Office cubicles appear to improve worker productivity during the performance of "head down" tasks, such as word processing or filing, but could cause productivity problems whenever workers need to communicate freely with each other. In an effort to address this problem, a number of companies are now creating pods of desks designed to accommodate each department's specific needs. Those workers who need interactivity and open communication may work in cubes with low walls, while those who need more privacy could have desks surrounded by high walls and even a door.
When the concept of individual cubicles for office workers was first introduced in 1968, it was part of a larger vision called the "Action Office." Historically, many companies used an "open bullpen" approach, in which rows of desks were placed in a centralized and often impersonal arrangement. The inventor of the office cubicle, a man named Robert Propst, envisioned improving workers' productivity by providing a customized workspace that minimized distractions. Workers could then spread out their assigned workload in a way that was most efficient, instead of relying on cramped "incoming" and "outgoing" filing systems.
Under the original "action office" concept, cubicles were meant to be grouped together according to the workers' needs for interaction. Some would be open and accessible while others would be soundproofed or shielded for what would be considered "head down" work. Under the original configurations, they would improve worker productivity by providing some privacy and customization, but the ability to communicate with others would still be a consideration.
Over time, however, the idea of using cubicles to unite workers with common needs gave way to economic concerns. Cubicles now represent the most efficient way to use available floor space, which can be a major consideration in high-rent business districts. They may delineate individual work spaces, but they can also lead to morale problems as workers begin to feel confined in semi-private "nests" with little contact with the outside world. When worker morale is low, productivity also tends to suffer.
Determining if the use of office cubicles alone could have an impact on worker productivity can be difficult. There are a number of other factors, such as job satisfaction and experience, that could affect the productivity levels of individual employees. Some have speculated that the increased privacy and clearly defined workspace may have been an improvement over the open bullpen office configurations of old, but the cubicle has not been proven to increase worker productivity enough to call it completely successful.