New Cubicle: Utopian Office Space?


Aug. 17, 2006 — -- Sitting in your cubicle at work, do you ever wonder sometimes just how you ended up there?

Not too long ago, someone came along with a vision for a new and improved "office space" of the future that was more than just rows of desks lined up next to each other.

The time was the 1960s, the person was Robert Probst, and the futuristic office space: the cubicle.

Through the years, the cubicle has become despised by some and immortalized in pop culture in the comic strip "Dilbert," which found comedy in the plight of the modern-day office worker.

Now, after years of derision, one company is giving the cubicle a major face-lift, one designed to give those toiling officer workers the option of working in the same type of enclosed office as the boss.

But do companies want office staff to be able to separate themselves, or will they prefer the openness of the traditional cube system?

It's a question the architects of the modern office have been faced with since its inception.

The invention of the cubicle started as something of an accident, but with more utopian ambitions.

A residential furniture company, Herman Miller, was looking for another business to expand into.

The company had never made office furniture, but it had lots of architects on staff and needed to do something fast with the future of the firm.

The firm hired Probst, an inventor best known for his invention in timber harvesting.

"He developed a big truck that backed up to a tree and would chop it off at the base," said Joseph Schwartz, Herman Miller's former marketing chief. "[The truck would] then pile the trunks into another truck that would be able to transport it."

Herman Miller set up a research facility in Ann Arbor, Mich., adjacent to the University of Michigan and just down the road from the company's headquarters in Zealand, Mich.

Probst's mission was to set up the office and then begin to innovate.

"He wanted to create a space where the worker could sit and do their work in one area, and stand and do their work in another, to help increase the blood flow," Schwartz said.

"He found that Winston Churchill among some of the other key decision makers were always photographed standing at a desk and writing something."

Probst's other primary pillar for the cubicle invention was the concept that the "eye was a direct connection to the mind" -- the idea that wall surfaces where you could take papers in front of you could be a lot more fruitful than the traditional piles of papers stacked high on a desk.

It was on these humble foundations that the precursor to the cube -- known as the "Action Office" and designed for the high-level office executive -- was conceived.

"We introduced the Action Offices, which were five or six pieces of free-standing furniture," Schwartz said. "The reception to this in the marketplace was that of a nonevent."

The seeds of innovation had been sown.

The Action Office 2 was launched the 1960s. It was a time when major companies -- Polaroid, IBM, Westinghouse -- were expanding their employment pools and branch offices.

They needed not just a place to put new workers, but a flexible setup that allowed them to rearrange frequently and fit the most people in the smallest amount of space.

Thus, the "Open Plan Office" was forged -- a concept where workers could leave Friday, their offices could be broken down and restacked over the weekend, and the troops could come back magically surprised at their newly formed perches first thing Monday morning.

Some companies encouraged senior executives to shed their offices and join their ranks and file somewhere on the "Open Plan."

Cubicles were actually being marketed to only the most cutting-edge firms in corporate America at the time.

That plan didn't exactly take off.

"But my problem was how are you going to talk CEOs out of their offices when they've been working their entire lives to get into those corner offices in the first place there?" Schwartz said.

Eventually, the big-time execs kept their offices, and the office staff remained stacked up outside.

Fortunately, there may be some hope.

A few years ago, furniture designer Douglas Ball got a call from Herman Miller.

After the dot-com bust, Herman Miller laid off thousands of employees, closed plants, and moved its operations back to Michigan to focus on one design for the new millennium cubicle.

What Ball came up with was a new generation of office cubicles, known as "My Studio," that was designed to improve on the idea of the cubicle's openness yet give workers a sense of privacy as well.

My Studio looks like a really fancy phone booth transported from the future.

A self-contained unit, it's supposed to seem like the totally enclosed private office, but it isn't.

Once inside you're surrounded by translucent metal, wood paneling, and different levels of work and display surfaces for all your important sticky notes.

It comes equipped with a sliding-glass panel to "strategize" with the co-worker next door and just look at him when you don't.

Most importantly, it's finished off with a closing door -- and all of it fits in the same space as a normal cubicle.

"My Studio was not really what they were expecting," Ball said. "It introduced a whole number of ideas that I've been working on for 30 years. A sense of comfort, yet openness."

"What it's trying to do is bring some elements of a private office -- which is a four walls and door -- and bring it down to a smaller size and designed in such a way that it puts you into the center of the activity."

More than 30 years of research have been put into this design, considering everything from where your computer wires will go to what your eyes are most likely to look at to how high the walls are around you, all with a heavy emphasis on worker privacy.

"The research came out very, very strongly that people didn't like others approaching from the rear and allowing people see what's on their screen," Ball said.

"If you can see them coming and you want to speak privately, then you can lower your voice or go off and talk somewhere else," he said. "Once you drop down the sidewalls, everything gets better, but then people get too exposed so it's a fine balance between too much exposure and privacy."

Ball hopes his design has staying power, he said. They've learned lessons over the last 30 years. That doesn't necessarily mean the end of the cubicle.

"Since the Action Office came out in 1968, they've been saying, 'The end of the cubicle is in sight and that people are unhappy working in these tiny spaces and they're on their way out.' But the Action Office is now almost 40 years old. It's still the best way to subdivide space without spending the money on the walls that are always in the wrong place when you don't want them there," Schwartz said.