IN THE 1960s Robert Propst, an inventor and artist who had patents in heart valves, livestock-tagging machines and aeroplane parts, was asked by Herman Miller, an American design company, to find problems outside the furniture industry that could be solved with design.
He flooded the company with concepts ranging from agriculture to medicine, but in the end found himself drawn to the problems of office life. He was particularly troubled by how sedentary people were. The consequences were clear in insurance and medical data. As a sufferer from back pain, he understood the need for regular movement and good posture.
Propst thought workers should have standing and sitting desks. He designed a perching seat, dreamed up display surfaces and created a prototype napping pad, an inch and a quarter thick and two feet wide (3cm by 60cm), that could be hung up for storage. Sleeping in the office, he thought, would make people more productive. He was, in many ways, ahead of his time.
His ideas culminated in the first modular office system, the “Action Office 2”, in 1968. At that time many firms put managers in offices and their subordinates in open “bullpens”, at pedestal desks lined in rows. Now this space could be broken up by vertical panels that slotted together in many ways. Propst suggested giving each worker a clamshell arrangement that offered both privacy and a view, and equipping it with desks of different heights. Areas for informal meetings and coffee could be created. The possibilities were endless.
Best, Propst believed, would be to join the panels at 120º angles. But his customers realised that they could squeeze more people in if they constructed cubes. A rigid 90º connector was therefore designed to join a panel to one, two or three more. Thus was born the cubicle, and Propst came to be known as its creator. He was horrified.
Other furniture-makers, including Haworth, Steelcase and Knoll, were soon producing their own systems. Cubicles were cheap, and meant a growing professional class could be packed in like battery hens, but with the illusion of individual offices. In America cubicles benefited from a tweak to the tax code that made it easier to write off depreciating assets such as furniture. Between 1977 and 1997 sales in America grew 20-fold.
The march of the cubicle continues. Around 40m North Americans now work in cubicles and they are being installed from Bangalore to Beijing. In 2012 Meg Whitman, the boss of Hewlett-Packard, turfed executives out of corner offices and into cubicles. Even publishers are converting. Last year Hachette installed 520 cubes in its pricey Manhattan headquarters. The boss has one, too—albeit, with a window.
The sick bay
At first, chopping bullpens up into boxes seemed to fit with a new egalitarian mood. Some management theorists regarded cubicles as an uprising against the old order, where the desks of office serfs were lined up for inspection, factory-style, by managers who emerged from plush private domains. But not everyone agreed. George Nelson, a famed designer for Herman Miller, wrote to a colleague in 1970 that cubicles were “dehumanising” and suited for “corporate zombies, the walking dead”. The Dilbert cartoons of Scott Adams have long espoused the cause of the dispirited cubicle denizen and branded cubicles a sign of an uncaring employer.
And as they have become near-ubiquitous, it has become increasingly clear that far from offering a clever compromise between the economy of open-plan and the privacy of individual offices, cubicles are in many ways worse than either. In particular, they cause a number of health problems, some less obvious than others.
Their rise coincided with the energy crisis of the 1970s, which prompted firms to make buildings more airtight. While artificial ventilation recirculated fumes silently released by carpets, wall coverings and the fabric of the cubicles themselves, their high walls added to the problem by obstructing airflow. Office workers complained of headaches, fatigue, coughs, sinus infections and even cancers.
After many years, America’s Environmental Protection Agency recognised formaldehyde, one of the substances emitted, as a probable carcinogen and regulated its use. Modern office furniture is less toxic. Between 1985 and 2005 the level of formaldehyde given off by cubicles fell by half. But poor ventilation is still common. Many studies have shown it causes lower productivity and increased sick leave.
Other cubicle-related health problems have taken longer to emerge. Because cubicles provide only the illusion of privacy, not the real thing, they do nothing to stop infectious diseases. Sharing an office raises the chances of getting more than two colds a year. In 2011 Danish scientists found that workers whose offices held at least six people took 62% more sick leave than those in private offices. And last year Swedish researchers studying the link between office layouts and illness found that people who worked in open-plan offices had the highest risk of becoming ill. The reason, they concluded, was more than just the easier spread of infections. Stress caused by lack of privacy and workers’ inability to control their surroundings played a part, too.
Open-plan offices are noisier and more interruption-prone. Too much noise causes high blood pressure, sleep problems and difficulty in concentrating. And cubicles’ flimsy walls do little to dampen sound. In studies where sound levels were raised from 39 to 51 decibels—roughly equivalent to moving from an average living room to a road with light traffic—participants were more tired and less motivated.
Whereas cubicles fail to block unwanted noise, they do all too well at blocking much-needed light. Many cubicle-dwellers see no daylight during office hours, with miserable effects on their well-being. A recent study found that workers deprived of sunlight get less sleep and physical activity than those who sit by windows. There are likely to be other ill effects from sitting in an artificially lit box all day: hospital patients recover faster and take fewer painkillers when they have more daylight.
