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The Cube at 40

The ubiquitous office design has its detractors, with one being the designer himself. But it's clear the cubicle is here to stay, and some supporters say it makes the best of a difficult situation. To create acceptance, HR leaders should involve employees in redesign decisions.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008
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If you are reading this in your cubicle at work, turn away from the screen, face the tired gray or washed-out beige fabric walls surrounding you, and belt out a rousing rendition of "Happy Birthday."

That's right, the cubicle is hitting the big 4-0. Sadly, the years haven't all been kind to the humble cubicle. Many workers despise it, and its late creator once called it "an unyielding, dumb box." That had to hurt. 

Still, through it all, the cubicle has endured, holding its walls high (or low) while leading the way in office furniture sales. Indeed, systems furniture accounted for more than 30 percent of the industry's almost $11 billion in revenues in 2006.

With those kind of numbers, it's clear that the cubicle is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. That's why more human resource managers want a place at the table when it comes to deciding how cubicles are configured and used. Happy employees, after all, are more productive. 

"Smart organizations and leaders know that worker motivation means money," says Bill Catlette, a human resource consultant and co-author of Contented Cows Moove Faster. "If I dread going to work each day, I am not going to give it my all. That is going to cost the company money. By simply insisting that facility decisions be made more thoughtfully, we'll have an impact."

The need for personal work space first occurred to Robert Propst in the late 1950s. At the time, managers were housed behind a door with walls. Everyone else was relegated to a bullpen of desks on the main floor. Propst, a man of great vision who held more than 120 U.S. and foreign patents when he died in 2000, began working on an idea that would combine an open landscape with a private area. Propst was hired by office furniture manufacturer Herman Miller and told to "have at it."

"So he began to look at the idea of a modular, open landscape that created a work environment that had a sense of place and purpose for the individual," says Mark Schurman, director of corporate communication for Herman Miller Inc., of Zeeland, Michigan.

In 1964, Herman Miller introduced its first Action Office. The collection of expensive, free-standing furniture failed to capture Propst's vision and flopped. Four years later the Action Office was relaunched as a modular system. It caught on, and the cubicle was born.

"Propst's vision was a kit of parts that would allow a company to change and adapt as it grew and changed," Schurman says. "The whole idea was to give a compromise between the private office and the bullpen environment. He also strongly believed that people were more productive and more inclined to collaborate and communicate with those around them if there was a degree of visibility."

Propst's ideal configuration for the modular system was a 120 degree angle in a half hexagon, or a two-sided 120 degree triangular work station. And what did he think was the absolute worst possible configuration? A four-wall cubicle.

"One of the dumbest things you can do is sit in one space and let the world pass you by," Propst said in an interview with Human Resource Executive® magazine in 1997.

By 1970, the Action Office had become the prototypical American office. It was helped by a convergence of a tax law change, modern architectural design, and the rising square foot cost of office space. The new tax law allowed businesses to depreciate furniture over seven years rather than the 30 years for a building. New office buildings were designed in grid patterns, and the price of real estate was escalating. Consequently, the cubicle became a cube in sets of four, six or eight, a clump of gray boxes. 

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"The cube, itself, never dictated how it would be used," says Jim Cahill, vice president of systems for Hon, the office furniture company based in Muscatine, Iowa.

Cahill, a self proclaimed "cube guy," actually likes cubicles. Not only does he think they are ingenious and here to stay, but they fill an otherwise unfillable void.

"People need some level of privacy to get some work done," Cahill says. "There are not a lot of choices between dry walls that are expensive and hard to move later, and desking that is too open to concentrate and get work done."

He understands why some people don't share his warm and fuzzy feelings for cubes. And he sees their down side - high walls block out natural sunlight and contact with co-workers. But that is changing. Glass panels are making inroads and natural light is, well, shining through.

"The walls are strategically coming down," he says. "The average height of the panel is falling. They are now allowing more natural light to come in." 

It has been a long time since Catlette passed his working hours inside a cube. But he still remembers feeling that this is what being in jail felt like. Michelle Singletary, an expert on the Employee Relations Panel for the Society for Human Resource Management, says the way to avoid that feeling is for management to keep people involved.

"As long as people feel valued and empowered you will have much more job satisfaction," Singletary says. "Make sure people get around and interact. Have meetings so people get that face-to-face time."

Everyone agrees that the cubicle is an office fixture for the foreseeable future. And they agree, too, that if the office stalwart is going to evolve, HR managers have an important role to play.

"I don't think cubicles will ever go away," Singletary says. "You are trying to do more with less because you have less space and companies are spending less money on rent and squeezing people closer and closer. I just hope I don't see them at home."

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