“The cubiclizing of people in modern corporations is monolithic insanity,” said the man who invented … [+]
They weren’t supposed to be cubes.
The “Action Office” introduced 56 years ago by furniture manufacturer Herman Miller, was a collection of nice, modular pieces intended to be “a mind-oriented living space.” The angles were oblique. The collection was open and colorful. It was laid out so the employee could move around.
“We are in real danger,” the Saturday Evening Post opined about it in 1965, “of being enabled to work at 100 percent efficiency.”
Things got progressively claustrophobic from there.
Action Office didn’t sell well. “Office managers complained that the entire system was too expensive, because the furniture was made of such quality material,” wrote Nikil Saval in his 2014 book, Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace. “And the space that Action Office created was too vaguely defined, its borders too porous.”
“The last thing (executives) were going to drop a ton of money on,” wrote Saval, “was a set of fancy chairs and desks for their junior and middle managers, let alone the steno pool.”
The next iteration, “Action Office II,” was smaller. That 1968 version left behind Action Office I co-creator George Nelson, who was “too partial to humanizing and stylish touches in his products,” wrote Saval. Nelson complained to a Herman Milller executive of AO II’s “dehumanizing effect as a working environment.”
“One does not have to be an especially perceptive critic to realize that AO II is definitely not a system which produces an environment gratifying for people in general,” he wrote. “But it is admirable for planners looking for ways of cramming in a maximum number of bodies, for ‘employees’ (as against individuals), for ‘personnel,’ corporate zombies, the walking dead, the silent majority. A large market.”
His former collaborator, Robert Propst, rolled out that second version with similar enthusiasm to the first, even releasing with it a 70-page treatise entitled The Office: A Facility Based on Change. An advertisement for AO II waxed philosophical. “The eye is a window on the mind,” it said, “hand and foot forever seek a resting place, physical well-being determines mental vitality and performance.”
It was a hit. But with its lighter, modular walls – still at open angles around what today would be considered a decent amount of space – AO II gave companies the building blocks to box in future generations.
Soon after AO II was introduced “copycat Action Offices were starting to have strange, unforeseen effects on other workplaces. Rather than making them more flexible, they in fact appeared to be making them more regimented” wrote Saval. “It turned out that companies had no interest in creating autonomous environments for their ‘human performers.’ Instead, they wanted to stuff as many people in as small a space for as cheaply as possible as quickly as possible.”
Propst was unsparing when, at the age of 77, he was interviewed for a 1998 Metropolis magazine profile entitled “The Man Behind the Cubicle.” “The dark side of this is that not all organizations are intelligent and progressive,” he said. “Lots are run by crass people who can take the same kind of equipment and create hellholes. They make little bitty cubicles and stuff people in them. Barren, rat-hole places.”
“’The cubiclizing of people in modern corporations is monolithic insanity,’” Propst insisted in 1997.
The only real defense of modern cubicles is that they are better than the open offices that they replaced decades ago and that threatened t0 replace them over the last decade.
“The walls are not high, and there are no doors. But at least they provide some muffling of sound from those surrounding you – which can be important if you spend a lot of time on the phone, or if you are trying to concentrate on the program that you are writing,” a reader argued to The Atlantic in April 2008. “Perhaps as important, from a quality of life perspective, the workers now have some wall space to personalize their work space. Put up your kids’ pictures. Put up posters, even. Add a couple of shelves full of books, or manuals, or just pretty little dust-catchers.”
People had gotten used to it. “When contracts are unspoken, they’re so much easier to break,” wrote Saval.
But the outbreak of coronavirus is forcing employers and employees alike to reconsider seating arrangements. “While many organizations prepared for employee safety in other ways, the workplace was not designed to mitigate the spread of disease,” cautioned office furniture maker Steelcase in its brochure “The Post-COVID Workplace.”
The key question, as people begin to head back to work, is whether guidelines developed to slow the spread of the virus will take down the cubicle or give it new life. Did decades of trying to “stuff as many people in as small a space for as cheaply as possible” also put them in a human petri dish or will the cloth-covered walls give workers added protection from each other?
“The cubicle is making a comeback,” Wired declared last week. “One of the most important innovations (to reduce transmission) may turn out to be cardboard or plastic dividers that turn open-plan offices into something more reminiscent of the 1980s.”
“I think office space is going to change, [and] we will go back to putting shields between people,” Autodesk CEO Carol Bartz told MarketWatch. “I think people are going to want protection, plexiglass or whatever.”
Put aside the wisecracks about cubicles and those who inhabit them, Macdonald Laurier Institute Senior Fellow Linda Nazareth wrote Friday in The Globe and Mail. “Cubicles have a superpower than open plan offices do not in that they can help stop germs from spreading and sickening workers. For the moment, and maybe for a long moment, that alone is likely to herald the return of the cubicle.”
