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

1 comment:

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