Cubicles Were Originally Designed to Set Us Free and Now They're Slowly Killing Us

Cubicles Were Originally Designed to Set Us Free and Now They're Slowly Killing Us
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Former West Coast Editor
5 min read

If you want workers to be more productive, don’t box them in. Instead, set them free. Ironically, that was the inventor of the cubicle’s original vision for the modern office. And, boy, did it backfire.  

In 1960, the late Robert Propst, the “Father of the Cubicle,” called the then modern office layout a “wasteland.” The Herman Miller office furniture pioneer said the “rat-maze boxes of offices” of the day sapped vitality, blocked talent and frustrated accomplishment. "It is the daily scene of unfulfilled intentions and failed effort,” he said.

Related: All 100 Employees at This NYC Office Share One Gigantic Desk

To get sedentary corporate workers off their feet, freely swapping ideas more and, yes, doing more work, Propst and fellow designer George Nelson introduced the Action Office I in 1964. It was a customizable, multi-piece setup -- complete with standing desk, sitting desk, chair, footrest, table and shelf, among other features -- that encouraged movement. But the chic open-office furnishings were too expensive and difficult to assemble. Sales lagged, and the product flopped.

Related: 5 Ways to Turn Your Workstation Into a Workout Station

Four years later came the cheaper, leaner version, the Action Office II -- the hellish cookie-cutter walled-work enclave that today fences in an estimated 40 million American employees, according to Nikil Saval, the author of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace. Even Propst ended up loathing his partitioned cubicles, complaining that “crass,” cost-cutting office managers missed the flexible, collaborative concept behind them and instead used them to “create hellholes.” Propst eventually came to condemn the “cubicle-izing” of workers as “monolithic insanity.” He went to his grave hating what he created.

But no one hates cubicles more than those who have to work within their drab confines, day in, day out. Studies show that cubicle dwellers are some of the least happy office workers, often citing environmental temperature problems, lack of privacy and noisiness from neighboring workers.  

Related: 8 Tips for Staying Healthy in an Open Office

As if you needed more fuel to work outside of the box, here are a few ways working in a cubicle is bad for your health and how to combat them:

They’re germ factories.

You’re probably sick of your cubicle, but did you know that your cubicle is probably making you sick? Indeed, the average cubicle desk, dirtier than any other area of your typical office, is home to “400 times more bacteria than the average toilet seat,” according to University of Arizona microbiologist Dr. Charles Gerba. Try not to think about that yummy tidbit the next time you chow down on a ham sandwich in your cube. Gross. Might we suggest regularly disinfecting your desk and everything on it, especially your keyboard and your smartphone?

Related: 5 Reasons to Get Off Your Butt at Work

They’re a pain in the neck...and back.

Cubicles -- and the generic desks and chairs crammed in them -- are usually one sizes fits all. That’s kind of the whole point. The problem is that they aren’t tailored to our unique shapes and sizes, which leaves many of us slouching and often in pain. Sitting with improper posture in a cramped cube all day puts us at risk of a host of musculoskeletal complications, including wrist, leg, neck, back and shoulder pain. Eye strain is also another common complaint.

To keep chronic cubicle-induced aches and pains (and weight gain) at bay, be sure to get up, stretch and walk around about once every hour or so. Standing can help a 160-pound person burn around 150 calories an hour. That adds up to more than 1,000 calories if you stand up for eight hours.

Related: 3 Easy Tricks for Getting Fit at the Office

Doing “desk yoga” is also another option. Or, if your boss is open to it, you could replace your sitting desk with a trendy standing one, or even a biking desk. (If you feel so inclined, Pinterest has a whole page on building your own standing desk.) If neither is an option, a simple under-desk aerobic pedal machine will do the trick. You can even experiment with several different postures to boost your productivity.

Related: This Desk Helps Keep You Healthy By 'Breathing'

They’re slowly killing you.

The typical cubicle worker sits for 7.5 lethargic hours a day, dramatically increasing the risk of breast and colon cancer, type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease and the list goes depressingly on. Worse, a study by the American Cancer Society found that women and men who sat more than six hours a day were more likely to die than those who sat fewer than three hours a day, 37 percent and 18 percent respectively. Those figures skyrocket to 94 percent and 49 percent when combined with lack of physical activity.

Unfortunately there’s no fast, easy fix. If standing up and briefly strolling around your office (inside or, better yet, outside) once an hour -- or even working out at work -- isn’t yielding enough positive health results, it might be time to consider work at an open, active office environment, perhaps even a desk-free environment.

Related: Harvard Professor Crafts $50 Standing Desk That Can Fold Into Your Laptop Bag

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