Tech & Work

Are cubicles evil?

One of the most popular articles zipping around the Internet last week and being posted across various social networking sites was the FORTUNE Magazine piece "Cubicles: The great mistake," which recounts the infamous history of the cubicle from its creation by Bob Probst, a researcher, in 1968 to its current loathing by many modern knowledge workers.

The most interesting thing about the article is the story of Probst. In all reality, we probably shouldn't blame him for the cubicle, because he later repented for his corporate sins. If Probst didn't design the cubicle for the suits at the time, they would have found someone else to do it. What Probst quickly realized once his original design got shrunk down to size, was that companies were simply looking to squeeze as many workers as possible into a small space that could be easily reconfigured at any time (although cubicle layouts are rarely ever reconfigured). Any naive notions of employee productivity and a pleasing work environment were trumped by the bottom line that cubicles save companies a LOT of money. (And that's why they probably won't go away any time soon either.)  

Interestingly, Probst's original design, called the "Action Office," was pretty altruistic. It was meant to give workers more counter space to spread out their work and be able to look at it holistically. It was also aimed at having different levels of counters, including some where employees could occasionally stand up and work to promote better blood flow and overall physical health. However, the cubicle was eventually shrunk down to size and deployed in large numbers throughout Corporate America. Probst later lamented the rapid spread of the cubicle, referring to it as "monolithic insanity."

Nevertheless, its spread continues. There will be over $3 billion worth of cubicles sold this year, continuing the reign of cubes as the leader of the office furniture market.

So what's the good and bad of cubes? Here's my quick rundown:

The GOOD:

  • Cheap
  • Inexpensive
  • Low cost
  • Did I mention that they cost less than offices?
  • They promote collaboration and interaction among teams
  • Managers can monitor workers more easily

The BAD:

  • Confidentially issues can come into play for sensitive documents and phone calls
  • Productivity can suffer when workers distract each other
  • Workers sometimes feel more paranoid and self-conscious

What do you think about cubicles? Does your organization use them? Do you think technology is easier or more difficult to support in cubicles? 

By the way, I wrote this from a temporary cubicle that I occupy when I travel to the CNET Networks office in Louisville.

About Jason Hiner

Jason Hiner is Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.

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