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Opinion: On the death of the cubicle

Large, international corporations are doing away with cubicles. How will the shift affect workers and the quality of their work?

Amway employees work at a company cafe in Taipei, July 31, 2009. Increasingly, corporations are providing employees with alternative work environments, or "agile" space, which evolved from the dot com revolution and describes how software designers sit at tables facing one another with their computers in order to collaborate. (Nicky Loh/Reuters)

NEW YORK — Two years of the Great Recession have done more to liberate workers from their offices than a decade of stressed-out employees pleading to telecommute. Dilberts worldwide are losing their cubes.

When executives at Unilever noticed that much of their office space was either unused or unoccupied as workers traveled, they took away 36 percent of their employees’ personal space. The company’s offices in Leatherhead, England, now feature “agile” space: a largely open office where workers rearrange themselves throughout the day depending upon their tasks. They can collaborate with one another while sitting at a table, take a break in a curvy “vitality” space or concentrate alone in a small individual work area.

The company’s design for its corporate offices in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., resembles a large house more than a cube farm. Renovations in Bogota and Singapore are scheduled to be finished in 2010.

“Agile” space evolved from the dot-com revolution a decade ago and describes how software designers sit at tables facing one another with their computers in order to collaborate. This arrangement is used to “build projects around motivated individuals,” according to true believers at

Now the practice has been corporatized. Unilever began to go agile in 2007, but was not the first corporation to do so. Hewlett Packard and Cisco Systems started their transitions in 2005. As purveyors of connectivity, technology companies would be the first to embrace worker mobility. Unilever, on the other hand, is the world’s third largest manufacturer of consumer goods. It makes more than 400 brands of household products such as Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, Lipton tea and Persil laundry soap. With production lines throughout the world, there is a limit to how virtual the company can go. Still, Unilever has aggressively cut costs in the past few years by outsourcing, consolidating its supply chain and laying off workers.

Cutting cubicles is part of this ongoing effort. The company has divided its workforce into three categories. A “resident” works at one location most of the time. A “mobile” works in a variety of locations: home, the airport, at company locations, or with customers. An “off-site” worker is at a fixed non-company site such as home or at the office of a business partner. Greater use of smart phones, Skype and teleconferencing have enabled the company to substitute technology for office space.

The changes have been warmly embraced by other corporate executives. As Unilever Senior Vice President Fiona C. Laird described the company’s 40 percent savings, on maintenance, leases and taxes, to a group of senior human resources professionals at a Conference Board meeting in New York, she got a strong round of applause.

“This is a business opportunity that is game changing,” said one audience member.