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Slow Death By Cubicle

September 14, 2010 by Giulietta Nardone

Hey wild things,

I’m curious how it came to be seen as normal for adult humans to be held captive in itty bitty work cubicles for eight+ hours a day. Do such bizarre conditions really promote workscapes conducive to thoughtful or innovative work?


So, I decided to look into the history of cubicles. Invented by Robert Propst in 1964, these human fattening bins turned fortysomething in 2010. Ironically, Mr. Propst never intended for them to be used to warehouse folks all day. He created them as part of a sleek, artsy “action office” that addressed the horrors of previous open office configurations, the kind where your bossed stared down at you all day from a glass office. It was angled with low partitions to provide some privacy but still had a feeling of openness. The chairs were ergonomically correct and tables adjustable for sitting or standing.

In the 80’s, the cubicle became more enclosed. Workers looked at high ugly tweed walls all day. Something akin to madness began to take place inside. Mr. Propst didn’t like his name being associated with the resulting cubicle. In fact he called them, “monolithic insanity.”

I started to go insane in my cubicle. Eventually, my design books and other items to keep me from losing it started to spill out into the hallway. Layoffs in my row enabled me to “bust” through the wall and obtain a “double-wide.” You can imagine the rumors that started circulating around that real estate acquisition. Although the new space didn’t stop my spiritual death by cubicle, it slowed it down considerably. You no longer need to wonder why a lot of working stiffs appear to be on the verge of nervous breakdowns …

It’s also interesting how our government and corporations run around saying we need to be more productive, then house workers in little insanity-breeding asylums. Why don’t they put their money where their mouths are and create office environments that promote creativity and collaboration and ingenuity.

Maybe then, we’d be able to come up with new ideas to move the US out of its recession of small-minded thinking. Forcing white-collared folks to work longer hours doing repetitive tasks in smaller cubicles with less chances to see sunlight during the day (adult recess) cannot possibly create a positive economic outcome.

I’m beginning to understand the real reason schools are being encouraged to eradicate recess. Makes the transition to a veal fattening work bin that much easier. If you can’t remember running around free, how can you miss it?

Got any stories from the cubicle trenches?

Muse thx, Giulietta

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18 responses to “Slow Death By Cubicle”

  1. This is great – I work in an office and have for most of my professional life – my own office. It has “life” and “color” scattered throughout to the point that there is nothing colorless or not fun about the space… yet I work with people who have nothing on their walls, nothing on their desks, they like the clean, hygienic, colorless look and feel I suppose.
    The innovative office spaces do seem to increase productivity as does the flexible work environment, the flexibility of hours… Some places are realizing that in giving their employees more flexibility and space, they are increasing their happiness and comfort which increases productivity and quality… I just can’t figure out why this isn’t catching on??
    The Exception recently posted..Perhaps

    • Hi TE,

      Maybe it isn’t catching on because work isn’t supposed to be fun and light — if that happens people “might” be too busy laughing or smiling or getting alon. Or it’s upper management fear. There is a tendency to keep going in the same direction even if it’s clearly the wrong one.

      It doesn’t surprise me that you have an alive office filled with color. Perhaps you could get a job as an office designer and save the rest of the folks?

      Much muse thanks, G.
      Giulietta Nardone recently posted..The cure for a boring life

  2. You know the story already, G., but I escaped my cubicle about a year and a half ago. I called it the first big leap in a process I think of as my life-inversion and haven’t regretted it yet. I changed pretty much everything, embraced minimalism, and decided to take my shot at being a novelist.

    I still don’t know how the story’s going to end, which is the point as far as I’m concerned — I don’t want to know. If I did, it wouldn’t be much of an adventure. Right?

    But the process? Ah, the process… it’s challenging, exciting, occasionally frightening, and astonishingly rewarding. The process is what it’s all about for me these days, and that’s completely at odds with the short-term myopia of cubicle life as I knew it.

    As always, good stuff, G.
    Michael @tolthinkfree recently posted..World Alzheimers Day – Sept 21 – Bloggers Unite

    • Hey Michael,

      You’ve got a great story, whatever the ending. Everything I’ve learned about you could be part of your book. Life Inversion — that’s a fascinating title. Almost like turning your life inside out, so the inside gets more attention than the outside.

