The lowly cubicle — the scourge of worker bees and middle managers across the the business landscape. It wasn’t intended to be that way.
The father of the office cubicle is Robert Propst, an independent-minded Colorado native who has 120 patents to his name. Propst excelled at creating complex, system-oriented solutions for modern problems.
To increase worker productivity, he designed the Action Office system for Herman Miller in 1968 as an alternative to the old “bullpen” office design in which a large room was filled with desks.
“Today’s office is a wasteland. It saps vitality, blocks talent, frustrates accomplishment,” said Propst of the office designs of the early 1960s. “It is the daily scene of unfulfilled intentions and failed effort.”
Propst’s Action Office system featured ample shelving for storage and organization, partitions that provided increased privacy and multi-level desk surfaces so employees could sit or stand while working. Manufactured so that all of the components were interchangeable, the Action Office system was suppose to be the model of flexibility allowing multiple configurations to meet the needs of individual employees.
But the success of the Action Office system — and the knock-offs from other furniture makers — boiled down to economics not worker productivity or well-being. Simply put, these new “furniture systems” allowed companies to house more workers in smaller spaces
“The Action Office wasn’t conceived to cram a lot of people into little space,” said Joe Schwartz, in a 2006 interview with Fortune Magazine. The former marketing chief at Herman Miller helped launch the Action Office and lamented that, “They kept shrinking the Action Office until it became a cubicle.”
Did you know?
- Cubicle says total more than $3 billion annually.
- The animated series of the popular comic strip “Dilbert” introduced the phrase “chronic cubicle syndrome.”
- An office filled with cubicles is sometimes called a “cube farm.”