Opinion: On the death of the cubicle

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 www.agilemanifesto.com.

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.

Laurent Bernard, vice president for global human resources for Steelcase, which makes office furniture, stood up and pointed to his satchel and said: “This is how I work. I have an office in my bag. This is how the millennials work. It is the future.”

Steelcase has gone one step further in designing lifestyle office furniture. It sells a desk with a treadmill beneath it so employees can use their laptop and work out at the same time.

Laird, who is Unilever’s senior vice president of human resources and communication for the Americas, will be considered a mobile worker as she oversees the grand experiment in trusting employees. She acknowledges that some managers could feel uneasy with it, and some workers could abuse it. Nevertheless, Unilever has “established a principle that work can be done anywhere anytime as long as business needs are being fully met,” she said.

Linking performance to results instead of face time and attendance especially could benefit mothers whose careers have been traditionally constrained by children. It could also help workers who must tend to ill family members. The risk, of course, is that work will become even more invasive.

The transition won’t necessarily be easy for all employees. There are more generations in the workforce now than ever before. For many, the cube has represented a place where they assume a professional identity, a way of measuring advancement as a midpoint between sitting in an open bullpen and being rewarded with a corner office. Caregivers and parents often long for the grown-up conversations they find in the office. Frequently, singles have discovered their true loves in the cube next door.

Unilever is trying to get the form of its office to follow the modern function of its employees. While it saves costs, it could lose cohesiveness. In the past, corporate culture has been nurtured by the physicality of people working together. As more employees spend more time away from the office, they might become disengaged from the camaraderie and commitment that used to be nurtured within the walls of their organizations. Two classes of employees are likely to emerge: one untethered and unmentored, the other deeply connected to the organization from the inside.