Thursday, March 16, 2006

Cubicles and Unintended Consequences

by Tom Bozzo

Here's an interesting find, via the Postalnews blog : A recent Fortune article presents a brief history of the cubicle.

As conceived at Herman Miller in the late sixties, it was meant to be a humane alternative to "open bullpen" office arrangements (i.e., where everyone except the managers, who have offices, works at desks in an open office area; cf. The Apartment). The original vision, however, went more-or-less to the same junkyard as the funky lounge areas in widebody jetliners — Sir Richard's Upper Class being the exception that proves the rule.

Some of the would-be alternatives, it must be noted, have been pretty stupid:
Having taken over the world, the cubicle defeated several attempts to dethrone it. One of the most ambitious assaults came in 1993, when Jay Chiat, chairman of ad agency Chiat/Day, declared a sort of Bolshevik revolution when he moved his employees into newly renovated space in Venice, Calif. The design "was loungy, like Starbucks," remembers Stevan Alburty, then head of technology. "It was 20 years ahead of its time."

But it had a fatal flaw: No one had a fixed place to work. Employees were expected to park their belongings in lockers and check out laptops every morning as if renting a movie at Blockbuster. It quickly sparked a counter-rebellion--many employees simply stopped coming to the office, preferring to work at home. After the firm was acquired by an advertising conglomerate, employees got workspaces again.

I use and endorse offices with walls, windows, and a door.

There's also a more-tendentious-than-it-looks quote from Rep. Frank Wolf, whose northern Virginia district includes some of Washington, D.C.'s western exurbs:

"There is nothing magic in strapping ourselves into a metal box every day only to drive to an office where we sit behind a desk working on a computer."

That's true to some extent. But I can think of two significant objections right off the top of my head.

First, many jobs do benefit from face-to-face interaction with colleagues. (Oops, I mean colleagues.)

Second, and apropos of the annual hand-wringing over supposed productivity losses due to the NCAAs (or substitute any other Big Event), telecommuting seemingly open ups nearly limitless avenues for time-theft by employers who can effectively have employees on call all the time. Either that, or it's a step towards a capitalist reification of the old saw about pretending to work for pretend pay under communism.

More seriously, the freely chosen option of telecommuting is undoubtedly valuable. Shifting the cost of maintaining a workplace onto employees, less so.
Hmmm, interesting post. I agree on one level that interaction with collegaues is good. But ownership of space is good too - you need a place to escape to and get some work done. This makes me think of the current debate about laboratory design on our campus.

Most research scientists (excpt those who do field work) are used to working in a somewhat open laboratory with rows and rows of benches (on average about 5-6 feet long) where experiments are performed. Attached to each bench is a teeny little desk (maybe 2 feet by 2 feet). The main drawbacks to this arrangment are a) is it somewhat loud since nothing absorbs sound in a resaerch lab and b) there is not much space. The typical set up often includes back-to-back work spaces where the distance between two desks/benches is around 5 -6 feet from edge to edge. This doesn't include the space taken up by the chairs.

And now, with the recent opening on campus of a new Norman Foster designed laboratory building which is very open this traditional model of the laboratory workspace is being challenged. Among the most notable differences are the open-ness of the space - there are virtually no interior walls and all the outside walls are mostly windows - and the mobility of all the laboratory equipment that was previously static. Benches and desks are on wheels and can be placed anywhere the lab head decides. In line witn Mr Foster's plan, most labs have benches and desks that are scattered randomly throughout the workspace rather than ordered in rows. And the desks are never attached to one's workbench. This has the odd result that most people do experiments in one part of the lab (near someone else's desk) and work on their computer in another (near someone's bench).

This makes me think of the Chiat/Day workspace you described. And, like that workspace, this new design generally doesn't work as well. It's prettier to look at, but much less functional.

So those who work in cubicles - rejoice. You might feel stale and cramped, but at least you have only one workspace and you don't bump into your coworker's chair every time you stand up.

(p.s. sorry for the long comment, I seem to be particularly passionate about office/workspace design tonight. I promise to keep it shorter in the future!)
SP, no need to apologize for the length of the comment.

I completely agree with you on 'ownership of space' -- as I said, I endorse my four-wall office arrangment, and see maintaining a centralized workplace as the primary means of enabling interaction with colleagues.

As another observation on the situation you describe, the University of Wisconsin's campus master plan predicts the construction of a lot of space for life and medical sciences without a material increase in the faculty, research staff, and/or grad student population. That will obviously relieve the space constraint that leads to the cramped 'traditional' arrangment. It would be interesting to see how they handle the interior design problem.

I'd think providing some private space for all the stakeholders would be a no-brainer, but based on your new lab building, apparently not.
It's also worth keeping in mind the additional problem with telecommuting: a lot of us go a bit buggo if we intermingle our working and living spaces too much. If I do too much work from home, I start to feel disoriented and demoralized. Sad, but very true. Give me a damned office over telecommuting any day.

Then again- we'll see what I say when I have kids.
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