How the universally hated cubicle came to be


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Look around you. If you work in an office, you're probably surrounded by cubicles, filing cabinets, florescent lights, and the many other mundane designs of the modern office environment.

But the cubicle — and the rest of these inventions — have a history that's more interesting than you might imagine.

Nikil Saval, an editor at the literary magazine n+1, recently explored this history in the book,Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace. Here, he discusses a few of the most interesting origin stories he uncovered.

Cubicles were designed to give workers freedom

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(Shutterstock.com)

"The cubicle was actually intended to be this liberating design, and it basically became perverted," Saval says.

As he writes, its origins lie in the creations of Robert Propst, a designer at the Herman Miller company in the 1950s and 60s. "Propst tried to come up with an individualized, autonomous space for workers that was flexible, that could be changed if circumstances in the office changed. The design he eventually came up with and debuted in 1964 was called Action Office: it was three-walled, obtusely angled, fabric-wrapped wood. The idea was that you could shape it to whatever sort of setup you needed — it was never meant to be stuck in place."

SOON, MANAGERS SAW IT AS A REALLY USEFUL TOOL FOR CRAMMING AS MANY PEOPLE INTO AS LITTLE SPACE AS POSSIBLE

At the time, these adjustable, independent units, equipped with both sitting and standing desks, were a forward-thinking way of upending the traditional office — in which lower-level workers were packed together in a bull pen, and surrounded by executives with private rooms. "But soon, the Action Office became popular and widely copied, and it became clear that managers saw it as a really useful tool for cramming as many people into as little space as possible," Saval says. "And that’s when it became more like a box."

It wasn't merely these boxes' unintended rigidity,though, that led to them becoming so detested. "In the 1980s and early '90s, the recession was especially harsh on white collar workers, and cut into their ranks. Layoffs became common, and there was a rapid increase in mergers, and you had workers emerging from them and being thrown into cubicles," Saval says. "So the cubicle became the symbol of the transforming workplace — of impermanence and the disposability of workers."

The filing cabinet was once a revolutionary innovation

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"We assume that some aspects of work, like vertical filing cabinets, are just a given — but it actually took several tries for people to come it that as a more efficient form of filing," Saval says.

The earliest filing cabinets, from the 1880s, were large, wooden structures that held horizontal stacks of files in drawers. Even these were revolutionary in the way that they made files accessible — previously, Saval writes, they were just folded or rolled up and stuck in desk pigeonholes.

IT UNLEASHED THE FLOOD OF PAPERWORK THAT WOULD COME TO DEFINE THE MODERN OFFICE

But the idea of organizing files vertically in cabinets, which came about around the start of the 20th century, made records even more accessible — and unleashed the flood of paperwork that would come to define the modern American office. "This was connected to a larger craze of efficiency in America —Taylorism, and things like that," Saval says. "People were finding better ways to sort more and more paperwork. Offices became, basically, an enormous file."

Interestingly, as more and more offices were housed in skyscrapers, the flammability of wooden cabinets stuffed with paper became a concern, so they were replaced with metal. "So the file cabinet, in a way, mimicked the form of the skyscraper," Saval says.

Air conditioning and fluorescent lighting allowed skyscrapers to grow

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Worapol Sittiphaet

Neither AC nor fluorescent lighting were specifically invented for offices — but they were both essential for the ubiquitous, glass-covered skyscrapers that now fill American downtowns with office workers.

AC KEPT HUGE OFFICES AT FROSTY TEMPERATURES, AND FLORESCENT LIGHTS SHINED OVER WORKERS FAR FROM WINDOWS

Early skyscrapers required central courtyards to let in light and air, the expense of lighting meant that floor sizes were generally capped by the distance natural light could travel from windows. AC and cheap fluorescent lighting lifted these constraints. "They permit these giant floor plans in huge glass skyscrapers, which let in tons of light and have to be powerfully cooled," Saval says.

