Thursday, August 24, 2006

Office Pranks and Geeky Pastimes

Office Pranks and Geeky Pastimes

Office Smurf recommends these videos to help you escape the boring cubicle life for awhile. Enjoy.

Office Pranks Get Out of Hand

Do you have this problem, too? Farting in the Cubicle.

Be Careful. Office Pranks Can be Dangerous.

Bubble Wrap is a Good Harmless (albeit annoying) Stress Reliever. Throwing Heavy Things, Maybe Not So.

Real Science: The Extreme Diet Coke and Mentos Experiment

Tuesday, August 22, 2006


What do you do to forget that you're just another office smurf in a tiny cubicle doing the bidding of a giant corporation? How do you pass the time between the GYATs ("Get Your Act Together" meetings) and task force meetings and conference calls and team building events? Well, you could go through all of your email messages and read those you skipped and respond to those you had forgotten about and file away the important ones…. OR you could engage in a distraction that takes your mind to a better, happier place for a little while.

My favorite distractions

Thank goodness and halleluiah for the internet. Back when I entered my first cubicle, the internet was young and troublesome. We had computers and Windows and we had the bulletin board system, or BBS, and newsgroups. It was text-based communication and ASCII art was the hottest thing. The Web was brand new and people were trying to figure out how to spell HTML. But fortunately today, we have the best source of office distraction that's available to just about everyone. And with Google as our guide, we can still look like we're doing real work while we navigate the vastness of the electronic frontier and find the answers to life's greatest questions: What's the meaning of the word "feckless"? Where can I get the cheapest gas in my neighborhood? How do I make a dirty mojito? What the heck is a kinkajou? Plus you can catch up on the latest movie reviews, check and check again your stock values, and look at pictures of other people's pets. Dual monitor support is a must for your computer, you can effectively display work-type stuff on one screen--the one people first see when they drop in on you in your cubicle without warning--while safely browsing on the other screen. Also, it's a good idea to have something like Powerpoint running in the background that you can alt-tab to in case you don't want someone to catch you looking at cute Mr. Mittens' Flickr photostream.

Back in the day, when computers were slow and the Web was just learning to crawl, we could barely play back a 320x240 video on our Pentium-based computers, much less capture video on them. Today, in the world of digital photography and cell phones with 1.3Mpixel cameras, everyone's a producer of their own Real World stories. YouTube has quickly become a favorite distraction, where you can peek into the lives of strangers, watch clips of TV shows you may have missed and see videos of Mr. Mittens. The nice thing about YouTube is the fact that the videos are limited to just a few minutes, so you can get your fix and then get back to real work for a bit.

I have acquired through the years a number of distracting toys that litter my cubicle desk and bookshelf. Sometimes they give me something to do while I'm rebooting a computer, but mostly they're for my uninvited "guests". A few years back when I was a 3rd-year intern, I was working on a coding project which I had inherited from a previous intern. She had left me with a nasty bunch of code with no comments and I was weeding through the mess trying to figure out what was going on. In the cube next to me was a guy (I'll call him Andy) who was brand new intern and had ADD or something. Andy was bubbly and bouncy are bored very quickly. His workload wasn't very big, so he was always popping in my cube to say "hey" and start up some chatty conversation. Well, this got to be pretty annoying since it took a lot of concentration to figure out the program I was working on, so I'd often try to find a way to get him out of my cube quickly so I could get back to work. Somewhat by accident, I found a solution: I had a PEZ character in my office, which ended up one day positioned right by my cube entrance and the spare chair. Like a baby after a brightly-colored toy, Andy was immediately drawn to it the next time he dropped in my office and distracted himself by eating the candies, one by one. Then, amazingly, he left! I dug through my drawers and collections at home and brought in a few more toys which, like bait, he'd go for every time he entered my cube and he'd forget all about chatting, which left me some peace and quiet for awhile.

Other toys I find useful distractions are the Legos, Magnetix, and a marble maze which I obtained at a trade show.

There are also a lot of cool office toys available on, and if you're a sadist, you might want to try "The Cubes" cubicle playsets.

All of these distractions, along with a few cups of black coffee help keep me alert in my cubicle throughout the day and provide a brief bit stress relief from those many external and uncontrollable distractions of the work environment (noisy neighbors, phone calls from the boss, etc.) that regularly plague the life of the cubicle dweller.

Interesting Links Most Popular Searches

Google Trends




Thursday, August 17, 2006

Sounding off on Cubicle Survival Tips

Dealing with noise in the cubicle

There are many things I hate about spending 40+ hours a week in cubicle, and probably the biggest issue I'm currently facing is noise. Now, I like to multitask and usually have a TV or radio going in the background when I'm working at home. But that noise level is controllable and it usually helps me focus. In the office, it’s a different story. Quite often it happens right when I'm trying to read some detailed article or I'm in a hurry to put together an email or presentation: Someone starts talking in a very loud voice and throws my concentration off.

