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Is It Me – Bob – Or Just… – Part XXIII

22 September 2014 @ 14:51

Since I began working in an office environment back in the late 1970’s, I have never liked the cubicle.

A little personal background:

From mid-1960’s, when I first became aware of the world at about the age of four or five, my Father was an Executive – first for a company he worked for, then as the owner of several of his own.

I was trained to be an Executive, or, at least, to understand that mindset. So I have always approached such issues as the design of office space from a perspective of how to get the most efficiency out of those in your employ. It dawned on me fairly early on that granting each worker, when possible, their own private space was important [I'm not sure this concerned my Father, but, by the time I was a teenager, I was thinking on my own – Hubris mixed with some actual smarts]. If possible, a worker needs some place to think for his job, away from distractions, and to go about said kind of thinking in the manner that is most efficient for the worker. For instance, when I’m figuring-out how to accomplish an end that requires processing data, I am most productive when I close my eyes, don’t move, and try to picture the solution. I shut-out the rest of the world and let my imagination run for a bit. This is not something I could do if I did not have an office with a door.

When I designed the current office space we’ve been in for over two decades [I asked to be able to submit a design before we moved there, and mine was accepted], I provided as many of our employees with their own offices as I could get away with – the only exceptions being our Help Line people and the Mailroom staff.

The office design feedback from the employees has always been positive. And our Office is often cited as an example across the nation.

The cubicle, in my opinion, stifles creativity and causes morale to suffer, especially in stressful environments. The one place in our organization where personality conflicts arise most often is in the cubicled Help Line Room [my original design had each staffer in little offices with no doors, so the Supervisor could listen-in on his people].


All of this is a lead-up to an old Scientific American article I was made aware of by Kathy Shaidle that concerns The Origin Of Cubicles And The Open-Plan Office [the latter, another 'innovation' I think a worse invention than the cubicle].

As you may not be surprised to learn, the Open-Plan Office was designed during the foul and dastardly Progressive Age by Progressives:

Privacy-challenged office workers may find it hard to believe, but open-plan offices and cubicles were invented by architects and designers who were trying to make the world a better place—who thought that to break down the social walls that divide people, you had to break down the real walls, too.

In the early 20th century modernist architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright saw walls and rooms as downright fascist. The spaciousness and flexibility of an open plan, they thought, would liberate homeowners and office dwellers from the confines of boxes. But companies took up their idea less out of a democratic ideology than a desire to pack in as many workers as they could. The typical open-plan office of the first half of the 20th century contained long rows of desks occupied by clerks in a white-collar assembly line.

I suppose you could say that the Progressives who came up with this idea were practitioners of Liberation Officeology.

And, as always happens, the original, Kumbaya-esqe attempt was taken by Businessmen of a Fascist bent and made to serve their Corporatist Dream of reducing workers to beans to be counted.

A ‘reform’ was tried in the 1950’s, but, alas-alack [/sarc] it led to a different type of soulless Tyranny [although the author of this Scientific American article, in his Hippie-esqe thralldom still believes with all of his folk-music-playing heart that 'it could have worked!'].

Cubicles were interior designers’ attempt to put some soul back in. In the 1950s Quickborner, a German design group, broke up the rows of desks into more organic groupings with partitions for privacy—what it called the Bürolandschaft, or “office landscape”. In 1964 American furniture company Herman Miller introduced the Action Office system, which offered such improvements as larger surfaces and multiple desk heights. In 1968 Herman Miller began to sell its system as modular components, with the unfortunate consequence of letting companies cherry-pick the space-saving aspects of these designs and leave out the humanizing touches.

So…the Open-Office Plan failed, the reformative cubicle failed, and now what are the Progressives doing about it?

Yes!…you guessed it: they’re going back to the beginning.

As corporations began to shift all their employees, not only clerks, into open-plan offices, Herman Miller designer Robert Propst disavowed what he had spawned, calling it “monolithic insanity.” Today, many companies are even reverting to the precubicle rows of desks, now called “pods” to make them sound vaguely futuristic.

Changing the name – that’s the ticket [seems to me this is the regular pattern of every Progressive idea.]

Oh…by the way:

Although open plans do have advantages in fostering ambient awareness and teamwork, a meta-analysis published last year in the Asia-Pacific Journal of Health Management by Vinesh Oommen of the Queensland University of Technology in Australia found that they cause conflict, high blood pressure and increased staff turnover. Let us hope that architects’ next idealistic impulse will be rather more successful.

Of course.

  1. 22 September 2014 @ 16:58 16:58

    Pretty much. When I worked in an open office in the shipyard, it wasn’t much fun to have an open desk. But the large open study areas at the University aren’t bad, mostly because people understand it’s a place to be quiet.

    As for cubes, at least it’s a small amount of space for one person…

    Better than an open plan office, though.

  2. 22 September 2014 @ 17:10 17:10

    Open spaces and multi-use rooms in a home are a good idea, but I couldn’t imagine not having a room I can retreat to (beyond bedrooms and bathrooms).

    In an office, even where you might need to have everyone gather in a bullpen-type space, those people ought to have offices too.

    I had a cubicle of my own during a two-year student job at the University of Alaska, but I essentially had two bosses, and one of them was right on the other side of the partition that didn’t have cabinets on it. There were times hearing her say my name made me cringe.

    I’m not built to cringe. Finding myself doing it makes me unhappy.

  3. 22 September 2014 @ 19:38 19:38

    I miss my office.
    It had 4 large windows, 2 doors and a bed. It also had a steering wheel and 300 horses.
    My worst days driving were still better than any job I ever had working in a building. Give me a load the road and a destination and I was a happy trucker.

  4. Adobe_Walls permalink
    22 September 2014 @ 19:40 19:40

    Architects, at least the less famous ones(Don’t get me started on I.M. Pei), may have a lot less influence on interior spaces than you may imagine. I’ve worked on dozens of mid to high rise office buildings in my career and they’re basically owner occupied or “spec” (usually rented space). In a spec office building, aside from the stair/elevator/bathroom core there is no interior design whatsoever. Unless the “base building architect” gets the tenant work design contract he has no input on the work space design and is usually a dick about cooperating with the tenant work team. I worked on one project wherein the project building general contractor didn’t get the tenant work contract, much hilarity ensued. I built one building in Reston VA in which the insulation and sheet rock for the exterior walls was designated tenant work. At any rate one can see the appeal of cheap and more flexible partition designs when one is merely renting the space.

    In this computer age I can see the appeal to management of being able to see as many employee computer screens as possible from any particular vantage point despite any sacrifice in efficiency due to lack of privacy. This certainly should be the case for Fedgov worker bees.


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