Postcard from the Cube Farm


If you’ll be reporting to work in a cubicle tomorrow, you’re not alone.  Some estimates put the number of cubicles in offices throughout the U.S. at over 13,500,000.  The much-maligned flexible office space has been the staple of satire for years, most notably in Scott Adam’s Dilbert comic strip.  Cubicles have become a symbol of underpaid, overworked and underappreciated workers over the past 40 years since their invention.  Life in cubicles provides little privacy, meaning that you are exposed to noise and intrusions form your co-workers.

According to Wikipedia, the term cubicle comes from the Latin cubiculum, for bed chamber. A part of the English language as early as the 15th century, it eventually came to be used for small chambers of all sorts.  Inventor Robert Propst, a Colorado native who died in 2000, is credited with the invention of the cubicle while working for office furniture manufacturer Herman Miller, Inc.  Propst’s original creation, the Action Office, was launched in 1965, with the first commercial installation occurring in 1969.  Before cubicles, the standard office was set up in “bullpen” style – an open space with rows of desks that offered no visual privacy or space for storage.

According to Herman Miller’s website, the original concept was to create “components — the partitions and the desks and shelves attached to them – [that were] completely mobile, so that offices could be remade overnight rather than over months. And because of the proximity of shelves to desks, paperwork and other materials were easily accessible, not filed away in cabinets.”  The lack of design that dismays modern workers was apparently intentional.  In the late 1990’s, Propst was quoted as saying that “We tried to escape the idea of being stylish, which is gone in five years. The Action Office was supposed to be invisible and embellished with [your own] identity.”

Propst had no idea that his cubicle concept would become the symbol of all that’s wrong in modern business.  On the contrary – he tried to correct what he perceived as a miserable atmosphere in most offices of the 1950’s and 60’s.  He’s quoted as saying, “…Today’s office is a wasteland. It saps vitality, blocks talent, frustrates accomplishment. It is the daily scene of unfulfilled intentions and failed effort.”

Today’s modular designs have many options for storage and functionality, and there are ways to make cubicle life more bearable.  According to one cubicle design website, the ancient Chinese art of feng shui (pronounced “fung shway”) is the best way to insure a more livable cubicle.  The site recommends paying close attention to the flow of energy, or Ch’i, (“chee”) across the work surfaces. A well designed  feng shui plan takes into account everything from the placement of the waste basket to how you light your space and the art you choose for the wall.  The right choices can “create energetic harmony and balance.”  According to principles of feng shui, you’ll want to make sure to that your six by eight foot space is a pleasant place to spend eight or more hours.

Feng shui guidelines also warn us against too much clutter – a principle that makes sense for any cubicle with limited room to move.  Bringing in objects, art and mementos that bring you pleasure during the day will increase your productivity, especially if the objects you bring in are balanced among the elements: metal, earth, water, or wood.  Unfortunately, many corporations have policies that prevent staff from personalizing their cubicles.  If you’re in one of those companies, you’ll be staring at blank walls, which are padded for comfort as you bang your head against them.

As you face your bland cubicle walls tomorrow, understand that things could be worse.  Propst, with over 120 patents to his credit, also invented an electronic tagging system for livestock.  It was never adapted for office use.

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