I'm currently sitting in what is probably one of the noisiest offices I have worked in since moving to the cubicle world. I have a corner cube, which has its own issues, and it's located along a busy passage way that people use to get to another side of the building. I also happen to be unlucky enough to be positioned right next to two executive conference rooms, where meetings are often held with the door open. Also, when people in those meetings get a call on their cell, they step just outside the door, right next to my cube, to make their calls. Since these are executive conference rooms, I'm less inclined to pop my head up and ask people to be quiet. Also, in the next cubicle over is a printer station, and while the printer itself adds to the background noise, it is not a huge distraction. The main problem is the people who drop in to use the printer station as a phone booth.

Aside from the bad location, I also have very loud neighbors. The guy right next to me uses a wireless headset and he likes to talk while he paces his cube. The result is that his voice projects over the top of the cube and has a varying and unpredictable volume level, as he turns away and back toward me as he paces. Next to him and adjacent to my office is a "bear". Well, it's really a person, but he has a loud, sharp growling voice and always speaks much louder than is needed for normal phone and office conversations. When he starts talking, I have a tendency to jump out of my seat a bit. Then, just on the other side of the pacing guy is another wireless headset guy who seems uncomfortable with his headset and feels he has to shout when using it in order to be heard. I have learned to mostly deal with these noises as they come up, but in certain conditions when they all join together in concert, it becomes unbearable and I have to grab my stuff in search of an empty conference room or cafeteria table. When this is not an option, there are few things that can sometimes help:

Headphones. Get a good pair of noise-canceling ones. I bought a cheap pair that have broken to pieces over the past couple of years and are currently held together with cellophane tape, so I really should dump these and invest in a good pair.

Music. Find a good online radio station that plays a steady stream of music with little talking (you don't need more conversations to compete with the ones you're already trying to drown out.) Yes, I know about the recent studies that say people don't learn well when multitasking--assuming that listening to the radio is multitasking--but did those studies compare learning and retention rates from people in very noisy offices? MP3 are good too, but unless you have a huge collection you'll soon get tired of the repetition. Or try a white noise generator, like the software app in the link below.

Earplugs. Ah, this is how I survived my first year of college in a triple dorm room. While they may give you a somewhat antisocial look to people who pop in your cube unannounced, they definitely muffle the noise. Use them in combination with noise-canceling headphones for a few blissful moments of near silence.

Fan. If you can, get a fan. Or a desktop air cleaner. There are multiple benefits with this one. Not only do you get a cool breeze when the stagnant cubicle air is stirred around a bit, but it's great for white noise, which can help cover up some of the odd noises your neighbor makes. You can also use it to clear the air around your space of those annoying food odors that waft your way into your cube when your neighbor decides to have fish and broccoli for lunch at his desk.

Leave. If all else fails, get up from your desk and find a nice quiet spot. Even the restroom is good for a few quiet moments to clear your head, provided you visit in between meeting breaks (avoid 10 min before and after the top of the hour). The cafeteria is also good if you go more than an hour before or after lunch.

I have tried all of these tools during my life as a cubicle dweller, sometimes by themselves and sometimes in combinations and they usually help me get through the day. Of course, always remember what it feels like to be on the receiving end and treat your neighbors like you'd wish they would treat you by keeping down the noise level. If you have other good suggestions, please share them.

Some interesting links:

Cornell News: Noisy office effects

Ear Plug Store

Koss Quiet Zone Noise Cancellng Stereophones
(I'm thinking about ordering these to replace my old broken Panasonic set.)

Vectormedia Software's Sound Masker
I'm testing out the demo version now and I'm pretty impressed so far.)

Vermont Public Radio, Classical Music online

Radio Alice, music from the 80's, 90's and now

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

A cubicle is more (or less) than just an office.

A cubicle is more than just an office. It was born out of the corporate world as a means of squeezing a lot of workers into a limited amount of space. Unfortunately, where it saves in the expense of constructing permanent offices, it loses in lost productivity of employees due to the constant distractions from neighbors--the loud, one-sided phone conversations, the invasive smells of lunch being eaten at the desk, the passersby who drag or bounce a hand along the outside wall shaking your inner d├ęcor, and the noisy, impromptu meetings on just the other side of your cube.

The cubicle was invented in 1968 by a home furnishings director by the name of Robert Propst, who designed cubicles to increase office productivity over that seen in the bullpen-type office of the day. I think it has had the opposite effect in fact: people who are in enclosed cubicles forget that there are others working nearby and don't control the volume of their voice; rather they play radios use speaker phones, and sing, hum or make other irritating noises, blissfully ignorant of the disruptions and angry looks from neighbors they are generating.

