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
- 10 Cubicles that are Cooler than Yours (and 1 that isn’t)
- Cool Cubicle Gadgets
- “Dilbert’s Cubicle Chaos” computer game
- Fortune Magazine: Can business break out of the box?
Article published on March 20, 2008
|If you like this article, please share it:|