The Office Space Race

If you can’t stand cubicles at work, blame Robert Propst.

In the late 1960s, Propst, a designer who worked for furniture maker Herman Miller, developed a modular work station he thought would be the workplace of the future. He called it the “Action Office.” We call it misery.

When asked to rate their office on more than a dozen factors like noise, privacy, air and light quality, cubicle dwellers were the gloomiest, topping the dissatisfaction scale in 13 of 15 categories, according to a 2013 study by researchers at the University of Sydney in Australia.
The irony is that deep dissatisfaction with the office environment is exactly what Propst was trying to solve. Now, as more companies move to airy, open office plans complete with collaborative spaces, we risk making the same mistake.

In the 1950s and 1960s, corporate offices were filled with long banks of uniform tables and dull, characterless offices.

To Propst, this was dehumanizing, taking little account of the individuals whose work lives were spent in the trenches. He proposed a radical redesign that would put those workers and their needs at the center of the workplace experience.

The Action Office system aimed to give workers privacy with a mobile wall unit as well as flexibility with a series of standardized and interchangeable parts, customizable and easy to assemble or adjust as needed for different working situations. To him, it was the ideal workplace. For many of us, it came to represent the exact opposite.

Propst eventually agreed, saying that his aim to give the modern knowledge worker a flexible and fluid work environment became victim to corporate cost-saving. Companies took advantage of the concept’s space-saving measures, packing more workers into tighter spaces while ignoring some of the humanizing aspects. “The cubiclizing of people in modern corporations is monolithic insanity,” Propst told the New York Times in 1997.

Just as our first wave of office redesign sacrificed the humanization of the office for cost efficiency, the second wave looks ready to fall victim to another corporate initiative.

Progressive companies have been rapidly redesigning the workplace, rooting out the cubicle farm and replacing them with open tables and shared work “pods.” The few private offices that survived the first cubicle wave are being further squeezed or even replaced to create space for team meeting rooms and open spaces where impromptu gatherings and “creative encounters” can happen.

Pingpong tables and pinball machines are being moved into new game rooms. Shades are being drawn and decibel-deadening walls are going up in Zen-like private meditation spaces.

Out are hierarchy and privacy, while in are teamwork and sharing. Office designers talk of the “cognitive ergonomics” of modern work and creating “peak performance flow state.” 

But in the rush to reimagine the open office plan, we’re guilty once again of sacrificing the needs and desires of individual workers. This time it’s not cost saving. It’s marketing.

From that point of view, offices aren’t just a place where workers get things done. They’re a vehicle to promote the corporate brand.

In this idealized version of work, office drones transform into buzzing honeybees, flitting from station to station to talk with one another and collaborate in a bustling hive of activity and productivity that boosts workplace satisfaction and team effectiveness.

The problem is it’s not true. A Harvard Business Review study of Scandinavian Airlines’ open office showed that the majority of interpersonal interactions — up to two-thirds of them — still take place in private spaces. Open offices may even be hurting top performers by sapping their motivation and creating an overwhelming cognitive burden that gets in the way of their work.

Lower performers benefit from their expertise and insight, but their individual job performance drops as they’re called to help.

According to the Australian study, the only workers less satisfied with their working conditions than open office workers are cubicle dwellers. I guess that’s progress.