Let’s bring back our cubicles

Solitude, and the creativity it nurtures, is out of reach of the modern day office worker

On their way to work, white-collar workers tell themselves a lie. We tell ourselves that we are agents of change. That we are more than assembly-line workers. However, we couldn’t be further from the truth. We might have been entrepreneurs once. Our ideas might once have had the freshness of an Emily Dickinson poem. Our insights might have been as novel as a speeding Batmobile. But along the way, our thoughts became dulled. While we might have once wanted to revolutionize the world like a Steve Jobs, most of us have become content with making incremental improvements to existing processes—so that we may climb the worn-out rungs of a corporate ladder.

What happened along the way? For many of us, the answer can be summed up in two words: open offices.

Inspiration is like a candle flame. It is wiped away by the slightest distraction. It is drowned out in an instant by noise. To be able to latch on to it, you have to be alone. Physically alone. As Anneli Rufus says in her ode to solitude, Party Of One, it is only when the body is liberated from the presence (of others) that the mind can be free.

However, such solitude is impossible for the modern-day office worker.

Take a typical morning at work. You come to work. You sit at a desk that, in turn, is located in a sea of desks. You look around and gaze at your colleagues—just as surely as they are looking at you. You also become aware of your boss, whose peripheral vision is fixed upon you through the glass walls of a not too far away office.

Within just a few minutes, you have become conscious that you are no agent of change. Instead, you are an object that is being scrutinized. You are not really that different from an assembly-line worker.

The original cubicle

Nikil Saval’s Cubed: A Secret History Of The Workplace charts the evolution of the office space. In this history, there is no story as heartbreaking as that of Robert Propst—a professor of arts at the University of Colorado, and the inventor of the world’s first cubicle.

As far back as 1958, Propst set upon the task of designing the ideal office space for what he called the “human performer"—an employee who would usher in what would later come to be known as the “knowledge economy". Propst believed that an office was for more than the exchange of goods or services. He envisioned it as a venue where people would exchange ideas.

Propst created a space called the Action Office. The Action Office was more than a mere cubicle. It had three walls that were at broad, obtuse angles to each other. Employees could move these walls to meet their needs. Propst reasoned that if workers were to be flexible, they needed a flexible working space.

Propst’s vision was compromised by chief executive officers and office managers, who wanted to cram the most number of people in the least amount of space. These CEOs opted for competitive offerings that took out obtuse angles and flexibility—hallmarks of the Action Office. Consequently, Propst’s creation was transformed into the rigid monstrosity that Peter Gibbons disassembled in the 1999 classic Office Space.

Imagine if we had the kind of flexible office that Propst envisioned. A space that provided solitude. But equally important, a space that with its flexible walls would also open up opportunities for collaboration.

For, make no mistake, collaboration is essential to progress and innovation. As Robert Wright points out in Non Zero: The Logic Of Human Destiny, the social unsociability espoused by Immanuel Kant—where we collaborate with each other so that we can gain in status over each other—is what has taken us from being hunter-gatherers to farmers and all the way to the information age.

Open offices are touted as being ideal for creating the chance encounter, the collision of two ideas that, like two stones, will come together to create fire. Drawing on the spirit of the German Burolandschaft—a movement that sought to counteract the oppressive atmosphere of Nazism—many modern day technology companies have adopted open offices to spark innovation.

However, open offices are far from ideal in fostering collaboration.

As Saval points out, when two people are thrown in close contact day after day, they don’t discuss new and great ideas. It is more likely that they will indulge in inane chatter about the weather or weekend plans.

If not a fixed desk in an open office, then what?

I had the pleasure of working at the IBM office in Midtown Manhattan 10 years ago. Employees are assigned a new desk every day. Desks are housed in flexible cubicles near windows awash in sunlight. On one day, you could be sitting next to a finance manager, and beside the person who invented the Crtl+Alt+Del sequence on the next. You would have the potential of having a fresh conversation that wouldn’t regress into banality.

However, managers in technology companies are wary of offering employees the flexibility to work remotely. Both Google and Yahoo! have anti-remote work policies. After taking over as CEO, Marissa Mayer famously gave Yahoo! employees an ultimatum. They could drive to work or be fired.

This is not to say that these policies won’t change—especially in technology circles that take great pride in going against the norm. But till then, what is to be done to change the open office? How can we help our entrepreneurs latch on to the ideas that flicker in their souls? A return to Propst’s Action Office cubicle, as he envisioned it, could be a step in the right direction.

Arun Krishnan is the author of the forthcoming social networking based thriller Antisocial, published by Harper Black. His writing can be found on www.cuttingchai.com

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