Escape from the Cube
Inside Intel's plans for open work spaces
By Lisa Baker
1900s European art technique popularized by Picasso and Braque depicting
complex scenes as simplified planes, lines and geometric shapes.
Rubik’s Cube: Three-dimensional puzzle
produced by Ideal Toys in 1980 that challenges players to arrange sets
of squares until each side of the cube is a single color.
Cubicle: Space enclosed on multiple sides
Prairie Dogging: A phenomenon in which cubicle
workers pop up to look over partition walls.
Connoisseurs of Pablo Picasso’s foray into cubism have called the
resulting work “simultaneously seductive and horrifying.”
While cubism was revolutionary, even radical, most people found it baffling,
disturbing, even surreal, having little resemblance to the world as they
Much later, in the 1980s, the Rubik’s Cube was invented and it
too was baffling to many. Even disturbing.
Nevertheless, cubism made the leap from art and puzzles to office space,
popularized by newly formed tech companies whose rising tide of white-collar
office workers needed space — quickly and on the cheap.
To install thousands of new tech workers in full-size offices —
with doors — would have been catastrophically expensive to fragile
new ventures. And the previously popular bullpen design had drawn criticism
from workers who said the environment was too noisy and distracting.
In every way, for its time, the cubicle was perfect.
Intel Corp. liked the simplicity, and the egalitarian aspect. No competition
for corner offices: Everyone was equal. Combined with muted colors and
high partitions, there was little chance for bullpen-like distraction.
Everyone would be absorbed in work, and productivity would be the sparkling
The cubicle became the staple of office design. Everyone had them: tech
companies, banks, accounting firms.
It wasn’t long before the complaints began. Workers noticed that
while the walls offered visual shields from the more obnoxious colleagues,
sound traveled through them as if they weren’t there. High partitions
blocked any natural light. Drab colors accentuated the depressing atmosphere.
Some complained that the partitions also made it hard to collaborate with
colleagues. The maze of floor after floor of identical cubes was confusing,
even with the labeled alphanumeric pillars arranged to help with navigation.
Irritation gave way to hilarity with the launch of “Dilbert,”
a comic about the lives and times of a cadre of sad sack cubicle dwellers.
Despite complaints and mockery, it appeared the iconic cubicle was here
to stay. Inhabitants, after all, were making the best of it. Articles
in business magazines suggested ways to personalize cubicles with homey
décor and some workers took it to heart, posting photos of family
and friends, bringing in objets d’art of various sorts. Others “decorated”
with another ’90s innovation: Post-It notes.
Even Yahoo — the upstart, the maverick, the “fun” company
— resorted to cubicles when it opened its customer service center
in Hillsboro in 2005. They were brightly colored cubicles, but cubes just
And then came October with the astonishing announcement: Intel was undergoing
a redesign which could — wait for it — replace its infamous
cube farms with Something New.
The startled reaction among other companies was palpable.
“Wow. I just don’t know,” said Ry Schwark, spokesman
for Wilsonville-based Mentor Graphics. “Intel without cubicles,”
he mused. “Isn’t that the second sign of the Apocalypse?”
On the drawing board: Wide open work areas similar to airline lounges
with multiple computer stations that anyone can use, conversation areas
with cushy chairs, small conference rooms for teamwork. The few remaining
cubicles, Intel says, would be reserved for those whose tasks require
A prototype will be constructed this year on Hillsboro’s Intel
campus. Two others will be built, one at Intel’s Santa Clara campus
and one at the Chandler, Ariz., location. A final decision on design will
come three months after installation of the pilot workspaces.
The new idea, Intel officials say, is fallout from Intel’s own survey
in May, which found that 88 percent of its employees hated their cubes.
(Actually, in company parlance, the survey results said it was “time
for a change.”) More than half of the respondents said they wanted
radical change rather than cosmetic measures.
Neil Tunmore, who is overseeing the change, said the company discovered
its employees were working outside their habitats, er, cubicles, 60 percent
of the time — in conference rooms, cafes or at home. Intel’s
interpretation of the data is that its employees are finding places elsewhere
to collaborate with one another — something they will be able to
do in-house with the new, “flex” spaces.
Tripp Robinson, Intel’s emergency manager, is an 18-year inmate
whose 6-foot-4 frame isn’t designed for cubicle life. He says he’s
excited by the idea of more open space.
His biggest frustration: Cubicle walls are so tall that even at his height
he can’t see who’s “home” and who’s not,
requiring him to navigate the maze to find colleagues who most often aren’t
there. So, often, meetings are scheduled online. Face-to-face meetings
require finding communal space such as open conference rooms, which are
frequently booked days or weeks in advance. The last and most common solution:
taking the long jaunt to the cafeteria, where creativity competes with
the clatter and chatter of mealtime.
Robinson says that because Intel’s workforce is more mobile than
ever — laptops, cell phones and wireless tech — no one has
to be tied to the cube anymore anyway. “You can really work anywhere
now,” he says. Even personal storage isn’t an issue anymore
because most people store information online instead of in paper files.
“Even if I’m a packrat online, I can access it anywhere.”
But the new design isn’t universally loved. Tunmore says there’s
been some “push-back” from Intel workers who believe the new
ideas are company-speak for “we’re taking your office away.”
There’s also the issue of the remaining cubicles for those with
what Tunmore calls “heads-down” work. They’re smaller
than the current 8-by-6-foot cube.