      Cubicles are little prisons for people who didn’t commit crimes. We used to call going home, “going on furlough.” It’s not too far from the truth …

      Thx. G.

  3. Cathy Wilke says:

    Oh…there is so much good imagery and metaphor in here. It brought back a lot of bad memories and I started getting nauseous believe it or not. My favorite phrase: “spiritual death by cubicle”–sadly,I think that line speaks for millions my dear. And “cubicles are little prisons for people who didn’t commit crimes” is just brilliant and heart-breaking all at the same time.

    Imagining you “breaking through” the empty cubicles reminds me of the scene in the movie Office Space where Ron Livingston destroys his cubicle. If you’ve never seen the movie it’s definitely worth watching.
    This was a great reality check for me today Guilietta–thanks!

  4. Hi Cathy!

    I adore the movie Office Space. Glad you mentioned it – fits in perfectly.

    It’s one of my favorite movies. Even though it seems outlandish in places most of it’s true. Way too many of us have lived out the scenes in Office Space.

    You’re so right that cubicle land is heart-breaking. Why do we keep going down this spirit-crushing road? That’s what I can’t understand. We keep doing it to each other in the name of profits. But what’s the human cost of those profits?

    Thanks for stopping by. Love your comments.


    p.s. sorry to make you nauseated …

  5. Sally G says:

    Good morning Giulietta, Cathy, Michael and The Exception!

    Have you seen the office space for Google Employees? Now there’s a company that understands the importance of light, colour and creative environment! (I’ve seen similar set ups by Advertising Companies, but cannot recall their names. Here’s a link to Google’s set up though http://www.google.ca/images?hl=en&q=google+head+office+pictures&um=1&ie=UTF-8&source=univ&ei=0y-STIqPOeHsnQfF5uCyBw&sa=X&oi=image_result_group&ct=title&resnum=1&ved=0CCEQsAQwAA&biw=1024&bih=575)

    When I initially had a cubicle as my Creative Empire – I longed for a real office, with walls – and a window, if possible. When I became the person responsible for crafting key internal communication packages and documents (many of which had to be confidential until shared with employees), I was gifted four walls and a door in the interest of privacy. And you know what? I missed my cubicle. Here’s why.

    While working quietly within my contained space – I seemingly rendered myself invisible to others around me, and in an odd way ~ I became quite connected to those who worked in my department.

    I could hear when someone in another cubicle received or engaged in an upsetting call with a spouse or child ~ and it allowed me to not only see them as a human being who had more in their life than what went on in their cubicle, but it also allowed me opportunity to anonymously lift their day – with a hot cup of tea and a muffin, for instance, that might be waiting there for them upon their return from the bathroom after ‘fixing their face’.

    I would know who might appreciate a bit of unsolicited help because their workload had increased to a point of demanding and perhaps even unfair ~ and so I’d ask if there was anything I could photocopy for them as I was heading that way anyway.

    In short, I felt more like a contributing community member in my cubicle than I ever did behind the walls (and door) of my office – because there, I was isolated from everything and everyone … which put my work in an unhealthy perspective while cutting off my community ties.

    And on a more ‘political’ note: the cubicle also allowed me access to bits of work-related conversations held by those forgetting others were around – and being a ‘synthesizer’ by nature, I put bits and parts together and often saw things coming long before anyone else. There’s a lot to be said for being a quiet, invisible member of ‘the loop’.
    Sally G recently posted..Happy endings …

  6. Hi Sally,

    Appreciate your cubicle stories about being in auditory touch with those around you. Fascinating!

    Would make a good essay, especially because it reveals more of your Fearless Why. I encourage folks to find that in my design biz because it reveals what you’re put on the planet to be/do.

    Sometimes, I think folks want us to hear them, hoping we will reach out.

    I had a woman next to me who talked endlessly to friends, etc, often getting quite animated. It made it impossible to do anything when she was in her cube. That’s another reason I broke through and moved to the other side. I needed to have my own thoughts. If my Fearless Why had been more like yours I might have gone in to see what the issue was.

