Life in a Cubicle: How the Way We Work Is Changing Dramatically

© caraman - Fotolia.com
© caraman - Fotolia.com

How many of your working hours have you spent, like me, stuck in a bland and impersonal cubicle in some bland and impersonal office somewhere?

More to the point, what does working in a cubicle do to our creativity, our productivity, our self-esteem — and what is it doing to everyone else around us stuck in the same kind of office environment?

There’s a fascinating opinion column this week in The New York Times that digs into these issues, and the focus is about a new film by Zaheed Mawani titled Three Walls (see film clip below). As writer Allison Arieff puts it:

Mawani has used the cubicle to explore larger issues in the world of work. As he and I both discovered, passions run high around the most seemingly banal piece of furniture: it has its arch defenders, its resigned occupiers and its rigorously vocal critics. Mawani was interested in examining what the cubicle has come to represent, as he explained in an email to me, “in terms of the shifting nature of white collar work: the lack of job security, increase in temporary workers, our detachment to work (the fact that we no longer stay in the same job for more than a few years and the ramifications of no longer having that employee-employer bond). It’s also about our relationship to technology, the lack of physicality in work.”

So how to escape the tyranny of the cube and address the broader changes in the way we work?”

How cubes get misused

How indeed. Is there tyranny in being stuck in a cube — as Dilbert is fond of making fun of — or is it simply a matter of how a piece of office furniture has been misused by cost-cutting business bureaucrats in far too many places?

For me, I’ve always hated working in cubicles, mainly because of the lack of privacy. I used to work for a company that had  a quirky (OK, it was actually pretty stupid) policy that only the most senior executive in each unit got a private closed-door office.

That meant that senior managers — like me — always had to run and go find a conference room when you needed to make a phone call that you didn’t want everyone around you to be part of.

Well, life is never that clean or simple. Sometimes, you have people calling you on sensitive matters and it’s not so easy to say you’ll call them back and then go hunt to find an open conference room.

Plus, at times there were never enough conference rooms to just hop into. Or when you did so, you had a hard time getting the person who just called you back on the phone because they now are busy or had someone else call in the interim while they were waiting on you.

I can go on and on about the wasted time, effort, and productivity surrounding this — all because someone on high in the company decided that managers didn’t really need private offices and could work out of a cubicle instead.

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Are cubicles being replaced by more collaborative space?

Three Walls sounds like an interesting film, especially if you have spent much time working inside three walls, and it sounds to me that it’s making a case for the elimination of the workplace cubicle as we know it. As The Times article notes:

Herman Miller (the company that created the office cube) is still selling cubicles, to be sure, but can also read the writing on the wall (or on the dry-erase board, as the case may be). While they’re not quitting the desk and chair business anytime soon, the company has recognized that the work we do and the spaces we conduct it in have shifted radically — and we all need to adapt at every level. As Ben Watson, the executive creative director of Herman Miller, explains, “Ten years ago, 80 to 90 percent of an organization’s budget would be spent on individual work spaces. Now, it’s 65 to 70 percent and is scaling down to 50 percent real fast.”

Watson continues, “Today, 70 percent of work in North America happens with two or more people. It’s no longer about the individual worker. So we need to understand the way collaborative work happens, we need to create micro environments — a mix of them, in fact, so you want to be at your office more than you want to be at home or at Starbucks.”

Yes, the nature of work is dramatically changing, and where and how we do it is changing just as rapidly, it seems.

Two years ago, I was in an office cubicle. Today, I’m working out of my home office and staying connected with my co-workers through a combination of phone, IM, email, and on rare occasions, an actual face-to-face meeting.

How has your workplace changed? Are you still stuck in a cube? I’m not, but I’m going to make sure I see Three Walls, if only to remind me of how life used to be — and how I don’t miss it one single bit.

 

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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