The Evolving Work Place and Performance
Executives seeking insight into the complex paradigm of optimal employee performance might take time to ponder the contributions of Robert Propst to modern work.
An American inventor, Propst designed the “Action Office II” in the 1960s, creating a “work station” surrounded with three walls made of inexpensive, disposable materials, which could be flexibly arranged into any space and any configuration desired.
Said another way, Robert Propst created the cubicle.
Today, 40 million Americans make a living in some sort of cubicle. Roughly 93 percent of those workers would rather be working somewhere else.
This and other fascinating facts can be found in a new book, “Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace,” by Nikil Saval. More than just a history of our work space, Saval lays out a crucial, yet unexamined dimension contributing to worker satisfaction and superior performance.
The origins of office work were hopeful enough. “Counting Houses” as they were known in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were dank, cramped designs that could have 10 or more people working in only 25 square feet. However, partners worked side-by-side with clerks in these offices, and it was this close proximity of managers to employees – with decisions made openly in real time – which created an esprit de corps and sense of purpose among staff that contributed to better performance.
Propst’s handiwork in the late middle of the last century was an intellectual high water mark for the commoditization of employees that evolved in the 20th century, highlighting the structural acrimony between labor and management on a host of issues, including a large-scale failure of employees to impress upon management the need for consultation with staff when making design and human resources decisions that affect employee lives.
All is not lost however.
Saval sees a brighter future, made possible by advances in technology that free employees from the tyranny of location. As such, he predicts that the old career path, from cubicle to corner office. is “coming to a close,” with a new, as yet unformed construct taking its place. A critic of organizations that insist on hierarchy, Saval states that “It remains for office workers to make this [new] freedom meaningful…to make workplaces truly their own.”
For executives looking to the future, the message could not be clearer. Maximum performance is driven by employee engagement, which is heavily influenced by the organization of the workspace and their proximity to decision-making. In the evolution of the workspace, technology can free the employee from a desk, but it is the empowered employee working under amplified leadership of executives – the foundation of the Performance Architecture Science System (PASS) – that brings human capital, technology and the workspace together to produce superior performance.