The Anti-cu­bi­cle Move­ment

The HR Digest - - Employee Benefits -

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, busi­ness sec­tions of news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines de­scribed the in­trin­sic work ar­range­ments of Sil­i­con Val­ley with quench­less cu­rios­ity and buoy­ant en­thu­si­asm. Dar­lings like In­tel served as the chief ex­am­ple of the ‘dra­co­nian’ Patag­o­nia. The com­pany had no time cards, no dress codes, no as­signed park­ing spots, no spe­cial cafe­te­rias for ex­ec­u­tives, above all, no of­fices, just hon­ey­combed floors. The wall-less sub­di­vi­sion of the of­fice aptly rep­re­sented share la­bor, like the com­mu­nal farm­ers fine-tuned for soli­tude AND. Years later, CEO An­drew Grove wrote, “The cu­bi­cle may have come to rep­re­sent the ex­ploita­tion and un­hap­pi­ness of white-col­lar work­ers, but the idea that those mod­u­lar walls, those tack­boards, ac­tu­ally de­ter­mined any­thing was patently false.”

The cu­bi­cle wasn’t born as a ‘mono­lithic in­san­ity’ or even square, for that mat­ter. It was, in fact, as a beau­ti­ful vi­sion. The year was 1968. Star Trek aired Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion’s first in­ter­ra­cial kiss. The Bea­tles re­leased The White Al­bum. And iconic home-fur­nish­ings com­pany Her­man Miller in Zee­land, Michi­gan, launched the Ac­tion Of­fice that would change the work­place for­ever. It was the brain­child of Robert Propst, who was amongst the first de­sign­ers to bor­row the Euro­pean

idea of Büroland­schaft, or “of­fice land­scape” – pri­vacy screens and of­fice plants, with­out cut­ting off from the at­mos­phere of the room.

In­ven­tions never obey the cre­ator’s in­tent, do they? Like Mikhail Kalash­nikov who came to re­gret in­vent­ing the AK-47, Propst came to lament his in­ven­tion. The sea of cube farms has be­come the zeit­geist of prairie dog­ging, meerkat­ting, and a hum­drum­mery hell­hole in­hibit­ing team­work.

So­ci­ol­o­gist C. Wright Mills, in his 1951 at­tack on cor­po­rate bu­reau­cracy, White Col­lar, used the term an “enor­mous file” to de­scribe those soul­less of­fices. Mill’s book was joined by The Or­ga­ni­za­tion Man and The Man in the Gray Flan­nel Suit in a se­ries of at­tempts to as­sess the dam­age of­fice life in­flicted upon the worker.

Be­gin­ning in the late 1960s, the cu­bi­cle spread quickly across the Amer­i­can white-col­lar land­scape. Ac­cord­ing to Steel­case, one of the largest of­fice fur­ni­ture com­pany, nearly 70 per­cent of of­fice work now hap­pens in cu­bi­cles. Com­pa­nies have been try­ing for decades to find the bal­ance be­tween pub­lic and pri­vate workspace that best sup­ports col­lab­o­ra­tion. A re­search found that only 23% of em­ploy­ees wanted more pri­vacy; 50% said they needed more ac­cess to other peo­ple, and 40% wanted more in­ter­ac­tion. Com­pa­nies re­sponded by shift­ing their real es­tate al­lo­ca­tion to­ward open, col­or­ful spa­ces that sup­port col­lab­o­ra­tion and shrink­ing ar­eas for in­di­vid­ual work. This is where it gets com­pli­cated:

Re­searchers from Steel­case now sug­gest that peo­ple feel a press­ing need for more pri­vacy, not only to do work but to cope with the in­ten­sity of how work hap­pens to­day.

One com­pany to back away from the noisy, open-floor plan is Sil­i­con Val­ley Bank, based in Santa Clara, Calif. It be­gan work­ing with Fen­nie + Mehl to add more pri­vate spa­ces, in­clud­ing “phone booths” that can seat one or two peo­ple, “hud­dle” rooms for small meet­ings, in re­sponse to em­ployee com­plaints about a lack of space for more pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions and in­for­mal meet­ing spa­ces. Sil­i­con Val­ley Bank has also dou­bled the num­ber of chairs per em­ployee, fol­low­ing a 2-to-1 ra­tio used by of­fice de­signs that gives work­ers more choices of where and how to work. In the past five years, the bank has ren­o­vated its of­fices from scratch so that 60% of its 42 lo­ca­tions have more pri­vate spa­ces. The bank is now re­ceiv­ing “pos­i­tive feed­back” from em­ploy­ees, says Tom Suro, the di­rec­tor of real es­tate work­place ser­vices in Sil­i­con Val­ley Bank.

