they can walk over and ask if I’m busy. If I’m not, we can wander over to a whiteboard and work on whatever problem they have. If I am, I ask them to give me an hour or so. Works fine and much more friendly, I believe.

    I do have a sneaky suspicion that in the US companies may be much more ruthless in squeezing the last ounce of productivity they can out of their workers. Perhaps that is why things are apparently so grim there. My American aunt visited us for Christmas once, and mentioned it was the first time in 19 years that she’d been able to take her full 2 weeks annual leave. In the UK and NZ that would be considered slave labour.

  3. ArticlesPR » Blog Archive » 40 Years of Cubicles Says:

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  4. rube84 Says:

    great blog, got a lot of usefull info here, keep this good work and i hope to see more soon, cya

  5. Gerry Says:

    Cubicles suck. That is all

  6. BJ Says:

    Cubicles might be OK for some of the 70% of American workers that have this arrangement. To me, they are OK in a quiet environment.
    But, we have several departments in one large room of cubicles.
    There are regular staff “meetings” outside of cubicles, the receptionist can be easily heard and understood from the other side of the room when on the phone or talking with someone, the boss in a corner (real) office can also be heard and understood when talking to people in her office. Then we have the copy room, the conference room, and the kitchen where every sound can be heard from throughout the maze of cubicles. Oh, yes, the phones – expecially the buzzer we have for intercom – and the webinars that play regularly on nearby computers contribute to the ambience. Tours through the office? Yes we have those too. The consultant, with the annoying irritating voice, regularly working with someone in a nearby cubicle.

    In order to get anything done I focus, and block-out everything around me. The results are predictable. When someone says hi, I jump a foot and then babble incoherently for a minute or two while my brain re-emerges from the “focused” stupor. And why do cubicle workers seem less verbal and less friendly than those with an out-door job or and office. Where have people skills gone when for eight hours a day there is no escape from near-by personal phone calls and the regular request by people on the other end to “speak-up”. I find pleasure in asking them to talk louder as I talk more softly. I try to channel my aggression through the cubicle.

    Am I as productive as I would be in an office? Perhaps, but I have cut my work-day back to eight hours and enjoy work a lot less. Focused and staring at a computer monitor in a “cloth covered box” with grey walls, a grey computer, grey counter-top, two grey chairs, two grey cabinets, and a grey carpet. The drop ceiling is an off-white to go with the florescent tube lighting. My desk fan struggles to block out the sounds.

    A Ph.D, ha, hehe. I should have been a ditch digger.

    Gerry summed it up quite nicely.

  7. John Scott Says:

    Battery cages for human beings

  8. The not so Great truth about the Greatest Generation | Joke culture explored only @ Comic Wonder - The Blog! Says:

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  9. JP Cashiola Says:

    I loved this article. You know what goes hand in hand with cubicles…interns! I am currently a student intern and it’s practically guaranteed that all interns are tossed into a cubicle…so you know what, I have declared today the 40th birthday of the Cubicle (and this day for years to come) Intern Appreciation Day. This morning I brought breakfast items for my fellow interns, made a sign, and hung up streamers over my desk made out of paper clips in order to celebrate Intern Appreciation Day. So if any of you interns are out there, give yourself a pat on the back and try and do a little something for ‘you’. I’ve attached a link to an article talking about the success of another intern brethren: http://www.theonion.com/content/news/nasa_intern_hoping_to_go_on_space

  10. Michael G. Says:

    Timm,
    When will the IDEO/Dibert cube go away? The notion that that is the ultimate cubicle is just specious.

    IDEO has taken all of the flawed ideas that make cubicles so dehumanizing and added a very long list of gimmicky “features”. IDEO could just as well added these features to a prison cell.

    The Dibert cube actualy does nothing to “address the myriad issues connected with partition-based offices.” it just dresses them up…

    My company, DesignJourney Industrial has been promoting a different approach to furniture systems for open office plans. Our idea address the fundamental problem with cubes, that is the issue of static vs. dynamic office layouts.

    We feel that worker satisfaction has a lot to do with a worker’s control over their work environment. Traditional cubes are “planned” by someone else (an expert?) installed and almost never reconfigured. The result is that here is no ability for the users to reconfigure, rearrange or have any real effect on the environment they inhabit everyday. Cubes are de-humanizing because they are the worst kind of regimentation.

    Our product ORDJINoffice allows the office worker in an open plan to re-arrange, re-configure and almost endlessly modify their work environment. When people have *even* a little control over their life, they are generally happier.

    Take a look at http://www.designjourney.com/office.html

  11. Happy 40th Anniversary, Cubicle and Office. Better Watch Your Back! | IT Hire Wire Says:

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  17. MRock Says:

    what was the actual date that the action office was invented or patented does anyone know?

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  22. lotus Says:

    After working 12 years as a cubicle worker, I start to wonder, why I am dying on that tiny space every day and working for the “man”?
    Every day the same stuff. I think I need a good holidays on the Maldives.

  23. John Scott Says:

    There are days when I would happily trade the endless miles of driving, stuck in an even smaller space for the opulence of a cubicle

  24. office space makati Says:

    Tell me about it, economy makes the world go round…who knew it was the evil behind this invention? however i must say that Scott Adams idea is very attractive, i guess what makes cubicles a torture is because of this dull looking wall that separates you from everybody else but if given the chance to modify on your own preference it could be fun at the same time you get to socialize with your other peers

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