Thinking Outside the Taupe Box

Corporate style is hurting, and it hurts the corporation.

For every Google, Facebook, Pixar or other ‘cool’ brand that nurtures the creativity of
 its employees through workplace design, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of financial services, insurance, technology, CPG, pharma, fast food, consumer electronics and other companies announcing the death of the soul to everyone who walks past reception.

Imagine if such companies were to leverage their corporate style as an added perk when hiring and headhunting: “In addition to the competitive bonus package, you’ll be working in a sea of taupe cubicles illuminated by the gentle glare of fluorescent ceiling panel lighting with soft brown carpet under your feet as far as the eye can see.”

What might have seemed like a perk
40 years ago – a workplace that proudly announced its modernity to American employees enamored with the opportunity to participate in the corporation and fully immersed in the efficiency mandate of competing with the Soviets – has evolved into the default position of corporate workplace design.

Of all the features of that design, none is more ready for reevaluation than the cubicle. Designed in 1964 by Robert Propst and George Nelson for Herman Miller, the first iteration of the cubicle to come to market was named the Action Office I. With a challenge steeped in a history we see only in office scenes from black-and-white films – rows of desks where privacy was limited, noise travelled and concentration was supposedly chaos – they sought to facilitate employee initiative and improve communication. To do that, they consulted with behavioral psychologists, mathematicians and Edward T. Hall, the anthropologist who first developed the concept of proxemics – the cultural theory of space and its use – and pioneered the discipline of the Anthropology of Space. The irony is far from lost.

Or maybe it’s not. What came to life as desks and workspaces of varying height designed
to allow employees more freedom-of-movement and work in positions best suited for their task, the Action Office I was expensive, hard to assemble and flopped in the marketplace.

Enter the next iteration. Battling over the task at hand, Nelson was taken off the project and Propst was left to his own devices to design a work environment that would be flexible enough to change configurations, give employees a space they could personalize and provide a quiet, private view of the office. Three years after the Action Office I came the Action Office II. Eleven years later it was simply re-named the Action Office. And by 2005, it had totaled sales in the $5 billion range.

That Propst and Nelson had a tense relationship is a no brainer. Notwithstanding their battles over design concepts and credits, Nelson’s scathing critique of the Action Office seems less about their past than about the Orwellian work future he imagined the cubicle would conjure when, back in 1970, he wrote:

“One does not have to be an especially perceptive critic to realize that AO II is definitely not a system which produces an environment gratifying for people in general. But it is admirable for planners looking for ways of cramming in a maximum number of bodies, for ‘employees’ (as against individuals), for ‘personnel’, corporate zombies, the walking dead, the silent majority.”

Like Dr. Frankenstein, Propst also wasn’t a fan of the monster he had given life to, saying in 1997 that “The cubicleising of people in modern corporations is monolithic insanity.”

So why can’t cubicle corporations stop
 the insanity? Because, like an old dog that can’t learn new tricks, they are bound by legacy systems, and the cubicle is rich in legacy.

Drawing on the cubicle as a symbol for much that is wrong with the corporation today, instilling innovation begins with office and organizational renovation.

It maximizes space. Instrumental in making corporate compartmentalization complete, cubicles have given a generation of operations people a precise way to cost-out office size and number of employees. When something works for the masters of spreadsheet efficiency, the corporation tends not to question its value.

It minimizes decisions. Presented with shiny brochures that put Ikea to shame, cubicles offer a ‘solution’ in advance of actually considering what the ‘challenge’ might be. Unqualified to design the interactions of people in place, those tasked with setting up or renovating offices are content to follow the basics, standards and ‘best practices’ of what providers provide.
 For many baby boomers and those who were socialized in the workplace by them, it still makes sense as a good way to work. Writing in The New Atlantis in 2008, David Franz describes the cubicle as a revolutionary concept aligned with a 1960s ethos of transformation. Rallied by recent US military research, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and architectural theorists – all promoting the principles of cybernetics as a way to free the flow of information and facilitate collaboration in human networks – pundits believed that cubicles would eliminate the hierarchies between bosses and workers and dissolve giant bureaucracies through more interaction in the workplace.

Hierarchies were not eliminated. Bureaucracies have grown. The silos whose populations can be counted across cubicle farms work in more isolation than ever before.

Operations might be content with the status quo but for those charged with the current corporate mandate of innovation the former cubicle utopia has become something of a dystopic barrier to corporate creativity and collaboration. Cubicles decrease interaction through isolation. They inhibit cross-functional collaboration. They drive innovation from public space by forcing it
into meeting request rooms. They are the spatial antithesis of what sparks ideas, energy and
the courage to follow through with the new.

But the answer to the corporate innovation conundrum is not simply to replace cubicles with open workspaces. In recognizing that the design of space is merely symptomatic and reinforcing of corporate culture, open workspaces might make some incremental improvements over team interaction and sociability but the core obstacle will remain: organizational principles and practices that just don’t work like they once did.

From legacy thinking to legacy manufacturing, the corporations that are having the most difficulty adjusting to the new mandate of innovation are those that are stuck in their own pasts and, so far, are incapable of reinvention. Whether they seek new reasons-to-believe for products we no longer love
or need, play with new shapes and sizes to re-package the past, or cloak selling bad in doing good through warm and cuddly CSR platforms, many apply themselves to today’s challenges in ways that feel like they belong to the age of the Action Office I.

So how can these old school business behemoths better meet today’s challenge of innovation? Drawing on the cubicle as a symbol for much that is wrong with the corporation today, instilling innovation begins with office and organizational renovation. More than simply replacing furniture or adding a fresh coat of paint, the first step in any successful renovation or, more accurately, any successful transformation, is to take a very critical look at organizational culture or style.

What is the connection or disconnection between who we were and who we are? How does purpose shape process? Is there a purpose beyond growth and profit? How does what me make or do add beauty, efficiency, safety, or pleasure to life? Do hierarchies inhibit ideas and collaboration? Does the flow between business units create conflict? How do we talk to consumers? Do employees feel inspired to create products and services that feel meaningful right now? Do we feel (and act) fresh?
If the first right or left you take after walking through the reception of a corporate office leads you smack dab in the middle of a cubicle farm – and you wonder why innovation is like pulling teeth – it’s probably time to start asking these and other big questions. And when it comes to the renovation, get ready: chances are that once you make the move to retire
the cubicles you’ll soon discover that part of the plumbing needs to be replaced too.

This article originally appeared in MISC Winter 2013, The Style Issue.

the author

Dr. Morgan Gerard

Dr. Morgan Gerard is the former chief resident storyteller at Idea Couture.