The Complete History of the Office Cubicle

When people think of an office, a few things come to mind. They could think about the people they work with, the end of remote work, or might even the hit television show, The Office.

When we think about an office, we think about the layout and how there’s always room for improvement or an opportunity to move. Not too many think about the ins and out of the cubicle, but here’s your chance to learn. We can tell you the complete history of the office cubicle.

Original Purpose

Believe it or not, the cubicle had a purpose beyond separating employees into designated corners. The designer, Robert Propst, created the cubicle to empower people. Propst was originally a home designer for a company called Herman Miller, and he took the time to study people and the average worker. He noted some things that needed overall improvement.

He grew up in the open-bullpen office design, and he had a vision for something new. The original plan was called the “Action Office,” which consisted of a huge desk, an area to make phone calls, a filing system, and partitions. The design came out in 1968, four years after the original plans. However, when manufacturers released the concept, no one took to it.

Propst thought employees could be more productive if they were completely boxed in on work with no distractions. Unfortunately, the prices were a little too expensive to fit the market, and not many companies adopted the new productivity booster.

Back to the Drawing Board

Even though Americans didn’t take the original design on the first take, this didn’t deter Propst. He went back to the drawing board to see what else he could collect and come up with. Designers loved the “Action Office;” he just needed to get everyone else on board.

Propst created “Action Office II,” taking it to the next level. The panels became miniature walls of multiple heights that separated each space into its own office. But this time, it didn’t completely cut off workers from their colleagues.

That was the original mistake. Though some employees work better in isolation, the current generation was still used to an open-floor concept. They still needed to have some connection to their colleagues to remain productive.

Additionally, he made the cubicles more lightweight and easier to assemble, which was attractive to employers. Being a cheaper version was also a real crowd-pleaser. If employers could find a way to maintain order and increase productivity in their offices without breaking the bank, they were all for it.

A Change of Heart

More affordable meant better in this case—and it also meant easily replicated. Manufacturers started to take to Propst design and make their own “knock-off” versions. At one point, office furniture became one of those items that employers could write off as a tax break. Propst didn’t necessarily like how his original design began to morph.

He saw people were using the cubicle as a form of isolation, and that was not his original intention. He still wanted to have the same sense of comradery around the office but with better productivity results. But over time, the original designs went back to their previous intention.

However, there was a period during the 1970s when workers became sick because of volatile organic compounds released by cubicle materials. The lack of space also became an issue as well. Thus, new plans had to be drawn up for better materials and providing additional space.

Better Overtime

As with everything, the schematics and plans for the cubicle eventually got better. Americans adapted to the idea more, and they even found ways to improve the original designs. Those hazardous materials became a thing of the past, and people learned how to make the cubicle non-imposing.

Propst discovered that he needed to lower the partitions, but he didn’t think about how to make the entire area adjustable for the office place. Coming up with the plans and designs for a desk that can do more really helped to fix the spacing issue. For starters, employers are a little more mindful of fire hazards and the importance of health and safety for their employees.

There are no more force fittings inside a space that won’t allow it. Employers make sure there are clear pathways for everyone to pass through, and that no area is congested or too narrow.

Today, there are some employers who ditched the cubicle design altogether. They went back to the original open floor concept because they felt it was more productive for their team. But about 30 percent of companies still follow the Propst cubicle design.

What Works for You

Every office is different. Each company has its own vibes and workflow that help to contribute to the success of the business. The beauty of it is that you can decide to change whenever you like. If you’re ever in need of an office makeover, we’re you’re people. Here at Capitol North American, we don’t just specialize in moving—we help with setup too.

We offer an office cubicle installation service if you feel that your office needs an adjustment to increase productivity. Keep in mind that making the switch could be jarring to some of the employees and staff, and that’s precisely why a more gradual transition is necessary.

Try to gradually move them into a new workflow. You could focus on one department at a time or keep some areas still open for collaboration purposes. Always check with everyone on the floor how they feel about any changes.

There’s even an opportunity for you to purchase cubicles that don’t completely close everyone off. Or, if one employee feels like having complete isolation, make sure that they’re free to do so.

We’re here to help. If you’re in need of a new installation or want to downsize and need some storage space, we’ve got it all. Aside from the complete history of office cubicles, we have a very thorough knowledge of moving. For more information, visit our website.

The Complete History of the Office Cubicle