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Daily Ticker: The History of the Cubicle

Everybody’s least favorite workspace turned 50 this year, and despite its birthday, many of us are eagerly awaiting its demise. That’s right, we’re talking about the cubicle, the grey box that’s symbolic of the corporate world and still pervades countless offices across the globe. Whether you love them or hate them, the fact is that cubicles are becoming less and less trendy. As the sun sets on these once-popular office encasings, let’s take a look at the cubicle’s long history and the modern factors contributing to its death.

The Birth of the Cubicle:
The inventor of what evolved into the cubicle had first hoped to create a workspace that “liberated” the modern worker. His vision was a large space that blocked outside distractions, in which a worker can perform multiple tasks at multiple workstations. The creator was Robert Propst, and his invention was dubbed the “Action Office.”

Propst’s Action Office was designed to facilitate the constant flux of the modern worker. It was a place in which a worker can jump from space to space without any interference, a big shift away from the so-called “bullpen office” of the 50s, which featured rows of desks in wide-open spaces.  The original Action Office featured two desks, two chairs, a small table and vertical filing stands. One of the desks was a standing one, and the other was adjustable, allowing a worker to choose how he or she wished to work. And the Action Office wasn’t a drab, grey square like modern cubicles; it was an open hexagonal shape filled with colors, described by  Nikil Saval of Wired as a design in the spirit of 50s and 60s artists Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein

The Action Office was an incredible innovation. Unfortunately, it was also a massive failure. Business executives complained about its size and its price, and many were unwilling to spend the cash on a stylish design when a boring one that was cheaper could suffice.

Following the Action Office’s flop, Propst went back to the drawing board and tried to design a smaller, cheaper space that still allowed freedom for the worker. His new invention, named “Action Office II,” had three angled and moveable walls that allowed workers to change their space as their work dictated.  Gone was the extra standing desk, but the station still featured an adjustable desk and shelves, as well as tackboards and pushpin walls that allowed the worker to personalize his or her space.

Action Office II had a better reception than its predecessor, and when competitors started to copy Propst’s invention, their designs slowly became a staple of the American office. Unfortunately, these competitors’ designs became more and more cramped, and instead of liberating workers, they became stations that isolated them, quickly evolving into the walled cells we’re familiar with today. When asked about the cubicle in a 1998 interview with Metropolis magazine, Propst lamented, “The dark side of this is that not all organizations are intelligent and progressive. Lots are run by crass people who can take the same kind of equipment and create hellholes.”

The Cubicle Today:
An estimated 40 million North Americans spend their workdays stuffed in a cubicle. Based on the thought that open offices create distractions, which in turn disrupts productivity, many companies employ cubicles as a space for lower-level employees to work distraction-free. Some of the biggest culprits were high-tech Silicon Valley companies that flourished during the dot-com boom in the 90s, but as we’ll explore a little later, these companies have now become catalysts for the cubicle’s death.

While many organizations use the cubicle to save space and money, a few Silicon Valley firms initially employed it to “foster an egalitarian work environment.” Former Intel CEO Andrew Grove famously worked in a cubicle throughout his 30-year tenure with the tech giant. Meg Whitman also worked in a cubicle while she ran eBay. Even the former mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, used to run the city from a cubicle in the middle of a bullpen office.

For some, the cubicle has become a symbol for the isolation and monotony of corporate life, but the workspace does have a few notable benefits for workers. While it’s not very common, having higher-level execs work in cubicles instead of large suites does create a sense of equality, which definitely helps boost employee morale. Cubicles also give employees personal space, in which they can escape the rest of the office to focus on their work and which they can personalize to make the office feel a bit homier. And the privacy cubicles afford allows workers to avoid unwanted distractions.

But despite these advantages, the cubicle suffers a poor reputation because of the number of disadvantages they carry. Arguably the biggest disadvantage of cubicles is their effect on employee morale. Two professors from Australia’s University of Sydney, Jungsoo Kim and Richard de Dear, surveyed over 40,000 office workers throughout the world to ask about how their workspace affects morale. Included in the survey were workers who had their own offices, those who worked in open office plans and cubicle workers. Not surprisingly, workers with their own offices were the happiest of the bunch, but those in cubicles were the least happy, expressing the highest dissatisfaction in 13 out of the 15 categories Kim and de Dear used to gauge worker morale.

Finding Alternatives:
Today, the cubicle has become a symbol of everything that’s wrong with corporate life. The anonymity and solitude it fosters further contributes to the perceived lifelessness of corporations. Younger workers are revolting against cubicles, and corporations are scrambling to find ways to eliminate the workspaces in order to attract top talent that refuse to work in them.

The biggest movement eclipsing the cubicle seems to be the modified open office plan. Open offices facilitate communication and allow for better collaboration among teams. Many companies, including those tech giants we mentioned earlier, are embracing open offices as a way to spur innovation. Google, which has an algorithm for everything, constructed a simple algorithm for innovation that’s based on their open office plan: Discovery + Collaboration + Fun = Innovation. While some companies can still benefit from cubicles, countless others are realizing the advantages that the collaboration of an open office affords.

But this doesn’t mean open office plans are perfect. One of the biggest detractors of an open office is its lack of privacy. Open office workers’ biggest complaint is often the noise that pervades their workspace. They also dislike the fact that their own conversations can be heard by those around them. Co-workers can be distracting, and an open office can make it difficult to complete complex work that requires a lot of thought. And without partitions, employee computer screens are out in the open for all to see.

There are pros and cons to every type of office plan. Different businesses (and even different departments within businesses) may flourish in a certain plan, while others will falter because of them. With work that requires a lot of collaboration, open offices are probably the most efficient, but for other types of work, particularly those that require long periods of focus and silence, partitions and cubicles can be the best solution.

If you are considering cubicles, keep in mind that while they might be effective for productivity, there’s no question that cubicles are demoralizing. As such, employers need to find ways to alleviate cubicle workers’ isolation by providing common areas in which employees can work or simply converse with their co-workers. By allowing more freedom among workers to choose their preferred workstations, companies and employees can work together to create an office that is both productive and enjoyable.