Enter the Cube Farm

The rigid cubicle that is common to many office settings isn’t the structure its designer originally intended.

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Picture the scene: gridded boxes as far as the eye can see. Rows and rows of similarly arranged desks placed within acoustical-paneled boxes; technology on those desks nearly identical in kind and placement; and, at those desks, mass-produced office chairs, each occupied by a single employee working head-down under the harsh glow of overhead fluorescent lighting.

Sound familiar? If you’ve worked in a traditional office since the 1960s, you probably have a pretty clear vision of what I just described. Enter the cube farm: easily erected, endlessly configurable, and able to scale and shrink as necessary.

The cube farm is a consequence of a well-intended philosophy gone astray — or totally off course, as some, including me, would say. We know that the sea of cubes did not simply emerge whole and intact overnight. So how did this happen?

From ‘Action Office’ Architect to ‘Father of the Cubicle’

Like all things human-made, the office cube has a history born of appropriation, adaptation, and, in some cases, retrospective dismay. Designer Robert Propst, president of the research arm of furniture manufacturer Herman Miller from 1958 to 1980, is widely considered “the father of the cubicle.” However, it is more accurate to say that he originated the Action Office system, which, through a series of pressures forcing iteration, eventually morphed into the cubicles we’re familiar with today.

Propst’s philosophy of design centered on a handful of key principles that he would return to throughout his career and that guided his approach to designing everything — playgrounds, livestock tagging systems, modular systems for use in hospitals, agricultural equipment, mobile offices for the differently abled, and, of course, office spaces. He had what many would describe as a “humanitarian” perspective: The welfare and well-being of humans was foundational to his design approach.

At a guest lecture series sponsored by Ball State University’s Department of Architecture and Planning in 1967, Propst shared his views on the role of architecture and planning for humans. “Build for broad diversity of performance. [Create] forms that embrace rather than resist chance. … Consider new forms that will endorse the idea that change is something that continually needs to be expressed.” Anti-reductivist Propst disliked imposing and dominating forms, such as executive suites cut off from employees by long corridors, with lots of brass, plush carpeting, and massive office furniture. He railed against the open office plans popular through the 1950s that deprived employees of privacy and autonomy.

Propst understood that design’s symbolic meaning had the potential to reinforce status barriers, reproduce outdated forms of stratification, and exclude more than include — or, alternatively, it could create a more inclusive environment. While he could appreciate increased productivity for commercial benefit, his vision for enhancing productivity centered on the humanistic principles of flexibility, modularity, movement, communication, and human scale.

Propst conferred with practitioners in the relatively new fields of environmental health, systems engineering, and social psychology, along with those from the more established disciplines of mathematics, biology, economics, and anthropology. He particularly followed the work of the late anthropologist Edward T. Hall, whose extensive writing on the topic of social cohesion in a cultural context paid special attention to time and space.

In his 1966 book The Hidden Dimension, Hall coined the term proxemics to capture the idea that how we define and embody space is heavily dependent on our culture. Hall opined that different cultures have different norms around time-centric concepts — such as urgency, early, late, and multitasking — as well as different worldviews concerning space, as in the terms social, intimate, territorial, private, public, and office. Essentially, different cultures have different space requirements. The same proximity that an American might consider an intrusion into personal space might feel removed or even unwelcoming to many Europeans.

Propst understood the implications of Hall’s theories on space and time for his own design work. To him, they pointed to the need to create an office system conducive to the cultural attunements of time and space practiced by those for whom it was intended, for maximum “communications interchange.” As he put it during his lecture at Ball State, “[The] single most important purpose of surroundings is to provide the most eloquent kind of communication service, putting people together or protecting yourself from exposure to too many people or ensuring yourself you have appropriate exposure to the right people.”

With these ideas in mind, Propst introduced the Action Office I in 1964. It was designed as a corrective to the rigidity, austerity, and alienating effects of older office forms. Instead of reproducing row upon row of heavy, immovable desks with workers forced to sit for long hours in a single position side by side, Propst designed a system of modular furniture and configurable partitions intended to be arranged by the individual worker to suit his or her particular work style. The ability to set varying wall heights and eye lines, the introduction of standing desks, and corners placed at 120-degree angles were all intended to optimize communication exchange between colleagues while also allowing them the time and space for more focused individual thinking.

