You’re 40, and Nobody Likes You

Ken AshfordRandom MusingsLeave a Comment

But happy birthday anyway, cubicle:

143cubiclestandaloneprod_affiliate8The cubicle celebrates its 40th birthday this month. A party is unlikely.

What’s to celebrate? The cubicle office system is one of the most derided realities of modern work life.

Somehow, the spaces that white-collar worker bees unlovingly refer to as “cubes” have become an icon for all that is confining, uninspiring, soulless and humdrum in our workaday lives.

Warrens. Honeycombs. Cube farms. Even “veal-fattening pens.”

The sarcasm — cynicism — wrapped around those fabric-covered panels is remarkable for a system marketed back in 1968 as the Action Office.

Bad rap?

“This was a wonderful concept,” Joe Schwartz said. He was the marketing director at Herman Miller in Michigan when the furniture company shopped a new office system concept around the country.

Schwartz, now 82, retired and living in Scottsdale, Ariz., spent a fair amount of time in Kansas City back then because Hallmark Cards was one of the first adopters of the Action Office.

The late Robert Propst at Herman Miller gets credit for the design, although some of his ideas were lost in translation, Schwartz said.

The basic idea of movable walls was a beautiful thing for employers and employees. For management, reconfiguring space could be accomplished without costly and messy drywall work. Employees gained storage, some privacy, even shelves.

In the initial design, Schwartz said, workers could have desks at two levels, one for sitting and one for standing.

“Propst had the idea that sitting wasn’t good for you and that people could both sit and stand at work and that would improve their health,” Schwartz said.

The Action Office met with some resistance. Managers wondered if privacy was such a good idea. Cost, as always, was an issue. Desks on two levels?

But the biggest alteration was that the cubicles shrunk in response to demands on office space, Schwartz said.

Still, said Leonard Kruk, co-author of Complete Office Handbook, the cubicle was a great improvement over what came before: row after row of free-standing desks or vast bullpens.