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February 21, 2014 | Workplace | Posted by Craig Baldwin Craig Baldwin

History of the Office Cubicle

“The primary difference from early offices and those today is that over a hundred years the idea of the office as a social setting got lost, or at least diminished. We can thank Frederick Taylor and the Principles of Scientific Management (1911) for that. It was Taylor who, in the name of efficiency, broke down complex tasks into discrete, repetitive activities that could be done quickly by people with little training or skill (and because of that, at lower wages). It was also Taylor who, reflecting the values and views of his time, saw most workers as inherently lazy, thereby generating the need for constant surveillance and strict management control. Out of this climate emerged a management view that socializing was a waste (of the corporation’s) time. Being “on task” was what counted.”

 

– Becker, Sims, from a 2001 study on “Offices That Work

 

A Cubicle is Born

 

The history of the office cubicle began 46 years ago with  a young designer who dreamed of a multi-purpose, functional work space. The result proved to be the bane of our working world’s existence. Perfect for post-lunch naps, playing “where did that rolled up piece of paper come from” and housing post-its for office advent calendars, cubicles have largely suffered in the eye of the public since their inception.

 

Brought into the workplace in the early 1960’s as the Action Office, the unit had an eye for utility and function. The original is pictured above.
 

Robert Probst was the mastermind behind the invention, releasing the Action Office from the Herman Miller corporation.  The original edition included an efficient desk, a standing desk, and a small table. Allowing the user to move from space to space while accommodating for each position.

 

While the design was versatile, it didn’t allow for efficient use of space. This was a problem for large corporations and the white collar working class which grew substantially in the 60s and 70s.

 

After going back to the drawing board Herman Miller spawned the Action Office ll, more closely resembling the cubicle as we know it today. The desks were positioned adjacent to one another and had low walls to serve as dividers.

 

With more workers to house and timely depreciation changes (7-years for office furnitures and fixtures, thank you IRS) a serendipitous boom occurred in the cubicle business. As the white collar workforce grew, the necessity for high walls to limit socializing and keep workers “on task” grew with it.

 

The higher the rank, the higher the panels, all the way up to walls (aka offices). This practiced limited accessibility to management and limited time wasted with staff, or so they thought.
 

Adverse Effects of Cubicles

 

“Within a scientific management framework, socializing at work has been viewed as ‘wasted’ time because it is “off task.” In organizations where teamwork and collaboration are critical, socializing is the glue that binds a team together. It builds the trust that is absolutely essential to effective collaboration. The more open, team-oriented bullpens and pods, in comparison to high-paneled cubes, had significantly higher levels of social communication.”

 

– Becker, Sims, from a 2001 study on “Offices That Work

 

As the study below reveals, cubicles led to untimely interruption and on average those interruptions lasted longer than those taking place in open workspaces.

 

cubicle-interruption

The Influence of Spatial Factors on Interaction Patterns and Organizational Outcomes, Scott 2001

 

The author describes the results best by saying, “Unexpectedly, as these data suggest, more visual contact actually contributes to fewer unwanted interactions, not more, by changing not so much the frequency as the timing of serendipitous communication.”
 

The study then goes on to point out that in open spaces, workers are more aware of the “correct” times to interrupt, limiting the time needed for conversation and as such the resulting after effects of interruption.
 

Other associations are found in the performance levels of workers in “closed” vs. “open” offices, age being one of the most obvious (younger workers prefer open spaces compared to their older counterparts). Open spaces also favor increased absorption of tacit knowledge, reduced times in training new staff, and increased worker satisfaction due to the larger amount of social engagement taking place.
 

Most issues with “open” spaces to-date stem from their inefficient (and ineffective) use of space. Think about it, did you ever see a co-working space before 1995 that really worked? It hasn’t been until the last 15 years that our working world has seen effective formations of pods or “bullpen” style offices.
 

With all that said, the study does not conclude open or closed office formats are the best on their own. Rather it suggests a blended approach for maximizing workplace output.
 

Current startups and companies spend millions on their amazing offices, which predominantly reflect a blend of open and closed options. Giving workers the “alone time” necessary to complete hours of code sprints, and the interaction and collaboration required to efficiently solve problems as a team.
 

Probst later called the bastardization of his first Action Office “monolithic insanity.” Unfortunately he never lived long enough to see the inspiration he had left behind for the present day workplace.
 

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