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How Cubicles Became a Symbol of Workers’ Discontent


Hate your office cubicle? Science backs you up. In a research paper, Harvard Business School doctoral candidate Ethan S. Bernstein found support for a “transparency paradox,” in which job performance declines as workers become more visible to managers. In other words, most modern offices are a disaster from a productivity standpoint. But is the cubicle, specifically, so deserving of our ire?

office cubicles 

(Photo Credit: Robert S. Donovan/Flickr)

Recently, The Atlantic‘s Rebecca J Rosen interviewed Nikil Saval, author of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, to discuss the relationship between workplace design and our experience as workers.

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The most surprising thing Saval discovered, early on in his research, was that the cubicle was intended to liberate employees, not corral them.

“The original designs for the cubicle came out of a very 1960s-moment; the intention was to free office workers from uninspired, even domineering workplace settings,” he says. “The designer, Robert Propst, was a kind of manically inventive figure — really brilliant in many ways — with no particular training in design, but an intense interest in how people work. His original concept was called the Action Office, and it was meant to be a flexible three-walled structure that could accommodate a variety of ways of working — his idea was that people were increasingly performing ‘knowledge work’ (a new term in the 1960s), and that they needed autonomy and independence in order to perform it.”

A Symbol of Power

So how did that utopian ideal become the burlap box we know today? In short, like all work spaces, it came to reflect hierarchy and power.

Even in open offices, Saval says, you’ll see markers of power. Managers will have more space, or better space, or even more plants, while lower status workers will get smaller allocations and less desirable spots. Also, today’s knowledge workers are largely invisible; Saval refers to a recent essay in The New Yorker, in which George Packer notes that a search for images of Amazon generally won’t bring up photos of engineers or warehouse workers, but pictures of a website with a shopping cart and an “add to cart” button.

The Upside: A Test

Cubicles aren’t all bad. Saval points out that workers in open offices might even miss them. Any office space is only as good as the company that uses it.

If your space is driving you nuts, the best thing to do is to try to figure out why, and see if there’s something you can do to mitigate the problem, whether it’s negotiating a day or two a week of working at home, blocking off time to work in a conference room, or asking your manager if it’s possible to move to a location that’s not as noisy.

It’s also helpful to know that cubicles can function as a metaphor, too. If you hate yours, your problem might not be with your workspace, but with your company. Untangle that issue, and you’ll know whether you need to look for a new spot in your current office — or a new job.

Tell Us What You Think

Cubicles — love ’em or hate ’em? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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