Sometimes we’re separated by walls, both literal and figurative. At a time when we yearn for understanding and collaboration, sometimes we are separated by physical walls in addition to the divisive issues of our day.


Cubicles have been a corporate mainstay for decades, yet many of us loathe the thought of sitting in a little nook whose very walls separate us from our friends and peers. Cubicles have been lampooned in popular culture by cartoons like Dilbert and movies like Office Space in recent years; however, the original intent of cubicles wasn’t to isolate us with partially enclosed workspaces.

We can always meet at the water cooler, Jimmy

The original cubicle concept dates back to 1967, when Robert Propst designed the “Action Office II” for manufacturer Herman Miller. Over the years, the office cubicle allowed workers to personalize their workspace and offered some degree of privacy. Yet we have found disadvantages aplenty with cubicles.

First, cubicle partitions require us to walk around in order to collaborate. We can’t make eye contact as easily as with more open work concepts, and we can’t have collaborative meetings as easily in smaller enclosed spaces.

Silicon Valley companies like Google challenged the status quo by creating more open concepts that encourage collaboration and innovation. But it’s not just a California thing. Here at digitalrelevance, we have an open workspace that allows us to easily work together across departments and teams. Sometimes our seating arrangements feel like musical chairs, but the point is that we’re in close proximity with no physical cube walls to separate us or clutter our line of sight. We can always roll over a few chairs, cluster around a whiteboard or quickly communicate with gestures and voices from across the room.

Some companies that previously advocated the cube are changing course. Take Yahoo, for example: CEO Marissa Mayer found a much different work environment there than she’d had at Google. Floors of cubicles at Yahoo were nearly empty as many employees had decided to work from home instead of reporting to the office. (To be fair, Mayer had plenty of other problems to address at Yahoo besides just seating arrangements; nevertheless, enclosed workspaces likely contributed to the low morale that was afflicting the company.)

The Cubicle’s Midlife Crisis

It’s been more than 40 years since the first cubicle was introduced to the workplace. And in looking back, things never should have progressed this way. Propst’s original Action Office design didn’t conceal a worker completely but was rather meant to give us a sense of personal space. Many factors played into the cubicle’s runaway popularity, including a mushrooming white collar workforce and rising real estate prices. Cubicles were the way to go if you needed a cheaper alternative to the traditional floorplan.

So, if the cubicle is dying a slow death as tastes in workspace finally change, what other options are on the horizon besides the open space concept championed by tech companies? Designers have been working on plenty of cubicle alternatives that could become the new cubicle someday (minus the six-foot walls). After all these years, Herman Miller is leading the charge toward post-cubicle offices that maximize workstation flexibility.

Cubicles will always have their defenders and for some companies they work just fine; the rest of us envision a day when the walls between us come crashing down.

Image credit: Matthew Crosby