Why The CUBICLE Will Come Back (And It’s Not Because of COVID)

The return of the cubicle

Let’s be honest: I don’t know anyone to tell me he loves cubicles. Maybe you do – let me know in the comments, I am genuinely interested.

But first, let me tell you about the story behind the cubicles. To me, it’s fascinating – check out Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, by Nikil Saval if you like it too!

Herman Miller in 1960 created a research institute called the Herman Miller Research Corporation, led by Robert Propst. Its first major project was an evaluation of the “office” as it had evolved during the 20th Century, and in particular, how it functioned in the 1960s. It included learning about the ways people work in an office, how information travels, and how the office layout affects their performance. Many experts were involved, such as mathematicians, behavioral psychologists, and anthropologists.

The studies suggested that an open environment actually reduced communication between employees, and impeded personal initiative. On this, Propst commented “One of the regrettable conditions of present day offices is the tendency to provide a formula kind of sameness for everyone.” Propst concluded that office workers require both privacy and interaction, depending on which of their many duties they were performing.

Here comes the first result of these studies, the Action Office I (AO-1) in 1964. AO-1 featured desks and workspaces of varying height which allowed the worker a freedom of movement, and to assume the work position best suited for the task. However, it was expensive and difficult to assemble – and yields to poor sales, despites a genuine interest from the design community.

Propst reworks on its concept of an office capable of constant change to suit the changing needs of the employee, without having to purchase new furnishings, and allowing the employee a degree of privacy, and the ability to personalize the work environment without impacting the environment of the workers nearby. He believed that people are more productive within a territorial enclave that they can personalize, but also that they require vistas outside their space.

Hence came the AO-2 around the mobile wall-unit that defined space. The components were interchangeable, standardized, and simple to assemble and install. More importantly, they were highly flexible, allowing employers to modify the work environment as needs changed. The AO-2 lineup met with unprecedented success, and other manufacturers quickly copied it. In 1978, “Action Office II” was renamed simply “Action Office”, and by 2005 had attained sales totaling $5 billion.

The cubicle has since been heavily critized for obstructing the flow, the visual interactions and the ability to freely discuss in an office. The juxtaposition of many cubicles clutters the visual space – can we say it does not look good in architecture magazines? It fell out of favor early in this century, as Silicon Valley startups embraced open offices to encourage collaboration, and companies elsewhere mimicked the idea. Dilbert has been probably the harshest critic, and brought the cubicles to the status of universally hated in the workplace design field…. until today.

But as you can see, its foundations were far from being silly or dogmatic – and were actually backed up by a lot of research. At Wx, we’ve measured that sound – the most natural quantified manifestation of physical interactions is lower by 30% in open spaces vs. traditional environments – which is surprising for a workplace that is supposed to increase physical interactions, isn’t it?

Anyway… these days are over. Now with the current mass dementia around hygiene, cubicles appear as an interesting alternative to bring back people without spoiling space. Some companies are already putting back plexiglass partition to provide a safe environment – like a cubicle on the cheap

Is this a regression? I don’t think so, and here’s why: The biggest change in workplace design has not been open spaces, but activity based working. They are two different things. Activity based working relies on the principle that people need a choice of setting to better perform at work. It includes workstations, as in open spaces or in cubicles, but also a large palette of spaces to accommodate their different activities. That’s why you can have unassigned desks without even thinking of the actual occupancy of the place – because people will eventually use more other spaces and use less their workstations.

Here is what I believe: cubicles will come back – but not because of Coronavirus. Cubicles will come back because they are very practical and modular, and they are an inexpensive solution to create some sort of privacy for procedural work. The current crisis has just allowed people to consider cubicles for what it is really, and not because of the trend.

This being said – it does not have to be ugly and covered with brown felt. Furniture makers – Herman Miller, Steelcase and the many others – all are now proposing cooler, more modular models.

So think about it for your next refurbishment. If you believe your company culture is special, don’t treat it with the same recipes as everyone else. If your employees tells you they hate the open space, don’t necessarily look to pay for more change management. Maybe some cubicles, even unassigned, will make the trick!