Office Design: From Action Office to Cubicles to the Home Office

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Munadil Shafat
Student (MBA), Bangladesh

Office Design: From Action Office to Cubicles to the Home Office

Recently one of the administrators of my organization was sharing a plan to redesign our offices and his take on an open, more flexible and activity-based office design. He is a finance person and although such offices are in vogue lately, it made me a bit skeptical. I was really wondering what office design will best suit our organization in the Covid-19 aftermath. Luckily I stumbled upon a book called "The Best Place to Work" by Ron Friedman. Before answering this question, let's dive into a bit of history of office design specifically into the story of the birth of cubicles.

The Little Known History of Cubicles
Anyone with a knowledge of the history of Office Design, should know Robert Propst, a former professor of Fine Arts. He will be remembered for his office innovation at Herman Miller, a furniture manufacturing company of Michigan. Herman Miller gave the charge to Robert Propst to reinvent his company's growth. Robert Propst took some office furniture and came up in 1964 with his idea of "Action Office". You will be surprised to know that Action Office was the precursor of what we now know as "Cubicles". But sadly the objective of Action Office was far from how the industry has been using cubicles for decades.

Objective of Cubicles
To reinvent office furniture, Propst studied how employees use their office, how information flows between them, and examined the ways productivity can be improved. His study revealed the desperate need of modern office design for an overhaul one with less distraction, more space and one that will give employees some level of privacy and control over the way they worked.
He invented "Action Office" which is characterized by two desks, a small table, ergonomically suitable chairs, standing desks etc.

The Tragic Adoption
Although the Action Office was an award-winning innovation, it failed commercially to appeal businesses as it required more spaces and investments than businesses were willing to provide. So, within 2 years, Propst made a stripped-down version Action Office 2 removing most of the original features of his award-winning design. The new design only featured vertical partitions, easy-to-assemble unit and a fraction of cost of traditional furniture. That was the birth of Cubicle. Ironically industry used Cubicle to cram more employees into less spaces which goes totally contrary to Propst's intention for Privacy and Personal Space.

Lessons Learned
For those of us who are thinking about modern office design, we can surely take a lesson from Propst's original Action Office. Action Office took into account how employees work in an office. If we were to design modern office, we also have to consider what types of work employees are going to do office and then decide which design can facilitate in this regard. Influenced by the original idea of Action Office, a number of modern organization's are designing their offices following principles of a college campus. In a college campus, students where given with a host of resources, like massive library, garden, gym, lobby, park, cafe, dorms etc. Students thus have a choice, and university just acts like a pool of resources that students can use to succeed. But it is up to students whether they will use all these facilities to improve their knowledge or not. Universities are not going to bother anyway. Modern organization can also act like this and should provide an office that gives many options of its employees in terms of office design that will empower them for success.

Home Office: The Next Challenge
Due to COVID-19, the focus of thinking about offices must now shift to our home in conjunction with the post-Covid work office. There's still lack of research on how to revamp our home for office needs. But the core ideas probably remain the same, we have to study how employees use their home for office work, how information flows between employees, how they interact, giving them more space, privacy and control and minimizing distraction from their work and importantly considering employees well-being before choosing a design concept. There's probably no one size fits all solution and designing the best office approach for your company is likely to take considerable time and effort.

⇨ What are your ideas, tips and experiences regarding office design?

Sources: Friedman, R. (2014), The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace

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