Workplace

Outside the Box: How the Office Opened Up


Outside the Box: How the Office Opened Up

Photograph by Arcaid Images/Gallery Stock

In this year’s Cubed, Nikil Saval charts the rise of the modern open office plan.

1958: No More Walls
German brothers Wolfgang and Eberhard Schnelle come up with the Bürolandschaft (“office landscape”) concept. It replaces private offices with free-form, flexible desks, a communal break room, and a few mobile partitions.

1967: Opening Up
DuPont is the first American company to realize that a flexible office is a cheaper office. But the open plan doesn’t muffle telephone calls or typewriters, and “some crucial values for the performance of work were lost.”

1968: The First Cubicle
Robert Propst, a researcher at furniture company Herman Miller, creates the Action Office II. It has three movable, disposable walls at obtuse angles, sitting and standing desks, and pushpins to add décor.

1980s: Tiny Cubes
Workers are hemmed into cube farms, arranged in “six-packs.” By the 1990s, cubicles had shrunk as much as 50 percent; by 2006 the average size is 75 square feet. “One wonders to what extent the extravagant growth of the American bathroom  … is a reaction against the shrinking of cubicles.”

1993: Virtual Failure
Los Angeles ad agency Chiat/Day eliminates walls, desks, and cubicles. Instead, workers are handed a cell phone and laptop and told to work together in a conference room. The experiment backfires: Employees stop showing up.

2005: You’re Stuck Here
Google sets the Silicon Valley standard in Mountain View, Calif., where employees move among meeting rooms, quiet libraries, and tents. That flexibility, combined with food and amenities, discourages them from ever leaving.

2014: Office Goodbye Party
“Contingent laborers”—freelancers, temps, etc.—will soon comprise 40 percent of the workforce, according to one Intuit study. Saval says cubicles, corner offices, and white-collar jobs could shortly cease to exist.

Lanks is the design editor of Businessweek.com.

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