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  • Writer's pictureDr Lina Engelen

No, the cubicle was not a good idea - Let’s never have it back

With the COVID-19 crisis raging across the globe, workers and organisations have had to adapt and come up with new ways to organise their work. They have had to adjust to the ‘interim normal’ and to plan for the Post-Corona New Normal. There is currently a plethora of circulating webinars, articles, reports, and blogs proposing physical solutions for a Corona-safe and healthy office. Several of them suggest high-walled cubicles. Yes, cubicles may be one strategy to reduce spread of airborne contaminants and the risk of infection, but is it the best way to promote holistic physical, mental and social wellbeing and productivity? Somehow, I doubt it!

In the 1960’s, Robert Probst designed the Action Office to promote health and productivity by encouraging people to change postures throughout the day; giving them ways to store and display materials; and allowing for adaptation so furnishings can adjust to the ebb and flow of the workday. It had different ‘pieces’, such as lightweight sitting and standing desks and filing systems. Acoustical panels helped insulate workers from surrounding noise. Probst and George Nelson said “The office, then, primarily should be a mind-oriented living space.” This all sounds like quite a contemporary view. However, soon the Action Office morphed into the cubicle, not all to Probst’s delight. Rather, he said, “Not all organisations are intelligent and progressive. Lots are run by crass people. They make little, bitty cubicles and stuff people in them. Barren, rathole places.”

Following Probst’s sentiment, I guess there are very few people who actually enjoy the cubicle, and even fewer who await its return. High-walled cubicles, albeit fancy ones, may create a sense of isolation and cabin fever, reduce availability of natural light and lack of sound privacy. When you work from home, do you choose to work in a room with natural light and some views of greenery, or do you set up shop in the broom cupboard? If we don’t design our home office like a cubicle, why would we want to go to an office that is? Prior to COVID-19, many organisations had evolved and were commissioning offices that were more human-centred, that catered to individual choices and that incorporated the importance of natural light and views. Will we need to undo all of that now to create safe and healthy offices?

During the lockdown and isolation period many of us have gotten used to working remotely and found that it often works for us. According to recent surveys and polls, a large proportion of people will be resistant to going to the office every day, even when the threat of Corona has subsided. That means that now, more than ever, we need to create offices that work, that function the way we need them to, that people WANT to go to. Is it enough to create workplaces that are safe, or do we need to think a little bit harder and create spaces that also support wellbeing and broader health; that encourages connections between people and feelings of belonging?

I think we need to think about more holistic ways to make our offices safe and healthy. My next blog will look at ways we can do this.


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