Reinventing the cubicle

Translucent walls, sliding panels added to lessen sense of isolation


Dilbert never had it so good.

Office work spaces keep getting smaller and privacy scarcer. But you'll be amazed at what's happening to the claustrophobic, high-walled cubicle that turned offices into mazes like those for lab rats.

Some furniture designers are radically changing the cube in ways that provide privacy without closing workers in, while others are doing away with enclosures altogether to keep Generation Y happy.

In one new version of the cubicle, curvilinear panels of translucent glass with sliding doors and windows surround workers with light while screening out distractions.

There are enough amenities inside these bright little spaces to coax even recalcitrant managers out of drywalled offices.

The new system by Herman Miller Inc. is one of many on view last month at NeoCon, the National Exposition of Contract Furnishings in Chicago.

The annual show is to the world of office, restaurant and hotel furnishings what Comdex was in its heyday to the computer industry. Exhibitors roll out products intended to dazzle the designer elite while providing a glimpse into interiors of the future.

This year's offerings reflected an industry reinvigorated by a healthy economy and commercial office market.

Early registrations were up 40 percent compared with last year, to 45,000 attendees.

"It's all cyclical," said Cheryl Durst, chief executive of the International Interior Design Association. "All these industries feed off one another. When there's more building, there's more design."

The newest designs reflect more than changing sensibilities.

Businesses operate differently than they did 40 years ago, when the open-office plan was introduced as a solution for fast-growing corporations.

"They were expanding internationally and turning over their space by 50 percent or more a year. Reporting lines were being redrawn. The top-down hierarchy was beginning to flatten out," said Jon Ryburg, president of Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Facility Performance Group Inc.

"The idea was to leave floors unencumbered with walls, as big open spaces," Ryburg explained, "and move in this very flexible furniture system that could be torn down almost overnight."

Companies were willing to pay more for furnishings that provided interior walls. Cubicles with 6-foot panels, the kind satirized in Dilbert cartoons, also allowed them to cut costs by squeezing more workers into smaller spaces.

Still squeezing

And that squeeze is continuing. The average middle manager's work space shrank by more than 16 percent in an eight-year period through 2002, to 126 square feet, while clerical staff lost 4 percent, ending up with an average 66 square feet, according to the International Facility Management Association.

Today's corporations are equally cost-conscious, but they are changing even faster than when cubicles were novel. Technology has made workers far more mobile, and more work is done collaboratively.

Cubicles, once the epitome of flexibility, are seen as cumbersome. "Scootable" furnishings are all the rage.

Some organizations also are looking for spaces that make employees happier and more productive, because competition is increasing for so-called knowledge workers: researchers, planners, programmers, engineers and the like.

"They're asking, what are we doing to address issues of personalization and control?" said Jan Johnson, marketing vice president for Allsteel Inc.

A recent study by Knoll Inc. of 850 white-collar workers found that 40 percent of Generation Y workers, age 18 to 29, preferred open work spaces without panels.

"Young people do not want to work in a sea of cubes," said Knoll's director of workplace research, Christine Barber. "There's a very negative association."

Knoll's minimalist Wa (a Japanese term for harmony) collection by Italian designer Piero Lissoni features easily configured components.

Amenities such as injected-foam armrests snap onto spare work surfaces that can be joined to form conference tables, assembled into adjoining desks or attached to shelves for individual work spaces. Scootable files slide underneath.

Industry research suggests the key to a sense of privacy is not isolation but control over one's environment.

Herman Miller's latest offering is glass-paneled workstations outfitted with doors, closets and furniture-like build-ins.

Opaque interior walls are high enough to screen occupants from adjacent workers, but panels slide open to let neighbors to talk face to face. Larger panels on outside walls function like windows.

Museum exhibit

The My Studio system was developed by Montreal designer Douglas Ball, whose Clipper CS-1 computer workstation, housed in the permanent collection of London's British Design Museum, caused a stir at NeoCon in 1994.

Ball confesses a fondness for well-designed small spaces such as the interiors of sailboats, Volkswagen campers and a two-seater 1965 Porsche 356C in which he once traveled cross-country.

"The space, the volume inside was just right," he said. "Everything was within reach."

He kept this experience in mind when Herman Miller asked him in 2002 to design office-like cubicles as small as 6 feet by 8 feet.

"People are driving bigger and bigger vehicles, and they live in monster houses," Ball said. "When it comes to the office, the pressure of real estate costs, the need to squeeze more people on each floor [means] people don't have much say. My goal was to create the optimal small workstation."

The price tag, from $4,000 to $6,000 depending on size and amenities, easily is triple that of a fabric-walled cubicle but many times less than a standard office.

Bill Clegg, managing partner at Connecticut-based Schoenhardt Architecture + Interior Design, chose My Studio for a financial institution's insurance operations.

"The sliding door is very important because this is a sales operation where a lot of [employees] are coming out of private offices," Clegg said.

Barbara Rose writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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