Time to End Cramped Cubicles

With skyrocketing real estate costs, businesses are opting for smaller employee work spaces like cubicles and group desks. That’s why you don’t have your own office anymore.

Even 10 years ago, in a midlevel position, you often got your own private office with lights you could control, a big window, and a door to close.

These days, with the “hoteling” trend, desk shares, and working from home, the traditional office is still reinventing itself, with the latest being long desks in a wide-open space. But cubicles remain. I must wonder why.

Recently, I organized a cramped cubicle for a male employee who stands 6’3”. It’s so tight in there, he cannot stretch out his legs, and has to crane his neck back while opening his cupboard door so that he doesn’t whack his head. When a colleague comes to the half-wall entrance, he has to swivel his chair a full 180 degrees to see who it is.

He is quite uncomfortable in this space.

It takes more courage, than most people have, to ask during a job interview: “What does my office look like? How much square footage is it?” Once you are hired, you must accept wherever the employer assigns you.

The cubicle was invented by Robert Propst, an office-furniture company designer. When they debuted his concept of walled-in private space in the early 1960s, it was a time when individual office space was shrinking.

Instead of long tables, shared desks, and wall-less spaces, he invented 6-by-6 square cubicles to give office workers more privacy through semi-enclosed workspaces, thinking it would lead to a more efficient, happier employee. His design was trying to replace open spaces, but we now have both designs.

And both are noisy, distracting, lack privacy, and frustrate employees.

The 1960s cubicles accommodated more employees joining the workforce, in particular women, while minimizing space and companies’ rental estate costs. But so-called Cube Farms make most people feel caged in, especially if there’s no sunlight. Some employees may goof off since no one can see what they are doing.

As such, popular entertainment has immortalized cubicle culture: Dilbert creator Scott Adams’ brilliant cartoons, the TV series Mad Men sets the scene, and we feel the pain in cult movie hit, Office Space.

Remember the disrespected, mumbling character, Milton, in Office Space? He was let go five years ago and no one even told him! So he kept going into his pod, surrounded by boxes, stacks of paper, and clutter, seriously unhappy with being moved every few months into another cramped space.

So where does this leave us?

In this modern business world, our society has shifted to activity-driven, employee perks (foosball anyone?), and open spaces for collaboration.

Office designers are combatting the lack of sunlight and privacy with open spaces, and “breakout rooms.” Companies build spaces to accommodate different work tasks, such as a private room with comfy couches for brainstorming, or a closed off booth for private phone conversations.

Whatever we do, let’s retire cubicles.