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How’s Cubicle Life Going for You?

September 17, 2022

Dateline: May 16, 2018

This was the publication date of the following leadership post on the continuing squeeze on workspace footprints and the implications for wellness, productivity and creativity. Now over four years later, with half of this time immersed in a global pandemic, we’ve witnessed a rethinking of having white collar workers stuck in offices, crammed into smaller and smaller work spaces. Of course, those who’ve had to continue working in frontline occupations—from nurses, doctors and paramedics to hospitality and retail employees to public transit drivers—are not part of the teleworking conversation. More employers are now insisting that workers return to the office at least in hybrid form, and some want them back either fully in the workplace. As you read this not very old, slightly updated post, it does seem ancient in some ways.

One of my favourite Dilbert cartoons is from many years ago. Dilbert’s peering over his cubicle into the next one, asking the occupant: “What are you in for?”

Those five words sum up beautifully what has evolved–devolved?–over the past many decades in cubicle land. Your faithful correspondent was a cubicle dweller for much of three decades, starting in the private sector and then doing a long stretch with the federal government. In the eighties and nineties, cubby holes–cubicles–were small enough, but tolerable.

However, as the year 2000 receded in the rearview mirror, plans were underway in the public sector and in business to start squeezing office workers’ space, reducing their “physical footprint” to the smallest possible. All this has occurred while the remuneration packages of top management ballooned.

Once upon a time, people worked in huge open areas without zero privacy. And then came the cubicle some 60 years ago. But where did the idea of the cubicle start?

The irony of the cubicle concept is that it was intended to boost productivity, or so thought Robert Propst, a designer for office furniture manufacturer Herman Miller.

Propst, an inventor of heart valves and airplane components, wanted to improve efficiency over the bull-pen work setting that had been used for years. He designed what was called the Action Office, consisting of a large adjustable desk with vertical filing systems, separated from adjacent workers. It was about creating a semblance of privacy, with the belief that people would increase their productivity. For one thing, spreading out work (paper) on a large desk would supposedly produce more employee output.

By 1970, the Action Office concept had fizzled. Herman Miller then introduced what could be contemporarily deemed 2.0 – a compact modular cubicle with no adjustable desk. Management much preferred this model, since more workers were now compressed into the same physical space, plus managers benefited from having offices on the perimeter with windows. Other companies jumped into the now more lucrative office furniture market, most notably Steelcase.

Cubicle Land was born, and there was a lot of money to be made by manufacturers.

Of particular note, Propst later referred to his Action Office creation as a “monolithic insanity.”

Yet Propst’ monoliths now encompass some 40 million American workers; in Canada, that number would be around five million—or at least until Covid hit in the spring of 2020, whose effects are still not clear on the return to work and the degree of hybrid and total telework that will eventually settle in.

Some in the past have cynically referred to cubicle dwellers as The Walking Dead, given how working in such conditions eventually sucks out one’s spirit, wellness and creativity. The latter is of particular mention from a business perspective. Add in the bottom line metric of productivity, and the pernicious effects that cubicles have on it, and it offers up the question: doesn’t top management get it? Well, again thanks to Covid management is now trying to respond to the memo.

Silicon Valley has had a love affair with creating open office layouts, moving from slice and dice cubicles to employees not only working often at big tables but who are constantly on the move, changing on-site work locations regularly. Some companies started using the cubicle hotel concept, in which employees work at various tiny cubicles. No one has a “home.” This concept has started to gain traction as organizations emerge from the pandemic.

It doesn’t require a doctorate in organizational behaviour or psychology to understand that the bottom-line management fixation on squeezing as much space as possible from office floor design has had a negative effect on worker morale, wellness and productivity. Sure, open communication and team work are essential to organizational effectiveness and output. Except that senior management loves its emoluments – the perks – which it sees as a right when in reality they’re a privilege. In the vernacular, the people at the top aren’t practicing what they’re preaching. Fortunately, some smart companies have eliminated closed offices for management, forcing managers and executives to join the ranks of employees in open space designs.

It’s indeed difficult to espouse transparency, leadership and teamwork when senior management is not practicing it.

The steady move to continue shrinking individual worker space has occurred simultaneously with the ominous trend of creating a just-in-time workforce, in which people never hold permanent jobs, instead moving from contract to contract (creating huge retirement income problems down the road). That trend has been in play for several years.

The big question is what’s the long-term view (15 to 20 years out) of the open office concept, especially in a hoped for post-pandemic environment? What’s being debated now may prove to be a moot point in the bigger picture of Canadian and American workers’ roles in a global, technologically-driven labor market.

We need to give each other the space to grow, to be ourselves, to exercise our diversity. We need to give each other space so that we may both give and receive such beautiful things as ideas, openness, dignity, joy, healing, and inclusion. – Max de Pree (Retired, Former CEO, Herman Miller)

Connect with Jim on Twitter @jlctaggart and LinkedIn

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