Robert Propst, the inventor of the cubicle, doesn’t like what corporate America has done with his original vision of an open office where workers can share their ideas.
“An organization that doesn’t give a damn and wants to pack the maximum number of people in a minimum amount of space can wreck the mental health of employees,” Propst said in an interview.
Those are strong words from the person who envisioned the cubicle in the early 1960s as an antidote to the rigid, static workplace of plaster and glass.
Yet Propst, who at 76 continues to run a design business near his Redmond home, figures companies eventually will get it right.
The semi-enclosed, low-walled work space, in its ideal form, creates an “intimate team context” where ideas flow quickly and productivity rises, Propst believes. What office planners need to do, he said, is apply his design principles in a more appropriate manner.
Numerous employees around the world have experienced the cubicle-gone-awry. The cartoon character Dilbert voices their misery. Work spaces are too small and rigid. Noises carry. Morale withers.
Propst said he drafted his “action office” concept in response to a rising pace of change in the corporate workplace in the 1950s. Growing companies came up against “unchangeable” buildings, he said, particularly in downtown areas. Productivity fell amidst the chatter of jackhammers and falling plaster.
Cubicles, in contrast, give companies the ability to quickly adapt to changing goals and needs. Add sound-absorbing ceiling tiles and carpeting, he said, and the cubicles are just as quiet as separate offices with thin walls.
Office planners also can avoid creating a boxy, “rectilinear” setup by instead using curved partitions or setting corner walls at an angle, he said.
Propst’s ideas have been featured in exhibitions at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and in other venues. He has done work for companies ranging from IBM to Hewlett Packard to Boise Cascade. He holds more than 120 U.S. and foreign patents.
He grew up in Colorado and moved to the Seattle area in 1980, he said, after charting a map that ranked the areas in the United States on the basis of their acceptance of innovation. Seattle was near the top.
Propst declined to comment on the typical office design at some of the area’s leading employers. When asked his opinion of Microsoft, where nearly all employees have individual offices, he said: “Sometimes an open office is inappropriate. A person is doing individual work that requires a high level of concentration.”
Still, he thinks people who work in teams suffer when human contact falls, even if employees have access to e-mail, pagers and cellular phones.
“In principle, (relying on individual offices) sounds very hazardous to me, unless you have a bunch of geniuses and put them in their spaces where they require minimum interaction with the rest of the world.”
Propst has received relatively little feedback from the workers his design affects the most, he said. Dilbert creator Scott Adams helps fill the gap.
“He’s built that on the kind of crazy effect of that (sardine) mentality,” Propst said, when the original goal was “health, satisfaction and productivity.”