What’s in a cubicle?
The story goes that, in 1967 a man named Robert Propst was asked to make a cost effective system that would create more productive office workers. At the time, workers were seated at open desks. The hum of the office and the visual stimulation was considered a distraction and Propst was asked by Herman Miller to find a more suitable office structure that would make his employees more effective.
Propst took the scientific method. He studied how information travels, how sounds filter through the cavernous spaces of offices and how workers’ eyes could be better fixed on the glowing computer that was rapidly becoming the centrepiece of their attention.
The result- the common cubicle- seems so obvious it’s difficult to even conceive of an office before this innovation. Here, workers like myself are seated in a semi-enclosed space. The carpeted walls that flank their desk ensure that focus is only uni-directional, and all attention is funnelled towards the beam of the computer screen.
It may seem dramatic to equate this to the cows feedlot or to horses blinders. But, in fact, Propst genuinely used such examples as inspiration for his concept
The question, however, remains: does the cubicle make employees better at their jobs? Let me give you my opinion.
Pros and Cons of Cubicle life:
- They are cheap to install.
- Employees are quieter than in an open seating plan
- Personalize them with pictures of all the exotic places you have been or plan to go… is it just me, or is this a bit ironic considering that, herein, the greatest portion of your life will be limited to a 10 X 10 box.
- The illusion of privacy isn’t fooling anyone: Employees hear everything- phone calls, the low din computer keys being tapped, coughs and deep breaths. (Last week I played game to see if I could guess what three colleagues ate for lunch without stepping foot in their cubicles. Thanks to the crinkle of packing and wafting smells I was three for three!)
- Little collaboration, and conversation: Here’s my question. What’s the point of an office? I mean, I get the fact that work gets done, but why do I have to physically be there if I am going to hole-up in a fabricated box? To me, here’s where the cubicle really looses in the new economy. Those low walls keep people apart just enough that they can’t easily get input from their cubicle mates, or share ideas about a project.
- They’re kinda degrading: the management wants to be able to see my work, but doesn’t trust me enough to let me physically see my co-workers.
Ok, so you can see that I haven’t exactly embraced cubicle life. I’m sorry if this is negative, and I apologize to everyone out there who also shares my fate. But here I know I’m not alone. Years later, after Herman Millner gave accolades to the new office configuration, Propst reconsidered his social experiment. He now had years of data collected and he began to reflect on what was not a $5 billion dollar industry that was a staple of modern office life.
His words are summed up in the following letter he wrote to Milner.
- 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.
I also would like to share with the world that in three weeks time, I will officially be leaving the cubicle for an office of my own. With a door. And a window. Send my regrets to Herman Miller.