For 60% of Americans, the average workday consists of sitting in a cramped cubicle lit by overhead fluorescent lights, wedged between two coworkers whose phone conversations and keyboard strokes can be heard every minute of the day. In fact, you’re probably sitting in one now, wondering about the weather outside. But walking to your office windows would mean traversing across a sea of other drab cubicles, identical in shape and size. It’s no wonder that 93% of workers despise cubicles.
The cubicle “connotes dread, hatred, the terrible white collar life,” says Nikil Saval, author of the new book “Cubed.”
Robert Propst, a designer at office-furniture firm Herman Miller, invented the modern day cubicle in the 1960s. Propst wanted to “liberate” workers by providing them with a flexible, semi-enclosed workspace; he loathed offices that organized workers in “row after orthogonal row of serried desks, where accountants or typists clacked away from 9 to 5, often surrounded by a corridor of closed-door offices for managers and executives,” writes Saval.
"It saps vitality, blocks talent, frustrates accomplishment. It is the daily scene of unfulfilled intentions and failed effort,” Propst once said.
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Companies initially hailed Propst’s progressive vision of the "Action Office" -- it offered employees "autonomy and independence" by working in a "flexible, three-walled design that could be reshaped to any given need." Propst also designed storage space on floors because he believed workers "needed to stand as often as they sat." Even though the idea was initially popular with management and workers, it never really took off, leaving employees in one-size-fits-all cubes that are smaller than their home bathrooms.
“[Cubicles are] a symbol of a workplace that doesn't really care about you,” explains Saval. “Managers have used them to cram more and more people into less and less space."
Some companies are doing away with cubicle culture altogether and moving employees into so-called open plan spaces. Silicon Valley firms were the first to champion this design but Saval points out there are drawbacks too.
“Open plan spaces look better than gray, unadorned cubicles but psychological studies show they're a real failure,” he says. “People find more stress in open office plans…the same problems [as cubicles] persist: noise, distraction, no privacy. It’s cheaper to put people in open office plans just like it was cheap to put people in cubicles.”
Are employees doomed to spend their working hours in tight quarters? And what happens if you don’t like your colleague whose “desk” abuts your allotted 20 inches of space? What are the health consequences – will germs and viruses spread more quickly once the partitions are torn down?
Saval doesn’t have an answer to these questions but says the future of the workplace can be changed for the betterment of workers.
Companies “are often imposing these on workers rather than finding out what workers actually need to do their work,” he says. “We need office workers to stand up and start telling their bosses they don't like the space they're being put in.”
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