Combating the Cubicle
I'll Be "Maverick," You Be "Goose"
As a kid, my worldview was largely shaped by the 1986 classic, Top Gun. One feature of this fascination was a preoccupation with escalators. I would "takeoff" and "land" on these mobile stairways over and over again while my mother shopped the "Housewares" section of the department store. I remember imagining a number of different scenarious: a tricky landing on the narrow runway of an aircraft carrier in the middle of the Indian Ocean; setting a crop duster down in a hayfield just outside of my hometown; or narrowly avoiding major catastrophe by touching down on a bare stretch of highway after some major mechanical failure. (Naturally, these daydream adventures prominently featured the incomparable Kenny Loggins' magnum opus, "Danger Zone," playing on repeat in my head.)
Sadly, I never became a Navy flying ace, but I still get way too excited every time I get the chance to fly commercially. There's something so cool about cruising along at 500 mph with just a thin layer of metal separating you from 30,000 feet of nothingness. Soaring above the clouds with utter confidence is truly the only way to travel.
One thing has changed as I've gotten older, though. In a departure from my youthful affinity for takeoffs and landings, I now despise these portions of the trip. I still find the actions exhilarating, but as the plane ascends and descends, the only sights are rows upon rows of large rectangular buildings that comprise industrial parks. Once my mind begins thinking about hives of cubicles nested below, my anxiety skyrockets, and my airborne bliss suddenly devolves into panic. Can't I ever escape these three little walls?
Don't get me wrong; I love my job, my coworkers are great, I'm proud of the work we do, and I'm exceedingly grateful to be gainfully employed during these tough economic times, but, occasionally, these four-foot-tall partitions really get me down. Remember how it felt to be put in "timeout" when you were a kid? Remember the desperate stasis of being assigned a corner? That's kind of what it feels like to be trapped in a cubicle all day... perpetual timeout.
Cubicles are undoubtedly a viable workspace that allow for a modicum of privacy and the illusion of unique space; there's a reason that 42 million Americans are sitting in a cube as I write this... from behind a cube. But, occasionally, these partitions evoke claustrophobic feelings and a desire for open spaces.
The initial idea behind this structure makes sense: cubicles allow for individual workspace to maximize employee efficiency, while minimizing the amount of space taken up in an office. The problem is that, while they're designed to give the impression that each employee has their own little office, they end up stifling the amount of communication and connection that can occur between coworkers.
I recently had a discussion about cubicle culture with a friend of mine who happens to be in sales. His position affords him constant mobility throughout the day, as he visits numerous retail stores to conduct his business. He's really an engaging person, and he has the opportunity to interact directly with his customers dozens of times during the work day. Given the nature of his position, his mind was blown to smithereens when I detailed the amount of emailing that occurs on a daily basis between employees who are within speaking distance of one another, assuming they use their "inside voices."
Of course, there's a perfectly good reason for this style of communication; it's vital that the majority of our work is documented to verify productivity and create copies of all work-related communication. Also, when your bread is buttered by the written word, it's important to keep a crumb trail of what you've composed. Nevertheless, this form of communication cheapens the connections we have with our coworkers and is largely the result of being surrounded by walls.
In short, work email isn't the devil, but it is a necessary evil precipitated by the cubicle and office culture, in general.
Not only do cubicles close off the potential for close teamwork, but they also have a tendency to leave employees feeling slightly lethargic due to the drab nature of their construction. Coupled with the natural feelings of isolation that these partitions promote, how can we possibly overcome these fortresses of solitude?
The key to achieving victory over anything that feels restrictive is to claim ownership over it. Decorating your cubicle to accurately reflect your personality is one way that you can express yourself while carving your own niche. Try a few of these practices to make your eight hours in timeout more enjoyable and productive:
- These Walls Are Imaginary: Get up and take a short walk around the building or the block; chat with a colleague that sits across the office; instead of always packing your lunch, go out to lunch occasionally to spice things up a bit.
- Cubby Gardening: Decorating your work space with plants and flowers can boost productivity and lower absenteeism.
- Get Organized: A messy cube can make you feel like the burden of your workload is totally overwhelming. Use folders, shelves, and drawers to separately categorize and organize your work.
- Take Home to Work with You: Framed photographs, coat and hat hooks, personalized coffee mugs, fish tanks, school projects, your children’s artwork, and calendars are all great ways to personalize your space and establish your identity to your coworkers.
- Shine a Little Light: Fluorescent lighting can wreak havoc on your eyesight over the course of an eight-hour workday. Bring in a unique lamp to provide a change in shade and liven up your surroundings.
First of all, you have to check out my friend Erin's excellent piece on improving the aesthetic qualities of your cube. For more ideas on improving your work experience by making your cubicle work for you, check out the following websites:
Here's the Deal...
We are contemporary gladiators earning and sustaining our livelihood in the Coliseum of the 21st century - the modern office. We've shed our shield and armor in favor of the briefcase and tie; our audience has transcended primitive blood thirst and now feeds on our productivity and intellect.
The odds are stacked against us. There's no escaping the industrial park, and nothing has come along in the last fifty years or so to replace the cubicle. But with a little bit of ambition, coupled with a personal touch of creativity, we can unshackle ourselves from our work spaces to make them work for us!
Adams, Susan. “Pimp My Cubicle: How to Decorate Your Partitioned Workspace without Damaging Your Career.” Forbes.com. 27 Aug. 2010. Web. 29 Oct. 2012.
Rochelle, Christine. "10 Ways to Brighten up Your Work Station." Aol Jobs. Aol.com. Web 29 Oct. 2012.