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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?

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.