4/23/10

Vintage Business #7: Dawn of the Cube



What you see above is the genesis of that dreadful and omnipresent piece of office furniture - the cubicle. 

They came on the scene with such promise. Read old issues of Architectural Digest, and you'd think they were describing the dawn of a New Age.  An age without cloistered offices. An age of open communication.  The cubicle was the answer to the stuffiness and chaos of the "old" office.  Now the office is a place where dreams are made.


Once businesses saw how much they could save in both furniture costs and square footage, it wasn't long before this experiment became the standard. It took a couple decades before these cubes stopped being the hallowed symbol of industrial modernity, and became the butt of jokes and the symbol of all that is petty, uninspiring and dehumanizing in corporate life. [source]

In 2006, Fortune ran an article titled "Cubicles: The Great Mistake", and pop culture hasn't been any less critical with Dilbert and Office Space being prime examples. 

What's so bad about them? Personally, I think it derives from their cheapness - they weren't designed to last... thus, the employee who is stationed in one of these things also feels cheap and temporary.  

   

I can speak from personal experience. A few years ago, I was given an office, graduating from the cubicle farm, and my work environment improved exponentially.  My fellow employees still residing in the cubicle wasteland aren't exactly pleased with their surroundings.   They don't really provide much privacy and even the best ones aren't very soundproof. Worst of all is the overriding sensation that you are as disposable as your office furniture.


On top of all this negativity is the overwhelming impression of "sameness"; a complete lack of individuality.  Every cubicle is the same bland square.  Some may try to make their cubicle their own, but it's generally an exercise in futility.


Am I glamorizing the pre-cube office?  Could pre-cube offices also look uninviting and drab? Yes and yes.  But there's no denying the cube has earned this bad reputation honestly. I'm not claiming smoke filled shag carpeted 70s offices are the pinnacle in industrial design.  What I am saying is that the global shift to cube farms was not an improvement. I am in agreement with Fortune. They were a big mistake.

9 comments:

  1. Obviously having your own office is better than being in a cube (congrats on that) but for those of us still in the cubes, what would be better than what we have now? In old movies and TV shows people have zero privacy, we in the cubes have some privacy, and a wall to hang things up on.

    Maybe my cube experience is atypical, because I work in a laid back academic setting, and nobody cares that I have pictures of dinosaurs, Godzilla, an Aubrey Beardsley print, Man Ray photos, "Peanuts" strips, etc. hanging all over the thing. But being in a cube has got to be better than being in the offices pictures at www.officemuseum.com.

    http://www.officemuseum.com/Large_Office_by_Nat_Photographic__Advertising_Co_Chicago.jpg

    http://www.officemuseum.com/IMagesWWW/OM_Office_c._1930.JPG

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  2. Having cubicle walls around my office space was certainly better than having no privacy at all. As for them having a sameness, well, so do all the actual offices lining the outside of corporate office spaces. And as for their cheapness, I also disagree. Most of them are made from heavy steel, string enough to hold thick desk surfaces and heavy steel cabinets. Ever tried to move one wall section? They aren't light and cheap.

    Sure, sometimes it would be nice to unscrew a cube wall and be able to look out the window, but then your boss would get on your case for staring and not working because he could see you.

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  3. I definately agree with you on this one Gilligan. There is nothing worse than having a faux wall that gives you a false sense of privacy. I don't know how many times I forgot they weren't real walls and had an "oh shit" moment!

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  4. My high school was designed along these lines. There were no doors in the door frames, almost no windows (too distracting we were told), many class rooms had no hard wired clocks (distractions, distractions) and some class rooms were designed just like the cubes. Imagine learning trig or calculus in a room where three other math classes are happening and the only thing dividing you from them are those wonderful cubical partitions.

    Truth in advertising to the future, I guess.

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  5. I don't see cubicles going anywhere anytime soon, but I think it matters where you work too. In the '90s I worked as a computer programmer for Allegheny County--endless rows of small, tight beige cubes. Now I work for a major healthcare company--still in a cubicle but it's twice the size and comes with 2 guest chairs, a big L-shaped desk, private lighting and ovehead cabinets. (It also helped that they switched all our computers to laptops.) I admit that sometimes I feel like in Cube Prison, but it beats flippin' grease at Wendy's! :)

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  6. Was? That office is a good 5 years junior to mine.

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  7. Monday-Friday? 9 to 5? Steady income and medical insurance? Sitting down all day? I'd KILL for a cubicle job.

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  8. Yeah, nothing like photos of rows and rows of desks in a big empty room to make you wish for the pre-cube days...

    I have to say, though, I love the livable office. Wicker chairs in your workspace? Only if you're Colonel Sanders.

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  9. There is no such thing as 9 to 5. I'm extremely lucky right now in that I have a true 8 to 5 job, but this came after nearly 20 years of working 8:30until "whenever we say you can go home." That could mean 8pm, or 1am, and even "see you Saturday and Sunday too." Does the job Sleestak mentions even exist?
    Oh -- BTW, I don't get benefits.

    But cubes suck regardless, especially because they are always sitting in an environment surrounded by offices. It should be all one way or all the other. Offices in a cube farm say, "These people are more important than you. They do more work, get paid more, and we like them more." Nice morale booster.

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