|March 26, 2006
Office cubicles: The great mistake
Even the designer of the cubicle thinks they may have been a bad idea
|Album. And home-furnishings company Herman Miller in Zeeland, Michigan launched the Action Office. It was the brainchild of
Robert Propst, a Coloradan who had joined the company as director of research. Propst was the inventor of the office cubicle, and
before he died in 2000, he lamented his unwitting contribution to what he called "monolithic insanity."
More than 30 years after he unleashed it on the world, many are still trying to get out of the box. The cubicle has been called many
things in its long and terrible reign. But what it has lacked in beauty and amenity, it has made up for in crabgrass-like persistence.
Reviled by workers, demonized by designers, disowned by its very creator, it still claims the largest share of office furniture sales - $3
billion or so a year - and has outlived every "office of the future" meant to replace it.
So will the cubicle always be with us? Probably yes, though in recent years individuals and organizations have finally started to chart
productive and economical ways to escape its tyranny.
After years of prototyping and studying how people work, and vowing to improve on the open-bullpen office that dominated much of
the 20th century, Propst designed a system he thought would increase productivity (hence the name Action Office). The young
designer, who also worked on projects as varied as heart pumps and tree harvesters, theorized that productivity would rise if people
could see more of their work spread out in front of them, not just stacked in an in-box.
The new system included plenty of work surfaces and display shelves; partitions were a part of it, intended to provide privacy and
places to pin up works in process. The Action Office even included varying desk levels to enable employees to work part of the time
standing up, thereby encouraging blood flow and staving off exhaustion.
But inventions seldom obey the creator's intent. "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."
Economics was the one thing Propst had failed to take into account. But it was also what triggered the cubicle's runaway success.
Around the time the Action Office was born, a growing breed of white-collar workers, whose job titles fell between secretary and boss,
was swelling the workforce. Also, real estate prices were rising, as was the cost of reconfiguring office buildings, making the
physical office a drag on the corporate budget. Cubicles, or "systems furniture," as they are euphemistically called, offered a cheaper
alternative for redoing the floor plan. A company could recover its costs quicker if it purchased cubes. When clients told Herman
Miller of that unexpected benefit, it became a new selling point for the Action Office. After only two years on the market, sales soared.
Competitors took notice.
That's when Propst's original vision began to fade. "They kept shrinking the Action Office until it became a cubicle," says Schwartz,
who is now 80. As other office furniture manufacturers, such as Steelcase, Knoll, and Haworth, brought their versions to market, they
figured out that what business customers wanted wasn't to give employees a holistic experience, rather a cheap way to pack workers
Propst's workstations were designed to be flexible, but in practice they were seldom altered or moved at all. Lined up in identical
rows, they became the dystopian world that three academics described as "bright satanic offices" in a 1998 book, Workplaces of the
Future. Designer Douglas Ball, for instance, remembers the first installation of cubicles he created for a Canadian company in 1972.
"I thought I'd be excited, but I came out depressed," says Ball, now 70. "It was Dilbertville. I'd failed to visualize what it would look like
when there were so many of them."
Designers since then have mostly limited themselves to trying to offset the cubicle's most glaring defects. A recent Steelcase
offering, the Personal Harbor, can be fitted with its own lighting system, fan, door, and window. Knoll offers the A3 (or anticube), a
colony of rounded, podlike structures with translucent mesh coverings for privacy.
Herman Miller, now a $1.5-billion-a-year company, will launch two concepts in June that are the work of designer Ball. He says the
new designs are the culmination of more than 30 years of trying to undo his early mistakes. The company won't release many
details, but the systems will emphasize color and privacy; Ball says the workstations will be "more capsule-like, or cockpit-like. "In all,
more than 100 cubicle-variant office systems have come to market over the past three decades.
When openly challenged, the cubicle still gets the last laugh. In California state-employed attorneys obtained relief from the cube
through Title 13.3 of their union contract: "The State agrees to make a reasonable effort to provide private enclosed office space to
each permanent full-time attorney who has confidentiality needs. "Should an attorney be assigned to "other than enclosed private
offices," the union must be notified. Rather than violate the rule, says union president Holly Wilkens, the state sticks some young
attorneys in airless closets.
Is that really where we're headed? No, says Stewart Brand, co-founder of the Global Business Network, an Emeryville, Calif.,
consulting firm that helps companies make long-range plans. Brand says that the most productive people he knows have developed
ways to work outside offices, not in them. Brand himself worked out of a converted shipping container in Sausalito for seven years
and now commutes to a beached fishing boat a few yards from his house. He sees two workspaces rising up to compete with the
modern office: homes and what might be called the third space - i.e., Starbucks.
The new economics of the office won't actually kill the cubicle. In fact, sales of office systems rose 11% in 2005. But as the office
occupies a smaller part of companies' budgets, cubes should claim a smaller share of employees' lives.
Source: Julie Schlosser, FORTUNE Magazine, with contributions by associates Doris Burke and Abrahm Lustgarten