Why is it so hard to design a decent office space?

Down on the cube farm.
Down on the cube farm.
Image: Reuters/Aly Song
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If you’re reading this at work, there’s a good chance that you’re sitting at an open desk or communal table. (Hey, is that guy reading over your shoulder? Hi!) And if you’ve been in the workplace awhile, you might be adjusting from the not-so-distant past when you sat in a comparatively private cubicle.

Every generation or two, our offices completely change, driven by culture and consultants. Cubicles, perhaps the most reviled of these trends, were supposed to be the apex of office design. More precisely, the Action Office (zip! swoosh!) was supposed to. A product of the utopian 1960s, this was a flexible, customizable system of office furnishings that balanced community and privacy. It sounds downright revolutionary, doesn’t it?

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for companies to realize they could take the customized pieces and use them to herd employees into grayscale grids. The Action Office quickly evolved into the Cube Farm.

Don’t fence me in

But the open-plan offices that have cropped up in response are hardly utopian paradises. (Still in a cubicle now? The open-office plan is probably coming for you, too.) Meant to foster conversation, there’s evidence they do the opposite, as employees tune each other out with headphones and use Slack channels to take the place of connecting at the water cooler.

In 1999, Wired told the chaotic tale of an advertising agency that bet big on a radically open office plan, with no assigned desks, college-like collective areas, and even “little ‘Tilt-A-Whirl’ domed cars, taken from old amusement park rides, where two people could sit down together and brainstorm.” Ahead of its time, it seems, the vanguard of offices then looked a lot like the vanguard of offices right now. Tastemakers gave it rave reviews. It was a total disaster though, and the firm, TBWAChiatDay, abandoned the concept at its offices in New York and Los Angeles, less than five years after trumpeting the design as the workplace of the future.

That said, it’s hard for any office plan to develop a worse reputation than that of the cube farm. Cubicles became popular at a grim time in the white-collar world, during a wave of mergers, corporate raids, and a recession, and all of the attendant layoffs. In short order, a design plan that was meant to provide a tool of autonomy and flexibility became a reflection of replaceability. Depressing? Indeed.

The early days of office space

Office culture truly began in the 1800s, with the financialization of the world and the rise of the clerk.

According to Nikil Saval, author of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, these offices were “intimate, almost suffocatingly cozy spheres,” where a clerk might serve as “assistant manager, retainer, confidant, management trainee, and prospective son-in-law.”

Desks provided a degree of privacy in such an emotionally porous space, featuring high backs, roll tops, and pigeonholes. As the ranks of clerical workers grew, their status inevitably declined, and in the early 20th century the efficiency-obsessed Taylorism movement, named for the influential industrial-management thinker Fred Taylor, applied the principles and organization of the factory to the office space. Rigidly arranged rows of flat-top desks mirrored assembly lines, allowing management to observe their employees from above as they would a machine. The visual result is captured by the pointedly named Consolidated Life, the fictional insurance company in Billy Wilder’s 1960 film The Apartment.

After World War II, a new office plan arose out of the ashes: Burolandschaft, or “office landscaping,” which might look something like the office you work in now. It was still open-plan, like the Taylorist grids, but it lumped employees into organic-seeming work zones to encourage democracy and discussion rather than silent, symmetrical cogs, and was described by one of its promoters as “fundamentally a reaction against Nazism.” Indeed, discussion in an open office was, like democracy, loud and messy.

In the 1960s, Robert Propst, who worked at the furniture design giant Herman Miller, envisioned the Action Office plan as a way companies and employees could have it all. The cubicle, originally, wasn’t a cube: it was a modular system of desks, walls, and other furniture that gave workers some semi-private, customizable space yet left them open to their co-workers. (It even had a roll-top drafting desk like those of yore, one of a series of genuine design classics that emerged from the system.)

But their modular nature meant that employers could do what they wanted with them. It wasn’t long before they started moving back to space-efficient, cost-efficient grids like the stolid Taylorist offices that the pointedly named “Action Office” system was supposed to destroy.

Perhaps no one was more disappointed in the result than the cubicle inventor himself. “Not all organizations are intelligent and progressive,” Propst reportedly said two years before his death in 2000. “Lots are run by crass people. They make little, bitty cubicles and stuff people in them. Barren, rathole places.”

Why is it so hard to design a decent office?

If there’s a lesson to the cubicle, it’s that the best-laid offices often go awry. Propst’s action-oriented brainstorm became a dull-gray spreadsheet for people, which is why it was replaced by the open office, which sought to break down divisions among co-workers and create a fluid environment of frequent encounters and discussion.

And the result seems to be that people talk less. Why? For the same reason cubicles started to replace open-office plans in the first place: privacy.

In a study published in July 2018, Harvard researchers observed the communication habits of employees at an unnamed Fortune 500 company engaged in a “war on walls.” They found that interactions between colleagues in the new, open space fell from almost six hours to less than two. But email messages went up by half and instant messages by two-thirds, as workers sought to replace the semi-privacy of the old space.

Some companies try to encourage casual social interaction among colleagues by supplying booze. Though there might be a backlash to the alcohol itself, bar-inspired office design has its merits. Stools and counters considered “bar height” (a standard 40 to 42 inches) put people at eye level whether they are sitting or standing, increasing the chance of eyes meeting across the room—which is why some companies have started to integrate the proportions of bar furniture in the workplace, as a way of establishing spaces for conversation and salvaging collegiality in open offices that have inadvertently constrained it.

It’s probably only a matter of time before the tide shifts again, giving us something new to grumble about. In the meantime, pull up a swivel chair and consider these fun facts:

$5 billion: Sales of office systems by Herman Miller from 1964-2005

430,000: Size of Facebook’s open office in square feet

250: Square feet of office space per worker in the US in 2000

190: Square feet of office space per worker in the US in 2005

60%: Proportion of workers who worked in cubicles in 1997

93%: Percentage of workers in 1997 who wanted an alternative to cubicles

70%: Proportion of office spaces with “no or low partitions” in 2017