Consider the cubicle. It's easy: just swivel 360° in your imitation Aeron chair. Ponder the various surfaces decorated with stacks of memos and coffee rings. Meditate on the file cabinets underfoot, the shelves overhead, the glow of the fluorescent reading light. Reflect upon the three walls papered with Post-it notes and your kid's macaroni art. It's hideous, but it's home.
Now say goodbye. A new generation of work-space design promises to tear down those padded walls. Office architects are envisioning improved cubicles-- newbicles?--that feel private yet collegial, personal yet interchangeable, smaller yet somehow more spacious. Employing advanced materials, tomorrow's technology and the fruits of sociological research, designers are fitting the future workplace to workers who are increasingly mobile and global. Meanwhile, bosses are demanding rent-saving, productivity- boosting solutions to convince us that cubicles are cool. It might even work.
The father of the cubicle never meant to wreak such bleakness on the American office. We know this from the delightfully delusional name Robert Propst gave his invention: the Action Office. Back then, in 1968, most office workers toiled in open bull pens. Propst's pod offered at least as much privacy as they had in a toilet stall, albeit without the door. Corporate America, which is run by people whose offices have doors, has snapped up more than $5 billion worth of the units from maker Herman Miller. Today 70% of U.S. office workers sit in cubicles, which have long transcended mere office furniture to become a pop-cultural icon (thank you, Dilbert).
As the millennium turned, however, it became clear there were issues with the cubicle. Its high, thick walls were too isolating. Its lighting and layout were designed for paper pushing, not laptop tapping. And--unbelievably--employers thought it took up too much space. A typical workstation in the 1970s measured 12 ft. by 12 ft., according to the American Society of Interior Designers. By 1995 it had shrunk to 10 ft. by 10 ft. Today's cubicles average 6 ft. by 8 ft., and space planners say they can cut an additional 21% without affecting productivity--or increasing the crime rate.
Enter Cubicle 2.0. At Herman Miller, it's called My Studio and is aesthetically reminiscent of the iPod. Framed by brushed steel and clear plastic, the pods are separated by low partitions that slide open for passing paper clips and gum. An occupant of a 6-ft. by 8-ft. cube could invite two colleagues to perch on the horseshoe-shaped desk. Storage seems sufficient: files tuck underfoot, cables hide behind a panel--there's even a closet. And here's the kicker: it has a sliding, shoji-like door. "Privacy is key to a worker's sense of territory," says Doug Ball, My Studio's designer.