Thursday, October 29, 2009

Why cubicles?

Robert Oppenheimer agonized over building the A-bomb. Alfred Nobel got queasy about creating dynamite. Robert Propst invented nothing so destructive. Yet before he died in 2000, he lamented his unwitting contribution to what he called "monolithic insanity."

Propst is the father of the cubicle. ...

Another critical factor in the cubicle's rapid ascent was Uncle Sam. During the 1960s, to stimulate business spending, the Treasury created new rules for depreciating assets. The changes specified clearer ranges for depreciation and established a shorter life for furniture and equipment, vs. longer ranges assigned to buildings or leasehold improvements. (Today companies can depreciate office furniture in seven years, whereas permanent structures--that is, offices with walls--are assigned a 39.5-year rate.)

The upshot: A company could recover its costs quicker if it purchased cubes. When clients told Herman Miller of that unexpected benefit, it became a new selling point for the Action Office. After only two years on the market, sales soared. Competitors took notice.

That's when Propst's original vision began to fade. "They kept shrinking the Action Office until it became a cubicle," says [Joe] Schwartz, now 80. As Steelcase, Knoll, and Haworth brought their versions to market, they figured out that what businesses wanted wasn't to give employees a holistic experience. The customers wanted a cheap way to pack workers in.

Propst's workstations were designed to be flexible, but in practice they were seldom altered or moved at all. Lined up in identical rows, they became the dystopian world that three academics described as "bright satanic offices" in a 1998 book, Workplaces of the Future.
--Julie Schlosser, Fortune, on how tax laws abetted the rise of the cubicle. HT: Freakonomics

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