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Cubicle Blues

June 1st, 2010 | Bob Rosner

Image: Bob RosnerYou’d expect the “father” of the cubicle to be a proud parent. Heck, his invention multiplied faster than rabbits. But you’d be wrong.

Thirty years ago, Robert Probst was seeking to create the perfect place to work for the office furnishings company Herman Miller. In search of the “office of the future,” he designed the perfect environment for maximum satisfaction and productivity. He called his creation “the action office.”

Yep, the cubicle. At the time Probst was looking for something better than the open bullpen that was the norm for much of the last century. He wanted to create a space that would allow privacy, personalization and the maximum in flexibility. For example, his original creation had a variety of surfaces that you could work from each that was a different height.

So much for privacy, personalization and flexibility. Just before his death in 2000, Probst called his creation “monolithic insanity” in Fortune.

There are many reasons why the “action office” devolved in the cube. Soaring real estate prices, corporations trying to get more bang for the buck by packing employees in like sardines and even the tax code (corporations can write off cubicles much faster than they can write off their investment in walls in an office building).

There is a part of me that believes that the successor to the cube will be emptying out our huge office buildings in a massive wave of telecommuting. This makes sense for so many reasons—spiraling gas prices, increasing real estate costs and the fact that so many homes now have broadband access. The only problem with this picture is that we barely know how to manage the people we can see at work, so few of us have the foggiest idea of how to manage people we can’t see.

Which leads back to the “action office.” It’s clear that business is now 0 for 2. The bullpen didn’t work. The cubicle has spawned Dilbert and a massive amount of griping from most of the people who’ve worked in one.

So what is the answer? I think it involves combining the best of the future with the best of the past. The first part of the equation is really figuring out what jobs can be done by telecommuting. And what workers and managers are up to this challenge. Once these jobs are moved out of our buildings then we’ll actually have the room to turn the cube back into the “action office” that Probst originally envisioned. With fewer people they can be bigger and hopefully employees can have the ability to tailor them to their needs.

For all the talk of productivity, I’m surprised at how little of the conversation addresses the place where most of our work actually gets done. If more of us engage in this conversation, hopefully, we’ll be able to put the “action” back into the “action office.”

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. Check the revised edition of his Wall Street Journal best seller, “The Boss’s Survival Guide.” If you have a question for Bob, contact him via [email protected]

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One Response to “Cubicle Blues”

  1. Grishnakh Says:

    I think you’re about the successor to the cubicle; I think it will be the bullpen. I currently work in a bullpen (miserably), and from what I’m reading on the internet, it seems the bullpen or open-plan office is making a fast comeback in the name of “collaboration”.

    I’m a software engineer, so most of my work is individual in nature, and worse, I need few distractions so I can concentrate on my work. Cubicles weren’t ideal for this, but they weren’t horrible either. Bullpens, like the one I work in now, are horrible. My effectiveness is a fraction of what it was in a cubicle. However, the corporate executives think it’s great, and talk about “collaboration” and “teamwork”, although they themselves have large walled offices.

    Again, my reading on the internet indicates that bullpens, perhaps separated by low walls, are coming back as employers jump on the “collaboration” bandwagon. Many employees even claim to prefer them so they can talk to each other and ask each other questions.

    If you’re the kind of person who needs privacy to concentrate on work, I’d suggest a different line of work. Stay away from software engineering.

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