Where Your Cubicle Came From

credit to Tim Sullivan (HBR)

People have been trying to reform the office, it seems, since the office first appeared. Who was A Christmas Carol’s Bob Cratchit but an early office reformer, whining for heat so that his ink didn’t freeze? Office reformers of today point to trends like hotelling, co-working, and (my personal favorite) working from home — worthy endeavors, all. Maybe not as worthy as central heat, but pretty good ideas nonetheless.

But maybe we can learn a lesson from the humble cubicle. No one sets out to design the most hated office furniture of all time, unless perhaps you work for the Spanish Inquisition, and the cubicle is no exception. Originally intended to free office workers from their hierarchical, codified drudgery of an existence (can’t you just taste the irony?), the cubicle has become universally loathed.

The Herman Miller furniture company introduced the innovation in 1964 as “the world’s first open-plan office system of reconfigurable components and a bold departure from the era’s fixed assumptions of what office furniture should be.” A team led by Robert Propst, the company’s head of research, and George Nelson, the company’s director of design realized the flexible workspace. Propst was the consummate inventor, with many patents to his name, while Nelson is almost single-handedly responsible for the look and feel of the modern office.

The original cubicle, named the Action Office, was intended to give office workers more space than the so-called bullpen office that assigned one worker to one smallish desk. With more work spread out before them, more space for filing, with desks that adjusted heights, the designers reasoned, individuals were bound to be more productive. The design — which included two desks, a couple of chairs, a small table, and some vertical filing stands — even accommodated working while standing up. It is a glory to behold (you can see a picture of here, in the fifth slide), especially when you work in an office where people stack up books to create their own standing desks. The Action Office was a great idea.

It was also a flop.

It was too expensive and difficult to assemble, and the requisite square footage per employee made it poorly suited to large organizations. So Propst and the designers went back to the drawing board, producing in 1968 the Action Office II, which corrected the perceived deficiencies of the first version. Each employee got one desk, and the addition of low walls afforded some privacy and contained each worker. It also meant that more desks could be crammed closer together while still allowing neighbors to interact. . . . I’m not going to spell it out; you can see where this is going.

Soon people were writing novels about veal-fattening pens, making videos of cubicle hurdles, inventing cubicle periscopes, and recommending that you not “prairie dog.” IDEO even designed Dilbert’s Ultimate Cubicle for Scott Adams.

George Nelson, Herman Miller’s design director, was so disgusted that he left the project well before the Action Office II went to market. And even Robert Propst, before he died in 2000, bemoaned his contribution to what he called “monolithic insanity.”

This short history isn’t meant to be totally depressing or enervating. After all, offices have changed radically, and often for the better, since 1964. But it should serve as a reminder that organizing comes with costs. It’s up to us to recognize what they are before we dive, willy-nilly, into any reform effort. If you don’t, you might end up with something that looks like this.