OPERATIONS

A Modest Defense of the Cubicle

The one thing worse than a cubicle is no cubicle.
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"Ever since I started working, every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it." It's no surprise that this epiphany comes to Peter Gibbons, the main character in the movie Office Space, while he's sitting in his cubicle. The standard, semipersonal, sort-of-quiet workspace is, after all, universally condemned. "Modern offices are not geared for generating ideas through trust and community," says Alexander Wu, of KMD, an architectural firm based in San Francisco, "and we need to create destination workplaces that draw in and nourish a diverse work force."

"Nobody in the world we talked to likes them," agrees Fred Dust, the lead designer at IDEO, a design firm based in Palo Alto, Calif. "They have universal rejection."

To which we say: It's just office furniture, people! (And eliminating cubicles might not be the best course of action anyhow.)

The office of the future, according to trendsetting designers like Dust and Wu, will replace cube farms with a mix of open and closed spaces -- large, sunny "plantscaped" utopian-sounding "idea centers." A nice mix of collegiate public areas coupled with private offices that workers can book when they need to hunker down (the concept is called "hoteling") will enable laptop-toting workers to hang out and casually innovate.

"Maybe I'm being optimistic," adds Dust, "but hopefully three-and-a-half- by six-foot walled cubicles will go away across the board."

Of course, the problem with this statement is that in the three decades since the cubicle was invented at Herman Miller, it hasn't lost ground; it's gained it.

"Cubicles provide a lot of what workers need to be productive," explains Dr. Jay Brand, a cognitive psychologist in the R&D department at Haworth, the large cube maker based in Holland, Mich. Though he admits that his employment presents a conflict of interest, Brand maintains that research shows that the cubicle's drawbacks are eclipsed by those presented by open-space offices. Productivity goes up and communication is more efficient when employees have a space of their own, he argues. This is true of the majority of workers of all age groups, especially introverted types (a.k.a. engineers). Acoustic privacy is one reason but there are others, such as the human desire for territory and stability, and the natural tendency to be more cautious in public. "More open space in offices is a solution looking for a problem," Brand says. "Workers want more enclosure, not less."

Why then is the virtuous cube so loathed? Brand suggests that the real problem is that too many companies have squeezed too many cubes -- and too many people -- into densely packed offices. More square footage is what workers really crave. For their part, cube makers hope to redeem their disdained product by adding options like personalized shelving, deeper storage, and camouflaged dataports -- whatever it takes to make your cubicle a dream castle for putting cover sheets on those incredibly crucial TPS reports.

Last updated: Sep 1, 2004




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