If you work a professional job, chances are you work in a cubicle. These walls have become more than furniture, they are part of our corporate identity.
A new book called Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace covers this topic. A great interview appears on The Atlantic. Rebecca Rosen and the author, Nikil Saval, discuss the horror story of the cubicle:
The original cubicle was about liberation. [Designer Robert Probst’s] concept proved enormously successful, and resulted in several copies—chiefly because businesses found it incredibly useful for cramming people into smaller spaces, while upper-level management still enjoyed windowed offices on the perimeter of the building. In that sense, the design was intended to increase the power of ordinary workers; in practice it came to do something quite different, or at least that’s how it felt to many people.
The cubicle became a symbol of an oppressive workplace because the years that the cubicle rose to dominance were also years that the workplace, in many ways, became more oppressive. It really took off in the 1980s and 90s, when mergers and buyouts took over the headlines, and layoffs became commonplace (the original meaning of the word “layoff” was just time off from work — not mass, somewhat indiscriminate firing). These were the years when the cubicle began to seem less like a space for exerting autonomy and independence, and more like a flimsy, fabric-wrapped symbol of workplace insecurity.
Neither cube farms, nor a big room, nor even private offices are what’s best for all employees. In fact, everyone working remote isn’t what’s best either. The ideal office environment is one in which individual team members choose the surroundings in which they work. By granting this power, people know they are trusted.
The culture of work is changing. This is evidenced by the visual appearance of workplaces, and the nature of work itself. If you’re thinking of buying more cubicles, think of talking with your team first. That conversation will make a difference.