It is no small irony that a designer whose explicit intention was to support the individual’s right to be different came to be associated with the conformity and soullessness of the cubicle. It’s the classic story of unintended consequences and a good idea gone wrong.

Even before Propst’s Action Office made its debut, changes to the U.S. tax code in the early 1960s encouraged a move away from the kind of durable furnishings most strongly associated with the prototypical office — at the time, the classic oak desk and stationary filing cabinets. Based on the tax code changes, corporate facilities and procurement departments could write off office furnishings as depreciated assets. Companies like Herman Miller offered “disposable” furniture made from pressboard and lightweight plastics to help clients benefit from the new code.

But the codified financial incentive isn’t the whole story of how the customizable Action Office morphed into the rigid cube. Also at hand were changing workplace demographics, new technology, the rising cost of real estate, and a managerial desire to continue in the Taylorist tradition of productivity, efficiency, and getting more from less.

The steady rise in knowledge work raised the perennial question of where to put these workers. In 1964, Propst’s configurable Action Office I was introduced in the Herman Miller lineup. It had moveable, upholstered partition walls; standing desks; lightweight, stylish furniture; acoustical insulation; customizable storage; and height-adjustable shelving. (Later, the formaldehyde off-gassing from these new materials would need to be addressed.) The first Action Office allowed for interpersonal interaction as well as quiet spaces — typically in front of a brand-new technology appliance, the personal computer.

These design elements suited knowledge workers well, and Action Office systems eventually caught on, after heavy modification. But more conservative executives felt the design was too modern and too expensive, and managers deemed the space within and between offices too free-form, making monitoring workers’ activity more difficult.

After iterating and paring his design down, Propst’s more constrained Action Office II hit the market in 1968 and saw far greater commercial success.

Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, as PC-based digital technology evolved, existing offices’ square footage needed to be optimized to accommodate the growing influx of knowledge workers. Sprawling corporate office parks emerged on the landscape. And the relative spaciousness of Propst’s Action Office — with its 120-degree-angled wall configurations designed to invite collaboration and interaction — simply took up too much space. Angles of 90 degrees proved to be a far more efficient layout to get more out of less. The geometry of the office cubicle was born: rows and rows of cubes, like cells in a massive spreadsheet — a form of human data entry, anonymous and alienating.

Propst’s designs were intended to humanize the workplace experience, yet function had won over form. No wonder years later Propst lamented, “Not all organizations are intelligent and progressive. Lots are run by crass people. They make little, bitty cubicles and stuff people in them. Barren, rathole places.”

Propst’s thinking then is strikingly relevant to our current pandemic moment as we attempt to navigate new ways of working, new forms of worker agency, new technologies, and new spaces for getting our work done. Those of us who can are now working from home, experimenting with our individual style of working. We appropriate a spare room or the kitchen table. We cordon off space to separate work life from domestic life, with varying degrees of success. We adopt more fluid schedules. And, quite literally, we are distanced from one another by the measured requirements of the pandemic.

Few of us may miss the reductionist, rigid cube farms still common in many workplaces — or the open office plans, where the ability to focus has proved to be elusive. But many of us do miss the ability to engage with our colleagues in real time and space.

In a sense, we have achieved half of Propst’s formula for a better work life: While able to personalize our work areas (constrained by the practicalities of domestic life), we lack the serendipitous exchanges and related network effects associated with the workplace as a hub of creativity. The new forms that will emerge from this period — and how these forms will shape employee and employer identities, organizational infrastructures, and policies — remain murky. As our work and workspaces evolve, we’d do well to reflect on Propst’s form of humanistic office design, where space promotes autonomy, creativity, exchange, and the productivity of the individuals sharing in it.

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Our expert columnists offer opinion and analysis on important issues facing modern businesses and managers.
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