Bill MacKenzie, Intel spokesman, says the space will be compensated for
with new, smaller furniture and less storage space, which is often unused
No word on what employees think of smaller furniture.
If one company’s experience with redesign holds true, Intel could
be looking at more than a little grousing in the ranks.
Fortune magazine, in a 2006 history-of-the-cubicle tour de force, related
a similar anti-cube revolution in 1993, when the Chiat/Day advertising
agency in New York attempted a “loungy” Starbucks-like design
where workers came and went but had no designated workplace. The January
2005 edition of Architectural Review hailed the lounge act as “prophetic”
and “an exuberant playpen.” But worker disaffection, according
to Fortune, was massive: They simply stayed home and telecommuted.
But Intel isn’t the first global high-tech company to re-examine
Hewlett-Packard last year announced changes of its own along a similar
theme: more “open seating and shared team spaces to increase collaboration
and innovation,” according to the company’s press release.
But the change is not just about employee comfort — or even about
encouraging collaboration. It’s also about dollars.
As Cisco Systems told Fortune last year, open workspaces make it possible
to fit more employees into less space without sacrificing morale. For
Cisco, it meant 140 people could fit into a space where bulky cubicles
once accommodated only 88. Hewlett-Packard’s renovations —
planned for all of its offices — are expected to reduce expenses
by $230 million in their first year, according to Fortune’s report.
While Intel stresses worker benefits as the reason behind the renovation,
Tunmore acknowledges that it will mean significant real-estate savings
as Intel sells off excess buildings and stops having to lease others.
Cash-savvy or no, PGE spokesman Steve Corson, speaking from a taupe-colored
cube within PGE central, says cubicles have their uses. PGE, he says,
uses a variety of work station designs but uses cubes where they fit the
tasks at hand. Corson says he doesn’t mind his personal cube, which
is decorated sparsely — mostly photos of family. “Cubicles
are a fact of life in the work world,” he says. While most workers
at PGE are understated in their choices of cube décor, some have
become more daring — such as the employee whose habitat is dressed
top to bottom in pink. “She’s fond of pink,” Corson
Julie Schroeder, program manager for the sales arm of Wilsonville’s
Mentor Graphics, is enjoying a full-size office-with-a-door, as do most
of the company’s staff. Hers comprises sufficient space for a truckload
of Elvis memorabilia. The clock with the swinging Elvis legs, the Elvis
lunchbox, Elvis posters and the Elvis bank which belts out an Elvis tune
with every deposit. At one time, there was a full-size Elvis cutout, but
it seemed too much.
Schroeder revels in the space because she was once a cubie herself.
A self-described Loud Talker, she found that her fellow cubies did not
appreciate being her neighbors. “Even now when I’m on the
phone, people come and shut my office door. At least I have a door to
Schwark, spokesman for Mentor Graphics, says that while there are a few
“small group cubes” at the company’s campus, most work
spaces are traditional offices with doors. “A lot of people think
an office is a sign of respect and autonomy and much of the base here
are knowledge workers — smart people trying to noodle on problems.
We built the space in the way it works for them, with lots of windows,
a lovely campus with water features and wetlands. It helps them relax
a bit and engage in deep thought.”
But is there room for yoga? Answer, according to Schwark: You’ll
have to move your chair.
Barbara Baker, vice president for culture enhancement at Roseburg-based
Umpqua Bank, says that while her company has cubicles at its corporate
offices, it eliminated the feature at its branches so that managers and
other bank staff could more easily mix with customers. “The managers
now work out with the public — out mingling. There are shelves with
computer access if those are needed.” The idea, Baker says, is to
enhance customer service and make staff more approachable.
However, when the task at hand, such as opening an account, involves the
exchange of private financial information, there are offices for that.
Baker says she remembers when she worked in a cubicle. At the time, it
was hard to imagine life outside of it, she says. “It was all about
the cube. It was your identity. People would decorate them and even though
the wall wasn’t a real wall, you’d start thinking about it
that way. It wasn’t my favorite environment, but I stayed in my
cube and did my thing.”
Now, she says, business is much more about teamwork. It requires being
able to mix with team members — or, if the job is customer service,
mix freely with customers.
At the very least, the changes at Intel — and other companies —
might cut down on the cubicle comedy, renewed in October when Conan O’Brien
visited Intel’s Santa Clara campus with a camera crew and walked
the cube mazes, congratulating the company on the perfect coordination
of its gray-on-gray color scheme. Told that the cubicles ensure everyone
at Intel is treated equally, O’Brien dead-panned, “Yes, it
makes people feel that they’re all basically the same, that there
is no individuality … no hope … no sense that life has possibilities
With changes potentially coming in the next year, Intel’s Robinson
is definitely feeling a sense of hope as he exclaims: “They’re
taking down the walls!”
Top 10 Drawbacks to Working in a Cubicle
1. Being told to “think outside the box” when you're in a
freakin’ box all day long.
2. Not being able to check email attachments without turning around to
see who's behind you.
3. Cubicle walls do not offer much protection from any kind of gun fire.
4. That nagging feeling that if you press the right button, you’ll
get a piece of cheese.
5. Lack of roof rafters for the noose.
6. The walls are too close together for the hammock to work right.
7. 23 power cords, one outlet.
8. Prison cells are not only bigger, they also have beds.
9. The carpet has been there since 1976 and shows more signs of life than
10. You can’t walk out and slam the door when you quit.