With a staggering 30 million workers having filed for unemployment benefits over a six-week period, those semi-enclosed little worlds and the paychecks that come with them might be a welcome place to hunker down against the pandemic and the current (yet to be formally declared) recession.
But there are more reasons to believe cubicles will be a welcome casualty of the pandemic.
Many of the jobs that were performed from a cubicle before the outbreak can be done or already are being done far more safely from home. A survey in early April conducted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers found that 34% of those employed four weeks earlier had been commuting, but at the time of the survey were working remotely. Last week Amazon told Washington-State-based corporate employees, who have been working from home since early March, they “are welcome to do so until at least October 2.” The Seattle Times noted the announcement creates “the prospect that one of Seattle’s busiest neighborhoods could be largely deserted for another five months.”
Cubicle dwellers relying on the alleged “superpower” of the barriers to stop coronavirus transmission do so at their own peril. While much is unknown about the contagiousness of the virus in the trails of people’s coughs, sneezes, and exhalations, a study first published mid-March in the New England Journal of Medicine found it was detectable in aerosols for up to three hours, on copper for up the four hours, on cardboard up to 24 hours, and on plastic and stainless steel for up to three days.
“The cubicle wall is not going to be a perfect barrier,” said Dr. Peter Raynor, professor at the University of Minnesota’s Division of Environmental Health Sciences and director of the university’s industrial hygiene program. “It’s going to prevent those larger droplets from passing within six feet of the person in the next cubicle. From that standpoint, they’re good. Probably for the smaller aerosol droplets, the cubicle walls aren’t going to be much of a barrier. They don’t settle very fast and they can remain airborne for long periods.”
Donald Milton, professor of environmental health at the University of Maryland, told National Geographic he’s concerned a cubicle could retain infectious droplets and transmit them to coworkers to drop in or pass by.
Dr. Raynor suggested companies and employees need to be conscious not just of the office layout, but of the quality of air circulation in the building. “Generally, if you have more HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning), you’re going to tend to dilute the virus so there’s less of it to breathe on any given inhalation, if it’s present in the first place.” A higher proportion of air from outside and higher levels of filtration of recirculated air make transmission less likely, he said.
As for the photo frames and tchotchkes, “for now, taking as many of the things that are not essential out of the space may make it feel more sterile from an attitudinal standpoint, but it also will be more sterile from the standpoint of being able to clean things effectively,” he said.
Assuming an employee is careful to wash up after touching doors and elevator buttons on the way into the office, keeps his or her distance from others in the corridors, then disinfects the surfaces before getting to work on the computer, couldn’t that employee at least breathe easy for a few hours, reasonably safe in the semi-cocoon? Dr. Raynor was less than reassuring.
“There’s no perfect scenario when you’re out in public, whether that’s at the store or at the workplace,” he said. “At that point, they’re probably as protected as they can be at work, when they’re kind of in their own space, and especially with the cubicle walls there.”
Before the coronavirus, companies have sometimes experimented with encouraging remote work to save on office space. IBM’s decades-long policy, abruptly ended in 2017, is among the most prominent. There was no consensus among executives on whether allowing or encouraging remote work was most profitable, despite the research indicating more upsides.
Fear of COVID-19 will change those calculations. The math doesn’t look good for the cubicle.
A CBS News poll conducted April 20-22 found that 56% of Americans would be uncomfortable “going to a workplace outside of the home” if stay-at-home orders are lifted. The threat of a potentially deadly disease is a productivity-killing distraction more intense than the kids and dogs at home. Bringing back too many people within a cubicle’s width of each other could create a department or company COVID-19 outbreak. Even with high unemployment, key people might resign rather than return. A firm that calls people back without comprehensively addressing the coronavirus risk might find itself the subject of complaints to OSHA.
Companies are nonetheless strategizing about how to reconfigure their office spaces to keep their employees safe and productive. (Many are failing to consider one of the obvious answers: more offices with doors and real walls.) The weird thing about some of those philosophies is how much they resemble the ideas behind Action Office I.
Among the imperatives identified by commercial real estate firm JLL are “space design that offers greater dedication, privacy and separation from others” and “opportunities to collaborate and opportunities to concentrate.”
“Planning paradigms of the past were driven by density and cost,” states the Steelcase brochure. Going forward they need to be based on the ability to adapt easily to possible economic, climate and health disruptions. The reinvented office must be designed with an even deeper commitment to the wellbeing of people, recognizing that their physical, cognitive and emotional states are inherently linked to their safety.”
Somewhere in the Afterworld, Propst and Nelson are starting to smile.