Working Wounded Blog: Cubicle Blues

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You'd expect the "father" of the cubicle to be a proud parent. Heck, his invention multiplied faster than rabbits. But you'd be wrong.

Thirty years ago, Robert Probst sought to create the perfect work environment for the office furnishings company Herman Miller. In search of the "office of the future," he designed the perfect environment for maximum satisfaction and productivity. He called his creation "the action office." Yep… the cubicle.

At the time Probst was looking for something better than the open bullpen that was the norm for much of the last century. He wanted to create a space that would allow privacy, personalization and the maximum in flexibility. For example, his original creation had a variety of surfaces that you could work from, and each was a different height.

So much for privacy, personalization and flexibility. Just before his death in 2000, Probst called his creation "monolithic insanity" in Fortune magazine.

There are many reasons why the "action office" devolved in the cube. Soaring real estate prices, corporations trying to get more bang for the buck by packing employees in like sardines, and even the tax code (corporations can write off cubicles much faster than they can write off their investment in walls in an office building).

There is a part of me that believes that the successor to the cube will be emptying out our huge office buildings in a massive wave of telecommuting. This makes sense for so many reasons -- spiraling gas prices, increasing real estate costs and the fact that so many homes now have broadband access. The only problem with this picture is that we barely know how to manage the people we can see at work, so few of us have even the foggiest idea of how to manage people we can't see.

All of this leads back to the "action office." It's clear that business is now 0 for 2 when it comes to designing the perfect office. The bullpen plan didn't work. The cubicle has spawned Dilbert and a massive amount of griping from most of the people who've worked in one.

So what is the answer? I think it involves combining the best of the future with the best of the past. The first part of the equation is really figuring out what jobs can be done by telecommuting and which workers and managers are up to this challenge. Once these jobs are moved out of our buildings then we'll actually have the room to turn the cube back into the "action office" that Probst originally envisioned. With fewer people they can be bigger, and it's hoped that employees can tailor them to their needs.

With all the talk of productivity in today's business world, I'm surprised at how little of the conversation addresses the place where most of our work actually gets done -- the office. If more of us engage in this conversation, ideally, we'll be able to put the "action" back into the "action office."

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

"Even if you are on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there." -- Will Rogers

BOOK EXCERPT OF THE WEEK

"1001 Ways to Energize Employees" by Bob Nelson (Workman, 1997):

"Management at the Queen Mary resort in Long Beach, Calif., holds monthly meetings with line employees to brainstorm ideas on how the company can improve their jobs. An employee committee then votes on which ideas are the best and would be the easiest to implement. The result is involved, motivated and energized employees."

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