Views matter, too. A study in 2003 in Sacramento found that call-centre workers with the best views processed calls 6-12% faster than those with no view. Office workers with better views were much more likely to describe themselves as healthy, and less likely to say they were fatigued. They also performed 10-25% better on tests of mental function and memory recall. Higher cubicle partitions were associated with working more slowly.
Cubicles even make people behave badly. Researchers at Cornell studied 229 employees at eight firms and found that those in cubicles were more prone than those in open-plan offices to have long, loud conversations—sometimes unrelated to work—with colleagues or on the phone. The reason seems to be that cubicles mask the social cues such as facial expressions and body language that influence social interactions. They thus make it easier to eat a smelly lunch or guffaw on the phone, oblivious to the reactions of those nearby. Those missing cues also interfere with other elements of good etiquette, such as not startling people or interrupting them when they are busy.
So partial privacy is in some ways worse than none at all. Conversations in cubicles are widely audible, but it is impossible to know who is listening, and humans, who made it through prehistory by keeping an ear out for predators, like to know where sounds are coming from. In a cubicle farm the origins of a sound—a chatting colleague, a ringing phone or a tapping keyboard—are hard to decipher. People try to adjust to the unsatisfactory combination of public and private: some say “knock knock” when approaching a cubicle; signs and headphones are used to signal “do not disturb”. Workers, the Cornell study suggested, like closed offices best of all. But open-plan offices are preferred to cubicles.
Why, then, are cubicle farms still being built? Perhaps because privacy is so valued that office planners opt for the illusion of it, rather than the undisguised reality of communal space. And a cubicle can be personalised: how about wallpaper, a rug, fairy lights or a chandelier? Some cube-dwellers hang curtains at the entrance, and it is possible to buy a door. One website shows how to make a fake window. It is all reminiscent of laboratory mice building nests in the most unpropitious surroundings.
On top of all this, cubicle workers who feel that the walls are closing in on them are onto something. When cubicle spaces are renovated, says a design firm, they often shrink from eight feet by ten per person, to five foot by five. In 1994 the average North American office worker had 90 square feet of space. By 2010 this was 75 square feet. (Executive management gained floor space over the same period, according to the International Facility Management Association.)
For reasons of economy, if nothing else, a return to private offices seems unlikely. But mobile technology is making it possible to work anywhere. Could it also offer an escape from the cubicle farm?
Breaking down barriers
One early attempt to reshape the workplace to take advantage of new technology was the “future office” created by Chiat/Day, an American advertising agency, in the 1990s. Data ports were scattered around so that workers could plug in their (pre-wireless) laptops wherever they were. Receivers in the ceiling allowed them to use radiophones. Intended to mimic a college campus, it had neither private offices nor cubicles, but instead clusters of couches and tabletops, with almost no personal space apart from some small lockers.
Design magazines loved it, but it was a disaster. One employee took to carting her things around in a child’s red wagon. Work suffered as people lost documents and struggled to find laptops, phones or places to sit. Turf wars ensued as some camped out in favourite spots or ordered underlings to arrive early to nab equipment.
Now Herman Miller, the firm that, however unintentionally, started the shift to cubicles, is trying to reshape the office yet again. The “Living Office” is a new attempt to combine the best of private and social space. It looks rather like a fancy hotel: open-plan but with desks set in friendly clusters and separated by low, clear partitions. Workers can also perch at a counter-top next to the coffee station, or lounge on sofas in a plaza or café-style seating in a courtyard. Benches nicknamed “landing strips” are placed outside conference rooms to encourage post-meeting chats. Pods are available for concentrated work, and even for relaxation. Everywhere there are glass-encased meeting rooms and a few solo spaces. About 30% of the staff have no permanent desk.
Light streams in and sound is controlled with dividing walls and “pink noise”—white noise focused on the frequencies of human speech, which can reduce the distance at which a conversation is audible from 50 feet to 12-16 feet. The result, the firm says, is greater focus, accuracy and short-term memory.
Open-plan and flexible workspaces are spreading. Almost all the offices Herman Miller supplies in Asia are now open-plan; Microsoft’s Singapore offices have no assigned desks. When open-plan offices are designed to suit a wide variety of working styles and tasks, even senior executives can be keen. One at Mars Drinks in West Chester, Pennsylvania, is slightly wistful when he recalls his previous job, which came with a private office with a balcony overlooking the Piazza del Duomo in Milan. But he is more productive now, he says, in an open-plan area with other senior staff.
Such redesigns could be a more palatable way to save space than simply squeezing workers into smaller boxes. Intel recently decided to rethink its offices when it realised that 60% of its cubicles were empty most of the time. Herman Miller, which practises what it preaches, has about seven desks per ten staff at its own offices; even senior managers work in a cluster of open-plan desks. At Britain’s Department for Trade and Industry, occupancy levels rarely reached 60%; it and several other British public-sector organisations have done similar redesigns, cutting from one desk per person to around eight desks per ten.
What workers need from their offices has long been clear. A flexible workspace that encourages movement, combined with mobile technology, could finally liberate them from the cubicle farm—but only if employers pay heed to the evidence, rather than the short-term savings. Even cubicles were Utopian before the accountants took over.