Welcome to Cubeville
If you work in an "office environment", chances are you've worked in a cubicle, in a warren of cubicles, as far as the eye can see.
Robert Oppenheimer agonized over building the A-bomb. Alfred Nobel got queasy about creating dynamite. Robert Propst invented nothing so destructive. Yet before he died in 2000, he lamented his unwitting contribution to what he called "monolithic insanity."
Propst is the father of the cubicle. More than 30 years after he unleashed it on the world, we are still trying to get out of the box. The cubicle has been called many things in its long and terrible reign. But what it has lacked in beauty and amenity, it has made up for in crabgrass-like persistence.
Reviled by workers, demonized by designers, disowned by its very creator, it still claims the largest share of office furniture sales--$3 billion or so a year--and has outlived every "office of the future" meant to replace it. It is the Fidel Castro of office furniture.
[ "Cubicles: The great mistake" by Julie Schlosser, FORTUNE Magazine, March 9, 2006 ]
When I started work at my first "real" professional job, the department was in a temporary space crunch while their new quarters were being completed. I was assigned a shared cubicle space: two people in a 10' by 10' cubicle with 5-ft-high walls. When we moved, three months later, into our new area, I was surprised to be assigned, again, to a shared space. This time it was larger: 16' by 8' with 7-ft-tall walls and a door. Nevertheless, a shared space.
Unfortunately, my cubicle-mate and I both have the habit of talking to ourselves as we work. When I decided mayhem was in our future, I requested an unshared space. Given the choice, I preferred a "private" 3x3 workstation to a larger shared space with no intervening walls.
That was in 1985. In 1993, after eight years of working in Cubeville, I found myself at a more progressive company. The company, Taligent, was in the process of remodeling a building to house their headquarters and they had made an important decision: All employees would have offices with doors that could be closed.
What a concept!
Taligent had borrowed the idea from its parent company, Apple. Apple had recently built a new, multi-building, R&D center in which every employee (not just managers) had an office with walls and a door. (Although I was working for Apple at the time, I wasn't in a team that moved into the new R&D center, so I had not benefited from this revolution in workspaces.)
But now, there I was, in a "real office". Mind you, it wasn't luxurious by any stretch of the imagination. It was still only an 8' by 10' space. I was lucky enough to have a window; other coworkers had interior offices. But it was an office. It had its own light controls. It had walls. It had a door.
It was wonderful.
Two years later, I went back to Apple. This time, I joined a team that was quartered in the R&D center. This time, I had an interior, windowless office. But, once again, I had a door. (This proved to be extremely important, considering that my cross-the-hall neighbor was given to having loud, "buoyant" conversations in the hallway!)
I began to feel like (mis)quoting Scarlet O'Hara: "As God is my witness, I'll never be Cubicled again!"
That wasn't easy to maintain, of course. In 1997, I left Apple for another company where, upon my arrival, I was assigned a shared 10' by 10' cubicle. In retrospect, I believe that this company's attitudes toward work space — nearly everyone was in shared space — contributed to my decision not to stay for more than a year.
At the next company, I was again assigned a cubicle, blessedly unshared and reasonably large. I was also lucky in having few neighbors. This was a scientific company where most of my co-workers were scientists or lab techs. The techs had desks in the lab. The scientists had (shared) offices with doors; however, as they spent much of their time in the lab, their offices were usually empty. I was in Cubeville, but a very quiet and deserted version.
When I left that company, I went back to Apple. After two years back in Cubeland, I found that I appreciated my door more than ever before.
My last Apple term ended in November, 2000. Since then, I have had various positions in several companies. I find that I can no longer justify time spent in cubicles. My productivity sinks. My frustration rises. I hear every noise: the ringing phones, the conversations, the "leaking" headphones, the over-the-wall neighbor who said "Hm!" at 1 minute intervals as he worked. If I cannot have an office with a door, I strive to work as much as possible from home.
It never ceases to amaze me how a typical software company organizes its workforce. Managers, who are rarely in their offices because they spend so much time in meetings, "rate" large offices with doors. Programmers, writers, and testers — people who need to concentrate on their work — are assigned open-topped cubicles, frequently located near meeting areas and breakrooms. It's an insane system.
