The Curse of Cubicles



Many big, established companies use interior designers to create their work space. But, for the space to be most effective, it is extremely important that the designers intimately understand the work that the space is being used for, and the personality types that are drawn to that type of activity. That is one of the reasons that the cartoon Dilbert has thrived. A generation of industrial designers created a sea of soul-killing, IQ smashing cubicles, and the denizens of those boxes laugh and moan about that daily. When you isolate your team you dampen their talents and limit the interactions that make them most effective.


The traditional cubicle, with its high sides, requires workers to sit with their backs to the door, which turns on the fight or flight reflex. That in turn triggers the adrenals to consume the body’s stores of essential fatty acids and other vital hormonal nutrients as well as Vitamin C, which is critical to immune response. As a result, workers eventually suffer from anxiety, stress, muscle strain, hormonal issues and lowered immunity. Companies see an increasing incidence of medical problems, sick days, disability claims, emotional displays, petty jealousies and employee turnover. Our recommendation; tear the cubicles down and turn the desks around!

 Fortunately the 'restricted view' cubicle is going out of fashion thanks to two reasons. First the advent of bright flat screens and laptop computers has eliminated the need for the dark, highly engineered space that could accommodate the thick network wires that brought the first dimly lit, desktop terminals into offices. Second, the generation of workers that first suffered from cubicles has moved into management positions and they are not choosing cubicles for their team.

 The growing popularity of the low panel cubicle comes from companies being able to use their original electrical wiring and still allow their workers a sense of community and teamwork. Eventually as buildings are changed and spaces turned over, the cubicle will probably disappear. Do you want to know why we believe that? Because in all the home offices that we’ve seen and designed no client has ever requested, or used a cubicle for their desk, no matter how many people worked in the space! I was attending a meeting of professional speakers in the San Francisco area and someone came up and asked me what I spoke about. When I explained that Strategic Ergonomics was my topic the word Dynamic morphed back into 'nomic' and the whole thing became ergonomic in their mind. Why, because she had worked for many years in Human Resources and ergonomics is a big topic there, anytime the word Ergo came up, it became ergonomics in her mind.

This was smart lady, a doctorate in education, who had spent many years in the corporate world, but was obviously not a student of classic Greek. Here is a little language lesson. Ergon means work and nomic means natural laws. Dynamic means energy in motion. Strategic Ergonomics is about the movement of energy in a work space. What moves most at work? First and foremost, the people! So, Strategic Ergonomics addresses how people come together as a team at work, even when it is a team of one. However, Strategic Ergonomics is not a common term, so I wasn't surprised when she wasn't familiar with the concept.

When I explained that the approach had to do with team positioning she started getting an idea of the significance of what we do, but she was working at a disadvantage. Why? Because she had entered the corporate work world in the early 1980's, at a time when cubicles were carpeting the land! For a Boomer like myself who grew up in a family business, that is hard to imagine.

I remember being in our factory office when I was barely tall enough to see the top of the desk, looking at the big, old mechanical calculator, with rows of buttons and a crank on the side. In the front office, all of the desks faced the door and were commanded by ladies with clout. They controlled the production schedule and the cash. When you walked in you knew right away they were in charge. In those days people didn't hide in cubicles.

Workplace design has a history, even when it is as organic as putting the desks where they will fit. Like our laws, many of the concepts come down from the Romans. Julius Caesar didn't have a computer, but he did have a mobile desk that he used during all those years when he was off conquering Gaul. If you looked at large a Roman office from that period, other than the computers, it would look very similar to a government office in Asia today. With our continually evolving work places and communications technology, it is increasingly important for each individual and manager to understand the language of work space design.


For More Information call the authors Ralph & Lahni DeAmicis 707-235-2648