In 1952, the UN Secretariat Building in New York was completed. The next ten years, Saval writes, saw a wave of glass imitators sprout up across America's largest cities — over that period, the average office's floor space doubled, as did the total number of American white-collar workers. Air conditioning kept these large-scale offices (packed with hundreds of human bodies) at frosty temperatures, and fluorescent lights shined over the workers seated far from exterior windows.

"The giant glass skyscraper is a symbol of postwar US prosperity, and it was made possible by these advances," Saval says.

Open offices were intended to be utopian workspaces

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Nowadays, open offices may seem like a relatively modern concept, part of the backlash against cubicle farms. But "one interesting thing to note is that it’s not a new idea — it was really invented in Germany, in the late '50s and early '60s, they called it the office landscape," Saval says. "The idea was that you eliminate hierarchies, and barriers to communication, and create workplaces that allow flow of communication and paperwork."

THE IDEA WAS TO ELIMINATE HIERARCHIES AND BARRIERS TO COMMUNICATION

Like the original cubicle, the initial concept ofBürolandschaft — which translates as "office landscape" — was strikingly different than the open offices popular today. Instead of orderly rows, desks were arranged in organic clusters, and all workers, whether entry-level or executives, had roughly equivalent amounts of window access.

The idea didn't end up taking off in Europe — where unions and working agreements often give workers a say in office design — but has become widely implemented un the US, if in an altered form. Despite the lofty ideals behind the open office concept, it's generally used for one key reason: "they’re often about real-estate costs, and making it cheaper to have more people in less space," Saval says.

The problem is that research has never supported the idea that open offices achieve any of the benefits their German inventors envisioned. "Human psychology studies show pretty definitively that they’re really bad, in terms of distraction," Saval says. "Psychologically, they’re more stressful — they have all the problems of cubicles, but compound them with visual distractions."

Standing desks were widely introduced way back in the 1960s

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Logan Ingalls

Although standing desks were used by a number of idiosyncratic thinkers throughout history, their place in modern office furniture, it turns out, can also be traced to Robert Propst and the 1964 Action Office.

IN THE LANGUAGE OF THE TIME, THEY SAID THAT OTHERWISE, 'TOXINS' WOULD BUILD UP IN WORKERS

"The idea was to let workers move positions," Saval says. "Early designs by other scientific management experts also emphasize the ability to move, and stand up, for workers. In the language of the time, they said that otherwise, 'toxins' would build up in them. And this isn’t scientifically accurate, but it’s basically sound in terms of health as a whole."

It's taken a while, but standing desks appear to be finally taking off — and Saval thinks that giving office workers the choice to stand is a pretty good idea, for the health benefits and other reasons. "The standing desk is one of the few office fads that I am hard pressed to criticize. Sitting is bad," he says. "I can be pretty grumpy about all this stuff, but I think these desks are good."

Tech campuses are designed to make sure workers never leave

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In Cubed, Saval also looks at recent trends in the evolution of the office, and visited several tech campuses — including Google's headquarters in Mountain View, California, where, he writes, "you not only get free food all day and the gym anytime you want but also have day care, on-campus health and dental service, a resistance pool, and the ability to get your oil changed."

YOU HAVE DAY CARE, ON-CAMPUS HEALTH AND DENTAL SERVICE, AND A RESISTANCE POOL

Saval's not the first to observe that all these utopian amenities hide something mundane: the company's desire to keep its workers there for as many hours as possible. "It's odd," he says. "In a way, they’re the most admired workplaces, yet they’re less exceptional in the way that a lot of them place a huge emphasis on having workersthere. That seems to run against what people perceive as the trend, that you can work anywhere."

Like other observers, Saval is also critical of the way these inward-looking campuses, filled with workers shuttled in and out from cities miles away, fail to interact at all with the surrounding areas.

"The cities that are actually around the campuses have not developed, because they’re not designed to support communities around them," he says. "A really egregious example is the new Apple campus, called Apple II, that Norman Foster designed. It’s deplorable. You have a giant disk that occupies a wooded park that’s just for the workers, no one else."

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