I’m posting this on a Saturday, and if you’re working today, especially in a cubicle, this post is dedicated to you.
I work for a big bank and I am a lawyer. And I work in a cubicle. My boss manages 5 lawyers, and he works in a cubicle. That’s just how it is. There are, I believe, quite a few people at the bank who earn double what I earn that work in cubicles too. So I’m not saying I’m being singled out.
But working in a cube can be tough. Sometimes very tough, and deriding one’s “cube farm” has become as common a work complaint as sharing commuting horror stories. Douglas Coupland, in his highly influential novel Generation X, referred to cubes as “veal fattening pens,” a term that is hyperbolic but captures the hatred many people feel about them.
Cubes didn’t exist at all until 1964, when they were created by designer Robert Propst for Herman Miller. The first had the, um, creative name, “Action Office I.” They were originally designed to allow the employee to customize the space to suit his or her individual needs (I think that’s the “action” part.)
Not surprisingly, perhaps, pressure to create more workspaces for more employees for less money led to the inflexible, completely uniform cubes we know today.
The central problem with cubes is that they are an utterly unsuccessful effort to split the difference between providing someone with 4 walls and a door that closes on the one hand, and on the other hand, a desk in a room full of desks.
Do you want bland or boring
This quasi-office can vary in square footage from almost the size of a small office (my cube falls into this category) to very small indeed. In order to not offend anyone’s design sensibilities, they are anti-designed, meaning there’s no design to them at all. It’s as if they were designed by a piece of software specifically coded to remove any trace of human personality from the work space. They tend to be beige or light grey. The carpeting is bland. The lights are fluorescent and in no way adjustable. No natural light falls on the worker except one fortunate enough to be near a window, but often that light creates glare on one’s computer screen and must be blocked by a blind.
Most crucial, though, are the walls that prevent one from seeing anyone else. But the fact that one cannot see one’s fellow employees creates a problem: out of sight, out of mind. The fact that no one can see you without walking over to your cube does not remove you from other peoples’ environment. Some folks forget that. They make themselves far too much at home in their cubes, behaving like they really do have an office with the door closed (and the door is soundproof).
Nightmares on Cube Street
Noise: Loud talkers. Sick people and their interminable coughing. Cell phones going off. Desk phones with their rings turned up all the way along with “creative” ring tone selections. Gum snappers. Radios. Open-mouth chewers. And the smells: Burned microwave popcorn. Microwaved fish (and I love fish, by the way). The person next door who eats lunch an hour before you do, torturing you daily with the smell of something tasty. And so on. Ars technica has a very impressive thread of stories of bad cube neighbors. The one about the brownies is my favorite.
Many years ago I worked for the great State of Minnesota. My cube was next to that of a woman who was unfit for her job. She seemed to believe that computers were magical. When I wasn’t solving her technical problems, I was listening to her argue with her teenage daughter on the phone. Or chatting with her friends. I really grew to loathe her.
We worked on both Mac and Windows machines, and had our own local area network. One day I came across a freeware Mac program that allowed you to cause Mac error messages to pop up on the screen of any networked machine you chose. After one particularly frustrating afternoon trying to ignore her latest phone chat, I pounced, causing this to appear on her screen for exactly 5 seconds: Warning: The radiation shield in your monitor has failed. Please back up 5 feet.
I still remember the sound of her shrieking.
Please read this helpful poster!
It’s not like management doesn’t know about this stuff. I once had an offsite meeting. While walking down a cube hallway, I saw a poster that listed several behaviors cube-dwellers should avoid. Trimming one’s toenails was on the list. Wow.
There are ways to improve things. An mp3 player and earbuds can get you some relief. You can trick out your cube with cool stuff. But the central problems remain intractable.
Probst, creator of the cube, rejected it outright just 6 years after it hit the market, writing this in a letter to a Herman Miller vice president:
One does not have to be an especially perceptive critic to realize that [it] is definitely not a system which produces an environment gratifying for people in general. But it is admirable for planners looking for ways of cramming in a maximum number of bodies, for “employees” (as against individuals), for “personnel,” corporate zombies, the walking dead, the silent majority. A large market.
Have a nice day!