Have you ever wondered where office cubicles came from? Since we spend so much time working in cubicles, I thought it might be interesting to share where they originated. I had to jog my memory way back to my furniture history days in college. Amazingly, the history was still around, just like office cubicles will always be!
The “father” of office cubicles is Colorado born, Robert “Bob” Propst. In 1968, Herman Miller Research in Zeeland, Michigan launched the Action Office. It was the brainchild of Bob Propst who had joined the company as director of research.
After years of prototyping and studying how people work, and vowing to improve on the open bullpen office that dominated much of the 20th century, Propst designed a system to increase productivity (hence the name Action Office). The young designer, who also worked on varied projects such as heart pumps and tree harvesters, theorized that productivity would rise if people could see more of their work spread out in front of them not just stacked in an in-box.
The Action Office included plenty of work surfaces and display shelves. Partitions were also a part of it, intended to provide privacy and places to pin up works in progress. The Action Office even included varying desk levels to enable employees to work part of the time standing up to encourage blood flow and stave off exhaustion.
Joe Schwartz, Herman Miller’s former marketing chief, who helped launch the system in 1968 said, “The Action Office wasn’t conceived to cram a lot of people into little space, it was driven that way by economics.” Economics was the one thing Propst had failed to take into account. But it was also what triggered the cubicle’s runaway success. Around the same time the Action Office was introduced, a growing breed of white-collar workers, whose job titles fell between secretary and boss, was swelling the workforce. To go along with this, real estate prices were rising, as well as the cost of reconfiguring office buildings. All these factors combined were quite a physical drag on the corporate budget. Cubicles, or as they are commonly called “systems furniture”, offered a less expensive alternative for redoing the floorplan.
Good ole Uncle Sam was another important factor in the cubicle’s rapid popularity. During the 1960’s, to stimulate business spending, the Treasury created new rules for depreciating assets. The changes specified clearer ranges for depreciation and established a shorter life for furniture and equipment, vs. longer ranges assigned to buildings or leased improvements. A company could recover its costs quicker if it purchased cubicles. Once clients told Herman Miller of that unexpected benefit, it became a new selling point for Action Office. After a brief two years on the market, sales soared and competitors took notice.
As competitors like Steelcase, Knoll, and Haworth brought their versions to the market, they figured out that businesses weren’t looking to give employees a holistic experience, customers were looking for a cheap way to pack workers into the office. This is when Propst’s original vision began to fade. Schwartz has said “They kept shrinking the Action Office until it became a cubicle.”
Love them or hate them, office cubicles are here to stay. Propst may have been disappointed with the final outcome of his invention, but it is one that has changed offices forever. All these years later, office cubicles are still saving companies money and helping to make the best use of office space.