Life Skills

This year, the office cubicle turns 50 years old! Love it or loathe it, it can’t be denied that cubicles revolutionised the design of offices all over the world. With an eternal struggle between privacy and interaction at the workplace, it looks as though office design has gone full circle since the emergence of the white-collar age.

Privacy vs. Interaction:

Back when white-collar work began to boom, managers believed that to maximise efficiency, workers should me arranged on aligned desks in a large, open-plan offices, with managers in their own private offices overlooking the office workers. This design was first used by F.W. Taylor (1856-1915) and was inspired by ‘scientific management’ – a technique used in labour factories that emphasised economic efficiency. No doubt, this office design soon went out of fashion as managers realised it was hindering motivation.

A factory setting

Original factory layout that inspired efficient office design (source)

The beginnings of cubicle design:

This is what prompted Robert Propst, of Herman Miller Furniture Design studio, to come up with an alternative solution to office design. Here he came up with ‘Action Office’ a design that gave workers a makeshift office space, with storage and privacy in a bid to boost productivity. Propst believed that workers needed autonomy and independence – and cubicles seemed like an efficient way to achieve just that. Propst introduced vertical office shelving systems, which were groundbreaking at the time, and managers began to notice Propst solutions.

First example of Propst Action Office 1965 (source)

Super-efficient cubicles:

Propst took the cubicle design even further and this is when super-efficient cubicle design came into play. I’m sure this is what we all think about when we hear the word cubicle – a dreary symbol of an office job you hate. The 70’s saw the rise in these fabric covered wall cubicles – which made sound proofing simple and cost-effective, but also made workers question their sanity. The design was revolutionary – companies went crazy for the groundbreaking solution and it still remains popular to this day. In 1985 it was even named the most successful design of the previous 25 years at the World Design Conference.

Is open plan best?

More recently, companies have been dismantling their cubicles and opting to go back to an open plan environment – this time in a more team-orientated layout. Having a ‘cool’ open-plan office has become popular in more recent years. But which design actually increases productivity? Surprisingly, a study carried out in 2013 found that productivity actually dropped by 6% when an office opted for an open plan design. However, a reason for this could be that more people are sharing ideas – meaning the work that is being carried out is to a higher quality. Another unusual statistic from a study carried out in 2014 reveals that 54% of open-space office workers would actually prefer to have a private cubicle.

A super-efficient cubicle office design (source)

The perfect office design:

Realistically, the perfect office design (probably) doesn’t exist. An office design that works for your company may not work for others and vice versa. Advancements in technology means that work doesn’t have to be done sat down at a desk with a desktop computer. More companies are embracing this and bringing in alternative interiors to match the ever-changing working landscape. Having an alternative, fun office space means that work-life is more fun, which in-turn leaves workers feeling happier and more fulfilled with daily office life. And as the cliche goes, a happy worker is, of course, a productive one.

So what design is best? Let us know in the comments below!

RELATED: How to Boost Workplace Productivity

About Ruby Lowe

Ruby is a Senior Account Executive at Link Humans in London.

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