Segment from Tools of the Trade

Little Boxes

Sociologist David Franz explains how the original design of the dreaded office cubicle had utopian aspirations.

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ED AYERS: This is BackStory. I’m Ed Ayers. In the 1930s, an average of one worker died for each million dollars spent on a construction job. It was in this period that engineer Joseph Strauss embarked on the $40 million construction of the Golden Gate Bridge.

FEMALE SPEAKER: He did not like the idea of 40 people dying in order to cross the bay.

ED AYERS: To protect his workers, Strauss took advantage of a recent invention, an invention we’ll hear all about today from the inventor’s great-granddaughter. We’ll also consider the influence of the stopwatch on the American workplace, the rise of the cubicle, and the origin of a species, “office chairicus.”

MALE SPEAKER: Charles Darwin apparently was the first person to put wheels on a typical desk chair.

ED AYERS: Today on BackStory, Tools of the Trade– a history of the way Americans have worked, told through the things they’ve worked with Don’t go away.

ANNOUNCER: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

ANNOUNCER 2: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.

BRIAN BALOGH: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh.

PETER ONUF: I’m Peter Onuf.

ED AYERS: And I’m Ed Ayers. Picture, if you will, the cubicle. You may even be sitting in one right now. But chances are, you don’t just picture one cubicle. Instead, the very word conjures up rows and rows of identical work spaces, peopled by workers packed in like cattle in pens. Now these cube farms, as they’re known, are the embodiment of all that’s soul-sucking about office culture today, which is really too bad considering their origin.

DAVID FRANZ: The cubicle was actually intended to make the office better.

PETER ONUF: This is David Franz, a sociologist who was written about the cubicle’s back story. I started with a guy named Robert Probst at the Herman Miller Furniture Company. In the late ’60s, he came up with a new version of something he called the “action office.” The first one had flopped. It was a modular workspace that was intended to literally tear down the walls and encourage open communication among co-workers.

DAVID FRANZ: When you look at some of the early ads for cubicles, you have this really interesting and very active transfer of information. So you’ve got papers being passed in and around the dividers, so there’s gaps between them, and people standing up and talking over the top of them. So it was designed, really, with the idea that this was going to be a very convivial workplace.

ED AYERS: Within a few years, companies around the country were converting to an action office-inspired floorplan. But nowhere was it more popular than Silicon Valley, just beginning to emerge on the scene. In 1978, Intel CEO Andrew Grove gave up his big corner office for a seat of his own in the cube farm.

DAVID FRANZ: He’s got a cubicle right down the hall– not even down the hall, just kind of across the open space from the other employees at Intel. And so the idea is, there isn’t this fixed hierarchy and the hierarchy isn’t very high. So it’s a flat world and it’s a world that’s changeable and movable. And that’s true both from the perspective of a company that needs to be able to adjust to more employees or a different kind of set of working teams, or from the perspective of an employee, that they can see a path to a better future for them.

ED AYERS: It was a vision that had particular appeal as America moved into the 1980s. Manufacturing was on the decline, and a lot of analyst types were wondering why American companies were falling behind the global competition.

DAVID FRANZ: The sense that American business had become too big and too rigid and too bureaucratic was the dominant diagnosis, I would say, within the kind of business talk and business journalism, that this was holding American business back, the idea that offices and formal dress and all of these things were part of what was leading to Japan kicking our butt and just generally the failure of American business was all tied with that. And so there was– people were casting about for some sense of hope.

ED AYERS: And business journalists found that ray of hope in the new, more egalitarian office culture of the tech sector in the West. An essay in The Atlantic looked at Intel’s model and waxed whimsical. Could the tire companies, the machine toolmakers, the color TV industry learn to work this way?

MALE SPEAKER: It didn’t take long for the cubicle to lose its utopian luster.

DAVID FRANZ: It’s probably a couple of years before you start to see in those same newspapers, articles about how employees are sliding filing cabinets into the openings to try to gain some privacy, or using cardboard to raise their cubicle level just a little bit.

ED AYERS: It didn’t help, says Franz, that companies had more or less brushed aside the original idea of the action office. They found they could save money by cramming smaller and smaller stations in one space. Rather than coming in many shapes and sizes as Probst had intended, cubicles became more and more uniform and stifling.

The cube farm began to dominate office life. And the cubicle became a perfect symbol of corporate drudgery. It was lampooned in pop culture. Just think about the cartoon character of Dilbert, or the 1999 cult film Office Space.

MALE SPEAKER: We don’t have a lot of time on this earth. We weren’t meant to spend it this way. Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicle staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about mission statements.

DAVID FRANZ: In some ways, they judge cubicles by the same ideals that cubicles were originally praised for, especially this sense of purpose, of realizing– like, you’re going to realize meaning both for yourself and with your fellow employees that you’re going to kind of have this moral community in the workplace. And what gets thrown at the cubicle dweller is you have a kind of meaningless existence that has no purpose. And you’re working with a bunch of jerks who you can’t get away from.

PETER ONUF: And so it is that the noble aspirations of workplace design come crashing up against the realities of work. The action office was hardly the first time this has happened. And we all know it won’t be the last. So today on the show, we’re considering this dynamic through three centuries of American life. It’s a show we’re calling “Tools of the Trade,” and it’s all about, well, things like cubicles and chairs, or the hard hats won by generations of construction workers.