How a Perfectly Good Idea Turned Into Cubicles

HM_LOGOHere is this month’s piece on the changing world of work from furniture maker Herman Miller, a company for which Peter Drucker long consulted and that continues to exemplify his principles of innovation and effectiveness.

As our methods of management, tools and technology change, so too must the places where we come together to work.

Robert Propst, a designer who also served as president of Herman Miller Research Corporation, understood that back in the 1960s, when he saw a sea change in society coming. “Human organizations have always been natural places of change, reflecting the organic nature of life,” he said. “What is different now is the pace of change and the prospect that change will come faster and faster.”

Believing that offices weren’t keeping up with the times, he researched how people actually work and wrote new rules based on his findings. First, office design must have “a forgiving behavior,” because the perfect office doesn’t exist. At the very least, it’s a moving target. Second, the facility must change gracefully, rather than being “jerry-built,” as Propst put it. Finally, the user must have more control over the space, and the ability to adjust his or her office with ease, without imposing significant costs or delays.

From these rules, Propst designed Action Office, the first open-plan panel system. The intent, he explained in The Office: A Facility Based on Change, was that it be “responsive to the goals of the user… permissive in that it allows wide expression and re-expression for both the individual and the organization.”

In most cases, that didn’t happen. Instead, organizations used panel systems to jam more people into less space. Propst’s vision was that the facility would adapt to the needs of the individual, but the way organizations used systems furniture turned this idea on its head: Once again, people were forced to adapt to the facility.

Propst envisioned a three-walled application of Action Office that would provide a degree of privacy for an individual in an otherwise open work area. He dismissed the four-wall cubicle as “the worst possible application of the concept.”

Image courtesy of Herman Miller
Image courtesy of Herman Miller

In the end, though, the allure of saving money was stronger for many organizations than the allure of supporting people. Peter Drucker would not have been surprised. “All organizations say routinely, ‘People are our greatest asset,’” he said. “Yet few practice what they preach, let alone truly believe it.”

The irony is that it’s possible to both support people and save money. Thoughtfully designed offices—exactly the kind of person-centered spaces that Propst originally had in mind—can improve satisfaction, engagement, and productivity while reducing turnover.

Since Propst’s day, of course, work has undergone another sea change. Next month, we’ll talk about how these changes are coming together to create a new landscape of work.

—Mary Stevens, Senior Vice President of Global Marketing