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DATE: 07/08/2015

What do you think of when you hear the term “cubicle workstation?”

If the the words boring, bland or gray come to mind, you’re not alone. Hollywood even caught on to the trend comically capturing the stereotypical disgruntled cubicle worker in its 90s cult-classic “Office Space.”

But, despite common misconceptions, the cubicle wasn’t invented by mid-management “drones” looking for ways to save a buck on office space –– it was created by a visionary.

The late Robert Propst, Herman Miller Research corporate designer, created the first cubicle with the goal of introducing individual autonomy, flexibility and freedom to the workplace. What was first marketed as “The Action Office II” featured adjustable walls meant to be kept at 120-degree angles, simultaneously providing privacy options “as needed,” while allowing easy contact with co-workers.

It also allowed for standing AND seated desks, multiple storage configurations and several wall personalization options. The design was met with great fanfare, as evidenced by a New York Post column titled “Revolution Hits the Office.” So, what happened?

Put simply –– the bottom line. As business owners realized how much money could be saved by conserving space, the design morphed into something almost completely unrecognizable to Propst, who told The New York Times in 1997 that "The cubicle-izing of people in modern corporations is monolithic insanity.”

While “open office concepts” appear to be here to stay, workstation designs have evolved considerably since the “stripped down” versions of the 90s. And, despite the common notion of “cubicle drudgery,” most employees don’t actually dislike them for the reasons you’d think.

According to The Journal of Environmental Psychology’s published research, only about 10 percent of office workers are actually dissatisfied with their cubicle workspace overall. The biggest complain? Lack of sound privacy. Sixty percent of cubicle workers surveyed, and half of all partitionless people, indicated noise level as a frustration.

The other biggest environmental complaints? Noise level, visual privacy and temperature. Other more minor concerns reported include dissatisfaction with amount of workspace, adjustability of furniture and overall air quality. What this information suggests is highly valuable –– the workstations themselves aren’t the real issue. And the real issues CAN be addressed with a few careful considerations:

1. Choose Workstations With Flexible Walls

Similarly to what Propst originally intended, these workstations provide “the feeling of” privacy when needed. The psychological boost this provides alone make this additional feature worthy of consideration. While co-workers may in fact, still be able to hear one another, they’re less likely to be concerned with people “listening in” if they can’t see them.

2. Provide Employees With Headphones

While not everyone enjoys listening to music while they work, many find it enhances productivity and boosts mood. Further, gifting employees with headphones can be a gesture that simply shows you are understanding of the realities that come with working in an open office. If you’re a larger corporation, consider striking a deal with a noise-canceling headphone provider so that you can offer the product as an employee purchase option at discounted cost.

3. Seat Employees of Similar Temperaments Near One Another

If you already have some sort of personality screening test in place, you likely have data that will tell you who is an introvert and who isn’t. If not, this information can quickly be discovered by an informal office survey. Once data is collected, consider grouping employees of similar temperaments (and vocal loudness) together in an effort to create better working conditions. While these qualities aren’t always mutually exclusive, “playing with” your seating arrangements can make a world of a difference to certain employees.