    I did a search on Google and they have “PLAY” rooms. The entire time I did my corporate time I kept asking for a music room, so I could take piano breaks.

    Why not play and music or just conversation rooms? People need to be replenished.

    Thx for new ideas Sally!


  7. Penelope J. says:

    First, I have to congratulate you on some astounding phrases and imagery: “spiritual death by cubicle” as someone else mentioned, “to warehouse folks,” “these human fattening bins” and “then house workers in little insanity-breeding asylums.”

    You certainly hit a relevant point with me. Once, imprisoned in a maze of these mini confined spaces, my creativity suffocating, I felt the overwhelming urge to breathe the air of freedom, and upped and left – forfeiting my Christmas bonus.

    Because of the lack of or little privacy, cubicles tend to stifle individuality. A kind of office factory line, everyone must give the appearance of churning out whatever work they do while Big Brother watches over them. Personal lives and conversations are under scrutiny including any neighborly rapport or out of the ordinary action.

    Later in life, again enclosed in a cubicle, I did what someone else commented and concentrated on the sounds and sensory impressions around me. Made it bearable and I even wrote a scene about it in my book.

    However, my worst case scenario was in a dark, dingy office in London that resembled a junk room. I never saw anyone except on my way in and out. That experience threw me into such a depression. I’d have exchanged it for a cubicle any day.
    Penelope J. recently posted..A Culinary Jewel to Celebrate Mexico’s Independence

    • Hi Penelope,

      You make a good point. It’s all relative! A dingy, dank office makes a cubicle look cheery. A spacious office with a few of beautiful tree makes a cubicle look confining.

      The freedom to run around outside makes cubicles and offices both feel constraining.

      I didn’t work in a conventional office until I turned 30. Perhaps I had too many years of freedom. Could never get used to it. I did enjoy yakking it up with some of my colleagues. In that situation we had uncubed office areas, yet they were against the walls at different angles. Mine was actually quite private. Entering a sea of cubicles was a different story. Lots of forced isolation. I used to CRAVE a conversation and go out in search of one.

      Sitting for long periods of time is not good for humans!

      thanks, G.

  8. Hi G – What a rich experience it was to read this! It just flowed. And made me laugh. I had no idea of the history of the cubicle. I did my time in cubicle land, never to return, thankfully. I used to be an academic advisor at the local university and it was sometimes a real drag for those poor students to have absolutely no privacy. Everyone could hear their story. When I got a promotion, there was this tiny sliver of an office available, and no one thought I’d want it. But boy did I. It had a window, and looked out at a beautiful olive tree. They ended up having to cut down part of the desk to fit it in the space, but I have so many fond memories of my time in there. That’s partly because it was the beginning of my journey as a counselor, but it’s also about the office itself and how it enhanced my work. I’ll never forget the day I left that office and moved on. I stood at the doorway, and it was almost like I could hear all the voices of the students who had sat with me in there. It was truly a magical moment.
    Patty – Why Not Start Now? recently posted..Dreaming and Awakening

  9. Hi Patty,

    Another gorgeous comment from you. Almost a mini-essay in itself. Loved hearing about your Olive Tree view. Trees make the world go round. And I too am aware of conversations held in spaces.

    That’s why I especially love historic buildings, the senses of yesterday linger in the air. Men who fought in The Civil War returned to my town when it was over and danced during balls held in the upstairs room of our Town Hall. If only we could meet in time and share life lessons …

    Thx! G.

  10. Giluietta: Such a true point. The space we work in really does matter and the more creativity it can stimulate in us, the better results we will generate for ourselves and also for our employer (if we work for one). I think companies that really understand this and are sensitive to the environments they create for their people end up getting better work and make more progress because their people enjoy working and are encouraged to continually tap into their creativity.
    Sibyl – alternaview recently posted..The Most Important Questions You Should Have The Answers To

  11. J.D. Meier says:

    Lately I’ve been watching Dilbert reruns and I have to say, I have a renewed appreciation for cubicle humor and pointy-haired bosses.
    J.D. Meier recently posted..Top 10 Lessons on How to Make a Living on the Internet