History of the Cubicle

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We ran a Web poll on the CertMag Web site not too long ago that asked what the biggest drawback of the IT profession was. The choices given were all the ones that you would’ve expected: offshore outsourcing, lack of respect from non-technical co-workers, geek stereotypes. In hindsight, I wish we’d included the option “cubicle life.” IT pros of all specialties and stations can partake in the loathing when it comes to these abominations unto humanity.


Where did cubicles come from? Surprisingly, not from a sociopathic misanthrope or an S&M freak, but from the director of research of a home furnishings company. Robert Probst, who invented the cubicle in 1968, christened his creation the “Action Office.” In all fairness to him, Probst didn’t envision his concept as the cornerstone of a working environment more suited for insects than human beings. His years of observing how people work led him to conclude that they would be more productive if they had space to spread out all of the documents they needed in their immediate vicinity.


Therefore, his initial design had a variety of surfaces, many of which were placed at different levels. People sitting at the desk of Probst’s Action Office could find documents very quickly. Of course, he couldn’t have anticipated that the personal computer and the Web would make this sort of array completely unnecessary. Nor could he predict how the corporate world would butcher his brainchild.


Two factors influenced the shrinking and spartanization of the Action Office over the years. The first was a decision by the U.S. Treasury Department to change its regulations regarding depreciation time spans for transitory equipment like office furniture and permanent structures. Furniture—including cubicles—can be officially depreciated in just seven years, but offices, which are part of buildings, don’t depreciate until after almost four decades. The consequence of this was companies could recover costs quicker if they put employees in cubicles instead of in offices, and the cheaper the “furniture,” the better.


The other reason simply dealt with maximization of space. Property isn’t cheap, and companies needed to pack employees into the smallest area possible. The result was the cubicle, a work station that somehow manages to confine and isolate its occupant while at the same time providing no privacy. One wonders how these conditions have impacted productivity.


Fortunately, the cubicle might be on its way out. An emerging trend in working environments is the flexible, mobile employee. Hardly confined to a cubicle, the world is the office of these professionals. They can work from anywhere: home, airports, coffee shops, parks, you name it. And this would have been just fine by Probst, who before his death in 2000, called corporate cubicle farms “monolithic insanity.” Perhaps he’s in heaven now and has found that all the angels up there work in Action Offices, not cubicles.

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