The Cubicle Turns 50


Love it or hate it, the dreaded office cubicle is part of our work life.

The office cubicle or “action office” was created by Robert Propst of the famed Herman Miller furniture company and debuted in 1964 as an alternative to the bull pen or classroom-style arrangements that dominated offices for decades prior to the 1960s. The original design was meant to mitigate the sensory overload and lack of privacy people complained about at the time.

Oddly enough, that same classroom-style design he was trying to combat with the cube has resurfaced as the “open office” concept that’s had quite the resurgence in the last decade. So this begs the question: Is the cube really all that bad, and do people really want to work in open office plans?

There is no doubt the proliferation of digital and wireless technology has dramatically changed the way we do work. However, one principle has always remained the same: The more you work with people and allow them to operate naturally, the more productive they will be–this is a concept that many in the executive ranks still struggle to comprehend. Instead of thinking in terms of cube vs. open plan, we should instead be thinking about smart design and enhancing the ability of employees to focus.

When it comes to creating a productive office space, here are some facts to consider from a 2013 study by the design firm Gensler:

  • 53% of employees are disturbed by others when trying to focus;
  • 69% of employees are dissatisfied with noise levels of their primary workspace;
  • 77% of employees prefer quiet when they need to focus.

For business owners considering the best layout for their workspace, here are some tips:

One Size Does Not Fit All. – Just because a design is all the rage in Silicon Valley doesn’t make it the right fit for your business. Work space design needs to be driven by more than meager attempts at forced collaboration and federally-mandated ergonomics. It’s about customizing a space to help people flow and operate as naturally as possible.  The recent emphasis on collaboration through shared workspaces may be at the cost of an individual’s ability to actually focus (Notice that most people in shared or open work spaces are wearing headphones).

A Little Privacy Can Go a Long Way. We are social creatures by nature, but we do need privacy. The famous Hawthorne studies demonstrated that when you know others are watching and listening, you act differently. People have a tendency to behave in ways that are socially desirable because they want to fit in. This can be both good and bad. Ultimately, it’s best to err on the side of being yourself and most people are likely to be themselves when they have some privacy. Also, people do like having their own space, an enclave where they can leave things without fear of disruption, a space they can  be responsible for and personalize. When you give people ownership they care.

Choice is Good. Autonomy fosters ownership and responsibility, which is why it’s important to allow employees freedom in how they work. Well-designed offices should offer a variety of spaces to allow  employees the freedom to choose the type of work space that best suits their needs at any one particular time. A Cornell study of small businesses found that those who gave employees choice in how they did their work grew 4 times faster and had  one-third less turnover!

When it comes down to it, you have to find ways to work with your employees, not against them. When it comes to work space, the spirit of getting it right really comes down to understanding the natural flow of human behavior. Executives and even designers often have the tendency to project their personalities and beliefs onto the office environment which can create work spaces that are more reflections of themselves than actually reflective of the needs of their employees.

Sebastian's First Birthday PartyMichael “Dr. Woody” Woodward, PhD is a CEC certified executive coach trained in organizational psychology. Dr. Woody is author of The YOU Plan: A 5-step Guide to Taking Charge of Your Career in the New Economand the new on-line course The YOU Plan for Career Change on Udemy. To book Dr. Woody for your next event contact Sue Falcone at or call 1-888-766-3155.

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