Culture At Large

The curse of the cubicle?

David Greusel

Is the cubicle cursed? Film and television would have you believe so. From Fight Club to Office Space to The Office, the cubicle has seemed to bear the weight of a Genesis 3 curse: “by the sweat of your brow you will eat food” and “(the ground) will produce thorns and thistles for you.” Viewed as part of the thorn-and-thistle category, cubicles come in for their share of mockery, especially from the emir of ennui, Scott Adams, with his brilliant Dilbert comic strip.

But is the cubicle really cursed? In an enlightening interview with The Atlantic, Nikil Saval, author of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, shares some of the cube’s origin story. As conceived by Robert Propst, the original “Action Office” was designed to be a liberating tool, enabling the growing hordes of postwar office workers to prosper.

So what happened? Well, like modern architecture, cubicles turned out to be cheap as well as contemporary, allowing companies to cram more workers into less space, the ultimate version of which is the call center. This formulaic planning, where space per worker is calculated to the fractional square foot, can result in dehumanizing warrens of cubicles served by narrow aisles that give the overall impression of a maze. Lacking daylight, visual relief, orientation cues and human touches, these dens can indeed seem soul-crushing.

It shouldn’t be this way. Work, even office work, was invented before the Fall. God’s instructions to “cultivate and subdue” gave our first parents broad scope to understand, alter and arrange nature to allow both them and it to flourish. This mandate includes how we organize our office work, and includes the possible use of cubicles as instruments of human flourishing. But for cubes to rise to that level, we must understand what a cubicle is - and isn’t.

Workers unhappy with their cubicle imagine that its alternative is a private office. It isn’t. The alternative to a cubicle is a desk farm - rows of desks stretching to the horizon of a large open room. Compared to a desk farm, a cube farm looks downright appealing.

Work, even office work, was invented before the Fall.

Ironically, we are witnessing the return of the desk farm today in trendy offices, where cubes are giving way to “open plans” without even the modest imposition of a cubicle partition between workers. Tech firm employees work at superdesks - giant dining tables lined with laptops instead of dinner plates, where startup drones try to tune out the creative din while they attempt to write code, fill orders or design the next great app. Working at a superdesk will make even an extrovert long for the proximate peace of a cubicle.

In a career spanning decades, I have worked in every imaginable arrangement of office furniture, from cube farms to private offices to custom desks to open offices. While all these arrangements have their benefits, I have come to appreciate the flexibility, usefulness and relative privacy of the cube as superior. Unless you’re a counselor, private offices are often too private and cut workers off from the give and take of people attempting to collaborate on projects. Overly open plans are the workplace equivalent of nudity: nice in theory, uncomfortable in practice. A well-outfitted cubicle offers a pleasant middle ground: not as isolated as an office, but lacking the forced intimacy of the superdesk. And cube companies have invented no end of nifty ways to accessorize your cube to make it both functional and interesting.

How can we organize a cube farm so as not to be a soul-sucking maze? Generosity is a central idea: cubicles should be planned to maximize productivity, not worker density. Spatial breaks for lounge furniture, plants or access to views are crucial. And color is vitally important. Never let a designer whose favorite color is gray specify your workstations. Neutrality is overrated.

As a cube worker, one also should have the freedom to personalize one’s workspace. Companies with fascist rules about personal items in cubes should be shunned. Your cubicle should be a personal statement of who you are (or desire to be), whether that means ball caps, snow globes, bobbleheads or Pez dispensers. So decorate with abandon, all you who dwell in cubes. Long may they live.

Topics: Culture At Large, Business & Economics, Workplace, Arts & Leisure, Art