Like many problems in the work arena, this one turns on numbers. The savings that accrue from jamming employees into cubes rather than offices, particularly in high-rent markets, can be huge. The productivity gains that come from giving workers a space where they can do uninterrupted, heads-down work -- those are harder to quantify.
Shockingly, there has been no defining Frederick Taylor-esque research on knowledge-worker productivity. But Tom Davenport, professor of management and information technology at Babson College, has tried to crack the code with a yearlong survey of workers, academics, and executives in HR, IT, and facilities planning. He found that three factors determined white-collar performance: management and organization, information technology, and workplace design. The last, he says, has a measurable effect -- for good and ill. "Open offices do lead to more unstructured communication," he says. But "those same offices can lead to problems of concentration. If you value reflection or deep thought, it gets tough." Call it the attention-deficit office.
It doesn't have to be this way. Apple succeeded in providing offices for everyone. Taligent succeeded. I'm sure other companies have made the experiment.
It is possible to have offices for all. The spaces don't need to be large or plush. They only need to be private and quiet.
The solution, [Gervais] Tompkin says, is to customize space to various types of work. Give those who need uninterrupted time a quiet place to work and those who need to collaborate a more social space. That may mean a glass-walled office for heads-down work, and a variety of gathering places for group work. "As the workforce becomes more mobile," Tompkin says, "the office will be the main tool companies use to build a shared culture."
[As] we return to a war for talent -- and labor-force economists predict we will -- knowledge workers may finally have their revenge. "If you want to keep people, you will have to have a business love affair with them," Tompkin says. "That requires seduction, dating, paying attention to the relationship. Office space is part of that work contract, and if you're not engaging employees, they're at risk."
[ "Death to the Cubicle" (Gervais Tompkin is regional design director of architectural firm Gensler's San Francisco office.) ]
I would love to see a new trend in office spaces, but I'm not holding my breath. Instead, I'm personally pushing more and more for the ability to work remotely, telecommuting from my office at home, going into headquarters for meetings as required. In the long run, I think that's the best solution all around. I'm not alone...
If working at home is now part of the zeitgeist, one very large employer that seems increasingly tapped in is the U.S. government. Congressman Frank Wolf, a Republican whose Virginia district is home to many federal worker bees, has made telecommuting his pet project. "There is nothing magic in strapping ourselves into a metal box every day only to drive to an office where we sit behind a desk working on a computer," he told a congressional committee.
Wolf sees telecommuting as a way to decrease traffic, reduce air pollution, increase productivity, and frustrate terrorists. In 2004 he launched a campaign to penalize government agencies by docking funds if they fail to support telecommuting. Now the SEC, the State Department, the Department of Justice, and four other big agencies are required to offer every eligible worker the opportunity to telecommute.
... Coming to the office for meetings and in-person collaboration is still important, of course, but as [Stewart Brand, co-founder of the Global Business Network] points out, "People are realizing they don't need face-to-face time all the time."
[ "Cubicles: The great mistake" ]
I'm in favor. Telecommuting has worked very well for me. We can only hope it will become the Way of the future workplace.
April 07, 2006
If You Can't Beat 'Em...If you can't get out of your cubicle, consider giving it a "makeover"
Out this month, "Cube Chic: Take Your Office from Drab to Fab!" (Quirk Books, $15.95), includes 22 "inspirational" designs for sprucing up a standard cubicle, with decorating themes like golf, casino, hip-hop, and disco, and instructions for achieving each look. The Safari Cube, for instance, features a Cheetah-print desktop, tribal masks, and, for some reason, a wooden ladder to nowhere. (I've got enough useless junk in my cubicle, thank you.)
As imaginative as they are, the cubicles pictured somehow still feel...like cubicles. On the other hand, the designs are definitely not drab. And a little decorating project could make for a good way to procrastinate. So maybe I should go look for that ladder...
[ Extreme Makeover: Cubicle Edition in FC Now, the Fast Company Weblog ]
Illustration by Dave Carpenter, from "All in a Day's Work", Readers Digest, Feb. 2006