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9 things you didn’t know about the office cubicle

Jeffrey MacMillan (for Capital Business)
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Nikil Saval's new book, Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace (Doubleday, April 22), is a fascinating guide to the intellectual history of the American office. Part cultural history, part architectural analysis and part management theory — with some labor economics, gender studies and pop culture thrown in for good measure — the book is a smart look at the evolution of the place where we spend so much of our lives.

It details everything from the role the skyscraper had on the modern office to the secretarial revolt that helped inspire the film "9 to 5." But the book's discussion of those fabric-covered, three-walled partitions will be one of its most interesting parts to today's workers. While many people now work remotely and many organizations have been rethinking the office cube, we still love to hate those corporate boxes.

"My goal was to give people an understanding of why they don't like it or why it could be better, if they could see where it came from," Saval, an editor with the magazine n+1, told me. Below are nine interesting facts about the history of the cube farm from Saval's new book.

1. Though Europeans referred to "Mad Men"-style offices as American plan, it was actually two German brothers who dreamed up the first open-plan office. They called Bürolandschaft, or "office landscape." 

With tall skyscrapers and plenty of space to arrange workers, American companies transformed the white collar workplace from rows of corridor offices to the layout we associate with 1950s office design: private offices arranged around each floor's perimeter, with row upon row of neatly ordered desks in the center where the secretaries or accountants or stenographers sat.

Then in 1958, two brothers, Wolfgang and Eberhard Schnelle, designed the free-form layout that "seemed at once promising and totally insane," Saval writes. It kept the idea of offices around the perimeter, but added "informal break areas, elegant plants and carpet!," in the words of one architectural historian, and arranged desks not in straight rows, but in a free-flowing pattern with groupings based on how people worked. The key attractions? Flexibility and low expense, just as they are for managers today.


2. The person who invented the forerunner of today's cubicle was an art professor with patents in playground equipment, heart valves and livestock-tagging machines.

Also in 1958, the Herman Miller Company hired a man named Robert Propst, tasked to help the company think beyond office furniture and expand its business into design for other industries. "Propst's polymathic mind, the Herman Miller executives thought, might help them take their furniture company in new directions," Saval writes.

Nonetheless, his first project was a rethinking of individual employees' personal space. By interviewing workers, doctors, psychologists and industrial relations experts — as well as experimenting with his own "workstation," as he called it — Propst developed an early prototype in 1964 of what he called the "Action Office," the forerunner to the cubicle.


3. Standing desks are not a new idea.

Desks that allow workers to stand while they work may be all the rage in Silicon Valley and among health-conscious corporate workers today. But they were also part of Propst's original design. The first Action Office plan didn't include a single L-shaped desk surrounded by three walls at all, but a collection of several movable components that allowed for a wholly different way of working. He envisioned a standing desk with a roll-top, designed so that workers could securely leave work out overnight (rather than having to clear their desks before they went home). And there was a "movable display surface" that would keep magazines and other resources out and easy to see, as well as a "communications center" stand that was insulated for better sound.

"It's actually a very old concept," Saval says, noting that one reason it wasn't popular in the past is that supervisors could observe sitting employees better than standing ones. "There were many reasons why it never was allowed to take off until recently."


4. People actually liked the early concept of the cubicle and, ironically, saw it as liberating. 

Once released, the Action Office received rave reviews from both designers and the popular press, Saval writes. "Seeing these designs," he quotes the publication Industrial Design as saying, "one wonders why office workers have put up with their incompatible, unproductive, uncomfortable environment for so long."

Though the first concept didn't sell, "the interesting thing is how much it was seen as a liberation," Saval said. "He wanted to save office workers, in a way, from the office plan that had existed before."


5. The first cubicle was not a square with 90-degree angles.

After the first concept was a bust on the market, Propst went back to the drawing board — but stayed true to his thinking. He created a smaller system of office furniture with "interlocking walls that were mobile, lighter and made of disposable materials," Saval writes. The Action Office II looks more like the cubicle we know today, but it wasn't designed to be locked into a square position. The three walls were "obtusely angled and movable," Saval writes, so that employees could customize their own workspaces.

In brochures, the half-hexagonal walls are peppered with tack-boards, maps and other displays. (1960s workers must have liked cubicle flair, too.) But in the original pamphlet promoting the new design, Propst "was unable to imagine a world in which [his designs] might be perverted to unfathomable ends," Saval writes. "His optimism would be his undoing."


6. The tax code is partly to blame for the cubicle's spread.

Sales for Herman Miller's design didn't really take off, Saval writes, until other competitors started producing such "workstations" themselves. Yet the federal government played a role, too: "the Treasury in the 1960s made a slight but powerfully significant change in the tax code," Saval writes, "making it easier for companies to write off depreciating assets. A shorter shelf life was established for furniture and equipment, while more permanent features of buildings had a longer range. In other words, it became cheaper to have an Action Office than an actual office."


7. One of the original designers predicted corporate zombies.

George Nelson, a famous Herman Miller designer who worked with Propst on the first version of Action Office but not the second, was eerily prescient in his criticism of what the design could become. "One does not have to be an especially perceptive critic to realize that A[ction] O[ffice] II is definitely not a system which produces an environment gratifying for people in general," Saval quotes Nelson as writing in a letter to a Herman Miller design executive. "But it is admirable for planners looking for ways of cramming in a maximum number of bodies, for 'employees' (as against individuals), for 'personnel,' corporate zombies, the walking dead, the silent majority."


8. The CEO-in-a-cubicle trend may have started with Intel's Andy Grove.

Saval says the first company to implement Herman Miller's cubicles was an architecture firm known as JFN. But the most famous, he says, was Intel. Like other Silicon Valley companies, Intel adopted cubicles not because it pretended those three walls were "a great place to be; instead, it pretended that it could foster an egalitarian work environment by insisting that even the staff of upper management work in cubicles, that there should be no 'mahogany row.'"

Andy Grove, the company's legendary CEO, sat in a cubicle himself, a symbolic move that has become popular. Zappos' Tony Hsieh sits in a cubicle. So does Morningstar's Joe Mansueto. Meg Whitman was famous for having one at eBay and more recently moved her top execs at HP out of their offices and back to cubicles. "In a kind of state socialism for design," Saval writes, "everyone would be starved of beauty equally."


9. Half of Americans said they thought their bathroom was bigger than their cubicle.

The corporate world of the 1980s and early 1990s — one of corporate raiders, massive layoffs and cost-cutting trends — radically changed the image of the cubicle. As companies merged and shrank and "de-layered" their middle management ranks, the cubicle was no longer associated with anything liberating. "People had a private office and then were stuck in a cubicle," Saval says. "It became seen as the symbol of a more precarious, more oppressive work environment."

Making things worse, these little boxes were getting smaller in size. A BusinessWeek editorial Saval cites found that the average cubicle dropped between 25 and 50 percent in size during the mid-1980s and mid-1990s. By 2006, the average cubicle measured 75 feet square, and Saval cites a 2007 press release that showed many Americans thought where they used the toilet was bigger than where they worked. "One wonders to what extent the extravagant growth of the American bathroom, and of the suburban home in general, is partly a reaction against the shrinking of cubicles."

Read also:

Does sitting at a big desk make you cheat?

A case against the office cubicle

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