Business, Economics and Jobs

How office cubicles came to be

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Story by Catherine Epstein, "Studio 360"

Around 40 million Americans spend their days in cubicles at their jobs. Cubicles have a bad reputation as soul-crushing, gray boxes wallpapered in Post-its.

But the creator of the office cubicle, an architect named Robert Propst, originally designed them to promote health and wellness.

Cubicle pioneer Joe Schwartz was in charge of marketing the first cubicles back in 1968.

"Robert Propst proposed to take out all those private offices that were lining the walls in those traditional office buildings and replace them with open office systems," said Schwartz. "Get rid of all that sheet rock. Think about one system that you could put up overnight with an Allen head wrench.

"He found that people were walking around, going to the restrooms where they were exchanging ideas because all the partitions and the walls blocked people from either seeing each other or talking to each other."

Propst called his new system "Action Office."

Propst thought that working in an Action Office system, where one would have to rotate to perform different functions would vary peoples' posture, which would help increase energy levels and productivity.

According to Schwartz, an employee of Pacific Bell phone company, Scott Adams, was one of the first to work in an Action Office system. As the systems got smaller and smaller, Adams invented the idea of the "cubicle," and then, his "Dilbert" cartoon was created.

“He’s probably financially done a lot better than I did. I read ‘Dilbert’ every day,” said Schwartz.

Schwartz still stands behind Propst’s original concept of the Action Office.

"You must realize that the cubicle you're working in is a compromise to Protst's concept. I still think it's the best solution out there -- nobody's got a better one, because if there was a better one, Action Office wouldn't be celebrating a 40th anniversary."

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