Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 4.36.03 PMHave you ever found one of your employees dozing off at their desk? Perhaps your office design is to blame. After all, the word cubicle comes from the Latin cubiculum, for bed chamber. So it’s created for sleeping.

Hundreds of years ago, people crowded into offices or counting houses. A law in 1526 declared that an office would be constructed wherever King Henry VIII happened to be, one of his clerks would drape a green cloth over a table, and from 8 in the morning until the King retired, the clerk would dutifully record the transactions of the realm. The ancient Egyptians had the imj-r ixt nbt nt ni-swt who would record all stores and transactions of the kingdom.

And then we decided that everyone needed a desk.

The first true office spaces were designed very much like a school room. An owner or manager would sit at the head of the room, often at an elevated desk, looking over rows of workers dutifully slaving over books and ledgers. In the late 1800s, Frederick Winslow Taylor, an engineer obsessed with efficiency, set about to redesign this setting. His offices massed workers together for better communication, with managers supervising from private offices, much like a factory.

Larkin Administration Building

Larkin Administration Building

In 1906, American architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Administration building of the Larkin Soap Company in Buffalo, New York. His office design featured an open atrium filled with rows of desks, with sunlight streaming through massive skylights onto the workers below. Management occupied offices lining the atrium, with balconies provided to supervise the clerks.

The 1960s saw the embrace of the Burolandschaft. This was a socialist German design that got rid of the cloistered offices of management, and put all workers together in a common room.

In 1967, designer Robert Propst created the “Action Office.” Modular, low panels provided each worker with a sense of privacy, while still allowing a certain level of communication. Each employee had the benefit (or curse, depending on your thinking) of their own personal space.

The Action Office, or Cube Farm, has become a poster child for blandness. Certainly, for many offices and applications it allows for just the right mix of privacy and collaboration. But in nefarious hands…

It should not be surprising that many progressive companies are taking a step back. As we saw with the design of the new Facebook headquarters, collaboration and personal interaction are important elements of an efficient workplace. Even organizations that rely on a traditional executive structure are taking pains to incorporate features and designs that embrace, encourage, and often force interaction between workers. Apple historically located their restrooms such that you had to mingle with your co-workers if you needed to wee.

Trig by Treadway

Trig by Treadway

We work with a couple of manufacturers that actually take it a step further. Inscape creates workstations that allow for a bit of privacy, but several workers share the same space. They create their privacy with the use of cubes, cabinets, and movable panels. Trendway has a product called the Trig. Two desks, two cabinets, two chairs, but one workstation.

So Cube Farm or Open Sesame? What’s your preferred design?