“Happy birthday cubicles!” said no one ever.
But 50 years ago, in the spring of 1964, Robert Probst’s modular workplace, known as the “Action Office” was first developed. While it was meant for comfort and efficiency, the design was a failure in terms of sales, and, according to Joe Shwarz, marketing director of furniture manufacturer Herman Miller at the time, “We had a few orders in Canada, but the executive market was extremely hard to penetrate. It was a first attempt.” In response, Probst had to alter his design, and the traditional cubicle was born.
Probst detested the “sterile uniformity” that corporate environments began to employ with the installation of cubicles, even though they were, at least in part, based on his designs.
George Nelson, a prominent designer for Herman Miller, described the office spaces as having a “dehumanizing effect as a working environment” and said that they created “corporate zombies.”
The biggest complaint Probst had with the cubicle system, according to Schwarz, was the fact that it did not utilize all of the intelligence that was included in the design. “
He had created something designed to foster a social environment, comfort people, and make sure no one suffered from a bad back (as he did), but succeeded only in accelerating the atomization of the office,” notes Andrew Burmon.
Now, half a century after cubicles started their rise to prominence in American workspaces, businesses are starting to build offices that support what Probst believed. And increasing number of owners and managers are switching to open plans that encourage communication and innovation, necessities in today’s competitive corporate environment. Perhaps the most notable example is Google, which has a highly unique office.
Burmon notes that office designs follow both technological and cultural trends and, while there is no such thins a perfect office, dysfunctional offices certainly exist.
“Years and years of social-scientific, ergonomic, and psychological research show that the cubicle is precisely what Probst though it was when, in 1968, he drew an image of a man surrounded by four walls and wrote one word underneath it: ‘Bad,’” he says. “It was a warning that went unheeded.”
”I’ve noticed that people are going to an even more open floor plan concept,” explains John Kiel, Vice President atPrecision Office Furniture Installation. “This open-plan desking system where people are sitting out in the open right across from each other seems like it’s the next phase. At the same time however, you don’t have any privacy, or your own defined space or territory.”
Changes in the workplace may prove to be a good thing not only for corporate employees, but furniture manufacturers. Recent data from the Business & Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association (BIFMA) says that office furniture sales will reach $10.6 billion in 2015.
“I wish Bob was alive,” says Schwartz. “I think we could help with the redesign.”