Health­care Source HR Inc., a soft­ware provider in Woburn, Mass., hired Les­lie Saul & As­so­ci­ates to de­sign an open-floor plan when it moved of­fice in 2014. In­stead of cu­bi­cles, the new space has sound­proof glass ca­banas at the cen­ter of the open-space of­fice. This cre­ates more space for em­ploy­ees look­ing for quiet, while main­tain­ing the airy feel of the brightly col­ored space.

Harpercollins, a unit of News Corp., worked with Ha­worth on its of­fice plans to give of­fice se­nior ed­i­tors and ex­ec­u­tives for the many one-on-one meet­ings. Em­ploy­ees in cre­ative roles have work­sta­tions set up in a pin­wheel style, to al­low col­lab­o­ra­tion and pri­vacy.

Ac­cord­ing to David Lehrer, a re­searcher at the Cen­ter for the Built En­vi­ron­ment at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, “com­pa­nies are not pro­vid­ing suf­fi­cient va­ri­ety in spa­ces.” Ap­ple co-founder Steve Woz­niak got the ini­tial in­spi­ra­tion to build a pro­to­type com­puter from a chance meet­ings with oth­ers. The story re­veals that work­place de­sign shouldn’t be sim­pli­fied as a bi­nary choice of open ver­sus closed of­fices.

To­day’s of­fice de­signs rep­re­sent a con­tin­uum of open to closed de­signs. Lind­say Gra­ham, a so­cial psy­chol­o­gist and re­search spe­cial­ist at Cen­ter for the Built En­vi­ron­ment at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Berke­ley, per­son­al­ity traits are likely to in­flu­ence “per­son-en­vi­ron­ment fit.” A 2014 study from the Univer­sity of Berke­ley found that fac­tors re­lated to per­son­al­ity and types of work are in­ter­wo­ven with the com­plex­i­ties of work­place de­sign. Ex­tro­verts are fu­eled by so­cial in­ter­ac­tion, and in­tro­verts are drained from so­cial in­ter­ac­tions.

Tai­lor­ing of­fice spa­ces to suit per­son­al­i­ties is a largely un­ex­plored ter­ri­tory. Renowned psy­chol­o­gist John Hol­land de­vel­oped the Hol­land Codes, a the­ory that matches ca­reer choices based upon per­son­al­ity types. Artis­tic (Cre­ators), Con­ven­tion (Or­ga­niz­ers), En­ter­pris­ing (Per­suaders), In­ves­tiga­tive (Thinkers), Re­al­is­tic (Do­ers), and So­cial (Helpers).

For ex­am­ple, the Artis­tic of­ten feel sti­fled in a cu­bi­cle en­vi­ron­ment; the Re­al­is­tic feel more fo­cused; while the in­ves­tiga­tive types feel en­cour­aged in an open­office work­place. Writ­ers, engi­neers, de­sign­ers, pro­gram­mers and thinkers are the Hol­land In­ves­tiga­tive types are more at ease in an open-of­fice set up that en­cour­ages col­lab­o­ra­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion among co-work­ers.

For Hol­land’s En­ter­pris­ing and Re­al­is­tic, the tra­di­tional work­place – cu­bi­cles – of­fer an or­ga­nized, quiet, and con­tained en­vi­ron­ment that al­lows get­ting tasks done while main­tain­ing prox­im­ity to the team mem­bers on a daily ba­sis. These are man­age­ment con­sul­tants, lawyers, and hu­man re­sources spe­cial­ists.

The U.S. Gen­eral Ser­vices Ad­min­is­tra­tion, which pro­vides work­place for over

a mil­lion fed­eral work­ers, is now ex­plor­ing ways to make workspaces bet­ter suited for spe­cific mis­sions of ten­ant or­ga­ni­za­tions. Kevin Kelly, se­nior ar­chi­tect with GSA’S To­tal Work­place pro­gram, feels the open of­fice plan has been a re­sult of a one-size-fits-all men­tal­ity.

The mod­ern work­place is no longer a mono­cul­ture of cu­bi­cles or an open-of­fice plan. It of­fers a greater au­ton­omy of choice in the work­place to match one’s per­son­al­ity type, what they are do­ing and how they’re do­ing it.

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