The cube culture. Some people hate office cubicles. Others — well we don’t honestly know anyone who loves them. We don’t even know anyone who likes them.
But some of us can tolerate them when we consider the historical alternative, which was row upon row of traditional desks in a warehouse-size room, like banks and brokerages of an earlier age.
Here are five facts you might be interested to know about office cubicles and their brief history.
1. They are mostly the result of one man’s design
The man was Robert Probst. Probst worked with another designer, George Nelson, under the umbrella of the Herman Miller furniture company of Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. The company sought to learn about changes in work behaviour driven by twentieth century technology, and how office furniture might be improved to adapt.
In the early 1960s Probst consulted with psychologists, anthropologists and professionals of various other types and created the Action Office I line. His design was materialised by Nelson’s studio and then manufactured by the Herman Miller company in 1964. Nelson, interestingly enough — and not Probst — was awarded the prestigious Alcoa award for the design of Action Office I. The two men eventually fell out over this as well as other, conceptual differences.
Action Office I was a flop, commercially. Industry observers, looking back, agree that it was too expensive, too complex, and too difficult to assemble. For these reasons and despite all the publicity, no one bought Open Office I.
Probst’s response was to go literally back to the drawing board and create Action Office II. To call “AO II” — as it became known — a success is a masterpiece of understatement. It became the most successful office design ever and it made Herman Miller a billion-dollar company, which it is today.
All of today’s office cubicle designs can be traced back to Herman Miller’s Action Office II product line. It is still in the Herman Miller company’s catalogue under a new name, simply “Action Office”.
2. They were originally designed for largely humanitarian reasons.
We mentioned before the soul-destroying rows of desks that characterised large businesses in the nineteenth century. Robert Probst recognised that workers in more modern industries need to exercise knowledge, creativity and individual authority, and therefore need more privacy and space than the mindless scriveners of Charles Dickens’ day.
He also recognised that different types of workers — and even individuals — have different needs. Some benefit from a wall where they can set up a graphical display. Others maintain a raft of reference materials and need a convenient storage space. Some simply need more open space and quiet than others. Everyone is unique.
Hence the modular design. There are about as many different ways to stack the units together as anyone can imagine, and taking everything apart and reconfiguring an entire office requires no specialist expertise or skills.
3. The two men most responsible for the design both disowned it.
As often happens, the designs were not implemented according to the dreams of the designers. Companies looking for greater efficiencies and lower costs saw in Action Office a way to fit more people into a large workspace rather than giving everyone an individual office. The result was the rise of the cube farm.
Both Probst and Nelson eventually disowned Action Office and sought to disassociate themselves from it entirely. Propst said in 1997 that he had hoped that his design would “give knowledge workers a more flexible, fluid environment than the rat-maze boxes of offices,” but regretted that his idea had evolved into precisely that. “The cubicle-ising of people in modern corporations,” he added, “is monolithic insanity.”
And here is what Nelson had to say about Action Office II in 1970:
“One does not have to be an especially perceptive critic to realize that AO II is definitely not a system which produces an environment gratifying for people in general. But it is admirable for planners looking for ways of cramming in a maximum number of bodies, for “employees” (as against individuals), for “personnel,” corporate zombies, the walking dead, the silent majority. A large market.”
4. They have inspired a wealth of humour.
The expression cube farm dates from the 1970s, and was originally intended as derision. It has become common parlance. Scornful synonyms for “cubicles” abound; our particular favourite is “veal fattening pens”.
The Drew Carey Show was set, mostly, in the title character’s cubicle in the fictional Winfred-Lauder department store. The cubicle was a source of much of the show’s humour; it was remarked that it was, in fact, invented by the store’s founder, who discovered that it “only took three walls to make a man feel trapped”.
And of course there is Dilbert. This hybrid comic strip and television series is to the cube culture what William Shakespeare is to the Elizabethan theatre. It has given us, among other things, the term chronic cubicle syndrome, a diagnosis given those who have worked in a cubicle for too long. At one point in the comic strip, there is an appearance by a cube farmer.
5. They might be on the way out.
Economics — jamming as many workers as possible into a fixed space — drove the adoption of the cube culture in the first place. Now, the same imperative might be endangering cubicles in favour of an even more economical new force in the workplace: mobile technology.
Cisco Systems, one of the early adopters of the cubicle-based workspace, is an example. VP Mark Golan estimates that about thirty-five per cent of the company’s cubicles are empty at any one time. The new solution, according to Golan, is “workforce mobility”. In other words, employees can sit or stand anywhere they can find a network connection, either wired or wireless, and work on a laptop or tablet. They can do their work anywhere in the building or some other place, miles away. Cisco calls this the Connected Workspace.
Industry giant HP has introduced a similar scheme, and company officials claim to be saving $230 million US dollars per year in site expenses as a result. All of this is the result of giving workers an alternative to the cubicle.
Cubicles appear to be commonplace for the immediate future, but the future has a way of surprising us all. Who knows — maybe one day cube culture will be considered a sweet, old-fashioned way to work.