In the eyes of millions of office denizens, Herman Miller has plenty to answer for. It is, after all, the inventor of the original and much-reviled cubicle. This month, it will launch its effort to atone: My Studio. The idea, says Canadian furniture designer Douglas Ball, who created the system, was to build a much, much better cube—"an environment that offered a sense of territory and privacy, but also openness, all within a 6' x 8' footprint." Tall order. Initial customer response, the Millerites say, has been overwhelmingly positive.
To see if we agreed, we took a new unit for a spin. A four-pod system—two 6' x 8' cubicles and two 6' x 6'—was installed in the middle of Fast Company's offices. The pods featured a sampling of window patterns—pebbled, ribbed, etched—with varying levels of transparency, on the walls and doors. These are all customizable, depending on the degree of privacy or openness the worker desires. Three of us moved in for a few weeks, leaving one unit open for random squatters to try.
Here's how it went.
Linda: It's move-in day! Compared to our big 12' x 12' double-wides—the cubicle equivalent of a McMansion—this space seems small. That's going to be tough for us writers. The biggest fave so far: the nifty locker, eerily reminiscent of middle school, where you can stash your hat on a shelf, your coat on a hook, and your gym bag on the bottom. I contemplate hanging a picture of Justin Timberlake inside.
Jen: I feel like I'm in a fishbowl. I'm on the corner, near the lounge, so everyone can see what I'm working on through these patterned glass walls. It might be more effective with frosted glass. The coat closet is cute, but why can everybody see my sweaty sports bra?
David: Jen and Linda got the executive suites. I'm in the serf-size unit, a 6' x 6'. It's a lot smaller than my last space and feels claustrophobic. The external sliding window instantly prompts jokes. Most are riffs on whether I'm now doubling as a doctor's office receptionist. Tomorrow, I predict, will be, "I dropped off my pictures on Tuesday, and I'm here to pick them up."
Jen: The computer positioning is wrong for me as a lefty. [Editor's note: Halfway through the test, we discovered that Jen's unit had been installed wrong; she should have been facing in the opposite direction, which would have solved both the positioning problem and some of the privacy issues.]
Linda: Yikes! I just realized Jen can see my whole computer screen. Guess I'll have to cut back the time I spend on the Zappos.com shoe site. I position my movable hanging-file rack in her sight line for more privacy. I hunch over my lunch, a fluorescent orange mess of mac 'n' cheese I succumbed to at the deli downstairs, so she can't see what I'm eating. Too mortifying. Guess that's one way to keep me from pigging out on crappy food.
David: I've been in here long enough to be comfortable with the space but not happy with it. It's too small for people to enter and interact with me. My workaround has been to have colleagues sit in the empty cubicle behind me and chat through the window. It seems silly, but the alternative is that they're sitting in my lap.
Jen: There's a fight going on in an adjoining cube. I can hear it all. I feel like joining in, even though I have no idea who's right. So much for auditory privacy. But everybody loves my glass whiteboard and feels compelled to leave notes. What do you suppose "Kelly, you tramp!" means?
Jen: I'm starting to understand how there's some sense of privacy, or at least personal space, created by the glass. When Linda and I are here together, we interact (waving, etc.), but when we want to have a real conversation, we slide open the shutter to talk. It's a psychological barrier, rather than a true one, but somehow it works.
Linda: It's great being able to chat with Jen when we want, but here's the problem: When you're done talking, it seems rude to slide the shutter closed. What's the etiquette for this?
David: I'm starting to miss all my stuff. Linda says the idea is a paperless office, but I have no real place to put my books and can't personalize this workspace with posters. Am I more productive in this space? I may be. I have nowhere to go, so I just sit here and work.
Linda: It must be school-vacation week. Little children are racing through the office. I don't want to be a crank, but I have a story due and I need to concentrate. I pull shut the door. The door! Be still my beating heart! I finally have a door!
Linda: Jen's finally back from the road. We haven't seen each other in days. My story's done, so as a treat, I spin around and slide the shutter open to tell Jen my latest nightmare business-travel story involving an Egyptian cab driver and a banana. She has crazy travel stories too. Collaboration strikes! We decide to do a blog post together. Maybe this thing is growing on me.
A version of this article appeared in the June 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.