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A Unified Theory Of Cubicles

I can't say this really counts as an environmental story, but David Franz has a very amusing piece in The New Atlantis on "The Moral Life of Cubicles," which originally came into vogue in the late 1960s not just because they saved companies money and floor space, but because, sociologists argued, they would liberate humanity from bureaucratic oppression (really). Sadly, things didn't quite turn out that way, and now the cubicle gets skewered (think Dilbert) as the very symbol of soulless bureaucracy:

What explains this change in meaning? Cubicle utopianism was probably a victim of its own success. The idea that cubicles formed a more exciting, humane workplace became less plausible to those who had the experience of working in one. As partitions and the space allotted to each worker shrunk, few things seemed to matter to office dwellers more than privacy. From the very beginning, workers reacted to cubicles by blocking up the openings of the "open office." Newspaper reports of early cubicle offices tell of employees raiding supply closets for cardboard and extra panels to extend partitions. Some workers went so far as to push large filing cabinets into the space created by their cubicle’s missing fourth wall. While the beige rat-maze aesthetics of partition living attract all the jokes, the basic geometric facts of cubicles—their doorlessness and 360-degree visibility—are probably more central to the experience of cubicle work. Private conversations, whether in person or by phone, take on the character of an intrigue, a fact exploited endlessly in office sitcoms where ordinarily private matters of romance, betrayal, and personal failure are made public in the open office to the dismay of those involved. In an odd twist, privacy often requires venturing out into some more public space, one that is either anonymous (like a sidewalk) or relatively soundproof (like a central conference room).

The utopian visions of the cubicle have been crushed by reality. However, while the cubicled office no longer seems brave or new, an aspect of its original moral impulse remains. Indeed, the experiential facts of cubicle life are not so much in contradiction with the ambition to humanize the office as the revelation of the dark side of this effort. The ideals of office equality, fluidity, and collaboration in all their forms—including servant leadership, worker empowerment, and flattened organizations—required a kind of control more diffuse and amorphous, but also more personal than the old hierarchical bureaucracy. As Tom Peters and the other management theorists of “corporate culture” saw (albeit in a more positive light), the real managerial possibility contained in the cubicle was not lower costs or even the ability of managers to watch workers more closely. It was rather the creation of a culture in which workers would feel obliged to manage themselves.

Well, I'm not sure about the last bit, but that's the theory. And, oh yes, "green" cubicles are naturally all the rage these days...

--Bradford Plumer