A recent article in The New York Times proclaims that when it comes to the workplace, “solitude is out of fashion.” At Etsy and many other contemporary offices, the cubicle walls have been knocked down in favor of open floor plans that encourage collaborative thinking. The problem is that the newfound love for the groupthink model in offices goes against many studies: research shows that workers excel when they feel a sense of privacy, free from interruptions. In that light, maybe cubicles deserve reexamination. For decades, design of the workplace has driven social changes, often reflecting whatever it is we value in workers at the time. Today’s office values people skills, team work and open communication. Yet in the past, office design encouraged repression and efficiency.
Efficiency and productivity drove the design of offices in the first half of the 20th century, championed by an American engineer named Frederick W. Taylor. After many years of trial and error, Taylor developed what he thought was the ideal office plan and design, naming the new system after himself. “In 1911, Taylorism was transformed overnight from an obscure obsession of certain middle-class engineers to an amazing and highly publicized nostrum for all society,” wrote Judith A. Merkle in her book Management and Ideology. Taylorism actually looks closer to today’s popular office layout: an open floor with desks lined up next to each other, free from cubicles. But ultimately, Taylorism favored management efficiency over the comfort of individual employees; base-level workers often felt like cattle, while management kept desks and offices in separate areas. Taylor drove himself crazy trying to prove that his system worked; he even developed the Taylor accounting system, hoping he could show how his system increased company earnings.
Until the 1960s, offices continued to riff on some form of a Taylorist design. But all of that changed when designer Herman Miller’s company created the Action Office, a set of furnishings that resulted from years of researching the problems faced by office workers. Harold Probst was a designer on Miller’s team who was sick of what he called the “idiot salutation problem.” He was tired of constant interruptions from his coworkers who stopped to say hello every hour. Probst’s solution was to create the cubicle, the key design fixture in the Action Office. This new system enabled employees to feel free to work in positions that best suited them, creating an environment where solitary tasks could be accomplished without the pressuring gaze of upper management.
Now here we are today, with the cubicle seen as the ultimate soulless enemy of the office. Having worked in several styles of offices, I realize the negatives of open-plan offices; while I never have the “idiot salutation problem,” I sometimes had trouble completing my own thoughts and tasks, and was often spotted across the office and pulled into meetings where I didn’t belong. A mix of public and private space is key. The problem isn’t the cubicle, it was the way in which it was implemented. Rigidly packed into buildings with harsh, fluorescent lights overhead, cubicles were only seen as social separators rather than individualized spaces where employees could freely create.
The office will face many challenges in the next two decades. The EU, for example, has recently found that one in two working adults will be over the age of 50 by 2020. The newly designed offices by companies like Google and Facebook, where fire poles, rope courses and hammocks are the norm, might look ridiculous in a decade to its aging workforce. Even more, some argue that the office itself is no longer necessary for productivity, claiming that it even goes against our abilities to get things done. Either way, prepare for change — the office is due for another revolution.
Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.