History of the Cubicle

Most of us in the workforce spend forty hours a week for most of our lives working in an office cubicle. Or at least in some sort of office setting. You may spend your workdays typing away on your computer in your own little world created by fabric walls in a small 5x6 space, or you work in a busy, crowded open office with group meetings taking place around every corner and over time you’ve adjusted to the constant noise of shuffling papers, fingers typing away on their laptops, and numerous conversations taking place at once that now the sounds of your busy coworkers almost helps you focus on your work. But, have you ever wondered where it all began? When did office spaces transform from rows upon rows of white-collar workers transform into crammed, small, and secluded cubes separating us from reality and basic social communication? It makes you wonder if large company owners switch us back and forth from open office space to quiet cubicle for their employees’ benefit or for their own financial self-interest. So, what really is the story behind how and why the cubicle began? And, why isn’t the concept sticking around in major companies today?

Let’s start from the beginning. It all began in the early to mid 20th century, with rows of identical desks all facing the boss’s office, so he could keep an eye on his employees. This “open-office layout” was seen as organized and efficient. The concept was designed for efficiency and to fit as many people as possible into an office space. And that’s exactly what it did. Rows of people were crammed together with barely enough elbow room. This was the most cost-efficient solution for managers and business owners to “organize” their employees. That is until 1936, when Frank Lloyd Wright was hired to redesign the SC Johnson Administration Building. He recreated the meaning of an open-office space. This very expensive design allowed each individual employee their own desk with plenty of space between workstations. Employees were no longer sitting shoulder to shoulder at one, long desk. Wright created a light-filled, collective workspace, incorporating natural elements. He even specially designed the curved desks with rounded drawers and special posture chairs. The open-office design was given a whole new meaning that would forever change the workplace design.

In the 1950’s, German designers created the “office landscape.” This office concept was designed for larger floor plans and consisted of curved screens and potted plants. The design was created to allow for natural interaction and fluid movement around modular partitions. Desks were systematically grouped together in patterns or pods based on department or job position. The goal was to encourage natural interaction, communication, and teamwork while still providing privacy and individual workstations; a similar goal to the purpose of open offices today. It seems that over time the efficiency and systematic design of office spaces experienced a shifted purpose from benefiting employees, increasing productivity, and improving attitudes back to the cost-effective and selfish methods of managers and business owners in the 1920s.

Then, Herman Miller released the Action Office. Action Office I was expensive and difficult to assemble, and therefore failed. However, the new and improved Action Office II was a huge success. Designed by Robert Propst in 1964 and then released in 1968, the Action Office II consisted of interchangeable and standardized components that were easy to assemble and install. The office design created privacy and was an efficient balance between open and closed office designs; which is how the cubicle was born. Believe it or not, the cubicle was designed to give employees freedom and individuality, however, over time these components were lost. In the beginning, the cubicle consisted of three obtusely angled, hinged, fabric-wrapped walls. They allowed for a flexible office space that could be shaped as needed. Although there was a slight loss of social interaction, Propst’s design eliminated noise and distraction that came along with open-plan offices. As time went on and the cubicle began to transform into modern-day employee cages, Propst watched as his vision was lost. He refers to modern-day cubicles as “monolithic insanity.” His modular vision was lost, and cubicles became a cheap means of cramming as many employees as possible into an office space. Again, similar to the goals of early 20th century managers and business owners. It’s ironic how every time we move forward in office space design, we immediately take another step back.

Today, office design is shifting back to open office design. However, not the genius layout that Wright created back in 1936, but back to the long tables of employees clustered together in shared spaces with a design created as a means of saving money and time and displaying its total lack of employee well-being. This inefficient and unhealthy layout only presents distractions from its obvious lack of privacy and solitude. It seems that no matter what office design and layout is created, employees are always unhappy with the outcome. However, this is only the case because business owners and designers are not designing with the employees’ best interest in mind. Instead, they are focused on staying cost-effective and squeezing an abundance of employees into a small office space. But, is this solution really the most productive and efficient? Or is it actually hurting companies in the long run?

The most effective, modern office layout is centered around flexibility and choice. A hybrid of both open and closed office layouts, similar to the Action Office design by Herman Miller. It is important for business owners and designers to realize that not all employees have the same personality and work style, hence the importance of flexible workspaces. Some people and job positions require teamwork and collaboration, while others entail privacy and quiet, distraction-free areas to work. Offices should provide niche spaces. Both loud and quiet, interactive and private areas to work. Like Herman Miller’s concept, a mix of furniture and spaces that provide an array of environments. For example, in a single office space, there could be group and teamwork areas and rooms, group lounges, and cafes; in another area, there would be private rooms or offices, or silent open areas with plenty of seating options. This concept provides employees with the freedom to create their ideal, most efficient and productive workspace. After all, times are changing, shouldn’t our office spaces be adapting as well?