Not only do you have no privacy in a cubicle, you can't avoid eavesdropping on your neighbors. Once I had a cubicle next to a man who was having marital troubles. He would call up his wife during the day and ask her what he was doing wrong. He even asked her if there was something he could do to improve his performance in bed!

The cubicle is a symbol of impermanence. It is modular and easy to take apart and set up when needed. The cubicle-dweller is also impermanent. You may see someone in the same spot for weeks or months and then one day they're gone and you're left wondering. Was it an office move, maybe a promotion? Did they get fed up and just quit? Or were they compressed or worse? Will this happen to you, too someday? When did we trade our goals and hopes and dreams for a cubicle?

Cubicles are impersonal. Uniform and dull, they hide our individuality behind their soft gray walls and identical furniture. Fortunately some cubicle dwellers improve their surroundings by hanging pictures, bringing in plants and adding color and humor to an otherwise bland space. Some even share their creations with others (see examples here: Flickr, "Cubicle" tag search ).

Occasionally the creativity reaches a peak, often in the form of a practical joke on a co-worker who has been away on vacation. Some great examples include the plastic wrap/wadded paper fill, the foil wrap, and the post-it or newspaper wallpaper. I have personally participated in some of these. Many of these moments are now immortalized by some on Flickr and other web sites:

Foil Wrap

Originally posted by Servers Under the Sun.

Post-It Wallpaper

Post-it Cubicle - view 1 Originally uploaded by Isaac B2.

Newspaper Wallpaper

Cubicle Panorama Originally uploaded by Kyle and Kelly Adams.

Other fun examples which are met with some disapproval from site managers and cleaning staff include the silly string & confetti explosion or the beach scene, complete with a sand covered tarp, BBQ grill (not lit), palm trees and kiddie wading pool filled with water.

These brief and rare bursts of creativity remind us that there are individuals lurking in the rows and rows of gray, with lives outside the office, with minds separate from the one mind, with hopes and dreams and humor and humanity.

Interesting Links:
Cubicles, The Great Mistake, Fortune Magazine, 3/22/06

Wikipedia, "Cubicle"

Flickr, "Cubicle" tag search

Cubicle Etiquette, Bremer Communications

Monday, August 07, 2006


Mondays in cubicle hell puts us back in touch with the part of our lives that most of us find less than satisfying. No one stops in the hallway to chat about last Friday when they updated two spreadsheets with new numbers and deleted 2 dozen emails from their inbox...they talk about what they did on their weekend. The smile eases from our faces as we ease into the parking space and march up to the office. Like dogs, we all wear IDs around our necks with pictures of ourselves smiling on them (in case we forgot what smiling looks like). We run our IDs through a scanner which opens a county fair-like turnstile to let us into the building. But unlike a carnival, there are no rides or fun, just an elevator that silently brings us up to one of several carbon-copy floors filled with rows upon row of gray-walled cubicles, far too many to count. And soon there will be more.

It's what happens to offices when you need to fit more people in the same space. Our company has schedule compressions several times in the past few years, usually because we have hired more people than we have space for. Cubicles, which at normal size are about 6 feet x 8 feet and have a little room for you to back your chair out from your desk and stretch your legs, get compressed to something more like 6 feet x 4 feet. If you are claustrophic or just like a little fresh air from time to time, these compressed cubicles will cause you some discomfort. Imagine setting up your office in a refrigerator box's kind of like that. The air circulation is limited and there is only about 1 foot of space to back your chair up. Storage is limited to one 2-drawer file cabinet and one overhead shelf, which is why most people who have been moved to compressed cubicles have boxes filled with bits of their former offices stacked up outside in the cubicle hallways. Of course, noise levels, which are already too distracting to get much work done, increase, since you're packing more people into the same space. For those folks who spend all day on the phone presenting to customers this isn't a big deal, but for those of us who have to sit next to those who spend all day on the phone while trying to read news articles or analysts' reports, it is. I have headphones and an online radio station on all the time and have even added earplugs to try to further reduce the distraction, but I still find it very hard to concentrate when my cube-neighbor paces his office with his wireless headset, talking at the top of his lungs to be hear from his poor quality wireless headset.

So compression is something we frequently have to deal with. It's usually one of the side effects of growth, which can be somewhat compensated by the fact that our stock price is going up. The only problem is, this time our stock price isn't going up. And we're not hiring more people; we've already layed-off 1000+ and expect to lay off more. So why do we continue to compress??

I have asked several people this question and no one seems to know the answer. The most likely response is that we've already paid the contractors to do the work back at the beginning of the year so we have to go ahead with it. Ridiculous! Let's get out of our slump by putting our remaining staff into a much less productivity-enducing environment. Let's damage the already crushed morale by forcing people to give up more of their tiny space in this big, big company. I have another idea--maybe its a way to get more people to leave! Then we don't have to pay them compensation after the layoff! Brilliant!