My Cubicle

We all know large open spaces are lousy places to work (but companies persist in herding us in, like sheep). Strange how the managers don’t have to work in the pig-pen, they seem to score offices for themselves.

A step up from the completely open room full of desks is… tah dah… THE CUBICLE. A bunch of reinforced cardboard walls that split the open room into a series of small pens, designed to make us feel the space is ours.

Cubicles come in two versions: The DeLuxe, with walls up to about 5 feet high (roughly the top of the shoulders of the average sized person), and The Standard.

The Standard is what you get when the boss is told they need cubicles, but they want to keep everybody in sight or under control. Of course, they won’t ever say that’s why they chose The Standard, they will describe it as “fostering open communication” or some other euphemism for making a distracting and noisy workplace. The standard has partition walls that go about 1 foot (30 cm) above the top of the desk – just high enough to stop things falling off.

Either way, The Cubicle bears an uncanny resemblance to the kind of pens that pigs are raised in. Ever seen one of those? Probably not – there is a reason most people don’t know how intensive livestock raising works. It has nothing to do with cruelty to the animals, and more to do with figuring out that the animals are treated better than a lot of people in their cubicles at work. At least the animals get fed for free, and can lie down sometimes!

If you ever get a choice, go for The DeLuxe cubicle. At least you get a tiny bit of privacy when you sit down.

For a really good discussion about working environments, I cannot recommend highly enough “Peopleware” by DeMarco and Lister. It’s been in print for about 20 years, and is still very applicable.

But anyhow, for all those with crappy jobs and horrible office cubicles, watch this. You might get a chuckle.

8 Comments

I worked for ETSA at Eastwood for many years; from when it opened in 1962 on and off until I retired in 1992. It was one of the first open space offices in Adelaide and was supposed to be carpeted and have padded partitions and potted palms etc. The concept arose when a couple of senior offices toured the USA in the late 1950’s looking at both office accommodation and the use of computers in the power industry [that's another story]. A leading firm of architects was engaged to design a building to reflect the current open plan thinking in the architectural world.

As the building neared completion, the then Chairman, Sir Fred Drew became worried about the budget over- run and the appearance of luxury; carpet when no other State Government office had carpet and potted palms etc.

Result: the carpet was replaced by sheet inlaid lino; very hard wearing and totally unabsorbent of sound. It was also very expensive to keep clean and the slippery floor polish caused a lot of people to fall over.

The padded partitions were never ordered until about 1988; just before the building was sold. Result, visual and noise pollution. Every telephone call and every casual or other conversation could be heard all over the floor.

The potted palms etc: They were initially installed on the Executive floors and then a year or so later, taken away as the cost of maintaining them was too high.

The building was a nightmare to work in; the noise level was indescribable; the visual distraction enormous, the windows were uncurtained and let in too much sun, the air conditioning was inadequate until they installed the extra compressor unit that had been left out due to cost over-runs and every effort made through the Unions to get things changed was rebuffed because we were told ‘that we’d never had it so good’.

The only way to get any concentrated work done was to reserve a conference room and lock yourself away until that was stopped because it tied up all the conference rooms. The senior exectutives whose idea it was naturally all had enclosed and fully carpeted offices. The only time they mixed with the hoi polloi was in the canteen and even then they had their own separated eating area because they needed to discuss confidential things over lunch!

Eventually, I got promoted into an a job that came with an office that had full height glass partitions and a door which closed. Bliss! I could actually get a lot of work done at work even though I still brought home a big bag every night. I did not have a splitting headache by lunchtime. I could have a civilized telephone call and conduct meetings in my office.

Ironically, the senior executive who had mothered the whole project through in conjunction with the Chairman and later made it to General Manager then retired. From that time on, changes started. Fixed partitions were occasionally shifted. Padded low partitions purchased and installed. Sections of the building had carpet tiles laid as the lino wore out.

Don’t complain about the cubicle; it is a long way better than complete open space.

Today, you can buy a penthouse at the top of that building; AIR on Greenhill Road for 4 million dollars and a fairly ordinary apartment lower down for about 0.5 million dollars. Would I ever go back there? I’d rather go to gaol thank you.

Comment by Dad | January 2nd, 2007 8:35 pm | Permalink

The modern equivalent is the “Standard” cubicle – partitions to 3 feet high. They might as well not be there.

After all the opens-space disasters since the 1950’s, the “standard” cubicle is making a BIG come-back.

Sad, nobody learns.

Comment by Wally | January 3rd, 2007 9:18 am | Permalink

A three feet high partition does not make a cubicle; it’s a ‘modesty barrier’ such as were fitted to typiste’s desks to stop passers-by looking up their skirts.

Comment by Dad | January 3rd, 2007 2:38 pm | Permalink

I once used a “Mega-Cubicle” environment fairly effectively. I was leading a software development project team (me and three others) on a large-ish project. We had DeLuxe-height walls around the Mega-Cubicle, but no walls at all between our 4 L-shaped desks, which faced the 4 corners of the Mega-Cubicle. It was great for intra-team communication and impromptu Extreme Programming-like sessions.

Comment by MikeFitz | January 4th, 2007 7:28 am | Permalink

Sometimes those environments work (I once worked in something similar). Where it falls down is when some bright spark decides that if it works for a small cluster then it must work as well, or better!, for a large group.

I also worked in a group of 70 where all the partitions were torn down. That was terrible. No privacy, oodles of noise, and everybody trying to work on technology development (including 25 people writing software).

Needless to say, management felt good because they had made a change. The happy minions had a significant drop in productivity, though.

Comment by Wally | January 4th, 2007 7:41 am | Permalink

I agree. The Mega-Cubicle concept would work for teams of 4 to 6, maybe 8 at a stretch, but ONLY IF ALL were working on exactly the same project. If any team member were working on anything else, that would be a distraction to the others.

Comment by MikeFitz | January 4th, 2007 7:50 am | Permalink

A further nonsense in this area is the concept of ‘open space’ learning introduced into SA schools about30 years ago.
The trendies in Education introduced specially built units into schools where there were no barriers between classes of different years. It was a reversion to the small country school where I started 66 years ago where three classes in one room was the norm. I was glad to move to a bigger school where each class had its own room. Thankfully, my children just escaped the system in time before their compulsory period in an open space environment.
Do people ever learn? Sadly, the answer must be no. The trendies win every time.
Dad

Comment by Dad | January 4th, 2007 10:11 am | Permalink

I get really lonely when I am in an office by myself! I have also worked in a couple of environments where open plan was the go; some worked better than others, depending on the illusion of how much privacy one had.
I also worked in one place where I HATED the dude who sat right next to me. Just looking at him made my skin crawl! I ended up building up a whole lot of folders to block him out. Go team!

Comment by Diane | January 14th, 2007 4:31 pm | Permalink

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