Living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the “attitude capital of the world”, I was interested to read in the June issue of the Ann Arbor Observer that my fair city is the birthplace of the office cube farm. Given the proximity of the city to the design offices of Herman Miller, this was not a surprise. What’s fascinating to me is that the city is also home to one of the most innovative open office environments. Menlo Innovations, a software development company, has no cubicles and not much use for office furniture systems. The contrast between the office cubicles of Herman Miller and the open office of Menlo Innovations is striking.
This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the Action Office that Bob Probst designed for Herman Miller which became the standard for office design for the next forty years. Cube farms became ubiquitous. It wasn’t Probst’s intent to create barriers between people but that was the result. It wasn’t until the emphasis on teamwork in the 90s that Steelcase and others started building systems that were designed to facilitate collaboration. But the cube farms have persisted probably because workers like to have a space they can call their own, a space that gives them a sense of privacy (even if there isn’t any), and they like the status that comes with having the biggest cube.
None of that is available in an open office. However, what is available is ready access to co-workers, being “in the loop” on decisions, having as much or as little space as is needed to get the work done, and a level of implied trust and transparency that is not characteristic of more traditional offices. Of course, technology, such as cell phones and portable computers have contributed to making the office cubicle less needed. Knowledge workers can be anywhere and still be able to do most of their tasks. They don’t need a cubicle.
As another great 20th century thinker, Marshall McLuhan, said, “The medium is the message.” How an office is designed and functions communicates the principles and values of an organization. One design is not better than another; it all depends on the culture you are trying to create.