FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The New Cubicles: Liberation or Dilbert Run Amok?

Introduced in 1968 -- and a huge improvement over the open "bullpen" office configuration that existed before then -- the office cubicle has become a symbol of the conformity and soullessness of corporate America. It's a perception so bad that pioneering cubicle designer Robert Propst cursed his invention (which he called the "Action Office") as a tool for "monolithic insanity." The term "cube farm" is particularly demeaning, Scott Adams built a lucrative career out of lampooning cube culture through Dilbert, and the cliche "thinking outside the box" in no small way refers to the modern office environment.

Now, office furniture designers are rethinking the cubicle. For workers, they seek to make the office more ergonomically sound and visually appealing. For bosses, they promise greater productivity and more efficient use of space.

Some of the designs offered by cubicle inventor Herman Miller, Steelcase and other office furniture vendors hardly resemble the traditional cube (boo hoo!). The typical gray or almond fabric-covered panels are replaced with colorful plastics, brushed steel and translucent panels -- even, in Herman Miller's new My Studio, closet space and doors.

Herman Miller "My Office"

The new designs are meant to offer a sense of privacy, muffle voices (having to overhear others' conversations is a top employee gripe), and accommodate modern electronics (an afterthought in cubicles designed in the age of typewriters). Designers are even offering modular "conference rooms," where two or more people can gather to talk away from others.

Designers are hoping that workers will be so impressed with the new designs that they won't notice that workspaces are, on average, about half the size they were three decades ago. Back then, the typical cubicle measured 12'x12'; today's counterparts average 6'x8'.

Source: TIME