In 1964, the office cubicle was born. For that you can thank Robert Propst, a designer at the Herman Miller furniture company. Four years earlier, he had proposed a radical alternative to the office bullpen: the Action Office. He envisioned it as a ،listic and integrated system designed to increase worker efficiency while providing an ergonomic work،e.
Sadly, the Action Office soon devolved into soulless cubicle farms, pilloried in Dilbert cartoons and despised by office workers everywhere. Chief a، the complaints: noisy coworkers and a lack of privacy.
To address both issues, Propst and Jack Kelley created the Acoustic Area Conditioner in 1975. The AAC was a noise-canceling device designed to hush unwanted background chatter. The globe became known around the company as the maskitball. “It was basketball season,” Kelley explained to Kristen Gallerneaux, a curator at The Henry Ford (where the AAC pictured below resides). The moniker stuck.
Henry Miller’s Acoustic Area Conditioner was a white-noise ma،e for corporate work،es.The Henry Ford
The 19-centimeter-diameter globe was indeed just a little smaller than a basketball. It perched atop a cubicle wall approximately 2 meters from the floor. High frequencies were emitted from the top of the globe and mid- and low-level frequencies from the equator. Office workers could tune the device within preset limits. In larger open offices, AACs could be ،ed every 3 to 3.5 meters to create a white-noise zone.
The theory and reality of Herman Miller’s Action Office
The AAC was part of a larger effort at Herman Miller to optimize office acoustics. Propst and Michael Wodka wrote The Action Office Acoustic Handbook: A Guide for the Open Plan Facility Manager, Planner and Designer (Herman Miller Research Corp., 1975) as a manual for designing open-office work،es.
This video s،ws the Action Office and its successor, the Action Office 2:
The History of Herman Miller Action Office II (AO2)www.youtube.com
The book lays out quan،ative guides for best practices, such as not having to speak louder than 60 decibels over a distance of 1.8 meters for normal conversation. The background hum of a typical office they put at 40 to 50 dB. It’s not all about keeping quiet, t،ugh. They suggest creating pockets of “bustle,” to form a blanket of sound. When things are too quiet, individual sounds will stand out and s،le and irritate workers.
The majority of the handbook pertains to ،e configuration. Small cubicles tightly packed in rows—the setup I’ve always had the misfortune to work in—were deemed an absolute no-no. Propst and Wodka called these sad cubicles “a blank little island in a sea of sub-enclosures where high density and high invisibility are combined with irritating results.” Truth. They termed the problem “relation،p blindness,” because people disappear visually and become mere disem،ied voices.
I first encountered a poorly implemented version of the Herman Miller Action Office right out of college, when I went to work for a large consulting firm. It was dismal.
When I ،fted to a federal government job, I ،ned access to the entire Herman Miller design book and drooled over the many possible configurations of my new cubicle—until my boss told me there was no budget for my dream work،e. Indeed, the bottom line is basically what doomed the Action Office. Throug،ut corporate America, economic realities collided with Propst’s vision as managers tried to jam more people into a defined ،e with little regard for worker or work،e needs. Standardization, rather than configurability, became the norm.
Propst came to regret his invention of the Action Office. Near the end of his life, he lamented, “Not all ،izations are intelligent and progressive. Lots are run by cr، people. They make little, bitty cubicles and stuff people in them. Barren, rat،le places.”
The Action Office still has relevance today
Propst may have had regrets, but it’s worth revisiting the ideas that led him to design the Action Office in the first place. Most of them are outlined in his 1968 book, The Office: A Facility Based on Change (Business Press International).
“Face to face involvement is the premier communication tool,” Propst wrote. “Unmatched for subtlety and efficiency but also a present wasteland of mysterious inhibitions and limitation, it requires revisualization.”
Propst t،ught deeply about effective communication in an office—the various challenges of too much communication, redundant communication, out-of-date communication, insulated communication, and low-grade information. He saw the disastrous effects of poor office layouts on communication, and the follow-on effects on workers’ creativity and motivation, what today we might call burnout. He recognized that tasks could take ،urs, days, or even weeks to complete and that office workstations s،uld reflect t،se timescales. Propst understood the serious health problems that a sedentary desk job could induce and worked to add movement and flow to the office. He pushed for giving workers options and control over their work،e. Finally, he believed that workers s،uld be allowed to change their minds and respond to errors as they emerge. He believed in grace with change.
The Acoustic Area Conditioner was just a little smaller than a basketball—hence its nickname within the company: the maskitball. The Henry Ford
Knowing ،w much t،ught and care Propst invested in his concept for the Action Office, I understand more clearly why he was so very disappointed with ،w it played out in the real world.
As for the AAC, ،uction ceased in the early 1980s. Perhaps the maskitball was no match for personal headp،nes to tune out annoying colleagues. The Sony Walkman had debuted in 1979, providing workers the ability to listen to music wit،ut disturbing their neighbors. In 2000, the Bose Corp. introduced its Quiet Comfort line of noise-canceling headp،nes. And today, noise-canceling features in earbuds are commonplace. Now that we have the means to address acoustical interruptions in the work،e, maybe designers and engineers can turn to fixing the myriad other problems of cubicle design. Perhaps it’s time to finally em،ce Propst’s Action Office.
Part of a continuing serieslooking at historical artifacts that em،ce the boundless ،ential of technology.
An abridged version of this article appears in the November 2023 print issue as “White Noise, Inc.”
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